There’s a symmetry to the protracted journey that finally gave birth to writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, a story centered on a middle-aged couple (portrayed by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) long trying to become parents through assisted reproductive technology and/or adoption, coping with emotional hardship and assorted stumbling blocks along the way.
The parallel prolonged sojourns in the story and getting the story finally made into a film carries for Jenkins—a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee for The Savages in 2008—lessons on collaboration, perseverance, and being able to turn on a dime in response to setbacks.
Some of the detours were of Jenkins’ own choosing—coming up with the idea for the story in 2008 but shelving it to become a parent the next year. And there was the pursuit of a TV gig she once aspired to only to realize that it wasn’t what she originally thought it to be. She also had focused her energies for awhile on writing varied projects successfully with her husband, Jim Taylor. And then there’s the length of the writing process itself to yield an original property like Private Life. All this resulted in an 11-year stretch between director Jenkins’ movies, from The Savages to Private Life.
At one point, it appeared that all the work through the on and off-again blips would be for naught. Private Life had seemingly fallen by the wayside when Amazon, an early champion of the project, flipped from greenlight to not so enticing a prospect when the budget it had allotted wasn’t enough to make the film Jenkins envisioned. Not being able to shoot in New York but instead having to locate somewhere like Montreal due to a challenged budget was one of the deal breakers for Jenkins who credited Amazon with releasing her from any obligation so she could try to realize the film on her own terms.
“Then Netflix saved my ass,” Jenkins affirmed, as the company embraced the project immediately, drawn to the story and the filmmaker’s body of work which includes The Savages and The Slums of Beverly Hills.
The former received two Academy Award nominations, the other for Laura Linney’s performance as one of two siblings dealing with an elderly parent suffering from dementia.
Jenkins sees a common thread between The Savages and Private Life. “With The Savages, brother and sister are put in an elder care scenario. It’s a buddy movie—kind of like Private Life where the buddies are instead a married couple driving through the world of fertility. This is ultimately a story about marriage and the impact this voyage has on them. Historically, from the bible to Greek tragedy to Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ marriages with no conception have been explored. That story has been told in all these ways but not with the advent of assisted reproductive technology. I was interested in that.”
The birth of this notion came back when Jenkins and her husband “were in the soup of all this, going to doctor’s appointments, using estrogen patches, learning how to inject an intermuscular needle, all that stuff.”
Jenkins recalled, “During that time, we went to see the comedy Knocked Up. The movie reminded us that we had gotten to the point where we didn’t even remember that people had sex to get pregnant. I remember thinking what would our version of Knocked Up be—probably something like Knocked Out.”
While at times painfully intimate, the story of Private Life is also marked by wit and humor. And beyond being centered on a marriage between two creative artists, the film also introduces us to their young adult god daughter, Sadie, who’s asked to donate an egg to the fertility quest. “It all makes for an interesting emotional location from which to examine a marriage and what infertility does to you,” related Jenkins.
Such an exploration is made possible by the partners one selects for storytelling. For Jenkins, those collaborators ranged from people brand new to her to those with whom she’s had a fruitful track record.
An example of the latter would be Brian A. Kates, who edited The Savages. A two-time Emmy winner (earlier this year for Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and back in 2009 for the HBO telefilm Taking Chance shared with editor Lee Percy), Kates brings what Jenkins succinctly described as “a shorthand” to their working together.
“We had a great experience on The Savages and I was grateful just to get to team with Brian again. It’s hard when the project looks like it’s a go, then it’s not. I had to keep him abreast of the scheduling backstage shenanigans. You don’t want a colleague to commit to your project and not take a job, then your film falls apart. He maintained a trust in me that things would work out.”
Also key to Private Life was cinematographer Christos Voudouris. Jenkins was searching for the right cinematographer and had her writer husband Taylor ask his frequent collaborator, director Alexander Payne, for suggestions during the shooting of Downsizing.
“Alexander gave him a list of DPs which consisted of all these cinematography masters who would be longshots for me to get for my small movie,” recollected Jenkins. “But there was one name on that list, Christos, who was intriguing. He had done a Richard Linklater movie in Greece, and he shot Love Is Strange, an Ira Sachs movie. I checked out his work and saw exquisite composition. There were a couple of scenes in Ira’s film that were counterintuitive compositionally. I got in touch with him, we Skyped, he responded to the script, and we hit it off. He’s his own operator which is a very European approach that creates a great intimacy among the director, the DP and the actors.
"It made for a little unit working together with great respect, trust and fun," continued Jenkins. "He creates an expressive composition, makes choices that I would have never made, combining handheld with formal classic compositions. He brought so much to the story.”
For Jenkins, the experience on Private Life underscored that goodness and positive developments can come out of something seemingly disastrous.
“Netflix saved me when things looked bleak. I also remember that we had an actor to play Sadie who had to drop out of the film. We had less than three weeks to find a replacement. Casting director Jeanne McCarthy went on this mad search. We found someone who wasn’t a name person and I fell in love with her. Netflix let us cast her. Kayli Carter turned out to be terrific. She’s this new kid on the block working with veterans (Giamatti and Hahn)—it almost mirrored their relationship in the narrative. Out of what you think is disaster, sometimes something wonderful can emerge.”