"The story you are about to see is true. As far as I know," Laura Dern says at the beginning of The Tale, in which she plays a fortysomething documentary filmmaker reexamining the circumstances of her first sexual experience and finally realizing that the much older man she'd thought of as her lover when she was 13 had been a predator.
The story in The Tale, which makes its HBO debut on May 26, belongs to Narberth native and veteran filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who was a seventh grader at Germantown Friends School when she wrote a short story about "two very special people" — a woman that in the film Fox calls "Mrs. G" and a man she calls "Bill" — and about her "beautiful" role in their relationship.
"I was thinking to tell this story — although not like this — all my life," said Fox, 58, in an interview the night before attending the film's Philadelphia premiere at the Prince Theater earlier this month.
And after more than 30 years of making documentaries, Fox knew that it still needed to be a work of fiction, even if she wouldn't be framing the story the same way she had as a seventh grader.
"Because no one would ever talk. There's no evidence. And also what the film is really about is memory, and the construction of self. And that's all imagination. So I never, ever thought of making this a documentary. And simultaneously, when I was ready to make this film, in my 40s, when my mom and I had talked about it, it was a moment when I was really ready to expand my practice as an artist, and I was really ready to embrace fiction. Because I felt like I came to the end of the road on my growth as a documentarian," said Fox, whose credits include My Reincarnation, and the six-hour series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.
Written and directed by Fox, The Tale's shifting perspectives include recasting the young Jennifer at one point to reflect that she was much younger-looking than she remembered being. It's jarringly effective.
Fox's mother, Geraldine Dietz Fox, portrayed in the film by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, is happy to claim the role of instigator.
"Yes, I'll take full credit," she said with a laugh, of having pushed her daughter to acknowledge what she had long suspected, that there had been something unnatural in the relationship between her young daughter and the man (Jason Ritter) whom she met when he came to pick her up for an overnight visit with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), bearing flowers and candy for Jennifer's parents.
"She suspected from the time she met Bill, and I'd denied it," Fox said.
In The Tale, it's the mother's rediscovery of that seventh-grade story — with a teacher's note suggesting that if it were true, it would be terrible (but assuming that it wasn't, because the young writer showed no signs of trauma) — that sends Dern's character on a quest to find out the truth.
"I got very excited," said Fox's mother, when she found the story while cleaning out closets, and called her daughter in Amsterdam, where she was teaching at the time.
"But that wasn't the beginning of it. That was almost the end of it," she said. "The beginning was thinking that she had been abused. But I had to wait to until she realized that it was abuse. Because I kept talking all those years, we kept discussing [it]. 'No, mother, it's not.' 'Yes, I think it is.' That kind of conversation. And so when I found the paper, I sent it to her. And then it started her thinking more about it."
"Both of us decided I should make a film," Fox said. "That was about 2007. But I had already committed to finish another film, so I started to write it while I was working on the other film. But my mom was always going, 'Time is passing.'"
While her mother seems to have seen The Tale both as a means of getting back at the man who preyed on her daughter and warning parents about others like him, Fox's documentary instincts took her in an exploratory direction. In the film, there's a public confrontation between Dern's Jennifer and the older Bill (the late John Heard, in his final role), but that's not how it played in real life, Fox said.
"I never confronted him like that because, frankly, my goal was more to understand him, and to keep the dialogue open," said the filmmaker.
"Mrs. G., in real life, as soon as I connected with her, she met me many times. Some of those scenes are in the film [where Francis Conroy plays the older Mrs. G.]. But the real Bill would talk to me on the phone but … refused to meet me for like two years, and I got really angry, and so I wrote that scene. And then Mrs. G., the real Mrs. G. died, and then he agreed to meet me because we were reminiscing. I used [the excuse of her death] quite frankly to get him to meet me, but my goal in meeting him was never to confront him, because he would've just walked out," she said.
"Don't you think, in retrospect, that people wanted something to happen to him, wanted Laura to confront him?" asked her mother.
"Absolutely," Fox said.
"You had to have a happy ending in a sense. You can't just let him get away with that," her mother said.
A mother of five — Jennifer is No. 2 — Geraldine is portrayed in the film as possibly too distracted to fully notice what's going on in her daughter's life. In real life, "there was a lot going on in that house," said her daughter. And there were things that the 13-year-old Jennifer didn't know, like the fact that her mother had lost hearing in one ear in her 20s after a bout with mumps, but was too embarrassed to admit it.
"I didn't know my mom was hearing-impaired until I was 30. I thought she wasn't listening to us," Fox said. Letting people in on her secret "changed her a lot. … She became a deafness advocate. She created a foundation. She's very celebrated, she lobbied in Washington. So as an adult woman, my mom did give me this role model, that you could reinvent yourself in the latter half of your life."
"I saw what could happen if you came out, if you got away from your being private," her mother said. "I'm still private, but if you have an area that needs to come out for a reason, then it can change … your life."
And if The Tale affects the way people might think of her?
"It's all right," she said, softly, but firmly. "That's what I mean — it's all right."
Fox, too, thinks of herself as all right. One thing she hoped to do with The Tale, she said, was "to break the picture" of what a woman who's been abused looks like.
"The abused woman is crying in a corner. The raped woman is crying in a corner. It isn't reality. Most of us, you wouldn't know. We survive. It doesn't mean there isn't some damage, I'm not saying that. It's just that most of us function, to one degree or another," Fox said.
In her case, "my memory was not suppressed," she said. "I like to think of it as parallel narratives. The truth is, I did care for them, loved them. And I felt loved. And I felt special. That's as true as, I was abused. … It was the price of admission, for me. It was like, I gave that, to get this. And I think I was a very pragmatic child and adults always want you to make exchanges, and I was just playing the game. I mean, I remember all of it. I remember throwing up. I remember what he said to me. I also remember feeling like, somebody likes me for the first time."
The Tale, years in the making, debuted in January at the first Sundance Film Festival since the fall of Harvey Weinstein. The timing, Fox said, was "very" helpful.
"Because of what happened with Weinstein, and the whole change that we're suddenly aware" of sexual abuse, "it's as if … people were ready to have a deeper conversation," Fox said. "And when they saw The Tale, they said, 'This is tough, but we have to talk tough.' A year before, I think it would be, 'I think this is too tough.' "