Jenny Lumet Is On A Roll

Amanda Guinzburg
Jenny Lumet

“Clarice is on a roll. Clarice has got control,” Thomas Harris writes of Clarice Starling, the strong female protagonist made famous by Jodie Foster in the film adaptation of his novel, “The Silence of the Lambs.” The same could be said of esteemed screenwriter Jenny Lumet, with her slew of exciting projects on the horizon, including the upcoming CBS series “Clarice,” which Lumet is co-penning and producing.

Lumet, the East Hampton-bred daughter of renowned film director Sidney Lumet and Gail Buckley, and granddaughter of the legendary Lena Horne, took quite suddenly to writing, after a few years of dabbling in an acting career “barely.”

“I mean, I was a bad actor,” Lumet clarified, with winning self-deprecation. “I was! I was just bad.”

Writing came much more easily. After penning a handful of screenplays with “no understanding of what the hell I was doing,” Lumet found widespread success and critical acclaim with “Rachel Getting Married,” the captivating family drama that garnered Anne Hathaway her first Academy Award nomination for starring in the film, and established Lumet as a writing force to be reckoned with. The empathy and specificity with which Lumet writes each of her characters give the impression that the film is based on true events, but it was largely a work of fiction; a testament to the writer’s creative instincts.

“It’s not that autobiographical in the sense that I don’t have a dead brother, and my mother never punched anybody, and that wedding never happened,” Lumet explained. “I mean there were absolutely elements of ‘family stuff’ — you draw on things — but I don’t think I could write 100 percent of my own ‘family stuff,’ because honestly, it wouldn’t be that interesting of a story. I thought this story was more interesting. But it was not a story that happened.”

“Rachel Getting Married” was a solo endeavor for Lumet, but she has since partnered with writer and producer Alex Kurtzman, whose many impressive credits include the latest “Star Trek” series, for which Lumet is also a writer. The partnership has been quite successful, which Lumet attributes not as much to sheer talent as to the way she and Kurtzman shore each other with complementary strengths and a similar no-nonsense approach to the creative process.

“It’s optimistic to think that anybody is ‘brilliant.’ It might sound awful, but I think I can safely say that the two of us are very much of the mind that you sit your ass in a chair, and you get the words on the page. You do your work. And if anybody’s brilliant, that’s really nice. But it’s better to have people who finish the job. We’re never like, two dueling geniuses. We’re more just like ‘Hey, okay, let’s get it done,’” Lumet said of Kurtzman and her writing dynamic. “A lot of it comes down to time management, and who can write what at what time. We don’t have a set pattern about how it works. The writing just finds its way organically, which is cool.”

The idea for “Clarice” occurred to the partners over a year ago, and had been a long time in the making. As is the nature of the business, there was much uncertainty about when, if, and how the project might come to light, so Lumet put her efforts into other projects. Then, “Clarice” landed.

The series, born from a love of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” and the source novel behind it, follows FBI agent Clarice Starling a year after the traumatizing events of the book and film. Writing a series which is, at its core, a sort of fan fiction based on such a well-known and well-loved character has been both daunting and exhilarating for Lumet.

“What’s wonderful about Clarice is that even though she makes this huge, extraordinary impact, there’s a lot about her that, certainly in the movie, wasn’t put out there. She sort of just jumps on a moving train. It’s very encapsulated in time,” said Lumet. She found herself asking, “Why is everybody else getting to talk, and not the woman who actually won? Who saved everybody?”

There’s more in the book about the heroine’s roots, but many questions have remained hitherto unanswered. The “fun part” for Lumet has been assembling the puzzle through a combination of what the book reveals, and creatively filling in the gaps.

“There are a lot of questions about her family, like ‘What happened after her dad died?’” asked Lumet, referencing the chilling scene from which the source draws its title. “You know, she had a whole life,” she continued enthusiastically, “and that’s something that’s worth exploring. So, that part wasn’t intimidating; the big challenge of it is internal. I think people will bring whatever they’re going to bring to this show, and I welcome it. I just hope to do right by it. I love this character deeply.”

Meanwhile, another much beloved movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” starring David Bowie, is also being adapted for series by the writing duo. While there’s no set shooting schedule yet, Lumet says the pair are “way up in it.” Though she admitted it’s somewhat stressful creating two shows at once, she enjoys the challenge, stating that both shows are “thrilling, very different, and equally weird in their own ways.”

Lumet enjoys wearing multiple hats, and wearing them well, but when it comes to the possibility of following her patronage into the realm of directing, her sentiments are clear.

“No! Yuck, yucky. That’s just so not my . . . I mean, yuck, eek!” she exclaimed, laughing at her instinctive reaction. She went on to explain that directing is “just never something that I’ve thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that!’ And that’s a relief, because I just can’t imagine . . . Oy. Just oy.”

With such a mastery of her characters’ dialogue, it’s no wonder that Lumet’s own words ring with the same piercing honesty. Her propensity for uncovering comedy within the drama, and truth within the comedy, has lent to some powerfully written projects that are both emotionally stirring, and intensely relatable.

Amidst the “Star Trek,” star-man, and Starling of it all, it’s all too clear that Jenny Lumet’s star is on the rise.

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