EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer Fox’s The Tale airs tonight at 10 PM on HBO, after a Sundance Film Festival premiere in January, which is where I first saw it. The film is a powerful piece of memoir in which Fox, best known for her work in documentary film, struggles with a revelation that a relationship she had when she was 13 with a much older man had not been the romantic first love as she had framed it in her memory for many years. She is played as herself in the film, by Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse, at different ages. At our Awardsline Screening Series panel last weekend, Fox explained that so pervasive is the grooming effect of childhood sexual abusers, it is not uncommon for survivors to live for years without realizing the damaging nature of the abuse they suffered. This is an instructive point for those who might question the nature of historical abuse allegations, and it is essential in unpicking the inadequacies with statute of limitation laws, which cut Fox off from pursuing charges years before she found her truth. As Fox’s film readies for its wide debut, I invited her to share her experience in her own words, and to discuss the outreach work this very important movie is engaged with. — Joe Utichi
I remember being nine years old and deciding that I wanted to make films. It was in the days when people got dressed up to go to the cinema. We were taking my mother’s sister, Aunt Shirley, out to see the new big hit, Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, for her birthday and I had on a little blue dress, my black patent leather mary janes, and white gloves with pearl buttons. My family sat in a long row in the movie theater as the lights went down and we watched this epic story of a woman’s struggle to rise beyond her birth lot. I remember going on this rollercoaster ride of emotion. I laughed, I got anxious, I was angry—and I cried. I felt like I was inside Fanny Brice and her inner world.
That was when I knew. When the lights came up in the cinema, I made a secret pact with myself. I didn’t think, “I want to be an actress like Barbara,” like most girls would have done. I thought, “I want to learn how to make movies, because I want to know how to make people feel.”
And somehow by the time I was 21, I was shooting my first film.
People often ask me if I ever considered telling the story of The Tale as a documentary since that was what I was known for, but the truth is I never did. There was no evidence of what happened to me, except in my mind. And I wanted to investigate that memory through fiction by re-creating what happened and the journey to unravel it. But there is something else too. I wanted to allow people to understand this story by entering inside the minds and thoughts of a 13-year-old girl and her adult female self. And this insider’s journey is best achieved in fiction.
Nothing moves people like great narrative storytelling; nothing disarms people to go beyond their prejudices like great acting can; nothing has the ability to take people on a journey into a world that they could not fathom like fictional film. That’s what I wanted to do, give people an experience that they could immerse themselves in and “enjoy”… and yet, I also wanted to change the world.
For me, filmmaking has always been a oneness of “art” and “issue.” Both are equally important in all my work. I know that people think The Tale is radical because of its taboo-breaking, complex depiction of child sexual abuse and memory, but when I put my producer hat on, that is not the only thing that makes it groundbreaking. What I gained through documentaries was the ability to use storytelling to dive into issues that people could learn from and experience.
When I was writing the script for The Tale, I had the radical idea that this film had to have an issue-based outreach and audience engagement campaign intrinsically attached to it. And I went so far as to enlist the outreach producer Simone Pero to start working with me to build that campaign, years before the film was ever shot. To the best of my knowledge, no one in fiction had ever done this before!
The thinking was this: I wanted to use the global reach of (hopefully) great fiction to connect with audiences in the millions and millions, but combine that with the issue impact similar to that of a powerful documentary. So, just like in all my documentaries, I built an outreach campaign for The Tale and enlisted people like Simone to help me think about the use of the film, taking it beyond the specific story of the characters, to investigate the issues and engage audiences in conversations.
Simone and I had met years earlier, when we worked together on the outreach campaign for a six-part documentary film series I directed, called Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. The series spun a web of stories from women everywhere—including my own—about sexual freedom, infidelity, discrimination, love, marriage, healthcare, children, sexual abuse, desire, abortion and on and on. When it went on television around the world, it had an amazing impact. We used outreach to get people talking and engaged in the issues raised by the film that affected them personally, politically, and collectively. I got letters for years from women saying, “I never saw my real life on film before”; “I feel seen for the first time and strengthened by it”; “I now know I exist…”; and on and on. The series gave women permission to speak about their real lives for the first time and feel part of a larger story. Outreach broadened and leveraged the impact of film so that it could affect the world for positive change.
Equally, I had a mission for The Tale that went beyond a simple moviegoing experience and included changing the way people see abuse and the conversation around it. In this way, I think The Tale fits into a new category of fiction, which I call issue-based-fiction, where we can use great narrative storytelling to change the world.
So, way back when I was writing the script, Simone and I started to build a campaign for how the film could be used now as it launches into the world. We brought on strategic advisors, experts, and advocates in the fields of mental health, law, sexual abuse, health, and women/girls. We built a construct for how nearly every scene of the film and the characters’ lives mirrored the experiences of real life. Both clinically and anecdotally, we uncovered the power of the emotional language of the film to radically change our collective conversations around issues like memory, trauma, and abuse.
Tactically, we planned for a second path of distribution combined with the worldwide launch on HBO’s mainstream platform, where the film would be offered to organizations, community groups, and schools to show and prompt new discussion. To support viewers globally on every platform, we built a resource-filled website and created viewing guides both for people to use in their home and also for professionals to facilitate discussion. And we engaged people in America and abroad to help bring on organizations and groups in targeted countries to use the film beyond broadcast.
The film will have a huge mainstream life, first because of the extraordinary portrayal of this story by our brilliant actors—including Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki and Common—that has created a fantastic journey for audiences everywhere to be broadcast through the worldwide HBO network. But it will have another life as well, as professionals, educators, organizations, and communities use the film to extend the dialogue around this taboo subject. We have partnered with amazing organizations to use the film and support viewers like RAINN, Darkness to Light, It’s on Us, Give an Hour, Joyful Heart Foundation, Planned Parenthood and many more; just look at our website, thetalemovie.com.
Our goal is nothing short of changing people’s understanding of how and why abuse happens, how complex it is for all, and the function of memory to protect from trauma. We hope to help people recognize the signs in order to prevent abuse from occurring and to support those who have been through it to heal. I hope The Tale helps to change the world on this issue, but also on another issue: I hope it heralds in a new era of ‘issue-based-fiction’, where the power of movies to swirl around us and take us into worlds we could never understand before can be used to bring light on the plight of humanity.