Amber Tamblyn On Being A Female Director: "Never Ask For Permission"

Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images.
Amber Tamblyn may be a first-time director, but the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants star's skill behind the camera demonstrates the instincts of an industry veteran. Her adaptation of Janet Fitch's novel Paint It Black was released in theaters June 3.

Paint It Black is the story of two women's lives in the wake of a shared loved one's sudden suicide. Though the women were linked by Michael's life — Josie (Alia Shawkat) was his girlfriend and Meredith (Janet McTeer) was his mother — they remain anchored by his death. Tamblyn's camera zooms in and out of the women's violent attempts to mangle (and even murder) one another, getting at the heart of Fitch's literary prowess: Josie and Meredith's story isn't about a man so much as what Tamblyn describes as "female interior violence."

What's most striking about Tamblyn's work is what little payoff she gives her audience. There's no salve for her characters' savagery, and Tamblyn isn't concerned with providing a neat ending. The power dynamic between Josie and Meredith rests on the quicksand of loss and desire. The women aren't competing for a man's attention, but rather exist as bookends of one another, battling over the right to his memory.

We spoke with Tamblyn, 33, about the film, the L.A. punk scene, and sexism in the industry.
How did this project come together? When did you decide you wanted to direct?
"Back in 2006 or 2007, Amy Poehler texted me and was like, 'Hey, there’s this book I just read that I think you would love called Paint It Black, you should get it,' just as a friendly recommendation. I got it and was totally floored by it. I thought it was such an incredibly visceral, cinematic story. One of the things I love so much about Janet Fitch, who wrote the novel, is that she is a poetic writer and she has such a way of explaining female emotions and female interior violence. I just thought, Wow, this has to be turned into a movie.

"There was another director attached for a little while, she was the one that ultimately said to me, 'I think you need to direct this because you have such a strong vision of what you want. What are you waiting for? Why won’t you give yourself that opportunity?'"

Josie is a very hip character who is conscious of being consumed or fetishized. How did you make sure she was perceived by the audience as more than just another bohemian Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

"Her character was never that other type of girl. [In the book,] the character was always hardcore punk rock, took care of herself, pulled herself up from her bootstraps. And just like most punk girls, she's a heavy drinker, can carry her liquor, can carry her drugs. Those things are more coping mechanisms than ways to expand her hippie horizons or whatnot. I think that’s part of the reason, too, why it’s such a good dynamic and push-and-pull between these two women, because they sort of balance in that edgy way. They’re both dangerous in their own senses, they’re both dangerous to themselves, and by proxy to other people."
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Photo: Courtesy of Olive Productions.
The book is set in L.A.’s 1980s punk scene, and you brought it to modern day. How did you access the existing punk scene in L.A.? Is that something you were familiar with before?
"Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m third generation from Los Angeles, and I know a lot of people here and a lot of people in the scene, certainly. And if they’re not here, then just nationally as well. And Mish Way, who is the lead singer of White Lung, who I would consider the most important punk band — true punk band — around performing right now, and she and I struck up a conversation very early on, and I had imagined her as playing a character in the film."

The movie is rooted in a very dynamic relationship between two women. Could you go into more detail about how you see their relationship and also how you communicated that on screen?
"[Both the book and film are] definitely less about grief and more about a power struggle, a power dynamic. And also just sort of obsession, and the way that we change the truth of someone’s impact on your life once they’re gone, especially if they’re ripped out of your life in a very sudden and tragic way. The memory of that person starts to change depending on what’s needed. And you see that with these two women, because they both have very different memories and stories of who Michael was.

"The film I think also really encapsulates that and shows that these [are] two women who both need each other because of something that they both don’t have. They both don’t have family anymore, they’re both looking for something to hold on to — someone to hold onto — and love."
How did the city of Los Angeles grow into its own character in the film?
"The places that Josie is shooting that kind of weird, small-scale student film, we did that all down in the L.A. aqueducts. To me, that’s such a representation of Los Angeles, this giant concrete river with no water in it, and to me it’s endemic of the wasteland that Los Angeles has become and the desert, the desert feel.

"The book and the film is very much a class story. One of the things about Los Angeles is that you’ve got billionaires who live up in the mountains and you’ve got rich movie stars and pop stars, and then less than half a mile down the road — on Alvarado and down Echo Park and off of Sunset, even — you’ve got people who are exactly like Josie. People who are living paycheck to paycheck as nude models, or in some band living in an apartment with four other people, or an actor who can’t get work who’s on unemployment. That’s the reality of Los Angeles, it’s very diverse in that sense."
Photo: Courtesy of Olive Productions.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot, and why?
"I would say the scene where they’re first getting to know each other, when Meredith comes and takes Josie out to lunch, and you also get the see the kind of restaurant that Meredith would take Josie to, which is fine dining, white linen, where you can hear crystal clinking in the background. Josie’s got her elbows on the table and is slurping out of a straw — there’s no refinement about Josie Tyrell.

"So, I wouldn’t say it was hard, but it was really fun. We did a lot of takes of that one, which I don’t do, I do one or two takes, that’s all that I do. As soon as I have what I want, I don’t fuck around and waste everyone’s time with more shots for selfish purposes. I like to make sure I get on to the next thing. That was one we had fun with and we got to tweak every little thing like, 'Now try one where you’re more playful with her, because you know at the end of the scene you’re going to go ask to go over and see her house. So try one that’s more manipulative,' or whatever we got to do. And because Ali and Janet are veteran actors and they’re, as one would say 'well oiled,' their acting chops are so strong that it was really fun for them to play off each other."

How important did you feel it was to follow the book’s narrative? Were there any scenes or plotlines you decided to leave out? Others that had to stay in?
"Michael was a very large part of the book and there [were] lots of flashbacks, you really got to know his relationship with his mother, you really got to know his relationship with Josie, there’s lots of flashbacks in the book. I thought if I could make a movie that barely had him at all, you never got to know him, but that we cared so much about the two women and basically what they were going through and cared more about their obsession with each other than what the truth of his suicide was, that to me was the more interesting film.

"I know there’s lots of people like David Mamet who would disagree with me, but I just think it’s a more interesting story if Michael was never really introduced to the audience. If the audience was also left with questions, was also wanting to know what it said on that suicide note, if the audience also felt like they never got to know him but only got to know him through the memories of these two women, who both were pushing and pulling to control his story after the fact."

As a female director, do you have any advice for women who want to work behind the camera? Have you ever experienced sexism in the industry?
"Is a pig’s pussy pork? The answer’s yes, it is. My advice would be to never ask for permission from anybody, only ask permission of yourself when you want to do something, and do not take no for an answer, ever. You have to be stubborn and diligent about your creative dreams."
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This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
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