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Some Strange, Humanist Buddy Picture

December 15th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Savages, 2007 poster Savages DVD

The Savages (2007)
Written by Tamara Jenkins
Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Produced by This Is That Productions/ Ad Hominem/ Cooper’s Town Productions/ Lone Star Film Group/ Fox Searchlight
MPAA rating: “R for some sexuality and language”
Running time: 113 minutes

Should I Care?
In Slums of Beverly Hills — the feature film writing and directing debut of Tamara Jenkins — Marisa Tomei’s character is introduced wandering down a road late at night, naked, as someone who’d sprung herself from a mental facility might do. In The Savages, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has an even more disturbing introduction, or for anyone who came in late, one of the characters later exclaims that “death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!” Jenkins’ second feature — a sad but inherently funny film — veers into some hard truths about aging parents and their legacy: the relationship between their equally dysfunctional offspring. It’s carried off imperfectly and is not an always easy film to watch, but is as nuanced and profound a statement about aging as your likely to see made today.

Like Slums of Beverly Hills, The Savages is uncompromising. Its view of family dysfunction — with little regard for the comfort level of the audience — knocked me out of the truck a few times. The shock value wears off on a second viewing, when the performances and the humanity of Jenkins’ writing reveal themselves with greater clarity. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character seems to loiter through much of the story, but where the film really takes off is with Laura Linney, given her most beautifully fucked up and neurotic character since You Can Count On Me (2000). Childless and barely able to take care of a ficus, a dying father provides her character with the excuse to pull herself together. The script is edgy, surgical in its cutting insight and has the balls to deal out loud with its subject matter: we Americans are not going to live forever.

Savages, 2007, Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

So, What’s This About?
Living in the retirement community of Sun City, Arizona, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) crudely rebels against the caregiver (David Zayas) hired by the family of Lenny’s live-in girlfriend the only way he has left. Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is a New York City temp seeking a grant to finish her latest play, “inspired by the work of Jean Genet, the cartoons of Lynda Barry and the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill”. She gets the call relaying her father’s erratic behavior. Referring to the incident as an “alarm” rather than a “crisis” is Wendy’s brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a PH.d who’s teaching drama in Buffalo and working on a book about Bertholt Brecht. When Lenny’s girlfriend dies, the siblings fly to Arizona to be notified that their father has no legal right to remain in the house.

Uncomfortable at first with the proposition of putting their father in a nursing home, Wendy is left with Lenny — combative, disoriented and unable to take care of himself — while Jon secures him a bed at a hospice in Buffalo. Under the impression he’s been taken to a hotel, Lenny does not react well to the news that he’s actually in a nursing home. Wendy sets her sights on upgrading Lenny to a senior living facility, but Jon accuses his sister of caring more about absolving her own guilt than helping their dad. Working through some depression and a breakup with his Polish professor girlfriend (Cara Seymour), Jon invites Wendy to stay with him Buffalo until their father gets settled. Helping her adjust is Jimmy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a Nigerian orderly with acute observations about life and death.

Savages, 2007, Laura Linney, Gbenga Akinnagbe

Who Made It?
Tamara Jenkins grew up in Philadelphia. Her father would receive custody of Jenkins and her three brothers and move them around the low rent areas of Beverly Hills, an experience that the filmmaker would chronicle in her feature writing and directing debut. Jenkins ended up in New York’s East Village to pursue a career in performance art. Transitioning into film, she enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. Her black & white short Fugitive Love (1991) was so well received that it screened at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. Independent TV Service commissioned a black & white short from Jenkins; titled Family Remains (1993) it won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 1994. This earned Jenkins an invitation to the Sundance Institute, where she developed Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) with the support of Robert Redford. Alan Arkin and Natasha Lyonne starred in the dysfunctional family comedy.

Producer Ted Hope — co-founder of New York indie film company Good Machine — signed Jenkins to a blind deal. Under conditions her script be contemporary and be considered a comedy, Jenkins took some elements from her life — a father suffering dementia, a nursing home in the East Village — and wrote The Savages. She arrived on Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the leads, but when Good Machine was sold to Universal and rebranded Focus Features, the studio felt that neither Linney or Hoffman were big enough names. Hope agreed to develop The Savages at This Is That Productions, the company he’d built with former Good Machine execs Anne Carey and Anthony Bregman. Fred and Erica Westheimer of Lone Star Film Group agreed to split the roughly $8 million budget with Fox Searchlight and Jenkins’ sophomore feature went on to become one the most critically acclaimed films of 2007.

Savages, 2007, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney

How’d They Do It?
After spending at least two years adapting Diane Arbus: A Biography — a project that was scuttled when the Arbus estate refused to license the artist’s photographs for a movie — Tamara Jenkins went into business with the prestigious Ted Hope. His batting record as a film producer featured 23 entries in the Sundance Film Festival, including The Wedding Banquet (1993), The Brothers McMullen (1995), Walking and Talking (1996), In the Bedroom (2001) and American Splendor (2003). In 2002, Hope sold the company — Good Machine — that had co-produced most of those films to Universal Pictures, where it was renamed Focus Features. Former Good Machine executives Anne Carey and Anthony Bregman would later join Hope to launch This Is That Productions in New York. Their first two movies were the critically acclaimed 21 Grams (2003) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

Jenkins recalled of Hope, “He created this environment where I had this blind deal through some discretionary money that he had via Focus Features, and a blind deal means that you don’t have to tell the financier what you’re writing about. It’s blind, essentially, but the person who gave us the deal, the people at Focus, said, ‘There’s only two stipulations: one, that it’s a contemporary story, so it can’t be a period piece, and two, that it’s funny.’ Then I said, ‘Oh, you mean like it’s a comedy?’ and he said, ‘No, it doesn’t have to be a straight comedy but there has to be humor in it.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Phew!’ I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. I knew the material that I was approaching, but I was grateful that it wasn’t a comedy with a capital C.”

Savages, 2007, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney

As with Slums of Beverly Hills, Jenkins’ personal life began to inform her script. “I had the experience of having my grandmother in a nursing home at the end of her life, and had dementia set in with my father. He was in a nursing home with dementia at the end of his life, but it happened for me personally 10 years ago. My father was much older than my mother, so I experienced it as a pretty young person.” She continued, “And then around me, around my friends, it’s starting to happen — we’re all in our mid-40s, in some cases older, and they’re starting to deal with their parents becoming less well, and elder-care things. So all those things were just percolating, and they all just started pushing me in this direction. And I was very interested in writing about grown-up siblings, so it just started mushing into this idea.”

Once Jenkins struck the idea for her sophomore feature film, she invited Ted Hope to hear her perform in a spoken word series at The Moth, a theater in Gramercy Park. Hope remembered, “At the performance, Tamara told the story of taking her dad who was suffering from dementia on an airplane cross-country. She had the audience in hysterics. It was incredibly moving and heartfelt, and it had these real characters that were unique and fascinating to watch.” Anne Carey added, “Tamara is somebody who always finds either the funny sadness or the sad funniness in situations. In this story, you feel like you’re parting the curtains and getting an incredibly intimate look into a private world. It’s a heartbreaking world, yet the movie is also incredibly funny and hopeful. It’s about two people who didn’t even think they really had a family coming to understand the importance of family.”

Savages, 2007, Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Jenkins met with Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York and flew to Colorado — where Laura Linney was living — to get their commitment to play the Savages, but couldn’t get Focus Features CEO James Schamus to sign off the casting. Jenkins recalled, “And when I finally hunkered down and said, ‘I think these guys are great,’ then I met Laura individually and I met Phil, and I went back, and after other discussions about other actors, and meetings, and going through the chain of the process, I at one point just came back and said, ‘These guys are great.’ And they said, ‘Well, if that’s the decision, then we should let you go.’ But they were kind enough to let me go with the material. They didn’t put it in a vault and say ‘Too bad!’” She added, “Their foreign sales were a factor, meaning stars have to have a certain price on their head in European territories, or something? But really, I don’t know. It was mysterious to me.”

“So then I went knocking on other people’s doors for money, and it did not come easily. It’s not a movie that you can pitch well, frankly. Financiers are risk-averse. They’re scared, and the film was dealing with a subject matter that people don’t want to deal with anyway.” One person open to dealing with The Savages was producer Fred Westheimer, who’d spent 35 years as an agent at William Morris, representing John Travolta and Candice Bergen for a time before heading WMA’s motion picture talent for the last six years of his tenure. Westheimer departed the talent agency in 2005 to form Lone Star Film Group, an independent film financier funded by private equity and based in Beverly Hills. To head production, he turned to his 32-year-old daughter Erica Westheimer, who’d spent ten years working in the New York film industry, first as a costumer, later as Laura Linney’s personal assistant.

Savages, 2007, Laura Linney

Jenkins was in touch with producer Jim Burke, her husband Jim Taylor’s & Alexander Payne’s business partner in Ad Hominem. A fan of the script, Burke kept Jenkins’ spirits up via email while she and Ted Hope & Anne Carey struggled to get The Savages financed. Of Burke, Taylor & Payne, Jenkins mused, “I felt like they were my male back-up singers. They were my guardian angels, they were just this formidable group of men that were standing behind it. Granted, one of them happened to be my husband, but hopefully, people would take their support seriously despite the nepotistic set-up. They kind of came on board that way, and obviously watched various cuts of the movie and threw in their two cents and stuff, but it was kind of guardianship.” With Taylor, Payne & Burke involved, Lone Star agreed to finance half of the roughly $8 million budget. In January 2006, Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice agreed to put up the other half.

Explaining what attracted her to The Savages, Laura Linney stated, “What I like about it is its very odd, eccentric sense of humor, and the fact that it’s these three people in this situation. Subject matter like this could be very sentimentalized and not be good material to be told cinematically. But I loved the script. I know it’s always a good barometer if I’m reading a script and I start working on it as I go along, subconsciously connections are made, ideas are coming. A lot of times scripts don’t give you that and you really have to work hard to create something. This just sort of lifted right off the page.” She added, “I think if you scratch the surface on all good drama it’s either about family, sex or religion. Any one you scratch it’s going to be about one of those three topics. They’re sort of intertwined, you can’t really get away from any of them. I think we’re all a little self-obsessed at the moment, everybody’s looking inward at who we are and why we are, and that tends to lead back to the family.”

Savages, 2007, Philip Bosco

Joining Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman would be stage, TV and film veteran Philip Bosco. Jenkins revealed, “My casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, said, ‘What about Phil Bosco?’ and I said, ‘Oh, he’s that guy who does all that pshaw and he always plays these well-heeled patriarchs and lawyers and stuff. He’s too fancy!’ That was my fear and directors can be really stupid and literal and forget the people are actually actors and just because he plays well-heeled judges, that doesn’t mean that’s all he’s able to do, so we actually auditioned him. He came into the room and read. I was very anxious because it was very important to me that whoever played the part, that the character was not sentimentalized, that there wasn’t that, I kept saying, ‘I don’t want the old bastard with the twinkle in his eye. I don’t want the twinkle.’ I’m saying this to my casting director Jeannie and being anxious that I don’t want him to turn into that cliché of the old codger with that twinkle thing.”

Three months after being greenlit by Fox Searchlight, a 30-day shooting schedule was underway in New York. Jenkins exclaimed, “We were very lucky — it snowed in April in front of the nursing home in Buffalo! So we managed to have a winter movie in April and it worked out okay. The 30-day aspect of it wasn’t fun. Five more days would have made life easier. But the adrenaline can be kind of great.” She added, “As much as I can complain and wish I had more time, there’s something about that capturing of life, and that’s the most important thing — that sort of lived-in feeling among these characters, a messy, imperfect aliveness. Just having it feel alive.”  The Hudson Senior Residence in Hastings-on-Hudson, the Westchester Center for Rehabilitation & Nursing in Mount Vernon and the Concord Division of Staten Island University hospital and the St Agnes Hospital in White Plains were used as locations.

Savages, 2007, Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Savages would screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007 and fests in Toronto and Austin in the fall before opening November 2007 in the United States. Critics framed it with the best films of the year. Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times: “For a tender, uncommonly perceptive look at sibling relationships and a profound meditation on death and the meaning we draw from experience, The Savages is singularly funny and seriously moving.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle: “Jenkins’ superlative work proves her first film was no fluke; let’s hope it doesn’t take another nine years to hear from her again.” Ella Taylor, The Village Voice: “Jenkins is no sentimentalist, and she won’t patronize her benighted losers or her audience with epiphanies, apologies, or blinding insights. Yet the movie is dotted with moments of grace and whacked-out humor that got me on board for this damaged duo’s liberation.”

A wash at the box office with $6.6 million in the United States and $4 million overseas, The Savages would be nominated for two Academy Awards, Laura Linney (Best Actress) and Tamara Jenkins (Best Original Screenplay). While its heavy subject matter had challenged financiers, for Jenkins, the film was about the broken dynamic between Wendy and Jon. “A friend of mine remarked that you just don’t see male-female intimacy that isn’t sexualized. But I was really interested in sibling relationships. I have three brothers in real life. It’s a strange thing to be siblings, to grow up under the exact same circumstances and adapt in completely opposite ways. Wendy is so emotive and reactive, and Jon is this brutal rationalist. It’s like some strange, humanist buddy picture, but it’s brother and sister, and they’re dealing with putting their father in a nursing home, instead of robbing a bank.”

Savages, 2007, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Lone Star makes a leap” By Pamela McClintock. Variety, 21 November 2005

The Savages — Production Notes

“Unblinking Look at Death Without Nobility”
By Dennis Lim. The New York Times, 4 November 2007

“Exclusive Interview: The Savages’ Tamara Jenkins” By Edward Douglas. ComingSoon.net, 26 November 2007

“Tamara Jenkins” By Scott Tobias. The A.V. Club, 29 November 2007

“Family Matters” By Katrina Onstad. CBC News, 20 December 2007

“Senior Moments” By Ray Pride. FilmMaker, 8 February 2008

“Giving The Savages a touch of class” By Amber Wilkinson. Eye For Film

Tags: Bathtub scene · Black comedy · Brother/sister relationship · Father/daughter relationship · Midlife crisis · Psychoanalysis · Road trip

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Dec 15, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I remember being interested in this when it came out, mostly because I’m a fan of both Linney and Hoffman, but I never managed to see it. Will have to check it out at some point.

    I remember The Slums of Beverly Hills, though I never saw that either. But the fact it took her so long to get another film financed reminds me of a New York Times article I read and re-tweeted the other day about female directors in Hollywood. Gaps in work and funding seemed all too common.
    It’s actually a subject I researched a bit over the summer and might continue exploring next year, i.e. female directors.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Dec 15, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Amanda: I haven’t read Manohla Dargis’ article yet, but did read the bitch fest she gave online to Jezebel. It was entetaining, but I think when people like Dargis complain about there not being enough women directing movies, what they’re really complaining about is there not being enough women directing blockbusters. Two different things.

    For the last six months at This Distracted Globe, I’ve been covering movies directed by women in the ’00s, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. More women are directing feature films now than at any point in the U.S. film industry’s history, but I agree that it is much, much more difficult for a Lisa Cholodenko or Tamara Jenkins to set up their next feature than it is for a man when their last movie wasn’t a box office hit.

  • 3 AR // Dec 21, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I think you’re right, that the lack of female voices in most pronounced on the big budget end, and in the last 20-30 years there have been quite a lot more women coming up. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to watch and promote their work.

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