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Natalie Portman and the importance of having women as directors

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Natalie Portman stars and directs her first feature film, "A Tale of Love and Darkness".
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Natalie Portman stars and directs her first feature film, "A Tale of Love and Darkness".

The actress directs her first feature film, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," and talks about how directing has made an impact on her as a woman.

Natalie Portman's new film could be described as a challenge for the actress: she wrote, starred, produced and — for the first time — directed. 

“A Tale of Love and Darkness”  isn’t even in English, it’s in Hebrew.

The film is adapted by Portman from the memoir of the same name by Amos Oz. The story unfolds as the state of Israel is being formed. Portman plays the psychologically troubled mother of a young boy who is the younger Oz, before he became a prominent writer.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Natalie Portman — who was born in Israel — about what inspired her to turn the book into a film, the challenges that come with being a first-time filmmaker, and how she wants girls in school to take a seat in the director's chair. 


When she realized she wanted to direct Amos Oz's book:

I immediately knew I wanted to direct it. I talked to Amos pretty soon after reading it and he agreed to let me do it. But, originally, I wanted someone else to write it and then I met with all of these writers and they were all were saying, You have such a specific idea of what you want. Why don't you do it? So then I decided to write it myself. And then I was like, Well, I'll have someone else play the role of the mother, especially because I was in my late 20s then and felt too young for it. 

Then, no one wanted to give me money to make the film. By the time I sort of got my act together — and I was 31 I think when I finally started getting the film together for real — I felt like I was old enough to play the role and that helped me finance it. 

Why studios didn't want to finance her movie:

It was the typical thing of: How is this commercial? Then it was: You're purposing to make a film with no known actors, in Hebrew, and it's your first time directing. So when I added myself into the project as an actor, it gave them something that they thought could maybe get attention. 

On easing into the director's chair:

As a director you're asked what you want a thousand times a day. Jill Soloway has actually been really eloquent talking about how directing is desire and an expression of desire. I think that's so right on and it's really saying what you want all the time. I found it so hard for myself at the beginning when someone would say, What color do you want this? And I would be like, Well, I'm not sure but I think maybe...

I knew exactly what I wanted, but somehow it was hard for me to express it. Sometimes I would apologize for myself and say, I'm sorry but I'm not sure that's right, and then I realized that was completely inefficient and impossible when you're doing it all day long. You have to be direct, it's literally in the word of the job. You have to say, I want it like that, I want it like that, I want it like that, and be precise and exact and brief. 

Why Portman had a difficult time "directing" people: 

Well, I felt it was part of my socialization. Somehow I felt like I shouldn't be bossing people and it felt like there was something in me — related to being female — that was hard for me to say, I want it this way, and feel comfortable with that. Of course, after one week I could do that, but that's why I feel like it would be great if this was just something that all girls [could do]. Maybe all kids — who knows? Maybe boys have the same thing. I only know having been a girl what that experience is like. But it felt like it was a great school for just saying what I wanted. 

Not being afraid of being called the "b-word":

I don't know, necessarily, that I'm afraid of being a bitch as opposed to wanting to be perceived as nice, more than anything. But then you realize that being direct with people is nice. When people who are looking to you for direction and are looking to you for guidance are given specific, clear instructions, that's easier for them and that makes their life better. 

The directors Portman found helpful:

Anthony Minghella, when I worked with him for only 10 days on "Cold Mountain," was one of the most influential people. He was one of the ones I saw for the first time give another actor a different line from the script just to get a reaction. 

When I was doing that scene — I have a sick baby in the film — he had Jude Law say to me, when it was on my close-up and Jude was off-camera: "I think your baby is dying." Which wasn't a line in the movie, it never became a line in the movie, but it got a reaction out of me. So that was an example of something that I totally copied and stole from him. And I have many things like that from directors that I've been lucky enough to work with. 

Finding her voice as a director:

It's of course your own vision as opposed to helping someone else realize their vision. I was a child actor, that might have also colored the way that I was an actor before directing. If you come into it as an adult, then you feel more right to discuss and challenge and questions. As opposed to when you're a kid, you're more obedient. 

Becoming a director definitely helped give me my voice and give me the feeling that I could say exactly what I wanted. And like that Jill Soloway stuff, she talks so much about how we have a problem in this country ... with female desire for sex, for food, for anything. And creating art is an expression of your desire. 

Film so far has been male desire and it's our turn now to become comfortable with that and express it. Also, I feel like having been living in France for the past few years, there's as many female filmmakers there as men, and women are much more comfortable with their desire there. That's very much a part of being a French woman — being sexual and loving food. 

So the connection that Jill Soloway makes is very defensible. 

"A Tale of Love and Darkness" is in select theaters on Aug. 19. 

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