Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 26, 1998
Head: DIRECTOR TAMARA JENKINS
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the new movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills," Vivian Abramowitz, her father, and two brothers, have come to Los Angeles in search of the good life. But they don't have enough money for the good life. The father wants to at least live in a good zip code so the kids can go to good schools. So they live in Beverly Hills' cheap apartments, with fancy names like "Casa Bella" and "The Beverly Capri."
As the film opens, the father, played by Alan Arkin, can't even pay the month's rent on their dumpy apartment. So he rounds up the kids, gets them in the car, and they take off. They narrowly escape their landlord and prepare to move to a new dump.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS")
NATASHA LEONE, ACTRESS: I'm sick of moving. Why can't we ever stay put? It's not normal to move every three months.
ALAN ARKIN, ACTOR: It's normal in some cultures. Nomads -- they move.
LEONE: Stupid, Ben, we're not nomads. We are American. So where's our new apartment this time?
ARKIN: We're staying in Beverly Hills. It's just too early to show up is all. We want to make a good impression. We want to show up at leisurely hour. We don't want to look like we just got kicked out of someplace else like bums.
LEONE: We didn't get kicked out of someplace else like bums. We made a getaway like crooks.
ARKIN: What did you say?
ARKIN: We made a choice. We moved, like people. That place was a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) at those prices -- highway robbery.
ARKIN: OK. Who's hungry?
ARKIN: What do you say we get some steak? Let's get some steak for breakfast.
LEONE: Isn't it a little early for steak?
ARKIN: No, it'll be fun. We'll eat. We'll get our strength up, then we'll move into our new place. What do you say?
ARKIN: OK. Let's go to Sizzler.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: We heard Natasha Leone as Vivian Abramowitz. The character comes out of the life of Tamara Jenkins, who wrote and directed "The Slums of Beverly Hills," which is set in the mid-70s. She made the film with the help of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting and Filmmakers Lab and Robert Redford, who became "The Slums of Beverly Hills" executive producer.
Tamara Jenkins told me her family had to move a lot because of money trouble.
TAMARA JENKINS, WRITER-DIRECTOR, "THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS": We were economically disabled, I guess is a good word.
GROSS: How'd you get that way?
JENKINS: He -- my dad had a -- he was a car salesman and I -- well, he was selling American cars -- huge American Fords in 1976. So they weren't really selling so well at the time. There was a big gas problem and no one was interested in buying those big American cars. That was one sort of issue. And he was an elderly man, bringing up this family of kids. And he, in real life -- which really isn't explored in the movie, except in a sort of like quick way -- he had a gambling problem. We spent a lot of time at the track and Hollywood Park and Del Mar and Las Vegas.
GROSS: What did you think of Las Vegas as a kid?
JENKINS: Well, there's this place in Las Vegas which -- I don't even know if it exists anymore -- but when we were growing up there was a, you know, casino-hotel complex called "Circus Circus." They had trapeze artists and stuff suspended above your head and falling into nets. And that was happening above the casino floor.
And what they did to sort of entertain the children of compulsive gamblers was they had an arcade of, you know, games. You know, it was sort of like learning how to become a compulsive gambler, where you would like line up and play, you know, various arcade games, you know, "pinbally" kind of things or the sort of things that you'd see at a, you know, on a boardwalk fairway.
And so, you know, and you play for a sort of chips. So I guess it's kind of training for, you know, compulsive gambling.
GROSS: Did you like being there?
JENKINS: No. It was a very -- I don't know. It was always sort of surreal place to be. I mean, it was -- I don't think I had the sort of awareness that it wasn't the right place for kids to be hanging out, sort of around, you know, casinos. It was something that was pretty familiar to me. So I don't -- I mean, I certainly haven't gone back to visit as a grownup.
GROSS: In the movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills" the father wants the kids to have a Beverly Hills zip code so they can go to good public schools. So he just keeps bringing them to the cheapest places he can find within that zip code. So did you end up going to Beverly Hills schools?
JENKINS: I did.
GROSS: Were you the only ...
JENKINS: I confess.
GROSS: ... were you like one of the few people of your economic class in the schools you went to?
JENKINS: There was a sort of a subculture of people that lived there that were poor, and particularly then -- I mean, not maybe as poor or different kinds of poor -- but there was a kind of -- there was a lot of divorce -- the divorce decade. There was tons of divorced people around that period of time. There was this street across the street -- we lived at one point on the street called Arnaz Drive in Beverly Hills, and the nickname of it was "Divorce Drive" 'cause all the kids on the street, you know, the parents -- they -- broken homes, or whatever.
And as a grownup, I thought it was kind of like if there was a Dickens in Beverly Hills, it would be on Arnaz Drive, because there were just all these kind of dirty kids running around unsupervised and hanging out on the street. And there seemed to be this whole group of people like that. I mean, we weren't the only ones, but there were, you know, there seemed to be this whole sort of divorce fallout and a lot of them, you know, there was like a little culture of poor people, or sort of struggling people -- people that you wouldn't expect to be in Beverly Hills that were living there.
GROSS: Anyone seeing your movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills" will want to hear what your experience was shopping for your first bra.
In the movie, at the age of 15, the main character is taken by her father to shop for her first bra, and he just keeps saying all kinds of incredibly embarrassing things during this already-embarrassing experience. And by the time her father takes her for the first bra, she is a size C -- she's a C-cup. So this has been something that should have been done quite a while ago.
So what was your first experience?
JENKINS: Well, I'm sort of verging on a C-cup. I think I should tell you that Terry 'cause we're not in the same room. But I -- I think that, in the case with my father, I had had a phys-ed teacher tell me that it was time to, you know, to get these -- to get harnessed. And I -- she gave me some sort of note. And I had been sort of hiding them, you know. I do recall kind of you know submitting this note to my father after school, and him, you know, like grabbing me and throwing me into the car as if he was dragging me off to the emergency room, you know.
GROSS: And what was the experience like when you got to the -- did he take you to a department store or to ...
JENKINS: He took me to a department store -- to a lingerie section of a department store. Actually, when -- and you know, looked for a saleslady to sort of do the dirty work. I mean, he wasn't, you know, riffling through piles of bras or anything. That was in the days that you could smoke in department stores. And I remember him kind of like drifting off through those, you know, those little circle displays of bras and stuff, and kind of drifting off to this -- by the elevators where there were those ashtrays that connected to the walls, and smoking and waiting for me to become finished.
But he did sort of have to introduce me and I think that he felt like it was awkward eventually, and drifted off to the ashtray where it was safe.
GROSS: Natasha Leone plays the part of the 15-year-old girl who's at the center of "The Slums of Beverly Hills." And this character is loosely based on you when you were that age. So what was it like to work with an actress who's more or less playing you? And you're directing her. You've written the part for her.
JENKINS: Well, I -- I mean she is a sort alter-ego character, but she's a much more idealized version than -- of, you know, myself than I am. I mean, she's much more aware and conscious and truly a fictional creature. And you know, I was really, when I met -- I auditioned a lot of girls for the role and really fell for her when I met her. And I guess the thing that was the most attractive to me about her was that she was an unfinished person, you know, in the best way; whereas, a lot of the actresses I was interviewing were very polished and complete people and, you know, really poised and certainly more ladylike and together than I'd ever been.
Natasha had this kind of -- just unfinished gawkiness about her that I really responded to. And I mean, there were a lot of things in terms of having her -- I mean, I guess the most sort of, you know, there was a lot of work that we did in terms of getting her prepared for the role.
I guess the most kind of, you know, silly but true and important part was the fact that Natasha Leone has quite small breasts, you know, just naturally. So we had to enhance this. I mean, not because I was, you know, a pervert and wanted an actress with big breasts, but because the role called for a girl with size C breasts.
So we had to give her these prosthetic breast things that are sort of gelatinous and pretty real looking. And I guess that was like a big moment between us, which was her coming to rehearsal, me handing over these breasts to her, her putting them in her bra, and sort of when she first put them on, she was incredibly excited about them 'cause she just kind of got them handed to her. And she said: "These are great. I love these breasts." And she was kind of cavorting around the rehearsal studio.
And then I said: well, you know the character Vivian is -- kind of has a, you know, antagonistic relationship with her breasts. So go out into the world, deal with life with your breasts, and come back and let's talk about your experience.
So she sort of left, you know, breasts flung forward into the universe. And then she came back all concaved and uncomfortable and awkward and sort of hiding her body. And that was a very pivotal exercise. It was actually perfect in a way that her breasts were, you know, 'cause she -- it was something that she just had to quickly learn how to contend with, sort of the way adolescence assaults you -- if, in fact, you get a set of breasts or the kind of public nature of female development.
GROSS: What was it that she found discouraging about suddenly having too large breasts?
JENKINS: She -- boobs?
JENKINS: She -- she felt that the world became a predatory place.
So she went to grocery stores. I don't know what she did. She sort of spent the day and said people were kind of, you know, sexualizing her or commenting upon her or, you know, catcalling her in a way that she had never experienced before.
GROSS: My guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Slums of Beverly Hills." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
My guest is Tamara Jenkins. She wrote and directed the new film "Slums of Beverly Hills."
Before you were born, your father ran a strip club?
GROSS: How much did he tell you about that?
JENKINS: He told me very little about it. In fact, I only figured it out because I was doing some investigative reporting on my own life. There was a kind of -- I was like this sort of -- I became kind of the weird family archivist. And we, you know, the family was -- is very sort of splattered in various -- in lots of different places. But I had returned to my mother's house in Philadelphia and -- after many years -- and started digging through this pile of, like a shoe box -- a classic shoe box of family photographs, and discovered these photographs of a stripper named Blaze Starr.
GROSS: A famous stripper.
JENKINS: Yeah -- "Miss Spontaneous Combustion" herself. That's what she was called. And she used to strip -- and it's a place in Philadelphia -- this placed called "The Black Cat," where she used to strip at my father's nightclub. And it was on Lattimer Street. I think it was on 15th and Lattimer. Does that make sense?
JENKINS: It does? OK. It's this tiny club that -- on 15th and Lattimer -- that he would reinvent over and over and over again into different incarnations because, you know, something would -- you know, he had this gambling problem, so he would either blow the sort of income, you know, via his gambling problems or he'd blow the income via, you know, like, problems with taxes or whatever.
So every time one of these businesses -- which was always a sort of restaurant business -- failed, he would reinvent it. So at one point, it was a supper club called "The Glass Door" in like 1948 or something. I only know that because it said "1948" on one of the photographs. And then it was, you know, "The Black Cat." I'm probably doing it out of order. And then, you know, he -- he had a sort of Polynesian fantasy kind of Tiki, you know, place called "The Bali Hai." And then it was, you know -- so anyway, it went through all these various -- "The Mayfair House" -- which I think was sort of like a classy steakhouse.
So he had all of these clubs that he, you know, he'd reinvent over and over again. So anyway, while, you know, digging through this pile of photographs, I came upon, you know, Miss Spontaneous Combustion herself. You've got to notice it. And there was a picture of my mother next to this stripper, and then I started doing research into what their life was like, 'cause no one really told me.
I do have an older brother who was, you know, much more aware of what was going on, because he was alive and a grownup. And -- but -- so I started doing all this research and then found a biography that Blaze Starr had written, you know, via -- with someone else that had mentioned my father's nightclub. And Rizzo, who, you know, then became the mayor of Philadelphia was -- used to raid his club 'cause he was Police Captain Frank Rizzo and he would raid my father's nightclub periodically. And my father would go in the paddywagon with Blaze Starr.
I know this is totally off the, you know, off the subject of the movie, but it was pretty amazing, especially with all that Philadelphia history. It's pretty hilarious.
GROSS: When you came upon this, did you think like: Isn't that great? My father was such a colorful character.
Or did you think -- did you think: This is really embarrassing. My father ran a strip club.
JENKINS: I think I was kind of blown away by a lot of it. I mean, I was really blown away to find a pink biography by some -- you know, like stripper, that actually had quotes from my father -- these silly quotes, like, you know, regarding Rizzo, saying: "that son of a bitch is going to, you know, close down every stripping club in Philadelphia. Don't -- don't worry, Blaze, I'll get us out." You know, these kind of insane, you know, in the back of paddywagons.
I guess I was kind of blown away about this history of his -- this kind of -- I wasn't ashamed. I was amazed that he had had so many different kinds of lives. And you know, that he had ended up at -- you know, that the end of his life, he sort of -- or not at the end, but at the sort of "autumnish" years of his life, he was bringing up his kids on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. He was just, you know, a kind of an amazing character.
GROSS: How did your father end up bringing the kids up after the divorce?
JENKINS: He -- he used to disappear a lot, and -- when we were young. I mean, I must have been five or six when he totally disappeared. He used to kind of just disappear and then eventually he'd kind of come back. But I was kind of pre-conscious. I was really young. But then I remember one sort of extended period of time where he was just not around anymore, like a couple of months had gone by. I really think it took a couple of months for me to say: mom, what happened to, you know, Dad?
And then she said: oh, he moved away. He went to Beverly Hills.
Which even to my five-year-old mind suggested, like, this amazing -- like Oz. I didn't know what it was. I'd never been there. But via, you know, through TV or whatever, or you know, some way I knew that Beverly Hills meant something spectacular and fancy. And I kept thinking it was like Oz.
And then not long after he had gone out there, he sort of started sending for us, like one at a time. We staggered. One brother would go and then I'd stay with my mother. And then another brother would go. And we just sort of ended up out there with him.
GROSS: Did you want to go?
JENKINS: I think I was pretty, you know, I mean, I was -- I wasn't -- I was kind of unconscious in a way. I was just -- go -- in the way that the kids get into a car and they don't know what's going on, and all of a sudden they're being sort of dragged off to another apartment without much explanation. I just -- I really experienced it -- life -- in that kind of kid way where, you know, there was a captain of the ship and they were driving and you kind of just had to go along with what, you know, whatever -- I mean, I guess that's sort of the essence of childhood in some ways, at least for me.
It just felt like there were these authorities running the ship and they weren't conferring with me. I was just being taken places.
GROSS: What was your father's final years like?
JENKINS: He died while I was making the movie, actually. So we had been estranged for a really long time. And I went -- it was only when I went out to Los Angeles, because I was flown to Los Angeles to do some work in preparation for the film. You know, we would like -- I was meeting casting directors and meeting line producers. And I hadn't talked to my father in many years. And he had been living in this kind of -- he had been living with a woman who had essentially been supporting him, and she became ill.
And he became ill and everybody at this -- this sort of -- this infrastructure was falling apart. And I went out there. And then he had just gone to the -- into the hospital and I hadn't seen him in like, I don't know, over 10 years. And he was in pretty bad shape, actually. And we -- me and my big brother ended up taking care of him and flying him from the West Coast to the East Coast to be closer to us. And we had to put him in a nursing home and -- but spent time with him pretty much up until the end, except I was making a movie when he died, so I wasn't right there.
GROSS: My guest is Tamara Jenkins, and she wrote and directed the new film "The Slums of Beverly Hills."
Now Robert Redford is the executive producer of your movie. How did he get to be that involved with it?
JENKINS: He -- I met Robert Redford at the -- I was invited to the Sundance Institute, which has two components. It has a writers lab and a directors lab. And I had met him, you know, at the writers lab. It was a winter writing workshop, and it was a couple years ago. And he approached me. It's actually kind of a funny sort of "meeting a movie star" story, because I was having a really bad -- just having a really low self-esteem moment where he was crossing the room, and it was very funny.
He -- we -- you know, all these young writers -- you don't have to be young -- emerging -- not everybody's necessarily young, but emerging scriptwriters are invited -- selected, you know, for this thing, which is pretty great. I used to call it the "fresh air fund for filmmakers," 'cause they'd fly you out of, you know, the East Village or wherever you were living, and you'd go to this beautiful place in Utah and you'd get to, you know, work on your screenplay. It's pretty impressive. And they feed you and house you, and you're in this gloriously beautiful place.
So Robert Redford's sitting in front -- in that -- kind of the way you'd image from like a Sundance, you know, catalog. He's sitting in front of a roaring fire, crackling fireplace. And he's in a ski suit and has just, you know, there's like powder on his shoulders sort of like, you know, dandruff, but in this case snow. And has just kind of taken off his skis. And he's introducing himself and saying: "I'm Robert" -- as if he needs to. "Hi, I'm Robert Redford, and thank you for attending the, you know, the writers workshop."
And he goes around the room and everyone's sitting there, and they introduce themselves. "My name is Tamara Jenkins. I'm here with a project called 'Slums of Beverly Hills.'" "I'm Chris Eyre. I'm here with this project called 'Smoke Signals.'"
So we're all going around, and their mentors are introducing themselves. "I'm Steve Zaley (ph)" -- and blah, blah, blah. "I'm a writer and I'm here as a mentor."
So you know, there was that introduction and it was very polite. And then afterward, everyone got up and then started sipping, you know, wine out of styrofoam cups and started -- we were supposed to be milling around. And Robert Redford ...
... I was standing in this little cluster of people and he started approaching, kind of like heading towards this direction where there was this cluster of people where I was. And I -- I said: "Oh, my God, Robert Redford's coming this way. He must want to talk to somebody here, so I guess I should leave."
I mean, I should walk away because he's trying to talk to somebody important and I don't want to be -- I don't want to be rude and overhear. So I'll just walk away like I was, you know, the waitress.
And I sort of turned away to walk, and he put his hand on my shoulder and I swung around and I went "buh," and he said: "What does such -- why does a New York girl know so much about Beverly Hills for?" You know, some question like that. And I said -- and then my self-esteem moment turned into just obnoxious moment, and I said: "Get out of here. You didn't read that. You couldn't possibly have read all of these screenplays that come through here."
And he -- and then he said: "Yes I did. I read your screenplay."
And I quizzed him on it. And I said: "OK, so ..." -- and -- and he passed the quiz and he told me that he had grown up on the, you know, I gave him like a reading comprehension test on the script. He passed, and then he told me that he had grown up in Southern California as a pretty, you know, as an underclassman, as a poor person, and used to drive through Beverly Hills and wreak havoc. And he really responded to the material, and that was kind of our first meeting.
And then he sicked his producer on me, this man named Michael Nozick (ph), who's a really nice guy who runs his low budget production kind of company called "South Fork." And Michael kind of courted me, you know, producer-wise. And then, you know, stayed in touch with me while I was working on the script and eventually I signed on with him.
GROSS: Tamara Jenkins -- she wrote and directed the new film "Slums of Beverly Hills."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Tamara Jenkins
High: Writer-director Tamara Jenkins talks about the new movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills," which is largely based on her childhood experiences. This is Jenkins' first screenplay and directorial debut. Robert Redford read her script while she studied at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in Utah, and eventually became the film's executive producer.
Spec: Movie Industry; Tamara Jenkins; "The Slums of Beverly Hills"
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: DIRECTOR TAMARA JENKINS
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.