The opening scene of Tamara Jenkins' Private Life completely subverts expectations. It starts in complete darkness, with sighs, and the creaking of a mattress punctuating the silence. "You ready?" a man's voice whispers.
A shot of a woman's thigh, bare save for her underwear, indicates that you're about to see a couple having sex.
And then suddenly, the mood shifts drastically. The man pulls out a needle and sticks it into her backside as she yelps in pain. The shot widens, and the scene becomes clear: What we're witnessing isn't an unfamiliar sex act, but a medical procedure, designed to facilitate in-vitro fertilization for a couple desperate to start a family.
It's been more than a decade since Jenkins' last film, critically-acclaimed The Savages, about a brother and sister struggling with the consequences of placing their father in an assisted living facility. The director, who also co-wrote one of this year's best romantic comedies, Juliet, Naked, chooses her projects carefully. But Private Life, which will be simultaneously available on Netflix and in limited theater release on October 5, is well-worth the wait.
The film follows Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), an artsy New York City-based couple, whose once-stable relationship is on the brink of implosion. He's 47, with one testicle, she's 42, and they want a child. Badly. So badly that after rounds of failed IVF attempts, they've decided to hedge their bets and start the adoption process simultaneously with a new round of infertility treatments, just in case. In a moment of desperation, the two turn to their step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), for an egg donation, adding a third party into an already complicated and somewhat toxic situation.
Tackling everything from medical ethics to feminism to modern relationships, Private Life is a film that would be entirely devastating if Jenkins wasn't a master of dark humor, with a rare gift for bringing out the absurd and frankly hilarious moments that hide within tragedy. The script, loosely based on her own experience (she calls it a "emotional autobiography"), is full of laugh-cry moments that elevate this film into a must-see.
Refinery29 spoke to Jenkins about the events in her own life that inspired the film, the alternate title she had in mind, and why she's the newest devotee in the cult of Kathryn Hahn.
Refinery29: The first scene because it feels like a concise metaphor for what the movie is about. How did you come up with it?
Tamara Jenkins: "It was one of the earliest things I scribbled out. I found a notebook that had a note in it from 2008, and it had a few different little scribbles and one of them had to do with a woman’s haunch, and the man sort of appearing over, almost like a sun [rising] or something. And then because it was a bedroom scene, and [he says] 'Roll over,' and 'Are you ready,' you're like ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna do some experimental sex thing they’ve never done before.' And then obviously, instead of having it be sexual it’s medical, and he pulls out the syringe. It’s taking something that’s very intimate, that’s private, that usually happens under your sheets, and it gets turned into this medical thing that’s incredibly alienating in terms of your relationships, your body. And of course, it’s all taking place in the bed, which is where you’d usually do other things besides administer hormone injections."
You mention the word “alienating." The scenes in the clinic are really powerful because you really sense the fact that this can be a really dehumanizing process for woman. What was it like translating that vibe — that you've personally experienced — onto film?
"I remember being really fixated on getting the feeling of those waiting rooms right. They’re very strange places, the silence of them, the crowdedness of them, the magazine-page-turning, kind of library-muffled insularness of them. And also being there for very private reasons in a public environment. Nobody’s really talking to each other, there’s this hushed feeling. Everyone knows why everyone else is there, but people are trying to give each other their privacy, and maybe looking under their eyes at each other. It’s a very specific New York City experience that I certainly had when I went through it."
The film shows three female characters at different stages of fertility. Was that always something you wanted to highlight?
"In the old days when you developed film and you’d put it in a chemical, it would start kind of emerging and you’d see the image, you’d go 'Oh that’s what I did, that’s the picture!' That happens with writing a lot. I just realized at a certain point that there were three female characters, and that each character was at a different reproductive biological moment in the life decisions of a woman. In one case, it’s menopause, an empty nest story, the other one is at the end of her fertility and pushing up against the limits of it, and then there’s this young woman. So, it was an interesting thing to just realize that it was in a way a triptych that was exploring how those moments might inform the behavior of each woman."
"Yeah, I always thought that if I was doing a kind of dissertation or something, or in the way that Birdman you know, had a colon instead of a semicolon, and then it had a much more pretentious second title. Remember? 'Birdman: the blah blah blah,' I can’t even remember what it was at this point. If I was doing that, it would be called Private Life: The Biological Tyranny of the Female Condition.' But I did write that on an index card, stuck it on my wall at some point or over my desk, 'the biological tyranny of the female condition, and I think there’s truth in it."
Your previous film, The Savages, was about elder care, and you've been asked a lot about what draws you to the difficult aspects of life. Do you feel like that's a gendered approach to your work? Would anyone ask that of a male director?
"I think there’s a lot of different things going on. I’ve had people criticize the movie for being too long. And maybe this sounds defensive, but why can’t this take up space? Why does it have to be a tight 90-minute situation? It's about life, it's about finding agency, it’s about mortality, it’s about aging, it’s about the existential condition of marriage, it’s about lots of things. And why can’t that take up space? Is it because there is a lot about what is considered a female situation?
"This Is 40 is a comedy which is a lot longer than mine. I sometimes feel like you don’t get the benefit of the doubt as a female writer. I guess that leaves me feeling a little defensive about it, and looking around and wondering 'Why is this upsetting me?'"
What went into the decision to cast Kathryn Hahn?
"My casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, was the first person to enlighten me about Kathryn Hahn. I had a whole Kathryn Hahn film festival in my apartment, and the first thing I saw was her in Transparent. [She played] another character named Rachel but a totally different kind of person, a rabbi, and I thought she was fantastic. I’m attracted to actors that can straddle the demands of drama and comedy, and they’re very special. And I felt the same way about Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman [in The Savages], that they were capable of this thing that not everybody — even great actors — [are.]"
Kathryn Hahn is one of those actresses who's always so consistently great, and yet rarely get the kind of leading roles she deserves.
"There’s a huge cult of Kathryn Hahn. When I was waking up from my slumber of not being that aware of her body of work, people were like, 'Oh my god, Kathryn Hahn!' People got so excited over her. She's in the category of Gena Rowlands, Diane Keaton; those great actresses that [are] capable of playing temporary women that were flawed and funny and relatable and beautiful, but not from Hollywood treatment. And I don’t think there’s a lot of them."
In the end credits, she and Paul Giamatti are billed side-by-side, which is unusual but really reflects their dynamic as equal partners in this movie. Was that a creative choice on your part?
"It’s called a Laverne and Shirley kind of credit, which I think sounds fascinating. It’s hard to be that creative with credits because there’s very elaborate contractual agreements when you go into making a movie. But it was so in line with the movie that it was beautiful. The shot that preceded [the credits] was held for so long, and it was just the two of them, and then to in a flash [see] their names side-by-side in the same way that they were just sitting next to each other was kind of special. "