There are a lot of films about pregnancy and parenthood. But there are few that spotlight the difficult for couples who find themselves unable to so easily start a family.
Tamara Jenkins, who last directed Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Savages,” now brings a new perspective to the road to parenthood. Her new film, “Private Life,” follows Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), who have gone down every path in their efforts to have a baby. For some couples, the struggle tears them apart. For others, it brings them closer together.
Rachel and Richard’s journey becomes further complicated and hopeful when a young family member, Sadie (Kayli Carter), offers to help as an egg donor.
I recently had the chance to talk separately with Tamara, Kathryn, and Kayli. But because our conversations were so closely linked, they are presented here together. We hope you’ll enjoy what each of these women had to say about their film, about their own journeys, and about women in this industry.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit (to Tamara Jenkins): The last time we saw a film from you was “The Savages” in 2007. What have you been doing with yourself since then?
Tamara Jenkins: I just had this conversation with somebody else, so it was kind of interesting. You know, I discovered that I had notes on this movie, because at first it was like, it took a long time to get this movie…I’d say this movie was like a five year journey. It took a couple years of writing, then trying to get it financed. Then trying to get it done. So that’s five years, so what was the other five years? The earlier five years? I discovered in my notes that in 2008 I had notes for this movie. But I wasn’t really writing it writing it.
Then in 2009 I had a kid, and then I was writing, but I wasn’t writing necessarily this. I was writing for hire, you know, employment. And I was teaching. I teach sometimes at NYU Graduate Film. And I was, you know, being a mom. But didn’t really, I don’t think, start to truly invest in this until . So yeah, that’s what I was doing. I mean, I wasn’t eating bon bons or something! It always sounds like, “Yes, I’m just a woman of leisure!” I was hustling. I went out for jobs that I did not get, or fell apart or something like that.
There was something I was interested in that was out in the world that I was pursuing, and it would have been a large writing job that I would then direct. I pursued that for awhile and it involved a lot of research. In fact, I think I was in the middle of writing this when that entered my frame of vision. I pursued it for awhile and was [it] probably also when you’re writing and something pulls you away…anything to get away from the actual hard work of writing. So I went down some paths for awhile thinking, “Oh, that’s what I should be doing.” It was a couple of months of work and then I realized, “Oh my god, I’m going to be pitching this for the rest of my life and I’m never gonna get employed.”
It was a little dispiriting because I was kind of excited about [that] project from the outside. And then I returned to my script because I realized that that was… I just kept kind of presenting myself in different ways to the people that were making that thing and I discovered they had other people that they were pursuing at the same time. I wasn’t the only writer/director, they had other people and it was just…it started to make me feel bad and I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. And then I returned to my script and suddenly was like, “Wow, this script is really…there’s a lot here. This is what i should be doing. I shouldn’t be pursuing that other job…”
I returned to this and I just poured myself into it. So that’s sort of the story.
KP: I really wanted to ask you about that because—and I’m sure you’ll get this a lot—over the summer, Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace”) was being asked this question a lot and there was this assumption that because she’s a female director,that she just couldn’t get a film made. She was talking about the fact that nobody asks that of men. They just assume that men are choosing their projects carefully whereas women just are fighting. They’re not able to do it. So that’s why I wanted to ask you, what’s been—
TJ: I think it’s a combination. I mean, I don’t know what it was like for her. [“Private Life”] screened at Sundance and it was a question that was happening a lot. And at first I remember feeling sort of like, “Yeah, god, what is wrong with me? This is really pathetic. I haven’t made a movie in like 10 years.”
But, you know, I had a movie that I’d co-written with my husband that was at Sundance called “Juliet, Naked.” We were writers on it, but anyway, that wasn’t my main… the main thing was that I hadn’t made one of my own movies in ten years. And so then I looked around and realized Debra Granik hadn’t made a narrative feature in quite some time and Patty Jenkins hadn’t made a narrative feature for quite some time prior to [“Wonder Woman”]…Mary Heron hadn’t…Lisa Cholodenko. Like, all my friends—Debra Granik isn’t my friend and Patty Jenkins isn’t—she’s not my enemy, she’s just not in my close circle. But I was just, you know, my colleagues. I was discovering that I wasn’t the only one. Which was kind of like, wow! So I don’t know…I think it’s a combination of things. And I think it’s also dependent on the person… I guess the question would be, “If I was a man, and I felt like my movie was ready and it was, would they be able to just get it into production or would they be pounding the pavement in the same way that I had to?” I don’t know.
KP: Yeah, and it’s kind of an unanswerable question.
TJ: It is an unanswerable question. Although it’s interesting that there’s these big lags between all those people and that all those people happen to be women. I don’t know if there is the equivalent in men’s careers. I don’t think there is. Maybe with an independent filmmaker it’s different. Maybe with a writer/director it’s different. But, I think there has to be some tiny bit of like, hmmm, maybe it’s harder for women to get their movies financed. Maybe.
KP: The marriage you portray is just so well done. At what point did Kathryn [Hahn] and Paul [Giamatti] get involved as your two leads? They were so great together.
TJ: I know, I love them together so much. I mean, it wasn’t like I was writing with them in mind or anything. I didn’t know who these people were going to be. But I have a fantastic casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, and the first thing she said when we had coffee was, “Well, the perfect person for this is Kathryn Hahn.” And I was less informed about Kathryn Hahn. I didn’t know those big comedies. But then I started watching “Transparent.” People have been like, “Well, she’s such a famous comic actress but you’re putting her in a serious part.” And I said, “I actually saw ‘Transparent’ before the other stuff because I did it backwards.” Jeanne said this woman was great and then I started studying her work, and I thought she was so fantastic as the rabbi in “Transparent,” but I started seeing that she can do it all! And I really fell for her.
Kathryn Hahn shared the casting process from her side:
Kathryn Hahn: My agent sent me the script. I saw Tamara Jenkins and I saw the name “Private Life” and I had no idea what the subject matter was about, but I saw her name and I knew I loved “The Savages.” And so it was such a beautiful Pandora’s Box to open up and no idea what it was about. Such a mystery. And, of course, I just fell in love and thought this was going to be instant heartbreak because I knew how many woman this was going to land in their laps and I just thought, “Oh, it’s never going to be mine.” (laughs) And it’s so gorgeous and so beautifully written and so specific. And so clear and so funny and so heartbreaking at every turn, and so thoughtful. And so deep. And perfect.
So I did have to fight for it. I think Tamara—Jeanne McCarthy, the amazing casting director I think mentioned my name to Tamara who, I think, was not familiar with me. And that started like a long process. Which also included me flying myself to New York to meet with Tamara. I took an early dinner. Took at flight out just to see her and then a flight back like two hours later, that same day, to be there for a meal and we didn’t even really talk about the script. We just kind of sniffed each other out over a meat and cheese plate and some rosé, because I just wanted in so badly…
I had to do some ADR for “I Love Dick,” so she let me use her office. I went up to her office on the lower east side. She had mood boards up all around her office and I just kind of tried to leave my spiritual scent in there so she wouldn’t forget me! (laughs) I just kind of tried to leave my juju in there like Oh, please, please, please! I said little prayers in there and then she put me in a cab and I went to the airport and got on a plane. I didn’t hear about it for months. And I just kept saying prayers, I tried to forget about it but just couldn’t. We stayed in a little bit of contact, but, you know, just enough to kind of feel like my heart was going to break if it didn’t work out. And I’m so glad it did!
Kayli Carter, who plays Richard’s niece-by-marriage, Sadie), had a much different casting experience. She says:
Kayli Carter: I was really down to the wire. It was maybe two weeks before they started production. They had lost the actress slated to play this part. I had just come off of a run in the West End doing a beautiful play and I had been working with Mark Rylance on that play for the better part of a year and a half. And I had finished doing “Godless,” so I was really…I got back to New York thinking, “What could I possibly do that is going to make me feel as fulfilled as an artist and challenged in working with one of the greatest stage actors of all time?”
And I got this audition, read the script, could not believe this part was still available for somebody, especially when I read when they were starting filming. I immediately put my work boots on and memorized it, went in for the brilliant Jeanne McCarthy and Rori Bergman and Tamara had apparently asked, “Can you find me just some theater girl out there under a rock?” Because they were nearing they said maybe 80-100 women they had seen for this role. And after I went in, I met with Tamara, we talked for about an hour and a half, and much to my agent-at-the-time’s chagrin, I left with her saying, “Something catastrophic would have to happen for it not to be you.” And I left thinking, “Oh god, I don’t think she should have told me that!” (laughs) But it was mine and I was floored. And then we started filming about two weeks later.
Jenkins enjoys more informal conversations with her actors. She describes the first time she met together with Kathryn and Paul:
TJ: The first night they were together, it was a kind of a weird thing where I kind of squeezed in, it wasn’t a rehearsal. She was coming into town to do “Bad Moms” press, Paul was about to leave the country to do a movie, and there was just this one evening where they were both touching down in the city at the same time. And I made dinner at Paul’s house, invited Kathryn over, and that was their first night together. I was like, “Oh my god, they’re just like a couple. They’re not like a movie couple, they’re a couple couple. They feel real.” And I was so excited, I could just feel it.
KP: That’s perfect.
TJ: We ended up rehearsing that night, we had a whole evening. We did exercises, we read through the whole script, I made them washes dishes together because I wanted them to experience marriage. But it was a very, I remember taking a picture of them on my cell phone and I held onto it. It was several months prior to shooting and I just held onto it and I’d look at it and I felt like I’d just taken a snapshot of some married couple friends. They just felt so right together.
KP: And they work so well together. With everything they go through throughout the course of the film, they have to have that strong connection to make it work and to really sell it.
TJ: Yeah. I think it’s a love story.
Kathryn also remembers that evening very well.
KH: It was so crazy easy. I happened to be in town doing press for, I think, “Bad Moms” or something. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I was in town for like a couple nights. And he was about to go do a movie, so there was a really tiny window that he was in New York. And Tamara invited me and herself over to Paul’s apartment and said, “I’m making you dinner.”
So she brought all these ingredients and made us a pasta dinner and we sat around and ate it and then we casually moved from the table over to some couches and read through the script very casually. And then she kind of very carefully put her director’s hat on without either of us even knowing it. We were like “Oh, I guess this is happening.” We went from casual conversation to rehearsal. And I think Paul called her out on it like, “Oh, we’re a director now.” Like it all just very casually happened.
And then we sat on the couch and kind of went through, she gave us a laptop and we went through an egg donor website, which was a very intense Pandora’s Box that just opened for both of us. Like we had no idea, it was a world we had never seen before. And this was a couple of months before production started, so that was really moving and intense. And she took some pictures of us looking through it, just like really… we talked and she had us clean up dinner and she just watched us. So we felt very self-conscious, but it was also hilarious. And it just felt very easy. I felt like I had known him forever. We made jokes, it felt a little self-conscious but we just made fun of it.
We just kind of laughed and then we did it again maybe a week and a half before we started production. We added Kayli to the mix, who was just another beautiful, blessed gift. She was just perfect. And we did the same kind of thing and then we took iPhone videos of ourselves walking through, I think it’s Citizen Square Park, I’m saying it wrong. And we just did the same thing, like casual… But we didn’t really talk, we’re really not talkers that much about it. We kind of do our own work. We’re not, like, precious about it. He’s not precious about it. I can certainly get precious sometimes but he just doesn’t. I don’t know, he just really lifts you up as a performer, he really does. He’s magnificent. He really is. He’s just a treasure.
Kayli talked about working with Kathryn and Paul, as well as Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch, who play Sadie’s parents.
KP: You also got not just Kathryn and Paul, but also Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch. What was the atmosphere on the set like?
KC: It was a blast. Nothing but a blast. There was a scene… I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to get in my own head and very moody and focused on me before I work. I really don’t prefer that. I like to be laughing all the way up until action. And everybody, Kathryn and Paul and Molly and John are all the same way. They’re not…there’s no ego in the room. Nobody’s being too precious for their art. It’s all very…fun.
There’s a joke I didn’t realize had made it in. An inside joke between the three of us—Paul, Kathryn and I—that we didn’t hear them call action ’cause we were laughing so hard. But we got it together and it made it into the movie. And when I was sitting there watching it for the first time and heard that joke, the three of us watching it at Sundance laughed really loudly in a way that nobody else did because we could not believe that that had made it in. (laughs)
And Tamara’s always there for a joke, too. Everybody was ready to laugh and then also knew when it’s time to work and get serious. I find that doing a movie that way is so much less painful. You can make films as a tyrant or as a really kind person. You can make movies both ways and I think one of them is arguably better.
Though on the surface “Private Life” is about a couple’s journey through infertility, it is really the love story of two people who navigate this struggle together. Both Tamara and Kathryn spoke about this. This section does contain a few spoilers, but we left it in because it led to some very important discussion.
TJ: I think it’s a love story.
KP: Yeah, I would say so too. I have to be careful how I word this because this question is kind of a spoiler, but I’m curious about the ending that you chose for this film. Why did you decide to leave it where you do?
TJ: I’ll ask you a question after I answer because I’m curious what your feelings were about it. I guess I always felt the movie was about a marriage. It wasn’t about the baby, it was about the marriage. And to me, when [Richard] gets up and walks to the other side of the booth…that’s the story. And then whatever happens after that, we’re left with them and they’re together and they’ve endured something quite remarkable. But he goes to the other side of the booth and then there’s sort of kind of a tail, like a dog’s tail. This long extension of this moment to moment experience of what it feels like waiting, and not knowing what’s going to happen. And I just felt that that was really what the movie was about.
I remember when we were shooting the movie, and I had said this a couple of times, but Paul had this moment when we were shooting the movie where he just sort of turned around and said, “This isn’t about the baby. This is ‘Waiting for Godot!'” And I was thinking, yeah, it’s about the existential experience of marriage and survival and the intrepidness of these people going through this thing.
So now I’m curious, because you said you wanted to know about the end. Did you find the end frustrating? Or did you like it?
KP: I actually loved it. I loved that it wasn’t everything all perfectly answered. Because I agree with you. To me, it was about this couple that has been through this journey together. And they’ve come out of it on the other side together. And the reason it really stood out to me is that I have two friends who both went through IVF and weren’t successful. I’ve had other friends who were, but I had two couple friends who were not successful. And one of them, it ultimately tore them apart and they ended up splitting up. The other stayed together and they have a great marriage to this day and they never got to have a baby, but they love each other so much and they’re happy together.
TJ: That’s amazing… You know, when I was in the writing stages, I was looking at peoples’ memoirs. There’s so much stuff, so many diaries. You can go online. There was even a diary in the New York Times, “My Fertility Journey.” And it was a woman keeping a public diary about her IVF experience, and there’s memoirs about it. There’s a lot. It’s in the ether a lot. The culture, this process. I remember when I would look at books that ended or stories and “Tada! We got our kid!” It was this sickening feeling. Also so much pain for the people reading this that it’s not going to happen for. And it doesn’t happen a lot. The statistics of IVF are much lower than you think.
Kathryn also spoke about the couple’s journey.
KP: This film is such a beautiful love story.
KH: Yeah, I agree. There’s something really… I agree with you, there is something really romantic about it because he doesn’t ever let her go off the deep end. She starts to go… it is such a… There is for someone who has this dream and there’s no cap to it. Like, when do you stop this dream? How do you tell somebody to stop? When do you put the cap? And he, I think, has his own feelings of course, and he just loves her. As Tamara said, it’s a very big thing for him to get up at that booth at the end of the movie and come and sit next to her and that’s, like, the most beautiful, romantic thing to me. Not very many partners would do that.
Tamara and I closed off the discussion with why this film really does end on a positive note, even if it doesn’t actually have a conclusion.
TJ: I wasn’t trying to be punk rock about it. People are like “don’t [Richard and Rachel] deserve something?”
KP: But they have each other and that’s what they deserve and what they get.
TJ: I know! And that’s when I say it’s a love story. And it’s about marriage and it’s about them. And I’m glad you appreciated that.