When the filmmaker Tamara Jenkins was about 11 or 12, a man dragged her into his car in an L.A. supermarket parking lot. She was stuck struggling, half-in, half-out of the car, as the stranger tried to push her face toward his exposed schlong with one hand and drive the car out of the parking lot with the other. Even at the time, she was struck by the absurdity of the assailant’s ineptitude: Jesus, either abduct me or assault me. What kind of idiot tries to do both at once?
“It was totally horrifying,” Jenkins says, and then, almost in the same breath, she laughs. “It was such a cartoon.”
She’s telling me this story not to #MeToo, but to illustrate something about the power of images — how the man’s license-plate number was etched into her brain after she tumbled out of the car “like a fish.” But really, this is prime Jenkins material: horrible and hilarious at the same time. Jenkins, 56, has made three feature films — her latest, Private Life, debuts October 5 on Netflix and in limited release in select cities — and they all have this same mixture of queasy intimacy, coal-dark humor, and pure animal panic.
“I’m interested in what people say to each other when they’re pushed to a kind of primitive state,” she says. “They’re in what looks like civilization, but then they’re having some kind of primal, pulsing, gloppy, primordial something. It pushes human behavior to a degree where you really see what they’re feeling.”
Jenkins’s low output — so far, she’s released one film a decade — makes her one of the rare filmmakers at her skill level whose entire oeuvre can be viewed in one evening. She has attributed her long fallow periods in part to a slow creative process; her husband, the screenwriter Jim Taylor, prefers to call her working style “meticulous,” while the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in her second film, The Savages, called her “not a compromiser.”
But she has also struggled to get her films made. Gender bias in the film industry is partly to blame, as is the reluctance of studios to bankroll the kind of low-concept character studies she specializes in. (Her films don’t really fit into genres, she notes.)
It also means she has had to choose each project carefully because she knows she’ll have to fight for it. “If I just thought that every turd that comes out somebody’s going to make, maybe I’d have a different relationship to my productivity,” she says. “They’re really hard to make, so you better be in love with it.”
Jenkins came to moviemaking from the experimental-theater scene: Her earliest use of film was still images projected as part of a performance piece, dissolving into each other. The inspiration for her films also often begins with images. This is what she was getting at with the would-be kidnapper’s license plate (which she was right about, by the way — the police tracked him down and later she testified against him in court). “When intense things happen to people, maybe people that are writers are taking pictures with our brains and kind of storing it,” she says.
Private Life, for example, which follows a couple dealing with infertility treatments, opens with an image Jenkins jotted down on a note card almost ten years ago: a woman’s bare hip, a needle in her husband’s hand. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) lies on her side in bed. The shot frames her abdomen, and it seems romantic, even suggestive, until Richard (Paul Giamatti) stabs her in the ass with a hypodermic full of hormones. “None of the message boards said it was going to hurt like that!” Rachel yelps. “Maybe you just have a lower pain threshold than most people,” Richard offers. So much for romance.
When Jenkins first conceived that needle-in-the-butt image, she was struggling with two kinds of development hell: making her second film and getting pregnant. Neither was going well. “I just remember Ping-Ponging between disappointments,” she says. At her most miserable, she confided in a documentary-filmmaker friend. “I was funny about it, too,” Jenkins recalls. “I remember her laughing really hard and saying, ‘You should totally write this stuff down. It’s really good material.’ ”
At first, it seemed unthinkable. “The word that comes to mind is repulsed,” Jenkins says. “I thought to myself, There’s no way I would write about this. But of course I did.” Luckily or unluckily for her, it wasn’t the first time. Like her artistic touchstones — Lorrie Moore, Lynda Barry, Spalding Gray — she often mines her life for images of primal rawness. “You take something that’s personal and has an autobiographical element to it,” she says, “and then fiction takes over and you’re at the mercy of the narrative demands of whatever you’re doing, and you make shit up.”
As a result, her films reflect and refract each other. Her first two films draw on Jenkins’s relationship with her father, a man who, as she tells it, walked out on his kids in favor of a girlfriend with a condo. In Slums of Beverly Hills, Jenkins has Alan Arkin play the dad as kind of a lovable asshole; the walkout is threatened but doesn’t happen in the end. When one reviewer proposed that Jenkins’s real family couldn’t be as dysfunctional as the one onscreen, she replied wryly, “Oh … this is dysfunctional lite.”
A decade later, in The Savages, the dad is played by Philip Bosco as an asshole, full stop. The childhood depicted as farce in Slums haunts the characters in Savages as tragedy. It’s based on Jenkins’s experience of caring for her dad as he was dying, which is not to say it’s not morbidly funny.
Savages’ siblings, played by Laura Linney and Hoffman, still aren’t quite Jenkins and her brother — for one thing, Linney’s character is a struggling playwright who lies about getting a Guggenheim, whereas Jenkins is a successful screenwriter who actually won a Guggenheim. “I feel like I’m a luckier version of them,” Jenkins says of her characters.
The Savages and Private Life are in some ways mirror images. One is a journey toward death; the other, at least in theory, toward birth. In each, Jenkins focuses on excruciating conversations: siblings asking their father how he wants to be buried, Richard and Rachel asking their young niece to be an egg donor. It doesn’t get much more primal or gloppy than death and birth. “There’s something in the middle I should work on,” Jenkins jokes.
These days, Jenkins works in a big white room she rents on Chrystie Street, on the ninth floor of a building where the Talking Heads used to practice. It contains a long couch where she naps — part of the creative process — a wide desk facing three tall windows, a child-size desk and chair for when her daughter, now 8, visits, and not much else. When she procrastinates, she vacuums. But her creative process is all about clutter. “You make the mess, the messiness of all those ideas,” she says, “and then you shape them afterward — which is why it takes a lot longer to write that way. It’s not efficient.”
As she gets ready to start writing her next film, she has a few images written down already. “I’m very scared,” she says. “Starting to write is scary.” But she’s hoping this one won’t take another ten years. “I would like to pick up the pace,” she says. “I don’t want to be 70 two movies from now. It would be nice to make a couple more. Otherwise I’m not going to have many left, so I have to figure it out.”