Jenny Lumet
“[Jonathan Demme] said that all [the] mechanical stuff will liberate you to get to the honest part, and he’s absolutely right. You can only be free in the science of it.”
When Truth Comes a-Callin’
Written by Dylan Callaghan

When a screenwriter bucks the long odds to actually get a feature script produced, it is unlikely that they will see many, if any, of their creative fingerprints left on it when it eventually hits the silver screen as a finished film. Then again, most maiden trips from page-to-screen are not personally shepherded by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme.

Jenny Lumet, daughter of directing lion Sydney Lumet, earned that rare stewardship with her

bracingly authentic script for the new film Rachel Getting Married, which stars Anne Hathaway and is directed by Demme. Though entirely fictional, the film oozes with Lumet’s own fast-talking, teeteringly comi-tragic realism. She is quick to point out that Demme worked with her extensively, helping her hone her original draft into a shooting script. Demme helped her use the structural screenwriting tools she says freed her narrative truth. The result is a film wholly made of Lumet’s unique perspective.

A single mother and grade school drama teacher, Lumet spoke -- in the same herky-jerky, bluntly funny and at times explosively profound style reflected in Hathaway’s character Kym in the film -- to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the gift of Demme’s instruction, and how, though Rachel is a family dramedy, it’s got a surprising vein of post-modern Western in it too.

I’ve read how excited you were to learn that Jonathan Demme would direct this, your first produced script, but beyond the understandable excitement to have someone of his caliber direct, what specifically about Demme and his films did you feel fit this unique story?

It was pure hubris on my part sitting there in my house with my son watching Sponge Bob, saying, “I know I’ve never had a produced screenplay before but, yeah, Jonathan Demme, he’ll love it!”

Photo: © 2008 Sniscak Productions, Inc.
Anne Hathaway (left) and Anna Deavere Smith in Rachel Getting Married.
In all of his movies, all of his women -- even though they’re completely nuts -- are heroic. I knew that all the characters in this movie are kind of a pain in the ass and the director would have to love them or else it’s just wouldn’t work. I thought it had to be him because of that.

This story touches on many subjects -- sisters, family, addiction, and race. What is this story about to you?

That’s a really good question. That’s the question they say you have to know in order to bother writing a script. I learned that like 100 years ago when I took Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar when I was 24. He was like, “What’s your movie about?” and I was like, “Um, well, um...” I couldn’t answer.

I think of it as a family story. Yesterday my son came up with the term a “family bomb” or like a family grenade; someone tosses one up and the pieces are going to fall where they may. A lot of times it exposes the truth, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s all for naught. Kym comes home and she’s a grenade, and she also has a couple in her pocket and she tosses them all over the house. I’m interested in that. I’m also interested in the idea of forgiveness. This is a forgiveness story but not in a heartwarming way. I’m kind of allergic to heartwarming.

You don’t like the treacle.

I would love some. I just haven’t run into much. I mean, I’ve had a lovely life, but it hasn’t been treacly. I don’t think people run into treacle that often, which isn’t to say that we wouldn’t love a great heaping scoop of it. I was thinking of forgiveness and families and what people are truly capable of. If this person was not a member of your family, would you be able to forgive them?

Kym is an interesting character because, funny as it sounds, she has this neo-Western hero thing going on...

Because she comes swaggering into town and blows shit up...

She blows shit up, and is she good? Is she bad? Has she done bad things or is she misunderstood and wounded? What was your intention with her as a character?

I love everything you just said so much. I wish I had freakin’ known that, the whole neo-Western thing, because then I could have said it. Can I steal that?

Sure, but it might be the most idiotic thing...

No, no, no, she’s like this completely unstable, mysterious gunslinger who comes into town and does crazy shit.

Surprisingly, this movie does have that frame to it.

Yeah. Well, I see Kym as an unstable gunslinger who comes into town... [Seriously], I never think the truth is pretty. I think when the truth comes a-callin’, you should duck for cover ‘cuz it’s gonna get ugly, which is not to say that the other characters are liars. They’ve been living the best way they know how and doing the best they can in the face of the tragic loss of a child and the tragedy of the family itself. Kym decides, for better or worse, that they need to do something different. That’s how I thought of her.

It’s hard to sort out how much of her actions are driven by ego and vanity, that she’s not getting enough attention, and how much stems from love and the desire to make things healthier for her family. Where do you place her on the spectrum?

I don’t place her anywhere because I think that people do shit like that 24 hours a day. She’s not a hero, and she’s not that bad guy. I’m sure that a bunch of it is ego and vanity and a bunch of it is a genuine desire to present her truths. I think all of us are like that, especially in families.

When you were working with Jonathan on the script, what was the most profound lesson about screenwriting you took from that?

He said, for this story in particular, if you don’t know what to do, go toward the truth. The stuff that he taught me was very particular: “Look at this transition. If you don’t fix this transition on page 35, you’re going to be screwed.” It was very particular, which was amazing. I personally love that stuff.

The solid, mechanical, structural stuff?

Absolutely. He said that all this mechanical stuff will liberate you to get to the honest part, and he’s absolutely right. You can only be free in the science of it. It would be hugely pompous and pretentious of me to make big sweeping statements about this stuff, but I can tell you what I learned from that guy, who’s a smart guy. You know, it’s called the arts and sciences, and he said, “Maybe you should have the science along with the art and have the art along with the science.”

I say that very carefully, being a fledgling screenwriter.

But now that you’ve been produced, you know everything, right?

Yes. I know every freakin’ thing in the universe.

I’m gonna make you sound really immodest here.

Ok. Right on. I’m changing my name to David Lean. I’m Jenny-David-Lean-Paddy-Chayefsky-Lumet. How can I help you? Who are you again?

Give our readers an unvarnished idea of what it was like in the trenches when you were alone writing this script before you hooked up with Demme.

It sucked. It sucked in the sense that, it would be lovely if writing was done in a room full of people telling you how wonderful you are, plying you with M&M’s and showering you with cash. But you know, it doesn’t freakin’ work that way. I have a son, I have a home, I have a mortgage, I teach in school, so you work when you can. You have to learn to take advantage of the time you have because you don’t have that much. When you have kids, it’s a different universe.

There are moments of total joy when you’re really pleased with yourself because you wrote something funny or you wrote something clever, or hopefully, you wrote something brave and honest. I really loved having written much more than I enjoyed the writing.