That thing about showing up at your desk every day that everybody talks about in regards to writing is very important.
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life—her first movie in a decade—tells the story of two fortysomething New Yorkers, Rachel and Richard Grimes (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti). An infertile couple with the shared goal of trying to conceive a child by any means necessary, what should bring them together is, after too many failures, actually tearing them apart. Fertility treatments are expensive and they’re running out of cash so Richard borrows from his brother, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), and his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), whose daughter, Sadie (Kayli Carter), one day inspires the Grimes to explore the possibility of using her eggs to generate a pregnancy. The geometry of this triangle is expectantly fluid, and it’s always raw and engaging to watch, especially as Private Life reveals itself to be a story that’s less concerned with reproduction than it is about resilience.
Ahead of the film’s debut via Netflix this week, Jenkins, Hahn, Carter, and Shannon were on hand to share some insights. Private Life is part of this year’s main slate at the New York Film Festival.
The 56th New York Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 14th.
This feels like a deeply personal film, not least because you wrote the thing as well.
Tamara Jenkins: Yeah—the core of it is based on a personal experience. My husband can attest to the fact that we had our own fertility journey. It wasn’t exactly what’s seen in the movie, but we went through a version of it in real life. We have an 8-year-old now so that’s great.
The film ends with the closing card: “For Mia.” It’s dedicated to her.
Tamara: It’s for Mia, my daughter. But it’s not her exact tale. I was very interested in this story for lots of reasons. I was interested in writing about marriage and mutual-life crises. I don’t think I was originally thinking that this was material for a movie when my husband and I were in the throes of our own crisis, but as time went on, I saw that many people that we knew were actually having their own fertility sagas. It was like an epidemic among my group of friends and it really started speaking to me. That got me interested in writing about it. Although the core of it—the emotional truth—is something that I knew inside and out, once you start considering the narrative demands of fiction, characters like Sadie and Cynthia are invented. So it’s not necessarily a memoir, but something that I certainly understand pretty well.
At what point did Katherine, Kayli, and Molly enter the picture?
Tamara: I was so lucky to have these three amazing women. Katherine came first and then Molly followed by Kayli. That’s the order in which they appeared. Katherine read the script and flew out to New York on her own and that’s how I met her. I was introduced to her as an idea by my fantastic casting director, Jeanne McCarthy. The first thing that Jeanne said when we sat down to talk about who would play the part was, “I mean, Katherine Hahn is perfect for this.” I wasn’t all that familiar with Katherine’s stuff. This was three years ago. Then I did a Katherine Hahn film festival and saw everything. I thought, “Jeanne is right,” and voilà.
Katherine Hahn: I flew myself out here, basically, for an early dinner. I got on a plane, met her on the Lower East Side, and we went to her local Italian joint.
Tamara: It’s not a local Italian joint. It’s super fancy!
Katherine: It’s super fancy.
Who paid for dinner?
Katherine: I think we split it.
Tamara: I paid for it! You flew on a plane!
Katherine: Oh, you’re right, and I did fly on a plane.
Tamara: It’s a local watering spot called il Buco.
Katherine: We split a bottle of rosé and wine was definitely spilled. We just kind of sniffed each other out. We didn’t even really talk about the script. I had to do some ADR for another project so we went to Tamara’s office and I remember seeing all the mood boards for Private Life up there. I tried to put my scent up in this office. I tried to leave my ju-ju and said secret little prayers: “Please. Please.” So I left my scent, she put me in a cab, and I went back to L.A. I’m so, so eternally grateful because I love this piece of writing so profoundly.
The scent worked.
Katherine: Eau de Hahn.
Are the other stories just as fragrant?
Tamara: The Kayli story is that we had an actress drop out three weeks before the movie was about to shoot. Once again, Jeanne went on a mad hunt. She saw like 80 or 90 women in their 20s over a very brief period of time. They were wonderful actresses, but no one was really clicking. We were really about to go. It was no joke. To get Paul [Giamatti] and Katherine and Molly and everyone scheduled and coordinated, and then to suddenly have a significant part drop out, was really scary. I asked Jeanne: “Isn’t there some great theater girl under a rock somewhere? This is New York! There’s gotta be some girl doing theater in a basement somewhere.”
Kayli Carter: Hello. That’s my cue. I had just finished doing a play in London. I had flown back and still a bit jet lagged, but they were immediately like, “On to the next thing! Here are a bunch of scripts!” Most of the ones I read I was pretty unhappy with. I wasn’t feeling like I was gonna find anything creatively fulfilling in that stack of work. Then they said, “Here’s this script.” I read it and it was filming in two and a half weeks. I didn’t know how every person in the city had not been fighting for it. Turns out, they were, and rightfully so. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and one of the best parts for someone my age that I’ve seen—period. I feel very fortunate that they spoke my name into Tamara’s ear. I, too, met with Tamara in her office. We talked for a very long time. I’m not even sure we talked about the movie a ton. We talked about everything else.
Tamara: We were sniffing each other out—in and around Katherine’s scent.
Kayli: All the mood boards were up there. There were pictures of the entire cast already and this hole in the middle of it. I thought, “I’ll peak if I do this project. I’ll peak too soon!” I still sort of feel that way. It’s a really big blessing that I didn’t see coming.
Tamara: The Molly Shannon story is kind of interesting. She’s the only person I ever thought could play this part. A filmmaking friend of mine read the script and said, “Oh my god—that character is such a bitch!” I got really scared that Cynthia was this one-dimensional character. My friend said it in a loving way, like “a fun bitch,” but I got a little worried that Cynthia was this weird, flat, cartoon bitch. I had seen Molly in Other People, which she made last year or the year before that. Now I can’t remember exactly when, but it was a dramatic role where she played a mom with cancer. She was astonishing in it. Not that the performance had anything to do with this movie at all, but I just couldn’t believe the breadth of Molly. It was this hit in my brain like, “She’s the one! She’s the one!!” The short story is that I talked to my producers and we submitted it to her agents and they kept saying that it’s not going to work because she has scheduling conflicts and it was a small part, and she’s moved onto bigger and better things.
Molly: Oh please…
Tamara: It was really hard. We kept banging our heads against the wall because nobody was getting her the script. So our mutual friend, Sofia Coppola, is how I met her. I vividly remember that one fateful evening for five seconds when Molly was wearing overalls in Sofia’s living room. I wrote Sofia: “Will you ask Molly if I can email with her?” Molly apparently wrote Sofia: “Yes.” Then I wrote Molly: “Oh my god—hi. I have this script. It’s not the lead, but a really good part. I think you’d be really good at it.” I rambled and rambled and rambled. “Would you either like to considerate it or I can try to get the script to you?” Two seconds later, she said, “I’ll do the movie!”
Molly: I hadn’t read the script, but it’s like, “Are you kidding?? Tamara Jenkins, Katherine Hahn…” Kayli wasn’t signed on yet at the time. I said, “One hundred percent I’ll do it.”
Tamara: This was the opposite of what had been going on knocking at her agents.
Molly: My agents had not sent me the script so when I finally read it, it was one of the best scripts that I’d ever read. It was so beautiful! There were some scheduling stuff because I was shooting Divorce, but as soon as we worked that out, it all worked out. Isn’t it funny that the agents—
Tamara: They kept us apart. They just thought it was too much of a cluster schedule nightmare.
Molly: I love that I got to play the part of a smart lady in blue pajamas who reads The New York Times with glasses. I’d never played that in a part.
You really captured New York in this film. It’s not always done right.
Tamara: When a New Yorker tells you that you got New York right, it’s very exciting because even New York filmmakers shoot things here that look so unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel like the city at all at times. It was very important to me that these felt like New York locations. I felt like these creatures had grown out of the soil in the East Village and it had to be right. In fact, we had the movie at a different studio prior to it being at Netflix, and when it was there, the budget they were giving us was preventing us from shooting in New York. We would’ve had to shoot this in Montreal. Montreal as the East Village? I was like, “This is going to be bad.” It wouldn’t be the same. They offered us a day of exteriors and I said, “Okay—this is not a Seinfeld episode.” It’s like “ba-da bum bum” and you see a New York exterior and then inside of a Los Angeles studio. I love Seinfeld, but you know what I mean. Even if you’re shooting in New York, getting the city right—the socio-economic specificity of a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village—is essential. I had a great production designer and cinematographer. We tried to make that feel right. Every restaurant is within walking distance from where that apartment is supposed to be. It was about the texture of it feeling authentic. The fabric of the neighborhood was important to me.
What was the writing process like? It all starts there.
Tamara: The script took a really long time. Every time I’ve written an original screenplay that was worthy, it took me two years. Then at the end of those two years, I’ll still have some problems with length. The first draft of Private Life was 200 pages or something embarrassing like that. I have to sort of chip away at it to make it into a proper shape for it to work as a movie. I always feel like I have to write something that’s almost novelistic and then adapt my own writing to fit inside a narrative film. Writing is really hard for me. This is the first movie I wrote where I actually had a room of one’s own as Virginia Wolf would say, which was very exciting. I live in a two-bedroom apartment with my husband. The second bedroom used to be mine, but now I have a kid so I can’t have that bedroom anymore. I had to rent a space on Chrystie Street for the first time in my life. It’s very different because you can’t drift from the desk to “I should do the dishes” or “I should go run out and get milk.” There’s a weird split when you remove yourself from the domestic realm to write. That was very important to me and it was just different. I was also very disciplined about it because I had a kid. Plus, I was paying rent, which is a great incentive to work. I was so freaked out that I was spending money on renting an office so I better use it every day. I would drop my daughter off at school and walk to this office and sit there like banker’s hours, and then I’d go home and cook dinner. Anyways—it was a very disciplined process. I guess I was disciplined before, but it was less organized. That thing about showing up at your desk every day that everybody talks about in regards to writing is very important. I really found that, if I wasn’t sitting at that desk, things would fly by and I wouldn’t be able to catch them. If I had my mitt on, I would catch these free-flying ideas. It’s hard to talk about writing without being really boring.
How did you come to structure the family in this way?
Tamara: One thing was absolutely necessary: whoever Sadie was, she could not be a blood relative. That was built into the assignment. She had to be a step-something or else it would be like the social worker says: incest. It’s interesting because the movie starts on just the couple and then it sort of blooms out. The impact of their decisions is then on the entire family as it sort of expands. But I think that detail set the precedent and set the thing in motion—that Sadie needed to be a step-person. My own life is filled with steps and it’s all cobbled together. It’s something familiar.