How Sarah Polley fought on-set sexism with ‘Women Talking’

Sarah Polley wasn’t actually searching for a mission to direct when she was approached about adapting Miriam Toews’ novel “Women Talking” into a movie. Because the launch in 2012 of “Stories We Tell,” a deeply private documentary about Polley’s late mom, the Canadian filmmaker has spent many of the final decade centered on elevating her three kids, now 10, 8 and 4.

Although she wrote “Alias Grace,” a restricted sequence based mostly on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the identical title, Polley had chosen to not direct something as a result of, she mentioned, “I didn’t think I could direct a film with kids the age mine were and be a present parent.”

However producers Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand, who wished a writer-director to steer “Women Talking,” made an attractive provide: “‘Let’s just rewrite the rules,’” Polley recalled them saying. “‘Men have written these rules in the film industry and created absurd expectations of hours that are not conducive to families.’ I realized they were willing to break a model and build a new one to allow me to come back, and that was a really big deal.”

Ben Whishaw stars as August, from left, Rooney Mara as Ona and Claire Foy as Salome in director Sarah Polley’s movie “Women Talking.”

(Michael Gibson / Orion Releasing)

Polley wrote and directed “Women Talking,” which stars Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara as girls reckoning with an epidemic of sexual violence that has devastated their insular group. For the previous baby actor, who made her directorial debut with the heartbreaking Oscar-nominated function “Away From Her” in 2007, being behind the digicam once more was extra thrilling than she may have predicted.

“I loved it so much it was embarrassing,” Polley mentioned throughout a latest journey to Manhattan, the place she confessed to extra ambivalence about being away from her husband and youngsters in Toronto: “We’re just not used to it.”

Primarily based on Toews’ novel, which in flip was impressed by actual occasions at an remoted Mennonite colony in Bolivia, “Women Talking” follows a gaggle of ladies as they grapple with the invention that males of their religious spiritual settlement have been drugging and raping girls and ladies — assaults that had been dismissed because the work of Devil or maybe “an act of wild female imagination.”

Over the course of a tense two-day interval, the ladies convene in a hayloft to debate their choices: Do nothing, keep and battle, or depart. Although the ladies can’t learn, know little of the surface world and differ dramatically in temperament, their conversations are productive — radical, even. (A lone male ally, performed by Ben Whishaw, is there to take minutes for them.)

Filmed in a desaturated palette — meant to evoke “a faded postcard of a world that’s already past,” Polley mentioned — “Women Talking” is gripping in its personal proper but additionally operates as an allegory about collective feminist motion towards sexual violence.

The movie builds on themes of trauma and reminiscence which have infused Polley’s earlier work, together with “Away From Her,” which regarded on the results of Alzheimer’s on an extended marriage. And it arrives just a few months after the publication of the essay assortment “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory,” wherein Polley displays on painful ordeals together with her mom’s loss of life when she was 11, baby stardom, bodily illnesses resembling scoliosis and an alleged sexual assault as a teen.

“They’re all stories about recoveries, and moving through something. I didn’t need to do a trauma dump,” Polley mentioned. “But what was interesting to me was this conversation between the past and the present — this idea of memory, and how our memories can be shaped by our current life, as much as our memories shape our current life.”

Along with shorter hours, how did you make the set extra conducive to household life?

I grew to become decided to not create a stressed-out work atmosphere. A part of the strain cooker of being in movie and having youngsters is that this emergency-room mentality to all the things, which is so absurd. Making a extremely aware choice to attempt to defuse that wherever potential made an enormous distinction.

Had been there moments when it felt like what you had been doing by making an attempt to enhance the tradition on set echoed what the ladies are doing within the movie?

We had been continually making an attempt to determine new fashions of how the movie set can be run and the best way to talk. It was a extremely attention-grabbing experiment, as a result of the spirit of the movie stored infusing the method and vice versa. It was extremely harmonious. However when there have been disagreements, we needed to comply with the fundamental tenets of the movie: We’ve to listen to one another, we have now to be prepared to vary our minds, and we have now to take duty after we’ve misstepped. What you couldn’t do within the context of this movie was freak out and stroll away from somebody.

A close-up portrait of a woman with glasses

Sarah Polley.

(Christina Home / Los Angeles Occasions)

Within the time that you just’ve been away from filmmaking, the business has gone by way of some huge modifications. Might you’re feeling that distinction?

It had modified massively. I simply was so used to the feel of a movie set being a lot about informal sexual feedback, jokes that you just sort of laughed together with however made you squirm. I didn’t understand how oppressive that atmosphere of fixed informal sexism and misogyny had been till it was gone. It’s not prefer it’s all solved, however there’s a sort of public-facing acknowledgment that this isn’t acceptable. I felt like I used to be additionally now not apologizing for being a director. A lot of the crew had been actually acclimatized to the truth that there was a girl director, or pretended to be. I did have a few incidents the place I confronted what felt like a misogynist dismissal. However the distinction was this time everybody rallied round me instantly. I wasn’t feeling remoted or loopy.

We don’t see any assaults on this movie, solely the aftermath. Inform me about that call.

I by no means thought of together with the assaults. I feel it’s a giant choice to indicate sexual assault on movie and I feel it must be made actually fastidiously. I can’t consider an instance the place I felt prefer it was significantly additive to my expertise watching a movie; it often feels pointless. What was most essential was the aftermath of those assaults, what they needed to course of. Not the small print of the assaults themselves.

What had been your priorities in casting these roles?

Usually I’d have somebody in thoughts and understand they may play two or three roles. So the place would I put them within the firm? It was an actual puzzle. We additionally had been actually aware of casting in keeping with character, as a result of we wished to create a collective mentality. If there had been one ego that took over that hayloft, we’d have been lifeless. Nobody was allowed to have a sew of make-up. And in order that already eliminates plenty of actors. Lots of people, I’m 100% sure, wouldn’t have agreed to it, or they’d have slapped some make-up on their face in secret.

The guide is loosely based mostly on an actual sequence of occasions that befell in a Mennonite group in Bolivia. To what extent did you draw from that world when creating the look and the texture of this movie?

We wished it to be as genuine as potential by way of the wardrobe and the manufacturing design. We had been very cautious to be particular to the colony the place this befell. On the identical time, we don’t ever say the phrase “Mennonite,” as a result of I didn’t wish to give folks extra of a purpose to distance themselves from these points — to say, “This is something that could only happen far away in this culture we don’t understand.”

The ladies face three choices: Do nothing, keep and battle, or depart. What do you suppose your intuition can be on this state of affairs?

My intuition, I do know, would have been to remain and battle. However the course of of constructing this movie modified me sufficient that I’ve shifted in direction of the concept it’s higher to construct a brand new desk than get a seat at a rotten one.

There’s one thing so easy and but so radical about this movie. We not often see films which can be simply girls speaking. Did that make it laborious to search out references or touchstones while you had been making it?

I used to be within the concept of those seminal, epic, muscular dramas. Every so often, we’d tackle the tone virtually of a western. Unconsciously, there’s a hyperlink there for me — we didn’t get that second in movie historical past from girls’s factors of view. So we have now to rewind and go backwards and reclaim a little bit bit.

When did you determine that you just wished to jot down and direct relatively than act?

The one factor I knew from once I was 7 was that I wished to be a author. [Acting] was one thing I had fallen into as a child by way of my household. I don’t suppose it’s the place I’d have discovered myself if I had been left to my very own volition. I used to be by no means comfy with the general public facet of being an actor and other people feeling possession over me. I keep in mind being enthusiastic about performing once I was little, however then rapidly, not. I used to be locked right into a sequence contract [on the Canadian series “Road to Avonlea”] once I was 9, and dealing on “Baron Munchausen,” which was terrifying, once I was 8. I used to be fairly over it by that time.

“Baron Munchausen” was a famously chaotic manufacturing. Did that have inform the best way you’re employed as a filmmaker?

[Laughs.] The best way I arrange units is the other of all the things that occurred on that set. I’ve a extremely shut pal who grew up in a extremely tough family. I requested her just lately, “Why did you become such a good mother when you had no model?” And she or he mentioned, “It was actually amazing, because I knew exactly what not to do. It was like an instruction manual in what not to do.” My time on “Baron Munchausen,” and an entire host of different units, was a great instruction guide — in the event you do the other, you then’re in all probability protected.

A woman wearing a COVID mask looks at the monitor of a movie camera.

Author-director Sarah Polley on the set of “Women Talking,” tailored from the novel by Miriam Toews.

(Michael Gibson / Orion Photos)

How do you strategy working with kids and younger folks now?

I typically keep away from it and make the times as minimal as potential. I simply have a coverage that the youngsters’ well-being goes to be extra essential than the shot always. And if meaning not getting a shot, we don’t get the shot. It’s not the top of the world. We had a coverage on set the place if a child obtained bored or uncomfortable in any approach, we simply stopped. They may both take a break or go house, it was as much as them.

I’m nonetheless not satisfied [it was OK]. I really feel like we did all the things we presumably may do to make it a protected, completely satisfied place for them. However I can’t management what their house life is like or what pressures they really feel to be doing this. You’re placing a child in an grownup atmosphere with out figuring out what the mother and father’ intentions are or how effectively they’re being cared for. I’m by no means going to really feel OK having a child on set. I can say fairly confidently that the youngsters on our set had fun in keeping with them now. However I’ll ask them after they’re 40, and I’ll get a extra correct reply.

How do you take a look at your mother and father’ choice to allow you to act professionally as a toddler?

My mother and father didn’t have the life I’ve, so that they didn’t have the data I do of what it means to be a toddler actor. I can see how simply you possibly can see a window right into a world that you could’t get your child entry to a different approach. There’s additionally a category situation right here. Loads of the youngsters on units — and I used to be one in every of them — our college schooling wasn’t all taken care of. It’s very easy to guage, from my place now, a mum or dad who makes that alternative. However to somebody who hasn’t been within the business and doesn’t know what the pitfalls are, it’s comprehensible how anyone may go down that street.

You’ve ended up in a great place in comparison with plenty of former baby actors. Do you might have ideas about why?

I had plenty of luck, having my profession decide up once I was 18 in Atom Egoyan’s movies. My household was within the movie business so I had connections. There’s little doubt that if I hadn’t had these benefits, I’d have fallen off the rails.

Women in modest dresses and head coverings gather in a hayloft

Rooney Mara, left, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in director Sarah Polley’s movie “Women Talking.”

(Michael Gibson / Orion Releasing)

Loads of your work is anxious with reminiscence.

I’ve a principle that if a factor retains popping up, it’s as a result of it hasn’t actually been resolved — there’s a unconscious drive to mine that territory. I’m in all probability going to be making movies about [memory] and writing books about it till I’ve gotten to the underside of it.

I had this actually attention-grabbing expertise with my 8-year-old the opposite day. Their task had been to jot down a narrative about their life. They usually wrote the story about how they’d this main tongue laceration [when they were younger]. And I used to be like, “Oh, how did you tell the story?” My child mentioned, “I told the story of how my my tongue got cut and Daddy stayed with me all day at the hospital.” And I went, “Daddy wasn’t there. Daddy was in another city.” And so my child mentioned, “Well, I wrote it in pencil. It’s just a rough draft. So tomorrow, I’ll rub it out. And I’ll put your name.”

And I let that sit for a minute. And I went, “Do you now remember that I was there?” They usually mentioned, “No, I don’t.” I used to be like, “Then I think you have to keep it the way it is. I actually think the story that’s in your memory is more important than the facts of what happened.”

There’s one thing in there that’s actually attention-grabbing about what will get remembered and what goal it serves. The best way these tales are iterated by our reminiscences is definitely key to one thing that’s way more essential than factual data. So If I’m to be true to myself, and the way I’ve instructed tales, I can’t insist this baby erase somebody’s title and put my title.

This curiosity is smart for you as somebody who misplaced a mum or dad at such a younger age. Reminiscences are essential.

I feel that’s proper. I do plenty of serious about “How will this get remembered?” I had this dialog with Margaret Atwood just lately, the place she was like, “You can’t control what’s going to be remembered.” And it threw me. As a result of, in fact, it’s the obvious factor on this planet. However I don’t suppose I’d actually built-in that as a result of a lot of my relationship with my mom is reminiscences. I’ve obtained 11 years of reminiscences, and I’m 43 now, so what will get remembered feels actually essential. I put far an excessive amount of emphasis on serious about that, particularly in relation to my youngsters.

You write concerning the numerous well being struggles you’ve been by way of — scoliosis, endometriosis, a high-risk being pregnant, a mind damage. How do you suppose these experiences formed you?

I’m undecided I’d recognized what number of issues occurred to my physique till the guide was finished. I don’t take a look at my life as one which’s significantly laborious. I do know individuals who’ve had a lot tougher lives. However I feel placing all these items on the market, after which listening to different folks’s responses — “Wow, a lot has happened to you” — I used to be sort of astonished. I feel that it’s not a foul factor to have been by way of some stuff. It’s actually laborious to be empathetic in the event you’ve had good well being. So I consider it as a present. It means that you can not view vulnerability as weak point.