Dos Equis

“The Tale”

September 2018

By Suzanne Huntington

“We tell ourselves stories to live.  We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
“Or at least we do for a while.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Told with unflinching honesty, writer-director-documentarian, Jennifer Fox delivers a deeply personal memoir in HBO’s The Tale – a chronicle of her realization in her 40s that her first sexual experience as a young girl was not the story she created and believed to be true for so long. Fox choose to narrate her story as an unconventional dialogue between past/present, young Jenny/adult Jennifer, and specifically address the mercurial nature of memory interwoven with trauma. The mind’s ability to re-frame events into a palatable construct.

Costume designer Tricia Gray was fascinated by how Fox handled the elusive nature of memory – and what we tell ourselves to survive. The project was different from others. Tricia could relate, on so many levels, including the glaring one. Tricia says, “I felt like her. I had struggled with childhood sexual abuse. We were two years apart in age. We didn’t get married until later in life. We didn’t have children. We grew up riding horses. Our fathers were land developers. We both had 17-year-old dogs. The list just went on and on. In the end, I simply wanted to tell her story, which was my story too. How often does that happen?”

Buried away for decades, a ‘short story’ Jenny Fox wrote in an eighth-grade creative writing class is discovered by her mother (Ellen Burstyn) who insists Jennifer reexamine it for what it was, a far more disturbing truth of sexual abuse. Jennifer Fox (played by Laura Dern) at thirteen attends a horse-riding camp in the 70’s where her instructor, the sophisticated and European Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debecki), lures and grooms a shy Jenny into a sexual relationship with her lover, Bill (Jason Ritter), a 40+-year-old running coach. The two adults treat young Jenny as a grown-up and invite her to share in the secret love affair.

In her wisdom, Tricia said early on to Fox, “There will be a day when I need you to work with me because you may not like what I’m giving you.” That day came, Fox did trust her and came back afterward, agreeing, it was the right choice. It was a red turtleneck Tricia needed triples for a stunt fall from the horse and was a poignant moment young Jenny was given the phrase every rider hears: dust yourself off and get back on that horse. The garment needed to hide layers of protection, and the color was significant to adult Jennifer. Surprisingly, she got more compliments over that turtleneck.

Tricia’s favorite piece in the film was a black, scalloped dress adult Jennifer wears to confront Bill. “The dress reminded me of a shark going in for the kill. Jennifer bravely takes on Bill and afterward grasps that it might not be resolved, but there is peace now with young Jenny, dressed in soft browns next to her, suggesting now a connectedness to the earth. Reconciliation. Filming a period piece in Shreveport with last-minute casting made it a little tricky, but Tricia could rely on the assistance of CD Nancy Fisher in LA to pull a period character and nail it. Tricia thought the biggest risk might be people pulling back from her for doing such a film about the sexual abuse of a child. The opposite happened. She couldn’t be prouder of the work. Tricia shares, “Seeing people identify with this story and begin to transform as a result of it, her own life included, couldn’t have been a better reward.”

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