The writer/director of The Savages explains why a movie about siblings, nursing homes, and dementia is sexier than it sounds.
Nearly 10 years ago, Tamara Jenkins delighted cult movie junkies with her surprising comedy, Slums of Beverly Hills. Well, now she's back with another movie inspired by her life, although this one might not be quite as raucous.
Starring Laura Linney (Kinsey, The Nanny Diaries) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Magnolia) as siblings who must deal with putting their aging and estranged father into a nursing home, The Savages isn't exactly as packed with laughs as her previous efforts. "On the surface it's not such a sexy sell," says Jenkins. "If in fact you just hear the architecture of the story--'Oh, it's about a brother and sister taking care of a dying father who has dementia,'--it doesn't quite capture it."
Luckily, the critics are buzzing about The Savages, particularly Laura Linney's role in it. "It's such a delicate movie that to get that kind of attention, it's really nice," says Jenkins, who completely agrees that Linney deserves all the praise she's getting.
What might be most striking about The Savages is the pairing of Linney and Hoffman. Both have long been considered as some of the best actors around, and it is surprising to realize they have never been paired up in a film before. "I was really fortunate that not only are they individually incredibly brilliant as we know based on their whole bodies of work, but they had something really delicious together," which Jenkins explains is not always a foregone conclusion. "You can have individually brilliant actors, just great actors, and then you bring them together and it doesn't have that extra level of chemistry. And [The Savages] is such a study in dynamics, that if that didn’t happen, it would be dreadful. When I was casting it and talking to my casting director and we were all brainstorming about it, I was like, 'It's like a love story. It's like you're casting a love story, but instead of boyfriend and girlfriend, it's brother and sister. And if they don't have that thing, we're going to be D.O.A.'"
Although she is loath to call it an autobiography, per se, the movie has some very personal roots for Jenkins, whose father and grandmother both had dementia and both were in nursing homes. "It certainly is personal and real, but it's not a strict memoir. I think it's important to distinguish or else I’d be like that guy James Frey who wrote a memoir called A Million Little Pieces and it was massively fictionalized," she laughs. "It's not a memoir, but it certainly has its root in a very significant personal experience. And then you invent and you riff and you draw and you build and you fictionalize."
And she Jenkins also doesn't want you to think this movie is just a way for her to process her own past, either. "I get nervous about that word 'cathartic,' because it sounds like it's such a personal therapy that it would be something you put in your diary with a lock and key," she says. "I think mostly I'm a dramatist of sorts and I’m interesting in taking this core experience--something that I know--and then kind of building this dramatic, how to exploit it to examine human behavior. In the case of this story, Jon and Wendy, they're being put in such a primal situation that it pushes all these different feelings and motives and it's a very revealing environment."
No one is going to question that Jenkins created some very interesting, very complete characters in Jon and Wendy Savage. "They really are yin and yang, and without each other they wouldn't be able to handle it," she says of them. "These are two siblings, two human beings, two specimens, that were subjected to the exact same environment growing up, they lived under the same circumstances, but they responded in these completely opposite ways."
The Savages opens in limited release today, November 28, 2007.
Check out reelz.com's The Savages page for clips from the movie and more!