Jenny Lumet on 'Man Who Fell to Earth,' Telling Lena Horne's Story and Why She Hates Directing

Jenny Lumet
Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Jenny Lumet

Jenny Lumet is in love with Star Trek. And Clarice Starling. And telling the story of her legendary grandmother, Lena Horne. And exploring a new take on David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The prolific producer, the daughter of legendary director Sidney Lumet, never thought she would find herself as the co-captain of CBS All Access' sprawling Star Trek franchise and certainly didn't expect to move to California and, within two years, spend her time juggling five shows.

Lumet, who alongside friend and collaborator Alex Kurtzman, co-created CBS' Silence of the Lambs sequel Clarice and exec produces CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery and Patrick Stewart vehicle Star Trek: Picard. Up next, she's currently casting for The Man Who Fell to Earth while mulling just how personal Showtime's Lena Horne drama will be.

The busy Lumet joined The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg and Lesley Goldberg on the TV's Top 5 podcast for a wide-ranging interview that included why she has no desire to follow her father's footsteps and direct, how Clarice was born out of her own #MeToo experience and so much more. Below are experts from the full podcast interview.

Let’s start at the beginning with Clarice. How did this all come together and how did you collaboration with Alex Kurtzman get started? You’re doing like 17 different things with him.

It’s not a likely partnership. I met him in 2008 about the time when Rachel Getting Married came out. I thought, 'Who is this really nerdy guy in these khakis?' And we talked about nerdy stuff. The next time I met him, we became friends. We thought, 'Should we work together?' I thought, 'You do robots and I like to do really fucked up families.' So if you can find a way for a robot to be really mad at his dad …  and turn his back on the family legacy, great! [Laughs.] He got me into television by asking if I wanted to be a consultant on [Fox's] Sleepy Hollow. You find yourself moving to California after 52 years in New York and making television shows, which two years ago was on my radar at all. I had absolutely no idea that this is where I would be at the age of 54.

And now you are exec producing multiple Star Trek shows and co-created Clarice, among other projects, with Kurtzman. How did Clarice come together?

It was one of those weird Inception moments where someone, I don’t remember if it was Alex or me, said where is Clarice Starling? Jonathan Demme directed Rachel Getting Married and we didn’t have deep Clarice conversations. But it struck me: why hasn’t she said anything in 30 years? There were some complicated rights issues. MGM didn’t want to do it and they didn’t want to let anybody have [rights to] her. I have a weird encyclopedic knowledge of the Thomas Harris universe end I kept whipping them out. I was fascinated by what happens to you after you see that basement? What happens to you after you go through something like that?  The last time we saw Clarice, she had just graduated; she was a kid. What does that leave you with in the seven years between Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal? I couldn’t let go.

As you know with Star Trek, we are in a TV landscape where spinoffs and building franchises is increasingly important. Considering how big the Silence of the Lambs and Harris universe is, have you considered what a spinoff of this would look like? Or do the rights issues get in the way of that?

I am confident that I have seven years of story to tell about Clarice Starling because she was missing for seven years. People talk about let’s go find Amelia Earhart. I’d love to go find Clarice Starling. Tell me about her mother, tell me about her father, why did her mother send her away as opposed to the other kids in the family? Because she has siblings. How did those siblings survive after Clarice was gone? It’s 1993, there is no HR, there’s none of the language that we have. And she is in the middle of the world’s biggest frat house where everybody has a gun. And she is young, she’s attractive, she’s female and she’s famous and she just came off this huge victory. Like, everybody is going to hate her guts. What do you do with that? And you are particularly wired to speak monster. That’s intriguing.

If you do the math going back to the movie, you and Clarice are roughly the same age. Do you see that personal tie to the world that she was in, in the early '90s?

The life of Clarice Starling and my life could not be more different. But I did find this intriguing connection to Clarice that is not readily apparent but it is the first thing that smacked me in the head. It’s 2017 and it was a big #MeToo moment and I wrote a letter to The Hollywood Reporter. And because I wrote that letter, I met a woman who was in the same circumstance. She and I were in almost the same place at almost the same time with the exact same destiny mapped out for us. It’s a very particular sisterhood, it is very singular.  Now, Clarice and Catherine are the only two human beings alive who know what Bill’s voice sounds like, who know what Precious’ claws sound like on the floor of the stone well, who know what it smells like in there, who know how it echoes. That is a really deep and intimate connection. And completely singular. And then you put Ruth Martin into it. Ruth is the third part of a really wild triangle. What do you do with that when your daughter comes out of that, something that you can never understand but you kind of have to understand? I wanted to explore that. I thought that was cool as hell. I thought it was a cool thing to do with the energy that I was carrying around from the experience and a cool way to give voice to a really interesting little club. There’s more people in it than there should be in the world. But it makes you reach out. And it’s been pretty amazing writing this with this part living in it.

Did you have any trepidation about doing Clarice on a broadcast network considering the nature of the stories you want to tell with this character?

When we first came up with it, we assumed it would be a streaming show and David Nevins said it will have more impact on network. We went back and forth because there are more constraints on network. But then I thought well, f— it, it’s much more interesting to see what we can do within all those rules and regulations because that’s what Clarice is doing.  

Beyond Clarice, you're re-teaming with Alex Kurtzman on a Showtime limited series about your legendary grandmother, Lena Horne. How is the creative process for you going considering this is such a personal project?

I’m pretty deep in. My mother wrote some extraordinary books about the subject. And to have another person there to see the whole forest as opposed to the trees is helpful. Because I will talk about why does this woman have curtains from the Ritz Hotel in Paris from 1954 and is letting her dog, Nellie, pee on them? And then why is this woman wearing those tennis socks with the little pomp-poms and a pair of Roger Vivier’s red satin mules that he made for her with sweatpants and this Donna Karan top with this apron that says "KC Masterpiece" as she is cooking? It’s real diva stuff. She was pretty extraordinary. It’s pretty extraordinary in the detail. I find her quite fascinating as an artist.

How will you decide what's too personal and off limits on a script like this vs. what you want to share with the world?

I don’t know what’s off limits. Part of the story is people insisting that this woman be something for them. She had to freakin’ represent an entire community every time she brushed her teeth. I’m sure that a lot of people can understand what that feels like.  What is my responsibility in this endeavor? Who does it serve if I am protective because I am in love with her because she is an extraordinary person? Is she served by me being protective? Of course, there’s some stuff that it’s nobody’s f—ing business. But isn’t it more interesting if we see the cost of a life like that? That’s more interesting to me than the nobility of the week biopic.  I have a lot to say about what women of color have to go through on screen in order to get stuff made about them. I don’t need to see any more violence on Black bodies in my life. How about an exploration of a woman as an artist? That’s cool. And you can’t do that without looking at a whole person.  That said, my mother is going to say what she’s going to say.

How are you going to let somebody else direct that project? Or are you going to have to do it yourself?

I have no f—ing idea! Directing is the worst job ever. Ever! People always are asking you a question. When do you get to be left alone? So, no. I’ll just be the really annoying person next to the director, poking her. I’ll be horrible! [Laughing.]

Did you always grow up thinking that being a director was the worst job in the world? It seems as if you might have potentially seen some of the positives of being a director as you were growing up.

Yes, but dad left the house at 7 a.m. and we had dinner together at 6:30 every night. I always understood that people asked him questions constantly and it seemed like oyyy god. I get to write stuff and then I get to take a nap. That's my favorite part.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is starring in The Man Who Fell to Earth for you, Kurtzman and Paramount+. Why was that a project that you gravitated toward and how is that going to be different than the Nicolas Roeg movie with David Bowie?

We have been writing this for three years. The most extraordinary thing about that movie was that performance by that man. We knew that if we tried to chase Bowie in any way we were done because there is no one like that man. So, we went in a completely different direction with our alien. I was intrigued by the idea of an alien with virility. The Bowie character was quite passive; you could have made a series on observing howe we impacted him. I don’t think you could base a series on that. We needed our alien to be propulsive and forward moving. That is what the show is.

I don’t know what’s going on this year because I am in love with Clarice Starling, I am in love with Chiwetel Ejiofor, I’m in love with my grandma and I’m in love with Star Trek. I’m not sure what I did in my past life to reap the creative benefits of this year because I get to write for these characters and for my grandma. That is a joy that I never thought that I would get to experience. I’m an old Black lady, and they don’t let people like me do this shit. And here I am, doing it. [Laughing.]

For more on why Clarice can't say "Hannibal Lecter," the challenges of casting the iconic lead role and balancing serialized storytelling with its procedural elements, listen to the full, unedited interview with Jenny Lumet in the Feb. 12 episode of TV's Top 5,  below.