Obviously, when making a film, one hopes for the best audience response possible, but with a film like this, a film so personal to yourself, did you have any additional anxieties about how the story would be received?
I absolutely had enormous anxiety about how a film that so clearly describes CSA would be received. When I started to write The Tale, it was long before the #MeToo movement and Times Up and there were many examples of films who tried to tackle the subject and were planned by audiences and critics alike and I was very aware. One of the reasons why I had my name used by Laura Dern, by having a real name, I wanted the viewer to have to wrestle with the reality of it all. There are feelings of love that I have for my abuser, which is quite common for people who have been abused as a child. The world sees it in black and white terms when it is more ordinary than that, but it doesn’t make it any less horrible. Leaving my name was one proactive way to deal with my fear.
Another way was to develop a very strong audience engagement and outreach plan even during the script writing and making of the film. We engaged with a lot of organisations to support the film. Having them engaged was to make sure that there was a way to authenticate the experience and give it legs in the world with press. This didn’t stop me from fearing the film would not be bought as with all independent films it’s hard to get distribution. When we went to Sundance, we didn’t know if people would want to see the film.
In The Tale, you made the decision to show adult/child sex scenes (using an adult body double, of course). Can you tell us why you thought it was important to do this?
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I felt like all the movies I’d ever seen try to portray it, actually had a lot of inaccuracies and of course, many of them, when you get to the point where the sexuality occurs, sort of fade to black or the child and adult walk into another room and close the door. So there’s a way that the horror of it all, the “ordinary horror” is never really demonstrated. I think in the viewer’s mind they can sort of blur out just how ordinarily horrible it really is. So, for me it was important that viewers see that square in the eye, and also that the “grooming” continued even during the sex. By grooming, I mean that my perpetrator Bill was actually talking to me getting through the horror of it the whole time he was doing it. And I thought it was really important for this specificity so it could be talked about by audiences.
“The stories we tell ourselves are often more important than the events themselves.”
Why turn this life experience, life trauma, in to a film?
I really felt that, before making The Tale, I had never seen the issue of memory and how a mind deals with trauma through the construction of story the way I experienced it. I thought it was so interesting that I never used the word abuse until I was a middle-aged woman. I also discovered that this was really common; that there’s a way that that people don’t, in a sense, wake up or become able to deal with trauma until they’re older. And so, in exploring my own narrative, I thought there was a lot we could talk about with regards to how the mind faces difficult things. And how the stories we tell ourselves are often more important than the events themselves.
You have previously referred to The Tale as a fictional memoir. What separates documentary from fictional memoir?
As a filmmaker who’s made many documentaries, you quickly learn in the editing of documentary that you are constructing narratives that are not necessarily completely true even though all the footage is true. What do I mean by that? I mean that, in order to make stories that people want to watch, we have to make films simpler than reality. All of that requires choosing one narrative over another in the filmmaking.
Hopefully, as documentarians we do this with an eye towards what is really true. It’s funny because, in fiction, when you’re working with a true story like I did with myself, you’re almost doing the inverse. You’re using the fictional language to hopefully reveal what was really true and what happened in a real event.
I hope that The Tale is as true as any real documentary. But I also know most documentaries are fiction.
What do you plan to do next? Will you return to documentary making or carry on constructing film narratives like this one?
I plan to continue making fiction because I’m just excited about what is a relatively new form for me — working with actors and dramatisation — but I hope to continue telling stories that are both entertaining and can change the world. And I’m very attracted to those based on true stories.
“Watch as much as you can. Every film. Both feature films and great television. Listen to music. Develop your eye through going to museum and looking at paintings. Watch theatre. Theatre is a great source of exciting storytelling.”
What advice would you give to young adults aspiring to be in the film/television industry?
There’s so much advice because it is a very tough art form that requires multiple skills; skills that are visual, skills that are auditory, people skills, language skills.
My best advice is to watch as much as you can. Every film. Both feature films and great television. Listen to music. Develop your eye through going to museum and looking at paintings. Watch theatre. Theatre is a great source of exciting storytelling.
I think my other advice is to become incredibly resilient and rigorous in pushing yourself never to accept failure as the end. Get up and keep going. If anybody looks at the many films I’ve made or the television series, and if they look at the history, they’ll see a string of rejections until someone said yes. I always use those rejections to help me figure out how to tweak the project and make it better. Any ‘no’ is an opportunity to self reflect.
One always tries to use self reflection and rigorous criticism to see how you can push a project forward and further, but also you have to be tenacious about holding on to your ideas. All that’s to say, there’s no prescription. It’s really a complex road that one is walking.