Jenny Lumet – Rachel Getting Married

For writer and teacher Jenny Lumet, this has been a long time coming.  Her first screenplay to be made into a film, the Jonathan Demme-directed Rachel Getting Married, has made waves in the movie world, something that Lumet, daughter of Academy Award-winning director Sidney Lumet, didn’t necessarily see coming, but has enjoyed.

“I’m thrilled that the movie is touching a lot of people,” she tells me by phone from her home in New York City.  “I’m desperate to make connections with people; I believe in that.  I believe that’s why we’re on this freaking planet.  So, on that level, people saying, ‘Oh, this touched me,’ or ‘Oh, this moved me,’ that thrills me beyond anything.”
The film, which stars Anne Hathaway as Kym, a recovering addict who temporarily gets released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding, focuses on a family that tries to get through all the craziness that is a wedding. Rarely does the commotion subside for long.
It’s a movie that people will relate to because of the way it looks into relationships and how everything we do has a final result, whether good or bad. It’s not just about Rachel getting married. It’s more about a family and people coming together to discover more about themselves, and what that really means to them.
recently had a chance to talk with Lumet about the film, family, Jonathan Demme, and weddings in general.

I’m sure this is a big time for you.  You know, you wrote the screenplay for Rachel Getting Married and you got Jonathan Demme to make the film.

Isn’t that insane?

It really is. That last movie I saw from him was the Neil Young documentary.

Yeah!  Heart of Gold. That was wonderful.

And it seemed that he was in the mindset of just making movies like that. What were the conversations like with him after he read the screenplay?

Well, he’s very committed to being a documentarian. He’s doing a documentary now, and he did “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains.”  Which, if you haven’t seen it, you should really see it – it’s a huge eye-opener. And it was basically begging and pleading and, ‘please, please direct this movie!’ (laughs) I haven’t ever had a screenplay produced before, so I had absolutely nothing to lose, on one point. And also, I had the hubris of the totally ignorant.  Like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s get Jonathan Demme!’  But, I thought, I have nothing to lose, so…beg and borrow and steal, and crawl around in the dirt and debase yourself to get the script to Jonathan Demme.  And, it worked.  He was in a moment in his life where he felt like he wanted to talk about family. And he shot it like a documentary, so it’s not a departure from what he’s been doing lately.

Yeah, definitely.  The movie is sort of an ongoing documentary about the family.  And being a writer, you mentioned this was your first screenplay, but you’ve been writing for what, 12 or 13 years?  Does there come a point where you just have to go on what you feel – and you maybe had him in mind for this particular project?

My other screenplays, which, look, may have been really lousy, for what I know…it takes a while to learn how to do stuff. And I have a lot more stuff to learn.  But, for this screenplay, I thought, ‘it has to be Jonathan Demme.’ He was in my head the entire time.

It makes sense.  The storyline is pretty direct, but where did you find yourself thinking that ‘I’m going to write about a wedding.’

Well, I think weddings are insane. And I think people go completely demented at weddings and funerals, and I think it’s the best time to explore family dementia.  Because families are the best sources of material, ever. And there aren’t that many situations where the family finds itself all together and trying to be on their best behavior.  There are stakes just in the day – you don’t want to screw anything up, it’s a big deal.  So, you have stakes right there.  So, I thought, let’s see what horrible things can happen in a family, and let’s get everyone to talk about it on a really stressful day and see what happens.

And when you combine the element of…a big element of this movie is addiction.  When you combine that with the overall stress of a wedding…what are your thoughts of addiction in general?

Sure. I think, first of all, everybody has their own thing, and some people can manage it, and some people can’t. I mean, in this day of age especially, you know, some people are addicted to information – there are people who can’t leave their house without their Blackberry.  I know a lot of people who are just addicted to plain old drama. Like, how about a nice non-dramatic day?  No, no. (laughing) The vocabulary of addiction and rehabilitation, the specific vocabulary of it, is so in our language on an everyday basis, and so in our culture. I think that, for better or worse, talking about it and living with it is as every day as talking about going to the supermarket. But…have you ever seen the movie from the 1940s called The Lost Weekend? It’s a wonderful movie.  But, you know, ‘I’m an alcoholic, and it’s a big secret.” And now…it’s not like that anymore.  It’s not like that anymore.

A lot of people are going to relate to this film, and not just people who know someone who is an addict…they are just going to relate to the film with people.

Oh, I hope so. Thank you.  And everybody knows somebody who has been in the process or is dealing with the process as well. 

And also in this movie, the racial harmony – I know you didn’t set out to write a screenplay about that…but can you talk about that?

First of all, that’s what it looks like in my house – my mom is black, my dad is white.  I have a white cousin in California who married an Asian guy. My son from my first marriage, his dad is Cuban.  And my daughter from my second marriage, I married this nice Jewish boy.  So, that’s what it looks like in my house. I think what we all agree with somehow of what the American family is…it’s kind of a myth. The American family is you and your neighbor and the guy who you play video games with when you’re both feeling like crap. Whoever it is that it is your family – that’s your family. I didn’t set out to write an Obama movie! (laughs)  I didn’t set out to write anything like that, but that’s what my house and family looks like. And that’s also very much what Jonathan Demme – that’s how he casts.  You look at Married to the Mob, that was how many years ago? That was starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Sister Carol!  Who casts like that? Demme does.  And that’s completely to his credit.

The only thing that entered to my head, racially speaking, about this movie was that I’m a product of an interracial marriage – just because, you write what you know. So, should I make one parent one race, and another parent of these two girls another?  But I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to that,’ because if I do that, some person out there will decide that I’m making a statement that interracial marriage breeds addicted children. You know, some total bullshit like that. Race is not in the movie, it’s not about race. I think that’s really cool.

I think Demme did take some chances with who he cast in the movie.

Oh yeah, Like Tunde (from T.V. on the Radio)?  Do you have that album?

Yeah, wonderful album. 

I think it’s bad ass that he cast Tunde.  I’m glad he felt it would give him this kind of freedom.  But then again, he’s Jonathan Demme. He can do what he wants.

And Tunde singing Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” in the vows!

Yeah, originally it was supposed to be AC/DC, but they were too expensive!  Because I wanted him to sing, “You Shook Me All Night Long.”  I think that’s really funny to sing that to your bride. But AC/DC wanted a billion scillion dollars!

Well, I think it turned out well, especially that scene. 

Yeah, it did.

When you met Anne Hathaway (who plays Kym) for the first time, what was that like?  Did you have her in your head?

I didn’t have any actresses in my head. Most of those characters are abominations of people who I went to high school with, people who I grew up with, people you know – friends and family.  What I did know about Anne Hathaway was that in Brokeback Mountain, she was 19 years old.  And she played a character who aged from 17 to 40. That’s no freakin’ joke, that’s hard. And she did that. And someone like Ang Lee had faith in Anne Hathaway. And someone else had faith that she could hold her own opposite Meryl Streep, which she did. So, no matter whether or not she had played princesses, she was playing princesses with muscle like you wouldn’t believe. 

The only thing I didn’t know about Anne Hathaway was, ‘Does she talk fast?’ You’re listening to me, I talk fast, I’m from New York City. And the characters in this movie talk fast.  And I didn’t know if she was that way inclined.  And I met her, and she was like, “Oh my God, hi, can I have your fries?” (laughing) Ok, right on.  This is her.  This is exactly her.

And there is an important scene where it’s less frantic, where Kym comes back with a black eye.  I think that, for me, that scene showed there’s a moment of acceptance there. And also the end of the movie, how did that make you feel when you were writing that?

It made me feel in that very moment, they could be sisters, and everything that was beautiful about being sisters. And the end of the movie they could be sisters, and it could still be.  But what was important to me was that nothing be tied up in any bow.  Maybe a week later Kym would bust out of rehab and try to book a flight to Hawaii on someone else’s credit card.  I always think in families, you can have a beautiful moment and you hold onto it and love it, because the next beautiful moment could be four years from now when you’re both drunk together.  It never works out like ‘this shit’s all resolved, and we’re all fine, and every holiday it’s going to be like this with all of us cooking…’ No, for this half hour, it’s amazing, and then God knows what’s going to happen the next time we get together for Thanksgiving.

Yeah, you don’t know.

You don’t know…you don’t know.

And especially in a moment where Rachel, when her Mom is leaving, she says, ‘No, I just want my mother and my sister.’

Yeah….thank you for saying that.  I agree.  She tried for that moment, and she didn’t even get it!  I think that families are living and breathing things that move all the time like sharks. You never know what the hell they’re going to do.

Why do you think weddings are more about, ‘Let’s get this done and get it right,’ and not more about, ‘Let’s have a great time!’

I think that because of some weird perverse consumer culture that made this industry about how you have to do it right.  I don’t know whose ideas we’re following in this country in terms of…have you seen that show Bridezillas? Where do they get these ideas, it’s so random.  The rules seem so random and weird, and I think that they’re based on an industry that just wants to take people’s money. You know, you don’t have to do anything in your wedding except show up.  If you’re genuinely talking about a lifelong commitment with somebody, I think the last thing you should be thinking about is the freaking salad fork!

Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]

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