Natalie Portman on Directing Her First Film, Nearly 10 Years in the Making

The actress reveals what she borrowed from Darren Aronofsky, Mike Nichols, Terrence Malick, and Anthony Minghella to make A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Caitlin Cronenberg

The Israeli writer, Amos Oz, spent years turning a deaf ear to the pleas of Hollywood producers who asked to adapt his award-winning 2002 autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Those producers don’t have Natalie Portman’s charm, though, or will. Portman traveled to Oz’s home in Jerusalem, the city where she was born, and put together a compelling case that convinced the author to give her permission to turn his book into her directorial debut (she also has a starring role). The film is based on Oz’s childhood, growing up in Jerusalem in the 1940’s and 50’s during the formation of Israel’s statehood. To distract them both from the ensuing war and the perils of everyday life, Amos’ doting mother Fania (Portman) would regale him with stories. The film is a poignant account of his life with his mother, who suffered deeply from PTSD and depression, which eventually led her to end her life.

“lDirecting] kind of felt intuitive after acting for 25 years,” says Portman, who speaks fluent Hebrew in the film. “But of course there were things completely new and foreign.” Here, Portman talks about preparing for the role, her most trying scene, and the directors who gave her tips along the way.

When you first read the book ten years ago, you knew immediately that you wanted to adapt it into a film. What was it about the story that initially struck a chord with you? The language itself was so beautiful and evocative, so I saw the film right away. And the story between the mother and son was so moving to me, I was so emotionally gripped by it. It takes place in a moment in history I had already imagined so much because of the family stories I heard growing up about my grandparents coming to Israel as refugees in the 1930s, to what was then British mandate Palestine. I had imagined it for so long that it felt very personal to me.

It took nearly 10 years to get production rolling. How did it all eventually fall into place? I started writing the screenplay when I was 27, but then I would go shoot a film, and leave it for months and come back and work on it. It took a while for me to say, “Ok, now is the time I’m really going to do this.” When we moved to Paris after my husband got a job there I realized it was my last opportunity to take my family and go to Israel for five months to prep and shoot the film. Things are different when you have a family as opposed to [being] a single girl. I thought, I don’t know when I’ll get the opportunity to do this again.

What propelled you to take the leap? I had gotten old enough to actually play the part myself, which was great and helped in terms of financing.

How closely did you work with Amos? To what extent was he involved in the production? He was really generous in giving me permission to do this at all. He told me two things. First he said to make my own film, rather than filming the book. Secondly, he said, “Don’t try to explain what my mother did, because that’s what other screenwriters who wanted to adapt the book who came before you did. They tried to come up with satisfying answers to make you understand why his mother chose her path.” So I tried to respect those things, and I showed him copies of drafts of the script as it progressed and he would give me notes, but they were always factual corrections, not creative ones.

Would he visit set? He visited set one day. It was too emotional for him so he didn’t stay very long. Then he saw the film and was really supportive and loving about it, which was a great release because I obviously admire and care about him and wanted to do him justice.

As a director, were there things that you borrowed from directors you worked with in the past? Absolutely. I’ve been lucky to work with great people, particularly Darren Aronofsky [who directed Portman in 2010’s Black Swan], how he tailors the direction for each actor, trying different techniques to see what’s most helpful for them. And Mike Nichols — he was always emphasizing story. He would say, “This is the moment when they fall in love,” or, “This is the moment that he realizes she’s cheating.” Anthony Minghella was also really influential; he was so kind and connected to everyone on set, and would change the actors’ lines, so you would be surprised and have natural reactions. He would have actors say dialogue that wasn’t from your scene just to get a reaction, so I stole that too.

What was the biggest obstacle as a director, especially this being your first feature? It was hard for me to express what I wanted to right away, people are asking you your opinions and guidance a thousand times a day, and my instinct was to apologize for myself and be wishy washy and just say, “I don’t know,” or, “you tell me,” but you can’t be that way as a director. You have to say, “This is how I want it.” You have to give clear and direct guidance, because they’re all there to help you make your vision. It definitely feels like a female thing to me, how I wasn’t comfortable being the boss right away. It didn’t come naturally to me, I had to learn it.

How would you get into character now that you didn’t have a director to turn to? I had to go so deeply into the whole story and history, and know all the details as director, which was actually helpful because I saw things that I normally wouldn’t have as an actor. I was looking at hairstyles and clothing from the time, whether or not there were street lamps and sewers on the streets, the kind of details you go into when you’re making a period film that are taken care of for you when you’re an actor. It makes you think about things in a different way. I was so deep in the whole story by the time we started shooting that it was a natural preparation.

Was there a director you whose advice stuck with you throughout filming? Visually, yes. I saw how Darren limited his color palette and made different colors represent different things on Black Swan. Terence Malick only liked dark colors on actors because he didn’t want to draw attention away from their facial expressions. Those kind of aesthetic choices were interesting to learn from. They definitely informed me.

Was there any specific scene in the film was unexpectedly trying or emotionally overwhelming? Yes, the scene when they’re doing the UN, it was one of the hardest. There were so many extras and it’s such a huge moment historically for all Israelis. Everyone who was there had heard their grandparents talk about what it was like being at the UN vote. It was this moment where all these refugees who lost entire families in Europe suddenly get this opportunity to have their own country and were able to fend for themselves for the first time. That was really challenging and also very emotional. Everyone was very moved getting to experience the recreation of it.

Do you still feel personally connected to Israel? I do, a lot of my family and friends live there. I go back at least once a year, and culturally it definitely formed a big part of my identity. It’s certainly a big piece of me.