I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The cult filmmaker on women, dating, eating, shopping, having babies, and his latest film, The M Word.
The characters in Henry Jaglom’s The M Word are as talkative and mercurial as any of those the writer/director’s distinctive films. Displaying emotions that run hot and cold—often within the same scene—they are mostly women of a certain age going through “the change.” At the center of the film is Moxie (Tanna Frederick, Jaglom’s current leading lady and wife), a thirty-something actress/producer at KZAM, Los Angeles’s last independent TV station. Although she appears in a children’s show, she is working on a side project, a documentary about menopause. Moxie films her mother Carson (Frances Fisher), her aunts (Mary Crosby and Eliza Roberts), and her co-workers talking passionately about their experiences of “the change.” When the station’s New York corporate executives Charlie (Michael Imperioli) and Harry (Robert Hallak) arrive to determine the future of the economically troubled station, Moxie begins a relationship with Charlie. But her reactions to staff changes at the station may jeopardize their romance.
Jaglom uses the plot to investigate the idea of change, both in terms of how women experience menopause, as well as change in personal and professional relationships. Jaglom’s style is to weave seamlessly between reality and make-believe. A hallmark of his films is that his characters “feel too much” and often speak or behave inappropriately—Moxie frequently discusses her period publically. But for every viewer irritated by his neurotic characters, there are viewers who are charmed by them. Jaglom may be a polarizing American filmmaker but he works on his own terms, and refuses to conform to popular opinion.
If the filmmaker’s loyal fans appreciate The M Word for addressing an issue not generally portrayed in cinema, they can also catch up on Jaglom’s other “women’s” pictures—Eating, Going Shopping, Babyfever, and Irene in Time—which have just been re-released this month in a box set.
In a recent Skype session, Jaglom, wearing his trademark hat, talked about his female-focused films and the changes in his four-decade long career as a writer/director.
Gary M. Kramer The M Word opens cannily, with Carson on camera saying, “I felt I have no control of anything that is going on.” She’s discussing menopause, but almost any female character in almost any film you have made could have said that line. What appeals to you about investigating and giving voice to women who have feelings of “no control”?
Henry Jaglom I grew up with a terrific mother who let me in on a woman’s world. I was never told to “go away,” or that “This is for us, boys can’t be here.” I heard women talking about food, shopping, and their affairs. They were very vulnerable. It was a rich, complex, touching world. I saw this first from my mother and her friends and then in my girlfriends, and I wanted to put those lives up on screen so they would feel less alone. The one thing not represented in Hollywood films is real women.
With the exception of Tracks, every film I have made has tried to explore the world of women so they would see no false images. The most gratifying things are the letters I get from women who see themselves on screen. Even in Hollywood today, with women directors and great parts for actresses, women are overwhelmingly not as real and as deep as women are in real life. Women are better at talking about their reality.
I don’t have people play anorexic; I have people who are anorexic talking about their issues. It’s important not to blur the line. Each film should help us understand how women go through life.
GMK One of the points of Moxie’s documentary in the film is to create a dialogue about what one person calls “the biggest hush-hush topic.” How do you think your film will prompt folks to talk about menopause? And why should this be more openly discussed?
HJ Menopause affects women, and it affects the way you perceive a woman, and how it is affecting her work and life, and any compassion and empathy you feel for that woman. It should not be a secret. Women told me while making the film that their own mothers didn’t talk to them about menopause and didn’t prepare them for it. There are no women who if they live long enough, don’t get menopause. I never found a woman yet who didn’t want to discuss it. But women my mother’s age would be shocked by this. My mother was shocked by Eating. I think it’s important that we talk about it.
GMK Your films, from Eating and Going Shopping to Babyfever and now The M Word, feature women addressing a topic—food, clothing, children, and menopause, respectively—directly to the camera, interspersed with a fictional narrative. Why do you take this approach to these issues, and how much of the interviews is constructed or improvised?
HJ The interviews are never planned for a particular place in the film. That comes in the editing. They are just interviews in which I ask women about the process of going through menopause. They come up with the humor and sadness. I do not want to interfere with that. I put it together in the editing to give it a structure or curve. One of the revelations was a woman saying that this was so great to discuss. Moxie’s mother and aunts talking about menopause provides a contrast to Moxie going through a painful period by saying the upside of “the change” is that they never have to go through a painful period again. I wanted that balance.
GMK You use the crucible of a TV station going through a professional change as a counterpoint to the personal lives of the female characters going through a physical change. Why did you graft these two plots together?
HJ It’s a breather, and I think it’s necessary. There’s another issue in that women suffer from economic vulnerability, and I wanted to join that with a discussion of menopause. It’s about women at their most vulnerable, as when Moxie does her Joan of Ark/Norma Rae thing. I didn’t want to just show women going through the difficulty of menopause. There should be a counter-activity of some forcefulness that shows women suffering.
GMK In both The M Word and Babyfever women say, “I am enough.” They want to have it all. Can they?
HJ I don’t think any human can, but striving to have it all is extremely valuable and positive. During the women’s movement they were trying so hard to have children and careers. I think it’s a balance, not one way or another. You give up something for sure, but as society matures, it allows women to have much more. It’s not a fight to have one thing or another alternately; it is to have them both, like men do. There should be no conflict for women.
GMK Many of the women in the narrative feature segments seem to have low self-esteem, but in the interviews, they seem comfortable with who they are. How do you create female characters who are vulnerable, anxious or insecure and/or empowered (often all at once).
HJ Women have different expression of vulnerability and strength. I discover it, but it’s not something I do. Orson Welles told me when we made Someone to Love: “You make films unlike anyone else. You carve away at us and find interesting things inside.” I’m not trying to impose my idea on these people. I’m trying to find what’s inside—the comic and tragic—and shape it into what’s representative to give a complete picture.
GMK What’s inside you?
HJ I wish I knew! You should talk to Tanna. [Henry gets Tanna from the other room.]
GMK Hi, Tanna! Henry told me to ask you “What he’s like inside,” when everything is stripped away.
Tanna Frederick Henry is like an eight year-old girl seeing everything for the first time. He never loses that innocence. Women’s conversations are new and fresh. He’s listening and picking up their emotionality and their issues. He’s like a wide-eyed eight year-old girl who wants to be part of the big group of mommies. It may have been narcissistic imprinting as a young boy with his mother and all of her friends, and he’s never quite left that place!
HJ I’ve never heard her say this before! [Tanna leaves the room]
GMK On that note, Henry, why do you feel compelled to make films about women? Tracing your career, you’ve addressed dating, marriage, divorce, baby making, gaining financial independence, and now menopause. Why not make a film about men aging?
HJ What was so important to me in my first film, A Safe Place, was taking audiences on a tour of the apartment I grew up in, where my parents were living at the time. I wanted to have that, to hold on to childhood. It’s not just Tuesday Weld hanging on to childhood in A Safe Place. I took viewers into my father’s office, and sat in his chair. With the exception of Tracks—and my anger at the Vietnam war—every film I’ve made is an attempt to look at the time of my life and the expressions of women and what they are going through. Men, if you want to watch this—and I’m happy if you do—you might learn more about the women in your life. But I want women to feel less lonely and less crazy. That’s my motivation. And I like to entertain and bring out the truth of my environment. I show older women to capture that aspect of my mother’s life as much as I can.
I don’t have any grand philosophy. Maybe just try to tell the truth and make folks feel less alone. Men have plenty of feedback for themselves, and women don’t. Men do stuff I don’t understand—football games are so alien to me. I feel more comfortable with women. I tried to do a film once about men, but I never finished. It was called Lucky Ducks and was about what men want. I tried to get out of men what I get out of women, and what I got was: [shrugs], “I don’t know,” and “pussy.” It was infuriating! They were making jokes. I said, “Let’s go back to women.” And I never released that film.
GMK KZAM in the film is “the last independent TV station,” and I see you as one of the last independent filmmakers. Can you talk about why you have forged your career the way you have?
HJ Bert Schneider. Nobody was going to let me make a movie. I came to Hollywood in 1966 after studying with Lee Strasberg and writing plays in New York. I auditioned and was put under contract at Columbia. I was, the head of the studio said, “not the boy next door.” I guest-starred in Gidget and The Flying Nun. But I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, so I started writing scripts. Bert gave me the chance to direct my first film, a poetic and abstract film about a young girl’s mind. I was under the influence of the French New Wave. Bert looked at it and cried. He thought it would lose every penny. He said “I’m not going to try to make it into a commercial success.” I made a poem for a studio, and I was allowed to make it. I was spoiled to get away with it, so I never let anyone ever cut my movies. Orson Welles said my choice was to make a film for them and have a comfortable life or make films for myself. I needed final cut on every one of my films, so I found independent money through Zack Norman, which is how I made Tracks, and slowly, my films became successful in Europe. I made Sitting Ducks with my brother, Michael Emil, and Zack and that was successful. But I made them myself, and I did what the people I admired were doing.
GMK There is a subplot in The M Word about financial troubles that address the idea of programming needing to be commercially viable to be sustained. This is almost satiric coming from you, since your films are not commercial! Can you discuss this?
HJ I aim my films at a small audience, and the movies pay for themselves. I’m not going to give up creative freedom. I gave up the idea of making lots of money. I was born into a comfortable situation, so I wasn’t driven to use movies to get huge power and limos and dressing rooms. I was influenced by Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, and Bergman, who all appealed to a particular audience. I’ve been very happy doing that. I’m finding my audience and finding ways for my audience to see my films. It’s never been about making money; it’s about breaking even so I can make the next picture. And about giving people truth about their lives.
GMK Do you write roles specifically for the performers, many of whom appear in several of your films, or do you craft the story and cast the actors later?
HJ I always have people in mind whom I know. Tanna is the most versatile and extraordinary actress. She’s the glue now. I can build my stories around her since she can do everything from wacky comedy to deep, incredibly painful truth. I liked Michael Imperioli on The Sopranos. I cast Judd Nelson in Just 45 Minutes from Broadway. I like to create new truthfulness as I explore these worlds. I have no plan as such. The only plan I have is the alphabet.1
GMK Another hallmark of your work is that your films go back and forth between reality and make-believe. You often feature characters in the entertainment industry. How did you conceive of these theatrical characters, their situations, and blurring the lines?
HJ All the parts of my life I put together. Tanna had a huge sensation playing Sylvia the dog in the A.R. Gurney play, and I filmed a bit of that, and I wanted to get the funny animal things she did in The M Word. So we said, let’s have Moxie play a dog on the children’s program, even though she’s interested in making a documentary on women’s lives.
GMK In both Going Shopping and The M Word, as well as some of your other films, characters fall in love at first sight. Do you believe in this concept, or is it simply a narrative contrivance?
HJ It’s not contrived; I believe people falling love at first sight. Or, I’m excited by the prospect of it, even if I don’t believe in it. In Déjà Vu, people fall in love before they meet! People think I’m spiritual, but I’m not. I’m a regular Jewish atheist. I don’t have any beliefs. But some part of me yearns, and my films are all about yearning. My mother was a yearning person. I realize the essential truth of my being is that I’m always yearning even if I don’t know what I’m yearning for. Most folks yearn for love.
GMK The thing I like most in your films, especially Last Summer in the Hamptons, is the dinner table scenes. Why do you construct these gatherings to get groups of people (families, friends, co-workers) together to open up and discuss their emotional issues?
HJ For exactly that reason! When you put people in that setting, you are freeing them to go from the general to the intimate at an incredible speed. Have a meal and things happen that don’t seem arbitrary. I make films that take place in a day or a week and have everyone come into one environment. It’s emotional when people are forced together to interact—antagonisms come out. The closer the quarters, the more you see what comes out of people.
My next film, Ovation, was shot entirely in this theater where we did the play The Rainmaker. I decided that what’s interesting is not onstage but backstage. You never see the play in the film. That gave me inspiration. I have to create a story that takes place entirely in the theater. There’s another reality, which is economics. I can’t have vast sets. I need things that take place in a limited area.
GMK One of the things I dislike in your films are some of the scenes that overplay an uncomfortable topic—as when Moxie is cramping in The M Word. I don’t take issue with your showing this, but sometimes I feel these scenes go on too long.
HJ That’s my favorite moment! I love it going on too long. It’s one of the things you don’t see or show, and she does it with humor to temper it. But it is a painful scene.
GMK The M Word also addresses ethical issues in Charlie’s relationship with Moxie. His affections for her may cloud his professional judgment, and her actions against the company may impact their romance. How did you see their personal-professional relationship?
HJ Good question. I am usually so ready to answer … . I don’t know that answer to it. I don’t how to put that into words.
GMK OK, let me close by asking you what Moxie asks her aunts in the opening sequence: “What is your emotional life like right now?” Are you in a good place? Is your body chemistry balanced?
HJ (laughter) I don’t know about the chemicals, I’ve always felt chemically balanced. I’m in a very happy place because Tanna and I got married in December after 12 years. We went together on a trip to Atlanta to do a segment for Turner Classic Movies. It was like a honeymoon. I’m in an extraordinarily good place. It’s great to have my muse be the person I love. I never thought those two things would come together.
1 Jaglom’s films since 1983 each begin with a different letter of the alphabet; Always, Babyfever, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, Déjà Vu?, Eating, Festival In Cannes, Going Shopping, Hollywood Dreams, Irene in Time, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway, etcetera.
Henry David Jaglom is an American actor, film director and playwright. The M Word opens April 30.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee