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Being able to tell her story

January 26, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, UTAH — At what point does adolescence end and adulthood begin? In certain urban, socioeconomic, artistic-intellectual American circles, that would be with the sudden, unforeseen onset of middle age, which often fails to manifest until a cataclysmic event -- like the irrevocable slide of an elderly parent into child-like helplessness -- makes it impossible to stave it off any longer.

Described in the Sundance catalog as a "coming-of-middle-age drama," Tamara Jenkins' grimly funny "The Savages" is her second feature and her second Sundance premiere, after "Slums of Beverly Hills" in 1998. The film tells the story of adult siblings forced to take over the care of their estranged father after he slips into dementia. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage. Jon is an academic specializing in Bertolt Brecht and theater of social unrest, whose Polish girlfriend Kasia (Cara Seymour) is going back to Krakow because her visa has expired and he won't commit to marrying her. Wendy is an aspiring playwright who supports herself by temping. She's a longtime resident of New York's East Village and is involved with a married man.

After getting the news, Jon and Wendy travel to Sun City to collect their father and figure out what to do with him. Wendy, especially, is thrown by the responsibility, partly because she's been reluctant to face the passing of time. This is something "you can really feel in the East Village," Jenkins says. Wendy was inspired by the neighborhood where Jenkins has lived for years. "I've had better luck than she has (or maybe she's me with worse luck), but she represents a collection of peers that moved to the East Village a long time ago, when we could afford it and it was this thriving art neighborhood full of writers, actors, filmmakers, poets. Now you see yourself being replaced.... There's something very poignant in that -- the curse of a rent-controlled apartment. You're anchored in a weird way, not moving on, because of your cheap apartment."

For a certain segment of the population, Wendy will be instantly recognizable. "She wanted to be a playwright, and it was always just over the horizon but the horizon never came," Jenkins says. "A friend of mine read the script and said, 'You based Wendy on me!' And I said, 'I based her on everyone we know!' "

General anxiety about age and the passage of time got Jenkins thinking about the ways in which people deal with it. "Things start taking on a trajectory and pulling you forward in a certain direction. Then you sit back and examine what you are doing, and it can be anxiety-producing." People in the film deal with it in different ways. Wendy's boyfriend is a married man having an affair with a younger woman; Wendy exercises compulsively. "All these ways people are trying to stave off time," Jenkins says.

A hit at Sundance, where it premiered with distribution in place, "The Savages" will be released some time this year. The story, however, first occurred to Jenkins years ago, when a strange scene grabbed her attention. The image that popped into her head was a sister calling her brother in the middle of the night, telling him that their dad has taken to writing on walls with his own excrement. "I scrawled it and tossed it in a drawer, where it just sat festering for a long time."

Eventually, the scene came together with the idea of grown siblings whose lives have turned out romantically and professionally the way they have in part because of their early relationship with their parents. The intricacies of the connections, however, were something Jenkins discovered in the process of writing.

"I was always interested in this human experiment of two people growing up under the same roof. They develop under the same circumstances, but they adapt in different ways to the world. Jon's a brutal realist, and Wendy's emotionally anxious. She runs toward drama; he runs away. But both of them are developmentally arrested. They share an inability to sustain real relationships."As for the family name, "it wasn't always there," she says. "You want them to be significant but not too significant, like 'Hardy Justice, attorney at law.' For a long time, my drafts looked like an experimental '60s play; the characters were just called brother, sister, father.... Then one day I ran to my husband [screenwriter Jim Taylor] and said, 'I have a great idea for a name.' " It has to do with "the savagery of the way we treat the old, and the way age ravages people. I hoped it wasn't too pretentious or illustrative." After deciding on the title, she realized there was a TV show called "The Savages," which led one relative to think that her screenplay had been turned into a TV show.

The fact that almost a decade has passed since Jenkins' last feature premiered at Sundance prompts people to ask where she's been, as though ever since the movies should have popped up like toaster waffles.

"This is the horrifying question, which I don't know how to answer

The thing is, she says, laughing, "two adult siblings putting their father in a nursing home doesn't sound very appealing." Even at Yaddo, the famed writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she was embarrassed to discuss her idea.

"You're in a room, and they give you a sandwich. And you sit there knowing that John Cheever and Sylvia Plath and Philip Roth were there before you." Jenkins was scared to talk about her project until one day in the dining room, someone asked. "Then everyone around started telling their stories. Funny, strange stories" relating to aging and taking care of aging parents. "Later, anytime I was scared about people not being interested in the story, I would fortify myself knowing that people could really relate."

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