How Do You Direct A Child In A Movie About Sexual Abuse?

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Warning: The following post touches on issues of sexual assault, and could be triggering.
Let's get right down to it: Jennifer Fox's The Tale, which tells the true story of her own sexual abuse at the hands of her running coach, features multiple graphic scenes between a 13-year-old Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse), and Bill (Jason Ritter), a man in his mid-thirties.
In one such moment, the two are lying in bed naked as Bill tries to push himself into her. Unable to penetrate her, he says: "Not yet. We have to keep stretching you open slowly. No young boy would ever do this for you, but I'm not giving up. I'm ready for you." As foreplay, he takes her head to direct her on how to give oral sex.
And then there's the grueling one minute and 50 seconds where the audience watches Bill take Jenny's virginity. "Now you are a woman, my love" he coos when it's over, holding up a blood spattered towel.
The physical interactions between Bill and Jenny may be the most literally explicit, but they're but one piece of a slowly evolving pattern of abuse throughout the film, which operates on two timelines: Jenny as an adult (played by Laura Dern), trying to come to terms with what she remembers as her first real relationship; and Jenny the child, who thinks she knows what she wants but is also terrified of the consequences.
Needless to say, all of this is heady material that's designed to shock, and it succeeds — even more so when you remember that Nélisse, the actress playing Jenny, was 11 years old at the time the film was shot in 2014 . That's very young to even be thinking about these kinds of issues, let alone portraying them on screen. So, how did director and writer Fox handle this sensitive situation while also delivering a brave, powerful performance from Nélisse?
Before we answer that, let's take one step further: Why cast a child at all?
"That innocence of prepubescent girls is something that’s very specific, and it’s in the eyes," Fox told Refinery29. "And that strength of a girl before she sometimes collapses into adolescence is just so strong, and I really wanted to capture that girl’s voice, that we often forget, or squash when they get older. That was the kind of child I was, and one of the messages of the film is that we need to remember the voice of the young girl because it’s powerful."
Fox tapped Nélisse after a long search that took her on casting calls from California to New York. Coming from a documentary background, the director was determined to find someone who could be "authentic" in their performance of such a personal role. That's a big ask, especially when you're also looking for someone whose appearance is akin to Fox's own at that age, which she describes as "a 9-year-old boy."
Jenny's physical appearance plays a significant role in highlighting older Jennifer's disconnect with her own story. The way she initially remembers herself looking at 13 is actually her 15-year-old self, played by Jessica Sarah Flaum (who is now 20). It's not until her mother (Ellen Burstyn) shows her a picture from that time that she realizes just how young she appeared.
"A lot of the kids who are acting are either much more developed than I was in 1973 — I was more prepubescent than pubescent," Fox said in an interview with Refinery29. "They all had done way too much acting school, and are way too what I would call ‘Disneyfied.’ They’re cute and funny, and all wound up, but it’s very hard to get them to play an authentic moment."
Because of the strict SAG-AFTRA regulations regarding minors (children between the ages of 9 and 15 can only be on set for a maximum of 9 hours at a time, excluding meals, but including school time — a difficult constraint to work around when that child is the lead), Fox's producers originally asked her to try to cast a young looking 18-year-old. When that wasn't possible, they tried 16. And then 15. Eventually, after considering Nélisse's older sister Sophie (star of The Book Thief), who ended up aging out of the role before financing was secure, Fox landed on her star.
Before reaching out, Fox had long conversations with Nélisse's mother Pauline, who told her to send over the script. Nélisse read it in its entirety, and asked to meet the director.
"I didn’t know at first that it was Jen’s story," Nélisse, now 15 and focusing on school rather than other acting jobs, said in an interview with Refinery29. "My mom just told me, 'Read the script, and let me know what you think.' So, I read the script, and I loved it so much. It’s a really intense story, but it’s really deep. But then my mom told me, 'Yeah it’s actually the director’s story,' and I was really shocked. I knew at that moment that I had to meet Jennifer."
The two Skyped for several hours, discussing Fox's story. "She asked me all these questions about my life, about the real Bill, about the scripts, why I’d made certain choices, and did I want to prosecute," Fox said. (She has thus far refused to identify the real Bill.)
Fox, in turn, asked the actress why she wanted to be involved in the project. "[She] said to me, ‘I want to do this because I want to save other girls from this.’”
And then Nélisse asked how the sexual scenes would be filmed. "I explained that she was never even going to be in the same room with Jason Ritter during the actual physical scenes, that they would be shot separately, that she would be on a vertical bed.” (Meaning that the actress was never lying down horizontally — it only appears so because of the camera work.)
Nélisse’s on-set support system included her mother, a psychiatrist, her studio teacher, a SAG-AFTRA representative. For scenes that absolutely required shots of the two characters together in bed, a body double was used, and she was not present.
That body double, who was used even in non-physical scenes where Ritter’s character was speaking explicitly, was, in a way, also there to protect him as well. “As an actor, it was a little easier to say some of these things to an adult who could take it in,” Ritter said during a panel held at the Refinery29 office in New York.
Watching the finished film, on the other hand, was a troubling experience. “It really was completely different from my experience shooting it, seeing it all edited together. I know who I was looking at, but now you see it being said to this little face. It was difficult."
Fox and Nélisse also rehearsed non-sexual direction cues — "act like a bee is stinging you," "act like you're being chased by your grandmother," "act like you're running really hard" — so that Fox could get the reaction shot she wanted without needlessly exposing Nélisse to inappropriate material. Fox also spoke with the actress' parents, to make sure they understood what their daughter was getting into.
It's a lot for any young person to take in, but Nélisse does point out that despite the heavy subject matter, the atmosphere on set was more convivial than you'd expect. She and Fox bonded over dogs, and she even brought her dog on location in Louisiana. Jason Ritter has become like a big brother (they did film non-intimate scenes together).
"Some people might think that because it’s a really strong situation, that shooting this was really intense and really hard, but actually I felt so comfortable," she said. "And it wasn’t awkward. Between the scenes, Jason would make stupid jokes or Jennifer would laugh really hard. It was really fun. It made the scenes more light, because we were all friends."
Still, she does admit that seeing the final result was a little disquieting. "The first time I saw it was with my mom, and I was a bit shocked," she said. "Because I read the script, but we shot much later, so some things I didn’t exactly remember. On the set, when it was a body double filming, and more sexual things were said, I was outside with my mom. But the whole movie was really great, I think we did a really great job."
Now, with the hindsight of four years, I asked Nélisse Fox's original question about what she hopes the film will achieve when it premieres on HBO this Saturday. "[One in 9 girls experience child sexual abuse in the United States] — I read that not long ago, and I was really shocked," she said. "When you walk down the street, maybe there’s a lot of people that got abused — we don't know. I think that by watching this movie, and by watching what Jennifer did, they can open up more. And it’s really something hard to do, but they can talk to therapists and to parents, and friends. It would change a lot."
Based on the filmmaker's own story, THE TALE is an investigation into one woman's memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. THE TALE will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand from May 26th onwards. More info and full list of nonprofit partners can be found at
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

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