Jennifer Fox on How She Cast Herself in Emmy-Nominated ‘The Tale’

Article Image
Photo Source: Kyle Kaplan/HBO

Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” one of the most fascinating and heartbreaking films of the year, is not just based on a true story; it is one. The events of the HBO film, what Fox calls a “fictional memoir,” are as close to the writer-director’s memory of her own child abuse as she could get them. It’s so difficult to watch, at times, that perhaps it’s natural to wonder, what drives someone to make a movie about this?

“For me,” Fox tells Backstage, “it’s a natural thing to want to investigate something that I don’t understand. All my work comes from that place, even if it’s not about my life, even if it’s about, ‘Why did that happen? Or, why did that happen to that person? Or, how did they deal with it?’ ”

The documentarian was 45 years old when she first realized that what she thought was her first “relationship” was actually a systematic pattern of abuse perpetrated against her by two adults she trusted. “There was such a dissonance between what I thought it was up until that moment—which is a relationship, my first sexual experience—and the next moment, realizing the dark side of what it was as well,” Fox says. “The film was an investigation of exactly that, an investigation of denial and memory.”

There is even a moment in the film when Fox’s depiction of her younger self as a confident teenager, tall, self-possessed, morphs into an entirely new actress, shockingly young and heartbreakingly small.

“It’s kind of universal, especially as an adolescent, that your inner world is growing at this exponential rate,” Fox explains. “And you think you understand things maybe more than you really do, that you’re more mature than you really are. In that sense we remember what we felt, and I felt mature. And then when you see the pictures you realize, Oh my god, not at all.”

“The Tale” took Fox five years, off and on, to script. “I was really intent on writing it,” Fox says. “I didn’t know if we’d get it made. It was so scary. Who wants to fund a no-fun film about child sex abuse? Who’s gonna go see this movie? How are we gonna find the money for it?” She ended up with money from a German production company, a Dutch company, and various philanthropic funders, then, finally, Gamechanger, whose mission is to support female directors, though it took them two years to sign on. After a buzzy premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, HBO secured distribution rights, and now the film is nominated for Outstanding Television Movie at the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards.

“As hard as this film was to make,” Fox says, “the gods blessed us with a cast that was perfect.” Laura Dern was the first to join to the project, a year and a half before it even got financed, thanks to an assist from none other than Brian de Palma, a close friend of Fox’s.

“We were having coffee and he’d read the script and really loved it, and he said, ‘Let me see your list!’ as Brian would do,” Fox remembers. She handed over her list of possibilities that she and producer Oren Moverman had made, and de Palma assured her that Dern was the only one who could do the story justice.

Jennifer Fox. Photo by Kyle Kaplan/HBO

Moverman also found Elizabeth Debicki for the elegant Mrs. G, one of the pair of abusers that groomed Fox while she spent a summer at a horseback riding camp. Dern then brought on Jason Ritter to play Bill, Mrs. G’s counterpart, and Common, who plays Jennifer’s adult boyfriend in the film’s present. Ellen Burstyn was Fox’s top choice to play her own mother. “I thought she had both humor and gravitas,” Fox says. “And my mother, who she’s playing, can be very funny in the most difficult situations, so I really wanted Ellen.”

Isabelle Nélisse, who plays Jenny at 13 years old, was, serendipitously, the younger sister of a French Canadian actress who had aged out of the part by the time production began. Finding a child actor who could lend the kind of truth necessary to this story was no easy task, and for that Fox turned to her history in documentary filmmaking.

“When we cast in documentary, not everybody’s capable of being authentic in front of the camera,” Fox explains. “And, ironically, actors also have that problem. It was so important to me that the little girl playing Jenny was believable. Isabelle reminds me of Laura Dern when she was younger, in the sense that Laura Dern is so authentic.”

There was never any question about trying to hide the fact that this wasn’t just a drama film, this was the truth. “I was really afraid that if I didn’t leave my name in it, nobody would believe that this was possible, that a child could love an abuser, or that an adult could deny for 30 years what’s so obvious,” Fox says. “I thought I knew my child self. Whoever she was was the same as me now, because don’t we know ourselves? And in the writing, when I tried to understand why I made decisions when I was 13, I realized that I don’t know her. I have no idea why she did that. I realized that we are different selves along the journey, we are not the same person. We change. And I had changed.”

Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!