Amber Tamblyn on the subtext and queer themes of “Paint it Black”


Janet Fitch‘s debut novel White Oleander was a best-seller that was later adapted into a film receiving both awards and critical acclaim. Her follow-up, Paint it Black, is perhaps lesser known, but getting its due in its own big screen version directed by actress and poet Amber Tamblyn.

Amber Tamblyn with Janet FitchAmber Tamblyn Book Signing For "Dark Sparkler"Photo by Tasia Wells/Getty Images

Premiering tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Paint it Black stars Alia Shawkat as Josie, a young woman whose loss of her artist boyfriend, Michael, has her spiraling into emotional turmoil. But she’s not alone: Michael’s mother, Meredith, played by the perfectly steely Janet McTeer, is also violently grieving, which leads to a tumultuous relationship with the woman her beloved son spent all of his time with. 

Both the novel and the film are deep in subtext, and Josie also has lesbian friends like her bestie Pen, played by out actress Emily Rios. Amber herself has been a favorite of queer women throughout her career, from her lesbian role on Two and a Half Men, to her outsider aesthetic that rings true to the LGBTQ community. Paint it Black, Amber’s first turn as a filmmaker, is of that same ilk, with eccentric cinematic storytelling that is both dark and beautiful, just like the original novel.

We spoke with Amber about adapting the novel, the movie’s queer themes and why she’s always making out with Amy Schumer. I loved the book and then I loved the film, which was great because you never know when you love a book so much if the movie can match it and I was so happy it did.

Amber Tamblyn: You’re officially the first person who loved the book then, so that’s kind of major. You’re the first person whose a fan of the book who’s seen the movie so meaning, most people—it’s kind of, it’s one of—I mean Janet Fitch only has two novels, and that one was less read for some reason than White Oleander so. But it has such a rabid following in a great way. But yeah, most people just hadn’t read the novel yet, so. So you’re the first!


AE: I read an interview where you said the book was very cinematic, which I totally agree with. I would think that might make it a little more challenging, in a way, to then make it into a film. Can you talk about that?

AT: To me, I’m very interested in adaptations of books turned to stories for film that have a heavy protagonist narrative, meaning there’s less action, there’s more interior monologue, you’re hearing what the person’s say; a sort of first-person writing style. And while Josie’s character in the book is not written first-person, you’re certainly in her head the entire experience of it, questioning things, wondering if she is partly to blame because Michael took his life and all those things. And to me, those are the more challenging stories to tell probably, but I knew that. I relied heavily on the poet in myself and thinking like “Well, I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’m gonna try to do it and see what comes out of that other part of my life, and see if there’s a poetic way to tell this story that’s not so linear and isn’t exact in the book.” Because you know, huge parts of the book you just can’t tell. And one of the ways to do that was to almost completely remove the character of Michael from the film.

I’m going to be very curious to see how fans of the book feel about that because he’s a pretty large presence in the book and there’s a lot of flashbacks, and you really see him a lot and get to know him a lot. And one of the ways I felt like I could empower the grief and the emotional obsession between the two women in the film was to remove him so that the audience felt like they felt; the audience felt like “Why did he do this? Who was he?” And you as the audience member become informed solely by what these women are saying as opposed to seeing the truth of whatever the situation was. That’s one example I think in the adaptation.


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