TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tamara Jenkins, has written and directed a new comedy about a couple in their 40s trying to have a baby through any means necessary - fertility drugs, in vitro fertilization, egg donor, adoption. It's consuming all their time and their money and leading to arguments over what to try and how long to keep at it. Jenkins writes about fertility treatments from the perspective of having been through them with her husband when she was in her early 40s. They now have an 8-year-old daughter.
Jenkins also wrote and directed the comedies "Slums Of Beverly Hills" and "The Savages." Jenkins and her husband Jim Taylor co-wrote the screen adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel "Juliet, Naked," which is currently in theaters. Her new film, "Private Life," opens in theaters and starts streaming on Netflix this Friday.
Let's start with a scene. Kathryn Hahn plays Rachel, a writer, married to Richard, a theater director played by Paul Giamatti who makes a living with his gourmet pickle business. They live on a limited budget in the East Village in Manhattan. The fertility treatments have already taken a lot out of them when the fertility doctor tells Rachel that her best bet is finding an egg donor. That is not something she wants to do, and she lets Richard know it as they walk down the street after leaving the fertility clinic.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIVATE LIFE")
KATHRYN HAHN: (As Rachel) No way in hell I'm doing that.
PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Richard) We should at least just think about it. I'm not saying that we would do it. We can just explore the idea, see how we feel, make a list of all the pros and cons.
HAHN: (As Rachel) We talked about this. We swore we would never do it.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) No, you swore that you would never do it. I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to pressure you into something that you were going to have to live with for the rest of your life.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Wait; so all this time that I'm assuming that we feel the same way about this, you've been having secret fantasies about egg donation.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) It's not a secret fantasy.
HAHN: (As Rachel) It is to me. I didn't know about it. I thought that we had decided together as a couple that we would definitely draw the line at science fiction.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) It's not science fiction, Rach. It's pretty primitive, actually. They do it with farm animals all the time.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Well, I'm not a goat, OK?
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Bad example - I'm sorry.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Oh, my God, you're, like, so gung-ho right now. It's freaking me out.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) I am not gung-ho. I'm just pragmatic. Look; if we do another IVF with your eggs, we've got - what? - a 4 percent chance of getting pregnant. With a donor egg, we'd be going from 4 to, like, 65 percent. So, I mean, the gambler in me just wants to put my money on the better odds.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Oh, my God, you're Guy Woodhouse.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) What?
HAHN: (As Rachel) The husband in "Rosemary's Baby," John Cassavetes. That's you.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Yeah, Rach. That's me standing by while you're raped by a satanic demon. I am just suggesting that we listen to our doctor and look into all the options. We're already signed up for adoption. What is the big deal?
HAHN: (As Rachel) Well, for one, I'm not putting someone else's body parts into my uterus. Excuse me.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Excuse me. Sorry. I know it's more complicated for you.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Isn't it more complicated for you, too?
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Yes, of course it is, yes, yes. But you heard him. There's a lot of positives. You would get to carry the baby.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Whoop-de-do. What does that make me, the bellhop?
GROSS: Ouch (laughter).
TAMARA JENKINS: Ouch.
GROSS: Tamara Jenkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So that just is an example of both the comedy and drama combine (laughter) in your movie and the problems and friction that this long process can have on a couple. You know, the last time we spoke was in 2007 after the release of your movie "The Savages." And at the end of the interview - because we had talked about your father who was a very problematic figure in your life, I asked you if you wanted to become a parent having been through - having less than perfect parenting as a daughter. And you said at the end of our interview, I'm married, and we're actually pursuing a family, but we're definitely on the late side of that; I didn't get married until I was 40. So...
GROSS: You were the same age when I interviewed you last in 2007 as Kathryn Hahn plays in your new movie. And I'm assuming that when we did that interview in 2007, you were in the process of trying to conceive.
JENKINS: We were.
GROSS: Were you thinking, that's going to be my next movie?
JENKINS: No, I definitely wasn't thinking it was going to be my next movie. And I - when we were in the throes of it, there was no - although there's always that kind of perverse part, I think, of a writer or an artist that has the third eye in the middle of their forehead, and they're kind of watching life as it's unfolding. So maybe sometimes, even in the most unsightly times or places, they are kind of recording what's happening. So, you know - but that's not conscious, but it must be happening somehow.
GROSS: So at what point did you know that is going to be the subject of my movie, trying to conceive?
JENKINS: I had a good friend when I was going through the - when my husband and I were in the process of doing our own, you know, artificial reproductive technology/adoption by-any-means-necessary approach to trying to have a baby. I had a friend - a girlfriend. Her name is Rebecca, and she's a documentary filmmaker. And she was my confidant. And when I spoke to her about what was happening, she always said, you know, you should write this stuff down; this would be really great material for a movie. And I was horrified and just repulsed. I was like, that is never going to happen, Rebecca; I would never write about this stuff.
And obviously now I have a movie, and (laughter) I did write about it. And I don't know exactly when I thought it was legal - emotionally legal to pursue for myself. But I did notice - and actually Rebecca is one of the people among my friends - soon after my own struggle with trying to figure out how to get a baby, a lot of people I knew were starting to fall into that situation also.
So I felt like it was almost a mini epidemic among my friends and who were a very specific kind of subset of New York people who had unusual lives, sort of freelance lives. They were writers and artists and filmmakers and journalists, and they didn't have, you know, steady income in the same - nothing was regular. Maybe they didn't have health insurance. Maybe they held on like - not unlike the characters in the movie, they held onto their, you know, New York existence by their fingernails because they had a rent-stabilized apartment. They had tiny apartments. How are they going to start families? They were pursuing their career. And then suddenly they looked around and realized that they were, you know, 40 or over. And, oh, my God, we better, you know - you know, they were arriving late to the table.
GROSS: So spoiler - how many children - do you have children?
JENKINS: I do. I have an 8-year-old who's almost 9 (laughter).
GROSS: Is that Mia, to whom the film is dedicated?
JENKINS: It is (laughter).
GROSS: OK, and can I just ask...
JENKINS: Very good eyes.
GROSS: (Laughter) Before we talk...
JENKINS: I always think nobody is going to see that because it's, like, at the very, very end, like, right before, you know, thanking New York state for letting us shoot here. Like, no one's sticking around for that. So I always thought it was so buried no one would notice. But you...
GROSS: No, I have to stick around to the end of the credits so I can confirm it's Nellie McKay on the soundtrack (laughter).
JENKINS: Yes. She was at Lincoln Center last night. We - I mean, the movie premiered at the New York Film Festival last night, and so - which was a huge, like, fantasy of mine because I've been going to the New York Film Festival as a total, like, nerdy, young film person forever and never had a movie there. And last night was the first time, and it was super exciting. And actually Nellie was in the audience. But I didn't - on stage, I was thanking everyone, and then I said something about Nellie McKay. And I was like, she's here, isn't she? And someone yelled out, no. And it was her...
JENKINS: ...Saying that she wasn't there. But of course she was there. And, yeah, we got three songs from her, which was really great.
GROSS: Do you mind me asking if you adopted or if you did IVF?
JENKINS: We did do - we actually were pursuing - not unlike the characters in the movie although sort of differently, we were pursuing international adoption and IVF simultaneously. And yeah, we were doing those things at the same time. It was kind of like, whatever happens first wins. And IVF won, and we got pregnant and finally had Mia Taylor, who is my daughter.
GROSS: OK, we'll talk about that more (laughter) a little bit later. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Private Life." It opens in theaters and will be on Netflix starting this Friday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Private Life" starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple trying to conceive, each of them having problems with fertility. So they're trying alternate means - IVF, egg donor, kind of you name it (laughter) and adoption. So it's a comedy, but it gets to, like, really serious issues within that about marriage and about all the complications of trying to conceive. She also made "The Savages" and "Slums Of Beverly Hills."
So the movie starts with the Kathryn Hahn character on her bed in her bikini underwear, lying on her hip. It's a kind of sexy pose. But...
GROSS: ...What's really happening is that she's waiting for her husband to inject her with whatever the hormone is that she's getting at that moment. And it's a great shot to show how what should be a very sexual process - do you know what I mean? - like...
GROSS: ...Making love and then conceiving - when you're having to go through fertility treatments, it's, like - it's injections and pills and, you know, all this stuff that's, like, not only not sexy, but it also kind of is going to have an effect on your body 'cause you're ingesting all these hormones.
JENKINS: Yes, yeah.
GROSS: And so can you talk about that shot? Can you talk about, like, framing it as something that looks like it's going to be really sexual...
GROSS: ...And it's not?
JENKINS: And there's also sound. So before you kind of come into the scene, you're hearing Paul. And Paul has that amazing kind of whispery voice. And he's saying, scoot over. And you're hearing breath. And it sounds sort of like you're overhearing kind of a bedroom scene. And then you arrive, and then it's a shot of Kathryn's lower haunch. You don't see any heads or - it's not attached. It's kind of her lower body laid out on the bed. And then Paul arrives above her and pulls her underpants down a little bit to expose sort of her haunch. And you see a wedding ring, and he lowers it.
And then he says, are you ready? And she says, yeah. And he's like, OK. Here we go. And he starts counting, one, two, three. And you think they're going to, like, try some new erotic act 'cause there's all this preparation. And instead he lifts up a hypodermic needle - an intramuscular needle and, you know, spears it into her butt. And then you cut wide, and you see, wow, that is not a sex scene. That is a medical situation (laughter).
GROSS: And to compare it to, say, pregnancy, like, instead of the husband putting his hand or the partner putting their hand on, you know, the pregnant belly, feeling their baby inside, he's kind of like stabbing her with needles in her belly and her hip. And, again, it's just - it's not the moment that you dream of when you dream of having a baby and what that's going to be like. It can lead...
GROSS: ...To that moment, but that process is just so different.
JENKINS: Yeah. It's pretty alienating in the body department. I mean, and then of course it's even taken to a new level when instead of having your husband inseminate you, you're lying in a, you know, kind of a - with stirrups and having a, you know, endocrinologist between your legs with some strange catheter device saying, OK, let's get pregnant. And it's not your husband. It's the doctor (laughter). That's pretty strange, too.
GROSS: And you shoot those scenes in the stirrups (laughter) in the fertility clinic from the point of view Kathryn Hahn. So you're seeing...
GROSS: ...The doctor. You're seeing her legs on the stirrups through her point of view.
JENKINS: Yeah, through her knees.
GROSS: It's a point of view so many women have had so many times (laughter).
JENKINS: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And I have to say the doctors don't come off very well in your movie. Was that your experience?
JENKINS: (Laughter) No, I actually had great doctors. It's a very bizarre job. I love Denis O'Hare, who played Dr. Dordick. And he - it's a weird job because there's a salesmanship. I mean, first of all, you know, it's not an indictment about the fertility industry because the fertility industry makes amazing things occur. But it's not an easy fix.
GROSS: Well, that leads to another scene that I want to play. The Kathryn Hahn character is a writer, and she has a new book that's about to be published, a novel that's called "Women's Studies." And her agent calls her and says, have you seen the cover? And Kathryn Hahn says, no, no, no. And so she runs to her email to open the PDF of the cover.
And she looks at the cover, and she's horrified because the cover is of - you know, Kathryn Hahn's a feminist - the character - and in the novel - on the cover, there's a woman in this, like, white, flowing dress in a field of, like, purple and green. And it's so, quote, "feminine," like, old-fashioned feminine. And so she's mortified. And so here's the conversation she has with her husband afterwards, who's played by Paul Giamatti. I should mention that as they're talking, she's finishing brushing her teeth.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIVATE LIFE")
HAHN: (As Rachel) I just feel so betrayed.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) By what?
HAHN: (As Rachel) You know, the bull-[expletive] I was fed in college - feminist ideology, you know, the lie that I could have a career and then kids. Well, obviously that hasn't panned out - should send them the bills for our IUIs and IVFs.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) You can't blame second-wave feminism for our ambivalence about having a kid.
HAHN: (As Rachel) I'm not ambivalent.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Well, now you're not because you realize that the boat is leaving the dock. But before, you kept changing the deadline, remember? Oh, you know, we'll start as soon as I finish the play, right after I get this story published, once I finish the book.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Are you blaming me?
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) No, I'm not blaming you. I'm just saying that we need to take some responsibility for the situation.
HAHN: (As Rachel) A lot of women have babies at 41. I thought I could, too.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) OK, I just don't think it's Gloria Steinem's fault that we can't get pregnant.
HAHN: (As Rachel) Whose fault is it then? I guess it is mine 'cause I was too busy writing my stupid book.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) I didn't say that.
HAHN: (As Rachel) All the doctors ever talk about is my advanced maternal age, my old eggs. And we're in the middle of an IVF. And, oh, what a surprise, your sperm is, like, on a sabbatical.
GIAMATTI: (As Richard) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what the hell is that supposed to mean?
HAHN: (As Rachel) Nothing.
GROSS: So that was Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti in a scene from my guest Tamara Jenkins' new movie, which is called "Private Life."
So did you have this kind of conversation in your head (laughter) when you were trying to conceive in your early 40s and wondering if it was just too late, if you'd waited too long? Did you play both parts here in your own mind?
JENKINS: Yeah. You mean blaming myself, blaming the world.
GROSS: Yeah. Did you - were you, like, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Mahn (ph)...
JENKINS: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: ...And Kathryn Hahn in your head having that argument with yourself?
JENKINS: Yeah. I think I was. I think that it - that's fair - a kind of, you know, how did I end up here? I mean, her blaming second-wave feminism for her - I mean, it's such a demented thing to do, but then...
JENKINS: ...I sort of understand what she's saying. I remember my producer was trying to follow the logic of the writing, and she was like, well, she sort of leaps to the - and I said, you know, it's sputtering. This isn't, like, a rational - this is a kind of upset, sputtering person, and this is what's flying out of her mouth. It's not a well-thought-out argument, but I get it.
On an emotional level, I get why she feels betrayed by some notion of, like, you know, be independent, and you don't need - you know, pursue your career. And it's not like Gloria Steinem ever said that exactly. You know, she really can't be blamed. But I know what Kathryn's character is talking about - some sense of, like, license to pursue your - to pursue the other part of your life - not the wife part, not the mother part but the other part. And then suddenly she feels like the rug has been pulled out from under her, and this thing that she delayed is now possibly not available to her.
GROSS: I think for a lot of women, when you're trying to reach a certain point in your career, there never seems to be a great time to take time away from that, to, you know, get pregnant and raise a child and take some time, either a little or a lot, away from the work that you're pursuing, from the career you're trying to establish. Were you really afraid you'd waited too long and that, you know, work had gotten in the way of becoming a parent?
JENKINS: Yeah. I mean, it's also - it's work, and it's probably my own hesitation about taking that plunge and what it means. And sort of maybe as you were getting at in our last interview 10 years ago, my own weird family also played an impact, which isn't really - you know, that marriage and having babies didn't look so good from my childhood's point of view. So maybe I wasn't rushing to do it anyway.
But that combined with the, you know, pursuing a career and being a writer - I was a performance artist, and then I was an actor. I was a performance artist. I was making theater. I was - you know, then I decided to go to graduate school and film and then trying to make films. And it was all very consuming and not conducive to having a kid. I mean, I didn't have any money, for one, and I lived by the skin of my teeth and didn't have health insurance. And, you know, it was not - I wasn't doing anything that seemed particularly stable.
GROSS: My guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Private Life," which opens in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix this Friday. After a break, we'll talk more about trying to have a baby and then becoming a parent after having not been well-parented herself. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new memoir "Heartland" about being broke in America. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA GET MARRIED")
NELLIE MCKAY: (Singing) I want to get married. Yes, I need a spouse. I want a nice "Leave It To Beaver"ish Golden retriever and a little white house. I want to get married. I need to cook meals. I want to pack cute little lunches for my Brady bunches, then read Danielle Steele. I want to escape...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed "Slums Of Beverly Hills," "The Savages" and the new movie "Private Life," which opens in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix this Friday. "Private Life" stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a couple in their 40s trying to have a baby through any means necessary - fertility drugs, in vitro fertilization, egg donor, adoption. Trying to have a baby has become like a full-time job for each of them. It's emotionally draining, and it's draining their savings, too. And it's become a source of friction in the relationship.
I think it's fair to say that in your movie, you give pretty equal weight to how the husband and wife are experiencing trying to conceive or to adopt. And they each have their own, like, emotional crises that they have to go through. And I think it's interesting that you did that. You didn't just try to do the woman's point of view and have the man be, like, totally uncomprehending and cold and, you know, not going through his own issues.
JENKINS: Yeah. I love - I'd like - I'm glad you said that. And I love Paul's portrait of Richard, her husband. And I think when I set out to do it, I remember thinking to myself, oh, this is a mutual midlife crisis. This is happening to both of them. And in a way, sometimes I think of it like a buddy movie. And I did this with "The Savages," too. When you're writing something that's so character-driven, sometimes you need to create order in your brain because it's not a genre. And I remember thinking with this that it was like a buddy movie. And instead of getting in a car and driving across the country - I don't know, a bank heist or something - they're getting in a car and driving through, like, infertility land.
It was important to me that it was a mutual, I don't know, crisis, that it wasn't just her problem or - I mean, they're both falling apart. They're - you know, they're hitting up against the limitations of being a human being simultaneously. It's not just her.
GROSS: One of the differences, though, is that it's the woman, it's the Kathryn Hahn character who's getting these hormonal injections that are affecting her mood. They're affecting her whole, like, body balance. So I think that that's...
JENKINS: Yeah, he's...
GROSS: Her therapist calls her emotionally incompetent (laughter).
JENKINS: No, no, no, incontinent.
GROSS: Oh, incontinent. That's right (laughter).
JENKINS: Yes, because she says, oh, my God, my shrink had a really weird name for it. What was it again?
GROSS: I think...
JENKINS: And he says...
GROSS: ...I heard it as incompetent.
JENKINS: No, it's emotionally incontinent. And that's why the Sadie character goes, ew, gross.
GROSS: Oh, that's great.
GROSS: Oh, that's...
GROSS: ...Really so funny. Yeah. So did you go through that of feeling like you didn't understand your own emotions, that they were kind of a little out-of-control for you?
JENKINS: Yeah. I mean, you are taking hormones. I mean, I think that just - even if you weren't taking hormones or if the hormones themselves didn't make you feel like that, the process of going through the - you know, going through IVF is so bizarre that psychologically it's upsetting. And then on top of it, you're injecting yourself with hormones that make you feel crazy and weird. And it's just such a non-natural - there's nothing - as Paul later says, there's been nothing natural about this so far. Why should we start now?
JENKINS: I mean, it's so not natural that it undoes you. And - but, you know, there's a lot of indignities on the male - from the male point of view, too, I mean, 'cause you're saying, oh, but she has all the injections. He sits in a collection room where he's, you know, expected to produce a sample. And that's pretty demoralizing. And then he has sperm blockage and has to go through some procedure. It's offscreen, but that has to do with some kind of biopsy in his testicle. I mean, they're getting it from both ends.
GROSS: You know, when he has to do the sperm donation, he's watching really awful (laughter) - it's like really cheap, awful porn.
JENKINS: Yeah, it's so cheap.
GROSS: And it looks like that was supplied by the fertility clinic. Is that right?
JENKINS: Yeah. Well, that's what they do. That's always such a bizarre - like, if you go - you know, you open a drawer at a doctor's office and it's stuffed with porn magazines, that just seems - like, somebody actually had to go out and go shopping for those and bring them to the office. Like, that's a - you know, that's medicine. I don't know. It's, you know, a medical office. And somebody has to go pick up - go down the street and pick out some porn magazines and some videos.
GROSS: Well, Paul Giamatti's just, like, rolling his eyes instead getting aroused (laughter). He's rolling his eyes...
JENKINS: Yeah, he's...
GROSS: ...At the porn. I was hoping I'd find something better. Do you know what I mean? (Laughter) Like something...
JENKINS: Yeah. Yeah. It's not very good quality, right?
GROSS: It's not very good quality, yeah (laughter). OK. So during the process of when trying alternate paths of either conceiving through various fertility treatments or of adoption, did you have to, like, ask yourself, what would it mean for a child to really feel like your child?
JENKINS: Yeah. But then I think something kind of takes - I mean, there is this presumption as a heterosexual couple that you have all the equipment to do this old-fashioned thing, which is to, you know, give birth to a child that represents half of you and half of your partner. And when it is taken away for some reason, I think it's traumatizing at first. And then I think kind of like the characters in the movie, you tiptoe towards different ideas of what it's really about. Is it about giving birth to a baby, or is it about becoming a parent? What is the end goal? And it just starts changing and shifting.
I always find it really interesting when people - like in the movie, there's, like, a lot of - I don't know if the right word is comedy of manners or, like, when people are just saying, oh, my God, I don't know why - why don't they just adopt? And just is always italicized. Like, oh, my God, why would they be going through this? Why don't they just adopt? As if adopting is just the easiest thing on the planet, like, oh, you just go out to, you know, Target and pick up a kid or something.
It's very difficult to adopt. I mean, it's complicated. Egg donation is complicated. IVF is complicated. Every way you have to get a baby that isn't lying in bed and having sex is complicated. And people are so judgmental from the outside. Like, well, why don't they just adopt? There's all these children out in the world that need adoption. And nobody says that to people that go and have sex. Nobody climbs into their bed and say, oh, no, why are you having sex right now to have a baby 'cause there's all these unwanted children out there? You should go - you know, it's so presumptuous. It's so interesting.
And it's such a hot-button thing for people. I remember when my husband and I were in the throes of our fertility stuff realizing that the people that I should be talking to the most for comfort and perspective were all my gay friends because any of my gay friends that were trying to have babies had to pursue complicated arrangements to get their kids. They didn't have the opportunity to just lie in bed and have sex and have a baby. So that was so normalized in gay people that want to have babies that I really was like, this is where I should hang out. I shouldn't hang out with all the heteros...
JENKINS: ...That have had such a great way where they can get drunk and lie in bed and have sex and have a baby. I'm just hanging out with all my gay friends because they know what this feels like 'cause they have to figure out an unusual path to getting a child, not the, you know, old-fashioned way. Let's put it that way. So I really found, like, that was a safe place to be. Like, and it gave me a lot of perspective.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Private Life," which stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple in their 40s trying to conceive through various methods or adopt to have a baby. And it's about all the complications - medical, hormonal and emotional - that happen as a result. It opens in theaters and will be on Netflix starting this Friday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "ONE MAN'S CEILING IS ANOTHER MAN'S FLOOR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Private Life," which is a comedy - that also has a lot of drama to it - about a couple played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, who are in their 40s and trying to conceive through various fertility methods, and the old-fashioned method, and also trying to adopt. And it's creating a lot of emotional turmoil and conflict. Oh, I should mention that Tamara Jenkins also wrote and directed "The Savages" and "Slums Of Beverly Hills."
So we've spoken after each of your feature-length films. And in 2007, when we spoke after "The Savages," and you were 40 and talked about how you were trying, at that point, to have children with your husband, you said, so you know, I guess I'll be an older parent - because you were already 40. Your father was 20 years older than your mother, so he was an older parent. And he raised you part of the time as a single parent, not a very good one, maybe, but (laughter) - what was the experience for you like, having a parent who was older than most of the other parents?
JENKINS: I mean, he was also - he was like from another...
GROSS: He was a unique character, yeah.
JENKINS: ...Yeah. He was from another time. It was like having a Damon Runyon character as your dad. I mean, he was - he was old-fashioned anyway. But it was really different. I remember people saying, oh - I remember being with my dad at a grocery store in Los Angeles, and I think somebody said something about, oh, you know, well - oh, honey, you know, just give that to your grandfather. And I started to correct the person. I think it was, you know, a cashier. And I said, oh, that's not my grandfa - and I feel like my dad sort of shut me up. Like, he didn't want to get into it.
And then it was sort of - I mean, now there's so many older parents in a way. And maybe the idea of having a mom that was 20 years younger than your dad - I don't know. But yeah, he also felt like he was out of time. He was sort of - you know, he was a bubble. And we lived in Los Angeles, and everybody seemed sort of modern and in the 70s. And he just seemed - like I said, like, smoking his Pall Malls in his suit - and had a compulsive gambling - he was really like a character.
GROSS: So you made three feature films. Two of them are about being a daughter. Your new one is about becoming a parent. Your first one, "Slums Of Beverly Hills," is when you lived with your father, and he moved you and your brother to Beverly Hills. And he was broke, basically, but he wanted you to go to good schools. So he'd find, like, the cheapest places he could possibly find in Beverly Hills for you to stay, so you'd have a good zip code and could go to a good school there. And it was just, like, a weird - a weird existence.
Your second film, "The Savages," is based on what happened when your father had dementia, and you had to move him to a nursing home. And he was not - as usual, he was not appreciative of what you were doing, in part because of the dementia, and in part because he's just not - you didn't depict him as the appreciative type.
JENKINS: Right, and there was an estrangement.
GROSS: Between you - between the character and her father, and also between the character and her brother.
GROSS: So it's this unusual coming together. And of course, your new movie is about, you know, a woman in her 40s trying to have a child through whatever means necessary. And so no matter which way you kind of turn the camera, what you've been looking at in your movies is family. And, you know, the complications...
GROSS: ...Of having one and wanting to have one. And I'm wondering if you think having such a complicated childhood yourself - because of living several years with your father and not being well parented during that time - has made you so focused, you know, on the idea of family.
JENKINS: Yeah, I mean it must be. I mean, it's hard to know exactly what goes into it, but I guess I am. I mean, our family was super fractured, and there were multiple siblings - you know, there was actually four children. And we, you know, didn't live with our mother. We lived with our father. Then we lived with our mother a little bit. Then we moved to Cambridge, and my big brother became my legal guardian. He adopted us. I mean, we were pretty - we did a lot (laughter). Interesting arrangements.
GROSS: Why did your brother adopt you?
JENKINS: When I was a teenager, at that point I had - I was living with my dad for ten years. Then my dad - we moved away from living with my dad. Plus he was old, P.S. But anyway, and I had a little brother. And we moved to live with my mother, and that was very unstable and kind of crazy. And then my oldest brother, who's 10 years older than me, had been living abroad, and he returned. He was living in - he was living in Bali, actually. And he returned to go to graduate school at Harvard. And he came to see me, and I was living with my mother. And he was concerned about me. I was a teenager. I was pretty depressed, and I was working at a dry cleaner's in Philadelphia and going to Lower Merion High School for a second. And then he was worried about me, and he said that he was moving to Cambridge to go to school and did I want to move with him? He sort of saved my life.
GROSS: How did he save it?
JENKINS: Because he paid attention - well, then I did move in with him. And then my little brother - we all lived in Harvard housing - in student housing at Harvard. And he sort of became our parent. He paid attention to us. Like, we had very narcissistic parents. We were just - no one was paying attention. And suddenly - and it was very chaotic and crazy. And then suddenly, we were living with, like, little monks. We were so happy.
My brother was, you know, getting his Ph.D., and me and my little brother lived in this Harvard housing. And we lived on food stamps and student loans that my brother took out. And, you know, we - our lives improved, and we became much better students at school. Which was ironic because of course everybody from the outside thought, oh, they don't have any parents. It must be wild over there. But we were the opposite. We were really like monks. We were so happy not to be in a chaotic place that we weren't, like, the wild family. We were like - we were trying to find sanity.
GROSS: What's an example of a chaotic moment in your childhood?
JENKINS: Well, you know, the stuff in California would be my father's relationship to every landlord that we had in LA because there was always some drama with the rent. And having hostile relationships with our landlords because my dad - although we didn't know why, you know, the landlords weren't nice to the kids. But, I mean, now, I'm like, oh, they didn't like us because Dad was probably late with the rent. So there was that. There was a kind of general dysfunction in any building we ever lived in.
And then when we lived with my mother, she - I guess she was on her second marriage - and her second husband was an alcoholic. And it was very chaotic. And there was never food in the refrigerator, but there were things like cocktail - like olives and things that you would put in a - and Maraschino cherries and maybe some parmesan cheese, but there was never food food. It was very cocktail-oriented. And then - yeah, those are a couple of examples.
GROSS: So when you were living with your brother - was it Harvard and - on the Harvard campus?
JENKINS: Yeah. Yeah, it was Harvard housing. It was not on the campus, but...
GROSS: Close to it.
JENKINS: Yeah, it was in between Harvard Square and Porter Square off Mass Ave.
GROSS: So was it helpful to you to be in an atmosphere where there were a lot of college students?
JENKINS: Yeah, it was really - it was so different from our weird, like, LA 1970s world, like, living in the outskirts of Beverly Hills, which is just specific and strange, and then go to, you know, wherever in Philadelphia which was - my mom lived in the suburbs of the Main line. And, yeah, it was just - well, Cambridge itself just felt so - I mean, it was New England. It just had a very different feeling. And, you know, there was just so much focus in our house because my brother was doing so much. And he was getting his - you know, he's taking care of two kids and getting his Ph.D. when he was, like, 25. It was crazy. I mean, it was an amazing sacrifice and just an amazing act of love, and, I mean - I guess now that I'm talking about it with you because you're so good at this, you're pulling this stuff out, Dr. Gross...
JENKINS: ...Is that even in the wreckage there's this kind of makeshift family that gets put together by any means necessary. And in a way, all of these movies are sort of like that.
GROSS: Well, Tamara Jenkins, it's great to have you back on our show. Thank you so much.
JENKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Tamara Jenkins wrote and directed the new movie "Private Life." It opens in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix this Friday. She also co-wrote the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel "Juliet, Naked," which is currently in theaters. After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new memoir "Heartland" about growing up just below the poverty line in a family that had been family farmers in rural Kansas. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The white working class is very much in the news these days. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a new memoir called "Heartland" written by Sarah Smarsh that Maureen says goes far beyond the usual cliches about the working class. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of small family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies. Smarsh's own mother was just 17 when she had her. During the 1980s, when Smarsh was growing up, family farms were going under in record numbers, falling victim to foreclosure and the rise of giant agribusiness. By then, Smarsh's dad was taking any job he could get - roofing, driving semis and disposing of poisonous industrial solvents, a job that almost killed him. As a family, they were just hanging on, living below the poverty line. But like many others in their situation, they considered themselves middle class.
Looking back in wonderment, Smarsh says (reading) that we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a dollar rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country's lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn't exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that, but it was not the whole truth.
Smarsh's new memoir is called "Heartland," and it tries to tell more of that whole truth. As you can hear in Smarsh's voice, her book is smart, nuanced and atmospheric. Though Smarsh is now a journalist with a graduate degree, she hasn't written the predictable up-by-my-own-bootstraps saga of individual perseverance and class ascent - quite the contrary. Smarsh spent 15 years researching her memoir, and her lens is unusually wide and deep. So for instance, when she describes that incident of her dad's on-the-job chemical poisoning, she also connects it to a larger story about how the rise of the nation's for-profit hospital system in the 1980s made regular medical care too costly for uninsured families like hers.
Thinking about her dad, as well as her relatives with missing teeth, swelling feet, mental illness and addictions, Smarsh says (reading) it's a hell of a thing to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board while your own body can't go to the doctor.
With the same lyrical boldness, Smarsh talks about politics and race. She has no hesitation acknowledging white privilege, but she also notes the puzzlement shot through with disdain that she encountered once she got to college and began describing her farm childhood in Kansas. Smarsh says folks of all backgrounds would say to her that they hadn't heard anything like her story since "The Grapes Of Wrath." It's hard not to internalize that kind of contempt. It was no surprise then that when Smarsh was admitted to the University of Kansas on a federally funded program for minority, first-generation and low-income students, the small handful of white kids already in the program had given themselves the nickname white trash scholars.
"Heartland" deepens our understanding of the crushing ways in which class shapes possibility in this country. It's an unsentimental tribute to the working-class people Smarsh knows, the farmers, office clerks, trash collectors, waitresses whose labor is often invisible or disdained. It's also a tribute to the Kansas that Smarsh still feels connected to, a place of beer parties out amidst fragrant rolls of wet hay and tractors pulling sleds full of kids through the flat, snowy fields.
Trying to capture the good, the bad and the ugly of her white working-class childhood in this memoir, Smarsh reflects that (reading) we can't really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are. In "Heartland," Smarsh powerfully talks back to a world that mostly told her and her family they were disposable.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Heartland" by Sarah Smarsh. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the crisis at Facebook. Serious data breaches and the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016 have put the company and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, under scrutiny as the midterm elections approach. We'll talk with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about the data breach and about how Facebook became vulnerable to spreading disinformation. I hope you'll join us.
We'll close today's show with music by trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, who was a pioneer in blending jazz and Latin music. He played in a band led by Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Eddie Palmieri and in one of the leading New York salsa bands Conjunto Libre. He brought both music worlds together as the leader of The Fort Apache Band. Jerry Gonzalez died on Monday in Madrid from smoke inhalation caused by a fire in his house. He was 69.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GONZALEZ AND THE FORT APACHE BAND'S "BYE-YA")
GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GONZALEZ AND THE FORT APACHE BAND'S "BYE-YA")
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