Talking With Tamara Jenkins

The Savages director reflects on her real-life experience as a caregiver to her estranged father -- and why she wrote it differently for film.

In the popular indie film The Savages, Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage, middle-aged siblings who are faced with a dilemma: what to do when the father who deserted them as children needs their care as an old man. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, whose own father died 11 years ago, the script was initially a hard sell to film studio executives, who were, she has said, "freaked out by the subject matter." But it clearly struck a nerve with audiences. The uncompromising but funny film was nominated for two Academy Awards -- Jenkins for best original screenplay and Linney for best actress.

Like their fairy-tale counterparts, John and Wendy Darling of Peter Pan, Jenkins's screen siblings resisted growing up; unlike the Darlings, the somewhat dysfunctional Savages lie to each other and stumble at coming to grips with the adult reality of care giving for their emotionally abusive father. They resent that dementia has catapulted Lenny Savage (played by Philip Bosco) back into their lives, and they bicker over how much care -- and how good a nursing home -- they owe him in his final days. But, ultimately, they are there for him in his last hours. A schlockier film might have prettied up the father's death, but Jenkins was determined to be authentic. "It's so lonely to be told, 'That's the way it is' when your life isn't like that at all," she told the New York Times last year.

Q: How true is your film to your life?

A: I always say [this movie] is personal, but it's not autobiographical. It is true that the emotional core comes from my own experience with two family members -- my grandmother and my father. They both suffered from dementia at the end of their lives. They both ended their lives in nursing homes.

With my grandmother, her children were doing more of the daily caring. But it left an impression on me because it was my first real, significant time spent in a nursing home. With my father, I was more involved. I transported my father physically and dealt with putting him in a nursing home. The whole experience was very profound -- particularly transferring this person from one part of his life to this other part of his life.

Q: What was the care giving experience like for you?

A: My dad was in his 80s when I was in my 30s, so none of my friends were dealing with elderly parents yet. I remember it being very isolating in that way. No one else was watching their parent become an old person before their eyes.

And there was one thing about us that is just like the characters in the movie: None of us -- my siblings or myself -- were established grown-ups, even though we were in our 30s and early 40s. There wasn't a big house where my father could come live with us. We were not leading traditional family lives.

I was pretty estranged from my father when I started caring for him. And his dementia only further reflected our estrangement, and that felt poetic, in a way. [His illness] was a physical and medical manifestation of our estrangement.

Q: Looking back on your time as a caregiver for your father, what do you wish you'd known?

A: There was a period of time [when my father was sick] when I wasn't around a lot. So in real life, when my father died, I wasn't there. In the movie, the children are there. But in reality, it was a much more complicated arrangement.

When people are in a nursing home, they always go back and forth to the hospital for various things. I wish it had been clearer to me that it wasn't just, "Oh yeah, he's going back to the hospital." That makes me sad. I wasn't there at the end. There wasn't any forewarning. He died at a time when none of us were in the town where his nursing home was.

That is one of the contemporary conundrums -- the way people are so geographically splayed all over the place. There is no center. One of us was in England, the other in California -- we were all in totally different parts of the globe. It was really heartbreaking. Then we all came together for the funeral, of course.

The movie is not a replica of my own experience, but it certainly borrows from things that I know or felt. And it's ironic, I realize, that the brother and sister are there when the father dies in the film.


26 days, said...

Family members did not want to take care of father, i took on the responsibility, using his funds to take care of him. do you think this inapproiate

almost 10 years, said...

Just wanted to say that I can relate to Tamara on caring for her father in her 30's and her friends not caring for elder parents. They really don't have a clue if they have never bee there and done it, no one can truly understand unless they have been there. For the first time ever I felt like I'm not the only one in her 30's that has cared for and watched her parent pass away. I helped my sisters and brother care for my mother for 10 years. She had Alzheimer's and passed away in July of this year. I tried going to a support group but no one was my age, much older, and no one had children, I have a 4 year old. I cared for my Mom and my son and lived 2 hours away from her with my husband and son. I would go and stay for 2 to 3 nights a week and then come home and when my son came along I took him with me as and we went each week from the time he was 6 weeks old and took care of her. It was hard,very hard at times, but I WOULDN'T change what I did for anything only wish I could have done more. SO I just would like Tamara to know that I really appreciated her article and thank you for giving the chance for the interview. God Bless. HJL.