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Acting Since She Was A Child, Amber Tamblyn Is Now A Director


Actress Amber Tamblyn has been in films and on TV since she was a child. She spent years on the daytime drama "General Hospital." She's one of the famous "Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants." And she's a published author as well. Now she's a director. "Paint It Black" is the story of two women locked in grief over a suicide. Amber Tamblyn joins us now from New York.


AMBER TAMBLYN: Hi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the story of two women, Josie, whose boyfriend Michael commits suicide, and Michael's mother, Meredith. Can you describe for us who they are?

TAMBLYN: Josie, played by Alia Shawkat, is a young, punk rock artist who lives in Echo Park. You know, she's a nude model for a living. And the mother is played by Janet McTeer. And she's a world-famous concert pianist who's incredibly wealthy, and she lives up in the Hollywood Hills.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They both seem to have something to prove when it comes to their relationship with Michael. Can you set up the next clip for us?

TAMBLYN: Yeah. So the clip you're about to hear is the first time that Meredith goes over to Josie's house, where Josie lived with Michael. She basically talks Josie into letting her into the house so she can see where her son lived, as they had been estranged for a little while. And so - she's not necessarily a nice person. She's sort of the villainess of the film.


JANET MCTEER: (As Meredith) Senor music...

ALIA SHAWKAT: (As Josie) Yeah. Michael used to play piano for, like, kids dance classes, so they called him Senor Music.

MCTEER: (As Meredith) Michael (laughter)? Michael abhorred children.

SHAWKAT: (As Josie) He didn't hate children. We even talked about having a baby.

MCTEER: (As Meredith) Well, thank God for small mercies.

TAMBLYN: Another thing about that clip is that it's really about them controlling the memory, right? It's about - when someone leaves our life, no matter how they leave, but especially in a situation where someone takes their own life, there's a lot of questions that linger. And there's a lot of pain revolving around why. And so for these two women, it's very much about filling in the blanks of who he was, what he meant to them. And the more they try to do that, the more they sort of get sucked into this twisted relationship that reflects equal parts blind trust and need.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The film is really dark. It's gritty. It has a really particular style. Were you able to translate what was in your head when you read the novel on which this is based to the screen? I mean, did it sort of appear fully formed?

TAMBLYN: I would say yes. And, you know, while it is dark and gritty, I really want listeners to know, too, that it's not humorless. You know, this is...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not (laughter).


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're right (laughter).

TAMBLYN: This movie really falls into the category of like "Sunset Boulevard." I've described it as if David Lynch directed "Grey Gardens" or even Quentin Tarantino. Like, there's - there are parts of it that are so incredibly insane that it kind of makes you gasp and laugh at the same time. And that's what I felt from the book. Janet Fitch, who wrote "White Oleander," this was her second book, "Paint It Black." And I read it almost 10 years ago and was so blown away by the way she was able to capture interior pain and violence inside of a woman's head - what she thinks about, how she wants to destroy others and destroy herself. And I thought, wow, if there's a way that I can make a movie that represented that - and by that I mean that the film itself feels like an experienced grief, not just that it's two women grieving on screen. If I could find a way to make a movie that did that, it would be really special.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I want to talk a little bit about how this movie came to be. First of all, I heard that Amy Poehler gave you the book.

TAMBLYN: Yeah, she did.



TAMBLYN: She's a little-known comedian. She's...


TAMBLYN: ...Coming up in the world. But people are going to hear about her any day now. She's very funny.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) But even though you are someone who's very well-known, you had trouble getting Janet Fitch to give you this book to make. Tell me how that process unfolded.

TAMBLYN: As any writer might be a little cautious, she had already had a book...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First-time director.

TAMBLYN: First-time director but also, she didn't know me from anybody. And here's this actress who's saying she wants to turn your book into a film, but she has no experience in that. But I think maybe it was the better part of, like, a year and a half - yeah, a year and half...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's pretty persistent.

TAMBLYN: Yeah. She made the mistake of giving me her home address. So I sent her letters for months. And...


TAMBLYN: Yeah. And one of the main things about this book that really attracted me to it was the essence of classical music. My grandfather, Alexander Murray, was the master violinist of the LA Philharmonic. So I grew up around a lot of classical music, and that really spoke to me. So I wanted to send Janet a copy of my grandfather's music, and so I did that. But then I just kept sending her letters and telling her how much I saw this film. And I'm third generation, born and raised in Los Angeles. And if anyone was ever going to try to make this a movie, it should be me, you know. I was very cocky about it (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been a lot of discussion about the lack of female directors. So I'm curious - now that you are one, why is it important to have women directing? What do you bring to the material that's different, or should we even be looking at it in that way?

TAMBLYN: I think we have to look at it that way until women are not policed. Until then, gender matters to me. It matters very much. It's a part of every and any conversation that I have. I think that women's voices need to be a part of the conversation so that we can see what the film industry looks like when it is more equal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you learn something about yourself directing that you didn't know as an actor?

TAMBLYN: I think there's a lot to learn about making decisions, artistic decisions. You know, when you're acting, you don't have control over anything. You have control over the character you're creating, but that's it. So I've always felt a sense of powerlessness and pain when something doesn't succeed that I put a lot of energy into.

And one of the great things for me about directing and writing and all that stuff is that it belongs to me, and I live or die by my own failures or successes. So even if "Paint It Black" turned out to be a mediocre film at least I could say I gave it my all. And that, to me, feels more important than anything else. But then when you do find something that really succeeds and really clicks with people and connects with people, it really does give you this sense of ownership over your own art and your ability to make bigger decisions about your path in life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Amber Tamblyn. She's the director of "Paint It Black," out now. Thank you so much.

TAMBLYN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.