“It’s definitely a very personal movie,” said writer-director Tamara Jenkins of “The Savages,” her first new film in nearly a decade, during a recent interview in Dallas. The comedy-drama stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as estranged siblings who have to work together when it becomes necessary to place their aging father (Philip Bosco), who abandoned them years before, in a nursing home after his mind begins to fail. In the process, of course, they overcome their differences with one another as well as with him.
“I have experience with my father,” Jenkins explained, “who was in a nursing home at the end of his life and suffered from dementia, and my grandmother, who was in a nursing home at the end of her life and suffered from dementia. So I was writing about something that I’m personally connected to.
“But,” she added, it’s not a direct autobiography—it’s not a memoir.
“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find the patterns in what you’re doing yourself. You’re sort of mining your own unconscious, and then patterns start emerging start emerging and you start seeing them. You’re being a detective about your own psyche, reading tea leaves coming from you.”
And the pattern that emerged from Jenkins’ original premise involved the relationship between brother and sister as much as their ties to their father. “I felt that in a certain way, the story was also about this brother and sister who had a very frozen image of each other, and that by going through this incredibly arduous process together, somehow by the end of it they would see each other in three dimensions,” she said. “At one point there were many siblings in writing of the story, and then I stripped it down. I really wanted to find the essence of it. And then I got this notion of Jon and Wendy, and I liked the Peter Pan-ness of it all, that in a weird way they were in denial of their grownup-ness and embracing adulthood in so many ways.”
Jenkins considered herself incredibly fortunate to have secured such talents as Hoffman and Linney as her stars. The casting process was complicated, she said—as it is for all low-budgeted independent films—“but by a circuitous route I eventually wound up exactly where I wanted to be.” Working with the duo, she enthused, “was like standing next to Niagara Falls—it was stunning and powerful, awe-inspiring and very exciting.
“They were so at the top of their game, it was just like standing back and putting these amazing athletes on a court together and watching them volley the ball back and forth. It was gorgeous.”
Jenkins explained that the actors were capable of such extraordinary work despite the fact that they had little time for rehearsal. “We literally had, like, three days in my apartment in New York, and we were cycling everybody through,” she said with a laugh. “The intention was just to get everybody in the same room together so that there was some sense of something before we got thrown into working on the set.”
She especially remembered when Linney and Hoffman first got together. “I’d met them individually, and I’d really imagined that it could work and there would be this chemistry, but you don’t know until you’re there. And they came over to my apartment. They were just in the living room, talking—they’d met before, but they had never worked together. And I just started hearing their voices and I thought, I think they’re going to work. They had a great rapport. They’re so at the same level of skill that there was this joy at being able to play against someone that was of equal skill.”