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The Filmmaker Behind ‘The Tale’ Explains What We Don’t Understand About Sexual-Abuse Survivors

With her new HBO film, writer-director Jennifer Fox bears witness to the childhood trauma she endured and what she’s learned from the ordeal

Growing up, most of us had that one great adolescent romance — that first relationship where we started to learn how love worked. But what if, years later, we realized that our positive memories weren’t accurate? What if what we’d considered to be a loving, healthy relationship was, in fact, an act of abuse perpetrated against us? What if something beautiful had actually been something ugly?

At 13, documentarian Jennifer Fox (Beirut: The Last Home Movie and An American Love Story) engaged in an affair with her 40-year-old running coach. She never saw anything wrong with their relationship, even writing about it glowingly at the time. Decades later, though, a dark awareness came over her: This wasn’t love; it was assault. For years, she’d wanted to make a movie about her experience, wrestling with her contradictory feelings — how her younger self had been so enamored, while her older self was angry and shocked about what had happened.

In January at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox unveiled the result of that inner exploration. The Tale is a remarkable drama starring Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox, a successful documentarian who receives an anxious phone call from her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who discovers a short story her daughter wrote as a 13-year-old about having an affair with an older man, Bill (Jason Ritter). Jennifer hasn’t thought about the affair in years, but she’s compelled to reexamine that time in her life, having conversations with her younger self (Isabelle Nélisse), who we see in flashbacks as she enters into the relationship. In The Tale, Fox’s present and past selves are engaged in a debate about what this sexual assault meant and how it affected her for years to come.

The Tale, which premieres on HBO on May 26, was hailed at Sundance as the first great film of the #MeToo age, which was merely a case of strange timing for Fox, who’d been working on the script years before the actions of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein came to light. Because Fox worked to accommodate Dern’s schedule, shooting took place off-and-on between 2015 and 2016. (And that doesn’t even take into account how hard it was for Fox to secure funding for her project: “No one really wanted to finance a film about child sexual abuse,” she says.)

Dern illustrates all of Fox’s pain, soul-searching and personal growth, although The Tale doesn’t shy away from the seduction that her younger self experienced with Bill and his sophisticated, gorgeous adult friend Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki). Those adults’ names have been changed from their true-life counterparts, but what happened to Fox was real, and she strove to be as accurate as possible, interviewing the two of them and revisiting her childhood journals. As part of the process, The Tale includes sex scenes between Bill and young Jennifer that draw from Fox’s own memories. “It was really important to me,” she says, “that we see the grotesqueness but also the ordinary horror of it all.”

I recently spoke to Fox to discuss how, even in the #MeToo era, child sexual abuse remains a taboo topic; the stereotypes about abuse victims she hopes The Tale will help shatter; and what men can do to be good allies.

You’d been developing this material for years and then shot off-and-on for about 12 months. Then, just before Sundance, the revelations about Weinstein came out, and movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up emerged. Suddenly, your film couldn’t be timelier.
Even with the Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement — everything that was coming in the press — I still had tremendous anxiety that the world wasn’t really ready for this story. #MeToo and Time’s Up have addressed sexual assault, but child sexual abuse is still the utmost taboo subject — not just in this society, in the world. I knew the film was very profound, but I didn’t know what was going to happen at Sundance. I only realized that we were riding the wave after our first premiere with that standing ovation. I was like, “Okay, the audience is ready.”

In interviews, you’ve talked about waiting to be mature enough to tell this story. I imagine that part of the maturation process was preparing yourself for putting your life out into the world — and being okay with a large audience knowing such intimate parts of your life.
You know, you’d think that, but I didn’t think about the nakedness of it all — how this film would make me so vulnerable. The reason it took me so long to make the film is that it wasn’t until my mid-40s that I suddenly had the revelation, “Oh, this was sexual abuse.” It took me a long time, several years, and as soon as I realized that, I thought, Okay, now I’m ready to tell this story. But as I started to work on the writing, I wanted to talk about how my mind had told myself a different story — how my mind had protected me from what I couldn’t tolerate, which was the abuse, by telling myself it was a relationship. The real struggle to make this film was how to tell a story about memories and the stories we tell ourselves — and that dialogue between an adult self and a younger self. That’s why it took me about seven years to write the script.

I left my name in it not because I wanted to put myself front and center, which really isn’t the purpose. I was afraid if you didn’t know exactly who this happened to — if I didn’t stand up and say, “This is true” — the naysayers would say, “It couldn’t be that a child felt love.” Or, “It’s too much to show these [sex] scenes.” I left my name to be able to say, “No, we have to show the physical scenes because we have to show the horror. We have to talk about this. We have to show the complexity.” Yes, I did feel love, so me putting myself in it so directly was to protect the story itself.

As a documentarian, obviously you do research for all of your projects. I was curious: Either to prepare for writing The Tale or just for your own curiosity, did you do any research about child sexual abuse?
The genesis of the script and me using “sexual abuse” for what happened to me came out of another film I was making — I consider that part of my research. In Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, I was asking, “What does it mean to be free as a woman around the world?” It seemed like every second or third women [that I interviewed] — it was beyond class, beyond culture or color — had a sexual-abuse story, and they seemed to have a paradigm. All of a sudden, I saw my story fitting into that paradigm — a paradigm of grooming, a paradigm of feeling attention, love, [being] mature enough, and then the betrayal of unwanted sexuality that’s too late to stop. That was part of the impetus for me being ready to tell the story when I recognized the paradigm.

When I was writing The Tale, I went and researched further, of course. I also saw some patterns I had as an adult woman. For example, Ellen Burstyn says to Dern, “You were promiscuous. You slept with this one and that one.” Paradigms like that were common for women, girls and boys who had been sexually abused.

So one possible outcome is that you sleep with many people. But [the research] also talked about something that I found really interesting, which is called reparative function. You start sleeping with people after you’ve been abused because you’re trying to get back the thing that was lost, which is the innocence and the pleasure. But it’s very hard to get it back.

One of the strongest elements of The Tale is how the adult Jennifer talks to her younger self, explaining what her life will be like as she gets older because of the sexual abuse. The movie really articulates this idea that there are far-reaching repercussions — that there are things that people carry with them long after the assault.
We tend to think of survivors as crouching in a corner crying, unable to function. Well, frankly, a lot of women and men who have been abused function well in society. And yet, the paradox is that there is damage that can’t be seen — like [having] multiple partners, like lack of pleasure, like commitment phobia because there are trust issues.

There are these paradoxes that I was trying to portray in the film, but I also wanted to break myths about “What does an abused woman look like?” My story isn’t everyone’s story because sexual abuse affects everyone differently. There are some people who don’t want to have sex, and they withdraw. There are others like myself who become more [sexually] active than probably I would’ve been [otherwise]. But I do believe that the personal is political, and when you’re authentic in a personal story, you tend to hit the universal. My goal in this film was to be able to speak to universal truths through this very, very specific story.

Were you making this movie more as a way to close this chapter of your life? Or were you primarily trying to speak your truth to other people?
I’m an artist, and it was an expansion of my creative practice to move to fiction and to try these other narrative strategies. That is the great gift I have in my life — I’m able to focus on issues, whether they look like they’re about me or not, to figure out things I’m grappling with. So one motivation was to expand my art.

The second was to grapple with this thing that was hard to get my head around: “How and why did this happen under everybody’s nose, and why did I say yes? I wasn’t forced to have sex. I was manipulated, and how did that happen? Why did these adults actually even want to be with a 13-year-old girl that looks like a little nine-year-old boy? How could that be sexy?”

By using fiction, [I was able] to reach an ever-widening audience — millions and millions more than I ever could with a documentary on this issue — to show sexual abuse in its complexity, in its messiness, in its nuances. I feel like most of the media doesn’t portray it accurately, and they try to make these very black-and-white stories. In doing so, they prevent us from preventing abuse and keeps survivors from healing, because their stories don’t fit those tellings.

What are the biggest mistakes that movies about sexual abuse make?
They consistently portray the perpetrator as obviously evil. You know, “You will recognize this man because he is dark and nefarious. He looks like somebody that would hurt somebody.” People who sexually abuse are often successful in the world. They fit into society. They have good jobs. They’re loved by their community, and even their own family. They’re invisible, so you cannot spot them, and there is no one type.

The other thing is that people think sexual abuse happens by strangers, and that’s [incorrect]. They say 93 percent of the perpetrators are known by the children that they hurt. That means they’re family members, they’re coaches, they’re religious leaders. They’re people that are loved and accepted by the child and the community.

Also, [these types of films] don’t include what the child “gets” from the experience. The child is exchanging their time and energy for love and all sorts of things — that’s how they’re seduced into these horrible relationships. We have to look at what the child thinks they’re receiving in order to prevent it from happening. If we can look at it, then we can also say, “Why is this child not being listened to? How are they not being taken care of?”

Jason Ritter is rather remarkable in the film. To your point, he’s not obviously evil as Bill. And while I wouldn’t say he’s “sympathetic,” you understand why the character, in his own mind, thinks what he’s doing is perfectly fine.
We were looking for someone who, in his nature, was trustworthy — someone a parent would feel comfortable leaving a child with, not the villain that you can spot. Jason is just a lovely, good guy. I shared with Jason my diaries as a child, the letters the real Bill wrote me, photographs — we went deep into the archive of who this man was — and then the conversations I had had with the real Bill as part of my research.

Also, one of the books that I found valuable was a book called Tiger, Tiger, about a woman who was groomed and abused by a man from the time she was about six years old until 17. They had a kind of clinical relationship. One of the fascinating things about Tiger, Tiger is something that I felt in my own life when I was 13 with the real Bill, which is that he saw me and treated me as an equal. Now, the question is, “Did he see me as an adult, or did he see himself as a teenager?” Jason and I spoke a lot about this. His character sees Jenny as an equal, as a girlfriend, even while Jenny doesn’t see him as a boyfriend. She sees him as an adult figure. He takes her on a date in the film, which is what happened to me. In real life, my coach took me out with his students, and these 17-, 18- and 19-year old boys were looking at me like, “What is this kid doing in the room?”

I’m so grateful for Jason and his performance, because he makes it human. He makes you see that — however distorted this is — this adult felt love for this little girl. That helps us if we see also why this little girl, Jenny, felt loved by him. It’s a two-way street — it helps us understand the perpetrator, but it also helps us understand why the child is seduced by it.

You’ve mentioned before that you interviewed the real Bill and Mrs. G while working on this script. How did you approach them? Were they hesitant at all?
The real Mrs. G was a little nervous and surprised that I reached out to her. This is just my feeling, but I think she was almost grateful that somehow I showed up and hadn’t forsaken her. Ironically, I met her several times as part of the research, and I was just as enamored with her as I was when I was a child. She had physically changed a lot, but emotionally, I was just as taken with her. She was an incredibly charming person.

The real Bill didn’t meet me and wouldn’t meet me for several years, but we did speak on the phone, I believe, about three times. I think he wouldn’t meet me because he was afraid, but if I got him [on the phone], it was often when he was driving. He would pull over on the side of the road and speak to me for quite a bit of time.

Now, with neither of them did I confront them as I do in the film, because I wanted to keep the door open to have the dialogue. In terms of the real Bill, he eventually agreed to meet me because Mrs. G passed away a few years ago, sadly. I used [her passing] to say, “Look, you have to. We have to get together. Let’s get together now because she’s died, for old time’s sake.” I didn’t confront him, but in the confrontation scene at the end of the movie, many of the lines of dialogue that he said to me come from the conversations I had — or things he did. Like, he touched my hair. It was so shocking to me that he would touch my hair, and it was such a sign that he was a player and was a real womanizer. It’s something you see as an adult woman, but I would never have noticed as a child. So I put that in the script.

In The Tale, you have Common play Martin, who is Jennifer’s fiancé and is grappling with these revelations of her sexual abuse. #MeToo has inspired a lot of talk about how men can be good allies to women. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Well, Martin is actually based on my boyfriend, now husband. For me, Common is portraying uniquely a good man — a man who supports his partner in this process, despite the fact that she’s quite brutal to him. I feel like it’s a different version of a man than we’ve seen in films. Common and I talked about how hard it was for him not to react to her in that fight scene. For me, this is an extraordinary man who simply loves her and won’t give up on her, even if she kicks him out the door. He’s going to show up and say, “I’m coming back in, because I can take it.”

I think that what we often see in media is men either leaving the woman or hitting her because she’s provoking him. Common portrays a really positive male character, as opposed to Bill, the perpetrator. It certainly worked for me: My boyfriend, now husband, wouldn’t give up no matter how much I tried to get rid of him. One of many reactions to sexual abuse is commitment phobia, and I certainly have had it — I can feel suffocated — and my partner hung in there with me at every moment. I can say he’s the first man who ever did that. It worked — it may not work with everyone. I certainly don’t have the right answer, but it’s a pretty rare male quality to support a loved one even when she’s being difficult.

That’s true, but he also angers her when he says that she’s a victim of rape, and that term infuriates her. Even while trying to be a good partner, he screws up.
Yeah, you’re right. One version of reality is that Common’s character should’ve been more sensitive and shouldn’t have reacted like that. Of course, if we want to give advice to partners of those who have been abused or assaulted, it’s to be careful with language, because language can be hurtful. For example, I find the word “victim” horrific in real life — Laura Dern says in the film, “I’m not a victim.” There’s two things: On the one hand, we should give people that advice to be more sensitive; but on the other, by saying, “This is rape,” something that Laura’s character would never call it, he’s opening a crack in her mind at how the outside world sees what happened, and it does help her on the journey. I’m sorry to say two opposing things, but both things are true: It helps her — and one needs to be careful with language.

That scene mostly suggests that a couple going through such a revelation needs to be able to communicate with one another — they need to have established a language to talk through tough issues.
Yes, and it also was important to me that we show them having a good sex life. Another misnomer about those who are sexually abused is you often see the image of a frigid woman — and certainly that can be a repercussion, that one loses their pleasure. But that isn’t the case of this character, and we wanted to show that women who are abused can also still find their way to a good, loving sexual relationship.

The sex scenes between Jennifer and Ben are handled with a lot of sensitivity: They make us feel uncomfortable, but from their perspective we see how it might seem loving. I’m curious how you communicated with your actors how you wanted to approach those scenes.
For me, it was vital that the sex scenes — including the language Bill speaks to Jenny — were straight from memory. [Editor’s note: During the sex scenes, an adult double was used for scenes of Jenny.] I feel that many films about sexual abuse, as soon as it comes to the act, the door is closed or the scene fades out, and I feel like, sorry, time’s up on that. We have to look at just how awful, uncomfortable and painful it was for this young girl — or me, you can say — and that it’s not pleasurable, it’s not pretty, it’s not sexy. It’s one man’s narcissism at the expense of a child.

It was also important to show that it was not once — that it was a “relationship” that he worked at over time. That is what grooming is: It’s this slow manipulation or coercion. I know it’s tough [to watch], but I’ve heard people say two things: One is, “I never understood before how this happens or what it looks like.” We have several advisors, and two of them are lawyers who have worked as sexual abuse prosecutors for 30 years. They said until they watched the film, and specifically those sex scenes, they really didn’t get it. [Seeing those sex scenes] breaks everybody’s fantasies or blindness of what happens. The other thing is, “You cannot look away.” You cannot look away any longer, and I feel like we have to see it. We have to face the real horror of it all, and it’s ordinary. There’s not a knife involved. There’s not a gun. It’s mental coercion, and we have to talk about that.

The Tale premiered at Sundance, and soon it will be airing on HBO. A lot of people you’ve never met will have seen it. Have you had many of them come up to you, wanting to share their own stories?
One of the big surprises of Sundance was that, by standing up with the film and leaving my name the same, I could offer to the audience, “I can take your suffering, because I too have suffered, and there’s nothing you can say to me that’s too much.” There’s a feeling — when I was doing Q&As and talking to people — that that’s what I can give.

Pain doesn’t frighten me. There’s no story too horrific for me when you tell it. That’s what I signed up for. It’s also what I can give. I’m a survivor, and I refuse to think that this is only negative, for my sanity. Also, what I feel I learned — and what this experience gave me — is an enormous compassion for suffering. That has carried into all my work. It has also given me extraordinary challenges to try to heal myself over the last 40 years — I’ve done an enormous amount of therapy and other things, meditation, everything that can be done in order to deal with my own pain. But it also means that I can help other people by just bearing witness and listening and not being afraid.