Laura Dern goes to dark places in child sexual abuse story ‘The Tale’

“Shame has been lifted because so many voices are coming together to share their common experience. It’s an incredible feeling,” says Laura Dern, who stars in the child sexual abuse film “The Tale.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Laura Dern’s many high-profile projects in the last couple of years include a “Star Wars” film, the “Twin Peaks” revival, and the everything-winning “Big Little Lies” (now shooting Season 2). But a small movie, “The Tale,” may be the hardest hitting of them all. The HBO acquisition is the narrative debut of writer-director Jennifer Fox, a seasoned documentarian. It casts Dern as Fox in the harrowing examination of the filmmaker’s sexual abuse as a child, chipping away at the layers of denial she had adopted to protect herself from the truth.

“The Tale” is an emotional wringer. How did Jennifer Fox successfully pitch you to do it?

I think she made a very intelligent choice as a first-time narrative filmmaker. She asked Brian De Palma to call me. He said, “An extraordinary documentary filmmaker I greatly admire is going to do something radically brave, which is to film her own story. Read this. It’s hard. I’m just letting you know this is really something worth doing.” That was followed up by [“The Messenger” director] Oren Moverman, who had also known Jennifer well and known her as a professor of documentary film, as well as knowing her attempts at this story and agreed to come on as producer.

It was a great way in, frankly. Because if I had just gotten the script blindly from a first-time filmmaker … the horror and heartbreak of the actual scene itself of the event that happened in her childhood, it could easily scare someone away. But to hear all of this, then read it, then talk to her about how protective she was, how bold her choices were, it made me realize no one else could tell this story the way she wanted to tell it, who hadn’t had the experience.

The conversations were either recorded conversations or letters or transcripts or her actual story written for class. You’re not sitting with a script, saying, “No one in this circumstance would say A, B or C.” Because there were moments I did and she would say, “Well, let me play you this audiotape.”


Shame has been lifted because so many voices are coming together to share their common experience. It’s an incredible feeling, culturally.

— Laura Dern

It’s a sad cliché to ask about the film’s timeliness, but … it couldn’t be more timely, yes? With the #MeToo movement and high-profile cases at Michigan State and USC …

It was almost three years ago that we started this journey. It’s remarkable, the conversations journalists are having in reviewing the film, people who reach out to us, conversations at the Q&As we’ve been doing. Shame has been lifted because so many voices are coming together to share their common experience. It’s an incredible feeling, culturally. Women as much as men have normalized behavior. One of my favorite lines, which I say a few times, is “Well, it was the ’70s; I was very mature for my age.” Certainly, in my industry, I’ve said it, many people have said it. Many girls I’ve heard justify behavior by saying, “Well, I was tall for my age; I was very mature for my age.”

Jennifer Fox seems to have remarkable clarity about what happened to her, about the techniques of manipulation used against her and her needs at the time that made her vulnerable to them. She’s a first-time narrative director, though. Did you feel she was able to convey those subtleties to you?

A million percent. She spent years, obviously, retelling the story to herself. She worked through documentary films to examine women who’ve had this experience. She did a documentary in which she put herself in it, and even her own mother, into her narrative, so she’s already been an autobiographical filmmaker. But as she’s said in Q&As, “I’ve done years of therapy; I know how to have the conversation.”

Isabelle Nélisse (the now-14-year-old who plays young Jennifer) is remarkable.

She really is. To find a girl so young – with great parents, who were really protective and supportive, to talk through the story and make her feel comfortable and have Jason [Ritter, who plays her abuser] as a partner in that, he was so wonderful. You would hope that a filmmaker would be that protective of a young girl. She was like, “I’m not making this until I can figure out how I can shoot it so she’s never in this circumstance.” They shot it with an upright, lateral bed so they were both standing and apart from each other. They split the frame so she was never in a position to have to lie in a bed. Then when it needed to be in bed from certain angles, it was a double. The consciousness that Jennifer brought to it, saying, “I don’t even want her to have to play out the idea” -- the consideration really meant a lot.

On another note, is Season 2 of “Big Little Lies” shooting now?

Under way, as we speak! We’re having the time of our lives. I’m on a set right now with Meryl Streep. [laughs] I’m looking to my left, I’m seeing Nicole [Kidman], Reese [Witherspoon], Shai [Shailene Woodley]; I’m looking on my right and seeing Meryl Streep. And I’m seeing beautiful Monterey, California, and wondering, “How did I get this lucky?” There are amazing, strong and complicated female characters all around me, so I don’t have to be the only one.

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