If getting a film every ten years or so from writer-director Tamara Jenkins means something like “Private Life,” it’s worth the wait.
Her latest movie premiered opening night of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is a deeply felt look at the messy realities of marriage and the difficulties of infertility. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star as a couple coming to terms with what they really want from themselves, each other and their life together.
The film feels like a series of secret conversations — the moments one has in private with a partner that the rest of the world never sees.
“That was so important to me,” Jenkins said in an interview ahead of the festival on having the film feel personal. “Have I been married? Yes. I was very interested in the expression of marriage in the movie, the feeling of what it is. So in terms of Paul and Kathryn, the actors, and our assignment as a team, making it feel lived-in and real was obviously high up on our list.
“I mean, it’s called ‘Private Life,’ so you’re seeing things we don’t necessarily see. I’ve certainly never seen this movie.”
In the film, which Netflix plans to release later this year, Hahn and Giamatti play Rachel and Richard, a couple living on the lower east side of Manhattan. She’s a novelist and playwright, and he’s an alternative theater director now selling artisanal pickles at farmers markets. They have tried all manner of ways — “short of kidnapping,” as he says — to get a child and all have failed. When Richard’s brother’s stepdaughter Sadie (Kayli Carter) comes to stay with them after dropping out of college, they hatch a plan for her to be their egg donor.
For anyone wondering just how much of “Private Life” is drawn from her own experiences, Jenkins said during the Q&A after the Thursday night premiere, “My husband and I went through some version of this, not quite like this, but something like this.”
As Giamatti said in an interview ahead of the festival, the intimate nuance of Jenkins’ script made him somewhat nervous to perform the scenes, such as a moment of Rachel and Richard in their bed after a long series of treatments.
“I said to her, ‘Did you bug somebody’s apartment?’” Giamatti said. “It’s just so painfully real, the way this was written. It’s so perfect I‘m afraid to play it; I’m going to ruin it. This is real. And the whole script is like that, ‘Just how the hell did you write this?’ It’s just so perfect.”
Hahn felt that the film’s frank look at fertility treatments and the false promises those medical breakthroughs can bring — in the film another character refers to Rachel and Richard as “fertility junkies” — was something she had not seen onscreen before.
“So many women of my generation have been sold this bill of goods about their fertility,” said Hahn, “and that they’re somewhat in control of it and that we can decide when we want to have babies, if we have the money to do so. And it doesn’t always work that way. It’s very hard and very expensive to do. And you start to feel betrayed by your own biology.
“And I think Tamara would probably say so much of it is about this marriage,” Hahn said. “At a certain point, it’s not even about the baby anymore, they’re bonded over this want, this hole they can’t quite fill.”
Jenkins’ previous film, “The Savages,” premiered at Sundance in 2007 and went on to earn her an Oscar nomination for original screenplay and Laura Linney a nomination for best actress. “The Savages” was only her second feature — her debut, “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” was released in 1998.
And she is ready for questions about the years since “The Savages.”
“’What the hell have you been doing?’” Jenkins preemptively said. “Well I did have a kid, who is now 8. So that was a chunk of life.”
She and her husband — screenwriter Jim Taylor, best known for his collaborations with Alexander Payne — are also credited writers on another film at Sundance, Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” She also does assorted other writing jobs for hire and sometimes teaches directing at NYU.
“And I do kind of have my own demons that make me not work at a pace that would be more normal,” she said. “But then I sit there and I go, ‘Is it me or is it the system?’ I think it’s really hard to get a movie made. This took years. So I don’t want to wait ten years to make another movie, but I definitely have my own issues.”
Initial reactions after the premiere Thursday night were largely positive, but many discussed the film’s 132-minute running time, which gives the narrative a quality of both an organic unfolding and also an attention to character detail that would be lost if it were trimmed.
Jenkins seemed well aware that it was something some people might take issue with even before the first screening.
“It’s long and is not about Vietnam or a gigantic thing. It’s human and small,” said Jenkins. “I think this is the best expression of the movie. I could shorten it, but I don’t think it would make it better.”
In the Q&A, Jenkins joked that an alternate title for the film might be “Private Life: The Biological Tyranny of the Female Condition.” That could also describe Jenkins’ thoughts on the question of length and the expectations put upon her as a female filmmaker.
“Why do men get to manspread and have movies over two hours? Why do I have to make some tight little 90-minute number?” Jenkins said with a laugh. “That always happens with my screenplays, I submit something at 125 pages and it’s ‘Well, we should really get it down to 118,’ and I’m looking at all these guys who make long movies — Why don’t I get to make long movies? I do feel to have license to spread out is a nice thing.”