It’s been 11 years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins wowed Sundance audiences with her sophomore feature The Savages, the dysfunctional family drama starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman that earned Jenkins an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and Linney a best-actress nod. In the decade since, streaming services flourished, Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes became critical barometers of a film’s success, and snappy 90-minute film confections became the status quo. Yet when Jenkins bounded up to the stage at the 1,200-seat Eccles Theater Thursday night to debut her third film—the two-hour Private Life, an intimate, poignant, and often-hilarious portrayal of a middle-aged couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) trying to have a baby by any means possible—it was as if no time had passed. Giamatti was sitting in the exact theater seat Hoffman sat in a decade ago, and that same generous audience was there to laud her achievement.
“I got to experience the film like music. You feel it in your body,” said Jenkins of the Thursday-night debut. “But it’s basically like being at your own wedding. You’re disassociated with it in a way. You’re watching Paul. Your husband is grabbing your knee. [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos is behind you, laughing so hard. It was cozy. It was a nice feeling.”
It’s one she spent a long time earning. Jenkins began writing a film about marriage in 2003, but it wasn’t until after her own battle with infertility and the birth of her daughter eight years ago that she began to focus the project more specifically on a couple’s struggle with fertility. (She said Thursday night that she realized the fertility struggle went beyond herself, and “became a prism through which to look at a marriage.”) After a failed outing with Amazon Studios, who developed the film for several years, she landed at Netflix with a $9 million budget and a 30-day shooting schedule. The company let her cast who she wanted, including the sure-to-breakout Kayli Carter (Godless), gave a few thoughtful notes, and supported her throughout production. Jenkins, of course, would have preferred a 3,000-screen exclusive theatrical release followed by a debut on the streaming service—a rollout Netflix has shunned in favor of day-and-date releases—but ultimately it became more important to get her movie made the way she wanted it done.
“What I know is, [the film is] going to come out this fall. There will be a theatrical release like [Netflix] did for Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories, and it will stream the same day,” said Jenkins. “It’s complicated. I wish I got it all, but that’s not their model. I wrote [the film] because I wanted people to see it how they saw it last night. But then again, so many more people are going to be exposed to this movie because of Netflix than any of the other movies I’ve made.”
And that’s a good thing. Early reviews of the film have been kind, with critics admiring Jenkins’s adroit screenplay. Variety called it “sharply, at times squeamishly, funny” with “a core of heartbreak,” while The Hollywood Reporter calls it “exquisitely awkward.” Both reviews complain about the two-hour-plus run time, a quibble Jenkins has heard before. She says this wasn’t an attempt to give metaphor to the lengthy, mundane process of fertility, but more about allowing her characters to live in those in-between moments.
“I like taking time with human stuff on-screen,” said Jenkins, referring to a pivotal scene in the movie in which her leads ask their step-niece Sadie (Carter) to be their egg donor. “I could have done a snappier version of that scene, but that wouldn’t have been what I was interested in communicating. Sometimes, I think maybe I’m just not that modern. Everything is just so clicky and fast. I like to spend time with the humans.”
What is modern is Jenkins’s examination of the choices women must make when weighing their career aspirations with their family-planning goals. The 55-year-old deftly portrays the difficult decisions via her three female leads: Hahn, who plays an author and playwright who delayed having a baby until she accomplished specific career goals; Molly Shannon as Sadie’s mother, who gave up her career in lieu of having children, but is completely bereft when facing an empty nest; and Sadie, the 25-year-old perfectly primed for childbearing and perfectly ill-equipped to handle the responsibility.
“I realized when I wrote it that I was writing the stages of the biological female,” said Jenkins. “Menopausal Molly, the empty nester; Kathryn, barely holding on to this fertility; and then this fertile peach, who is nowhere ready to have babies, but is the one most able. I realized that this is a movie about these three stages of women as defined by their biological abilities. But I never planned it as this triptych.”
Jenkins cast Hahn first for the film, based on the suggestion of her casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, who knew that Hahn had the right mixture of comedy and drama for the role. Jenkins then hired Giamatti, fulfilling a long-gestating dream years after initially offering the Oscar-nominated actor the male lead in The Savages.
“I always had a crush on Paul. I thought he was the best actor in the world. And when he passed on Savages, I threw myself on the bed and cried. I was devastated,” Jenkins said, adding that at the time, Giamatti and Hoffman always competed for parts. (The former told her that Savages was one of the few times he received the offer over Hoffman; he still turned it down.)
While Jenkins was confident that her leads had the right alchemy to play a couple, she knew she made the right choice when she cooked them dinner at Giamatti’s house one night. After reading through the script together, Jenkins made them wash the dishes. “Those are the mundane tasks married couples do,” she said. “And I knew then they were a match. You line it up, and you think they will complement each other, but you don’t really know. It’s scary.”
Private Life isn’t the only film of Jenkins’s debuting at Sundance. She and her husband, screenwriter and producer Jim Taylor (Downsizing,Sideways), also spent two years crafting the early drafts of Juliet, Naked, the adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel that debuts Friday night with Ethan Hawke in the lead. Jenkins initially wanted to direct that film, but wasn’t given the opportunity. She remains curious—as do many other female filmmakers—about why certain opportunities go to men at her same stature, and not her. No one came calling with the perfect project after her Oscar nomination. Over time, she’s come to realize she has to create those opportunities for herself.
“Debra Granik [Winter’s Bone] hasn’t made a feature in eight years. Before Wonder Woman,Patty Jenkins hadn’t made a movie since 2003,” Jenkins said. “Something is happening. I know I should just write my own things. That takes longer. But there is this little part of me that sees a great book and wants it, but I’ve never been offered anything great. That thing about the personal is political—that’s true. You walk around thinking it’s just you, but it’s not. And the sexual harassment stuff bleeds into everything else. There is oppression and other micro-aggression all around.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Meryl Streep’s 2017-2018 Awards-Season StyleNicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.