Revisited: I Made a Movie to Save My Marriage and Then I Got Divorced

Actor-writer-producer Michael Tennant shares the complex personal backstory to his new movie, Pretty Problems.

Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.

Hi, my name is Michael, great to meet you. I’m an actor, writer and producer, and I made a comedy about my marriage because I was trying to save it. Laughter being the best medicine, no? That movie, Pretty Problems, won a few major film festivals, got distribution and came out in profit before it was ever released. And my wife left me a month after shooting.

Michael Tennant and Britt Rentschler in Pretty Problems.

I need to start this by saying I loved my ex-wife. I’m still heartbroken that we couldn’t make it work. That said, I was never going to be able to save the relationship by myself. It takes two. When one person stops trying, the weight is too much for the other to bear. The last year has been strange, to say the least. I’ve gotten to travel across the country and celebrate Pretty Problems. I’ve made a lot of new friends and memories, and connected with new collaborators. I’ve also had to go on a lot of these trips with my ex and her new boyfriend. He’s a very likeable guy, but it doesn’t change that this experience has turned Forgetting Sarah Marshall from a comedy to a horror story. It’s led me to this very John Cusack-talking-to-the-camera-in-High Fidelity question of “How did I get here?”

I’ve been unpacking this, forensically. So, from the beginning, I spent a lot of time driving around San Diego with my mom in her (gag me) green Peugeot, listening to Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being given a platinum-pass view of the life of a lonely woman. My mother had always wanted to be an artist, but because my parents had my brother when they were teenagers and were then subsequently kicked out of their Irish Catholic households, she’d been forced to abandon this dream to raise a child. My father was forced into work. First, he sold weed to musicians, then he graduated to selling Chinese slippers and rugs in bulk to department stores in southern California. What my family didn’t know was that there were drugs inside these containers. So, when the DEA raided our home early one October morning, none of us understood what was happening. My father was a patsy in a much larger scheme, but spent 90 days in a minimum security prison because of his involvement. He was allowed out to coach my Little League games and to go to work. This is when my brother and I started to become our mother’s keeper. For reference, my brother was 17 and I was nine.

A young Michael Tennant with his older brother and his mother.

When my brother left for college the following year, on a partial scholarship, my father found a new, more lucrative sales job. This was pre-internet, so he was able to get away with some “half truths” that wouldn’t fly now. My father traveled a lot during this time. I don’t mean a few days a week, I mean he flew a certain airline (#NoFreeAds) so much that when I got on planes with him, flight attendants knew not only his name but also mine, because they’d heard so much about me. He accrued so many miles, he had the option to get his name on the side of a plane. He declined. He was someone who liked to be seen and heard, but not remembered. This left me at home with my mother. By proxy, I became my mother’s partner. As my dad worked his way up the corporate chain, our life changed. Suddenly, we were living a very different life. We moved into a big house, my parents were driving nicer cars and things were very different from my early days of thrift store shopping. But this is when the distance really started between all of us. I routinely was left alone with my mother with the instructions from my father that I needed to “look after her.” I was in ninth grade at this point. There were a lot of weekends in high school where I was home with my mom instead of being at parties.

This is when I fell in love with indie film. My brother would recommend movies he was watching, and I would beg my mom to watch them with me. I blame this for my casual use of “fuck,” my love of all things with needle-drop soundtracks and my hopeless romanticism. These incredibly real stories where maybe the hero didn’t get the guy/girl, but learned something and was better for the experience … This idea of love led me to a lot of passionate but failed relationships. I spent my twenties vacillating between two types of partners: women who wanted to mother me and women I felt like I needed to save. My mother told me the latter was called White Knight Syndrome, and it wasn’t till my parents got divorced in my late twenties that I started really looking at this behavior. I was giving so much of my energy to other people that there was nothing left for me. I dug back into myself. I made myself a priority, probably to a fault. The fun thing about your parents getting divorced as an adult is you talk yourself into the idea that “I’m an adult. I can handle this.” Spoiler: you can’t. Instead of the kid gloves version of divorce I’d heard about from friends growing up (“Your mom and dad still love you, but …”), I got, “Well, she won’t have sex sober, and she doesn’t drink anymore,” with the chaser of, “He’s been fucking other women for years!” There’s a movie here, I just haven’t written it yet.

Michael Tennant with his mother now.

After a couple years of therapy and coming to grips with the bomb that had gone off in my life, I met my (now ex-) wife. She was so driven, funny and honest about her own demons. I didn’t have to pretend with her. I fell hard. We moved in together, rescued a couple dogs together, bought a home, got married, started a production company. If you’re reading that thinking, “Wait, what?” I’m with you. I went from actor to producer overnight. And then things started to fall apart. I loved my wife so much that I made myself small for her. I want to be clear that she didn’t ask me to do that. That was a decision my codependent self made. In hindsight, I spent so much of my thirties trying not to be my father, I became my mother. A martyr who subjugated myself in hopes that by appeasing my partner, my relationship would work. This is when I started hearing from my partner that I wasn’t pulling my weight. I was running our home, our business, taking care of our pups, her – and barely myself. But it wasn’t enough. I always thought being a good husband was going to be enough. God knows, my father being a shitty one was.

I’ve been saying, “I needed to reclaim my identity, so that’s why I made this movie.” But that’s not true. I wanted to show my wife that I could do this. I wanted to prove to her that I was capable of the things I had shown her when we’d met. I also wanted to showcase my very talented friends. I saw an opportunity to be the rising tide and I wanted to take it. We fought a lot about this. One day, she’d be on board; the next, she would be scared of the risk we were taking. I got so fixated on making this movie to prove something to her, I lost sight of what was being asked of me. She wanted me to have a life outside of our marriage.

Michael Tennant and Britt Rentschler in Pretty Problems.

Relationships only work when two people are moving in the same direction, separately but together. One of you is red, the other is blue. Blue and red need to move in the same direction; the magic moments are when you helix together and make purple. I was so desperate for purple, I stopped being blue. I just started taking care of red. I went from husband to house boy. It was easier for me to fall back into the pattern of caretaker than to stand on my own feet. Which brings me to balance.

Balance is only achieved when pressure is applied equally. When we find balance, we want to live in it, we don’t want to keep doing the work. I’m grateful to my ex for teaching me this lesson again; I’m grateful to her for giving me the support to write this movie and to empower an amazing group of women to make it. It’s always been a dream of mine to help female artists because I didn’t want anyone else to feel the way my mother did. Pretty Problems was a labor of love. It probably cost me my best friend, my marriage, my dog and my home. I also would do it again in a second. My divorce has given me the opportunity to reclaim my identity and was also a slap-in-the-face realization of “Just because you did the work once doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep doing it.” The most you can ask of yourself and your partner is to keep trying. I never thought I’d get married after my parents split. When I stood in front of my family and friends and professed my undying love to my wife, I didn’t think we would ever split up. Life happens. All you can do is keep trying.

Featured image shows Michael Tennant and Graham Outerbridge in Pretty Problems. Photo courtesy IFC Films.

Michael Tennant was born and raised in San Diego, California, and attended the University of Arizona (the Harvard of Arizona) where he graduated with a BFA in both Acting and Directing. After graduation, spent the next four years hustling as an actor in New York City, where he did his requisite episodes of Law and Order, wore a peacoat, and then decided he missed having a kitchen and returned to the West Coast. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, he booked leads in multiple pilots as well as guest starring roles for ABC, NBC, Nickelodeon, and The CW before also working as an actor/producer/writer on productions for STX, IFC Films, Amazon, Neon, and Netflix. Pretty Problems, which he wrote, starred in and produced, has won a number of awards, including the Audience Award at SXSW, and is out now in select theaters and on VOD through IFC Films. He currently resides with his dog Leroy in Los Angeles. They have a very nice kitchen.