Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A moviemaker workshops a script through the Sundance Institute, the finished feature gets accepted into the prestigious festival and the critical hosannas start pouring in. Then he or she gets courted by a number of studios, several projects stall and years pass… Soon, the moviemaker is regrettably relegated to the “Where are they now?” files, along with a number of other indie film alumni who sprint out of the gate and then find it hard to get a follow-up made.

In Tamara Jenkins’ case, you’d need to tweak a few peripheral details (Slums of Beverly Hills, her biting bildungsroman of a debut feature, played at both Sundance and the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes); but otherwise, the arc followed the trajectory of an extraordinary talent who got lost in the shuffle. With The Savages, however, the writer-director has more than proven that she isn’t another one-hit wonder. Boasting incredible performances from Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the amazing Philip Bosco, this tragicomedy about a dysfunctional family dealing with the aftershocks of its patriarch’s elderly dementia ended up being one of the more buzzed about titles at this year’s largely lackluster Park City hoedown. It’s the kind of chewy, character-driven movie that used to define “independent” before pop-culture criminals and opportunism took over the party, and one of the recent few that you could call a “Sundance film” without using the term derisively.

Having gone to the festival with a patron already in place—Fox Searchlight had committed to the movie shortly before production began and will release it on November 30th—The Savages didn’t have to worry about wooing potential buyers. But that doesn’t mean that Jenkins didn’t suffer along the way to beating the sophomore slump—or that selling a story about a Brecht scholar and a burnt-out, would-be playwright taking care of their sick dad was filled with bidding wars. But it does speak to her commitment to making the kind of mature, intelligent movies that are more than worth the wait.

David Fear (MM): You’ve mentioned that the film essentially sprung from a single scene…

Tamara Jenkins (TJ): I’d had this scene I’d written which involved a woman calling her brother in the middle of the night, saying, “Dad is running around smearing the walls with shit!” It was just this long back and forth, but it was all very vague. No background or details whatsoever.
So I scrawled this exchange down and that scene sat in a drawer for years. I had no idea what to do with it, but every so often I’d start wondering what the story was with these two people: Is she the emotional sibling and he’s the rational one? Maybe he’s an academic. I eventually pulled the scene out again and started adding things on. It built from there.

MM: It’s the conversation that’s in the movie, right?

TJ: The initial phone call between Wendy and Jon, it’s almost verbatim from what I scribbled down that day, too.

MM: Like Slums of Beverly Hills, this story deals with a dysfunctional family. What is it about that dynamic that fascinates you?

TJ: Besides having seen that dynamic firsthand, you mean? (laughs) I find that the regression you experience when you’re around a sibling to be really interesting; you can end up showing a very petty, childish side of yourself, even if you don’t mean to. It’s almost like Philip and Laura’s characters still think of each as 12-year-olds. “Oh, my uptight brother.” “Oh, my sister who’s always late and is such a drama queen.”

Eventually, as the story progresses, they can see each other as individuals and adults, but that wasn’t even happening consciously as I was writing it. Honestly, it was only as I started getting deeper into the script that I realized that they were moving toward that sense of finally understanding who the other person was.
MM: There was a nine-year gap between your first movie and your second one…

TJ: So what happened? (laughs)

MM: Yeah.

TJ: After Slums of Beverly Hills, I worked for a long time on another project that was owned by somebody else… You end up walking down a lot of streets that turn out to be dead ends. It’s easy to get frustrated when all these ideas for features end up withering on the vine, so I started channeling my energy into doing little theater projects with friends and some uncredited script-doctoring on the side.

But I kept writing the entire time. Then, when The Savages script started accumulating enough to turn into something that seemed significant—to me, at least—it took another few years to finish writing it. When I finally got it down to a practical length, it was another year to get it financed. I wish I could say, ‘Yeah, I just rushed it out and we started production a month later.’ Movies like this take a lot of time to get going—a lot of time.

MM: How long was your first draft?

TJ: Two hundred pages. It read more like a novel than a script, with all these details and a lot of attention paid to the minutia. Screenwriting is really like making a reduction sauce: You make this thing and then you just keep taking more and more out. (laughs) By the time I started on my second and third drafts, it was almost like I was adapting a book I’d written.

MM: The film feels like it could have come from a John Cheever short story, in terms of its dialogue and set-up.

TJ: I actually spent time at the Yaddo writers’ colony, where John Cheever and Sylvia Plath and Philip Roth—you know, real writers (laughs)—worked on stuff. A lot of The Savages got hashed out there.

MM: Do you think that contributed to the literary feel at all?

TJ: Not specifically, though listening to a lot of fiction writers discussing their work did encourage a different mindset. When I started getting into the mechanics of the script, I felt like I suddenly had license to get into the internal workings of the characters more—what is going through Jon’s head right now? What does the dandruff on his shirt look like?

I was indulging in prose, and that helped me immensely in terms of figuring what this movie was about as I was sketching everything out. The problem, of course, is when you start writing in Final Draft and a character name suddenly pops up when you press a button: “Oh, he’s got to start speaking now. I’m not ready for this yet!” (laughs)
MM: Fox Searchlight had already picked this up prior to Sundance, right?

TJ: There was an independent company called Lone Star that initially put up half of the budget, with the stipulation being that someone else would pick up the rest and be the film’s American distributor. The screenplay was actually developed at Focus Features; it was written for them as part of a blind deal where I didn’t have to tell them what it was about. Which was a good thing, since the film is a character study and not something that would really come across in a pitch: There are these two middle-aged adults, and they’re stuck in a rut…

MM: …and their dad is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s.

TJ: Exactly! So it was this big leap of faith that the company took in letting me work on this sight unseen. They really liked the script once I finished it, but we could never sign off on actors and eventually they let it go. Even though Laura was already attached at that point, I was kind of out to sea for a while and we couldn’t get the rest of the financing. Then Searchlight finally stepped up to the plate.

MM: It would seem like a good fit, since Fox Searchlight has taken movies like Sideways and helped them find a large audience. But you’d think the fact that there is a market out there for idiosyncratic films would actually make it easier to get something like this financed today.

TJ: Theoretically, that should be true, except it still took us forever to get it made. A movie like Sideways makes a big splash, but the film was turned down from a number of places because studios didn’t want Paul Giamatti. They wanted “stars” in it. Luckily, Fox understood what Alexander [Payne] was going for and got behind him. It’s still the exception to the rule, though. Even though a lot of these smaller companies are arthouse divisions of major studios, they still play the star game. With The Savages, people were scared of the material; they thought it was a movie about death. That’s a hard sell.

MM: Can you talk a little about the opening sequence? It feels like something out of a David Lynch film.

TJ: That area in Sun City, Arizona was one of the first retirement communities built in America. I wanted to do something that emphasized the weird idyllic yet haunting vibe of the place… The dance troupe [in the film], the Sun City West Dancers, actually perform there all the time; they’re wearing their own uniforms and headdresses. All these crew people were ready to pass out in this desert heat, and here are these 90-year-old women hoofing outside for six, seven takes! (laughs) They’re like a Greek chorus of cherubs… They open the curtains and then the show begins. It became this nice little framing device.

MM: It’s also a nice contrast with what comes right after it.

TJ: Right. You’re in this fantasyland, then you go inside the house and—bam!—the reality of the situation hits you in the face. That sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

MM: You’ve had a long relationship with both the Sundance Institute and the film festival, but do you think that the entities still serve the same functions they once did? Should independents still think of the festival as the place where they can get their visions on-screen and in front of a large audience?

TJ: I see why you’d ask that question, but where else would films like Half Nelson get shown? Stuff like that doesn’t get shown in the New York Film Festival and it deserves a bigger venue than YouTube; Sundance still fulfills that market. I mean, you could say that it’s become a lot more commercial, more overgrown and far more intense than it used to be, but I still think it serves a valid purpose. Critics walk away buzzing about small, worthwhile movies like Once, and that helps it find a larger audience. If you get one of those a year, it’s done its job.