Amber Tamblyn On Female Intuition in Hollywood

The actress, writer, and director learns to listen to her gut after years of being told she's wrong.

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We were hunting for the perfect place for a rich boy's funeral. It was a particularly hot day in Los Angeles. Two crows perched on a Styrofoam plate in a trash can, and the cement seared the hemp-shoe soles of passing hipsters. I was on foot with several crew members doing a location scout for the film I co-wrote and was about to direct, Paint It Black, based on the brilliant novel by Janet Fitch. We passed a parked car on the street with a young girl curled up like a shrimp in the passenger seat, her face covered by her hands. Her father sat in the driver's seat reading a magazine quietly.

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Ms. Fitch's novel tells the story of a young punk artist named Josie who, after her boyfriend takes his own life, falls into a twisted relationship with the young man's wealthy, famous pianist mother, Meredith. It is a story of loss and grief but also a story of class. The funeral is one of the most gripping moments in the book, and I wanted the scene to be equally as visceral in the film. It would be the audience's introduction to Meredith, played by the singularly brilliant Janet McTeer.

The girl in a car. Curled up in the front seat. Head in her hands. Her father.

I love films with brazen emotional intentions, the kind that err on the side of heightened truth. I love films that allow you to feel something diametrically opposing without taking you out of it. Why am I laughing at this brutal murder? Why am I crying while watching some guy eat soup? I wanted this particular funeral scene to be different than most funeral scenes you see in movies. My cinematographer, Brian Rigney Hubbard, and I both knew we had to do something bold. We had to wrap our legs around the fine line between melodrama and drama and straddle it hard.

The girl. The car. Her father.

Brian and I agreed a funeral in a garish mausoleum would be a great place to showcase Meredith's wealthy world and make Josie (played by the magnetic Alia Shawkat), in her tattered fishnets and punk jacket, stick out like a sore thumb. In Ms. Fitch's book, Josie is attacked by Meredith at the funeral, an incredibly captivating and upsetting moment. It had to be equally as riveting in the film. In the book, the attack starts with a choke. In shooting the choking, I wanted the audience to feel both like the villain and the victim at once; to not just witness the violence but also feel themselves violent. The audience had to be Meredith choking Josie, and then be Josie, being choked.

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After the choking, Josie, panting and out of breath, tries to run away. In my mind and in our film, Josie would fall to the ground on the red runner carpet that runs up the aisle between the chairs of funeral attendees. I imagined Meredith — with her expensive furs falling from her broad shoulders and her mascara drooling down her cheeks — down on all fours like a wild animal, pulling the thin red carpet toward her like a long tongue, Josie still on it, desperately trying to crawl away.

The girl.

I was going to undo the decades of subservience I had experienced as an actress — the powerlessness, the hushing of a deep voice that was begging me to listen.

On the day we shot the funeral scene, we started running out of time sooner than we'd hoped. We had a shot list a mile long, and it was becoming clear we would need to cut close to a third of them. Cutting the rug-pulling sequence of shots seemed like the logical and rational thing to do. They could be perceived as luxury items, the types of shots you do after you get what is considered more important shots, like close-ups and wides. But my instinct told me not to cut them, that I had to see this concept through.

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Women are taught from a young age not to listen to their instincts. I've been acting for twenty years now, since I was eleven years old, and I have been told many times that what I was "feeling" was wrong. So this decision was a difficult one for me. But I knew that if I got what I had in my head right, it would be the most impactful part of the whole scene and, potentially, the film. No close-up, or wide, swooping crane shot, or insert shot would matter if I got the rug-pulling sequence right. A big if for a first-time filmmaker.

Then I remembered it.

I was thirteen years old, and my dad had taken me to an audition for a big film starring a big-name '90s actor, with an equally big director. There was no real scene to audition, because the character was that of a young girl being attacked by a predatory older man in a bedroom. The scene would only call for the last second of the attack before cops came in and saved the day. So there was just a meeting with the director, who was, obviously, a man — the vast majority of directors are.

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I was wearing a dark, wine-colored Betsey Johnson dress. I sat on a chair in the room. The director looked my body up and down. I remember his eyes. I remember he had a pimple on the lid of one of them. He said to me, "You look about the right age. You're starting to get breasts, I can see. That's nice. You're probably wearing a training bra now. Have you gotten your period yet?"

I remember these words verbatim. A deep shame flushed my body. I couldn't explain how I felt, or what I felt then, but I definitely felt it and the shame that came with it. I ran out of the room to meet my dad and wanted to go directly out to the car and leave. I started crying and saying I didn't want to do the movie.

I was a girl in a car. Curled up in the passenger seat. My father next to me.

A woman often misreads her own instincts as anxiety. We are told the phrase "listen to your gut," but then we are punished for doing so, or still told that it is wrong. We are explained to. We are taught from a young age that rational thought is more important than emotional thought, that this "gut" feeling we have should be saved for more womanly jobs like mothering and should not be applied logically. If a man tells you his gut instinct, it's seen as true intelligence. If a woman tells you her gut instinct, it's seen as impending drama.

I was offered the role a few days later. I told my father what happened in that room and he was furious. I didn't do the film.

I did, however, follow my gut and do the rug-pulling shots. I went meta: I went against the instinct to not listen to my instinct. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail on my own terms and by my own vision. I was going to undo the decades of subservience I had experienced as an actress — the powerlessness, the hushing of a deep voice that was begging me to listen.

I have been told the funeral scene in Paint It Black is one of the strongest parts of the film. I agree. I often think about my child self, that young girl who did not yet know her own strength, though she deeply desired it. Directing Paint It Black was more than an experience; it was confirmation of something I'd always known about myself. That I am limitless. And I'll never go back.

Amber Tamblyn is the author of three books of poetry, including the critically acclaimed best-seller Dark Sparkler. She is also the writer-director of Paint It Black, which hits theaters in LA and NYC on May 19, and she is currently starring in Gina Gionfriddo's play Can You Forgive Her? at the Vineyard Theatre.

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