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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Sarah Polley on Women Talking

Adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name (itself loosely based on the real events that took place at the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia), writer/director Sarah Polley’s latest film “Women Talking” follows a group of Mennonite women who meet in a barn to discuss their community’s future. Early on in the movie, it is revealed that the men of the community had been drugging and raping the women (and some teenage girls) at night for years. While the men are away from the colony serving a light sentence, the women convene to ask themselves whether should they stay or go.

Polley’s most accomplished film to date, “Women Talking” grapples with heavy ideas through true democracy—the sharing of ideas with room for questioning and debate. There are no absolutes in this world. Like Alice Diop’s excellent “Saint Omer,” also coming out this month, Polley’s film plays like a courtroom drama with spellbinding storytelling at its center. Each monologue is told with the wisdom of a fable, matched by Luc Montpellier’s intentionally bleached cinematography, wrapping the film in an aura of the past as they search for the path toward their future. 

Polley has filled out her striking ensemble cast with a mixture of famous names like Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and those who should be more well-known including Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy. Producer Frances McDormand appears in a small, but pivotal role as an elder whose suffocatingly traditional ideas hang over the proceedings like a fog. The ever-gentle Ben Whishaw is the one good man, a school teacher who briefly left the community, and acts as the scribe for the women as they plot out not only what a better future for them and their children could be, but how to achieve it. 

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Polley at the Chicago International Film Festival about the film’s unique color grading, the challenges of casting such an interlocked ensemble, her adaptation process, and what true democracy in action really looks like. 

I was really interested in the way that “Women Talking” is color graded. It reminded me of the way Barry Jenkins used saturation in “Medicine for Melancholy.” Could you talk through the decision to use saturation for this film?

I think once they start having this conversation in the hayloft they're already consigning the world they live into the past. It’s already done because they're having a conversation about it and how to change it. So for me, it was important that it feels like a faded postcard. That there be a sense of nostalgia and of a colorlessness. A sense that whatever it is, this world that they're talking about doesn't exist anymore because the very fact of them having the conversation is shifting that reality. I also knew that it had to exist within the realm of a fable, that it couldn't look realistic, or in fact, the entire heightened reality of the film and its premise and the conversation itself would fall down. So there had to be always present, visually, the sense of a fable or a heightened reality or something that wasn't rooted in reality. 

This is such a strong ensemble cast playing such distinct, unique characters. What was the process in casting and what were you looking for in your actors?

We went through a really rigorous, long casting process. The casting director I work with is my brother, John Buchan, who I've worked with on everything, and his partner, Jason Knight. He's the first person I send my first draft of the script to, and we begin talking about casting from the very beginning. With this film, we thought about basically every actor we've ever known and watched everything of so many actors. It went on for a year, I think this casting process because we had this realization that we couldn't cast one person without casting everybody. Because really, there's all the individual characters, and then there's the character of the community and of the collective, which is one organism. One aspect of it doesn't work without the other. So we couldn't make one decision without making all the decisions, which made it an incredibly complex process. I really just spent a lot of time getting to know everybody's work from everyone whose name was floated, and a lot of other people whose names I didn't know. Then it was a matter of figuring out who went with who and who were the families and how they work in opposition to each other or with each other.

I was particularly interested in Sheila McCarthy, because I love Patricia Rozema’s film “I've Heard the Mermaids Singing.” I was wondering if there was that sort of a Canadian connection that was purposeful? 

As an actor, I've always admired her. We didn't limit ourselves with any of these parts to any nationality. I think we thought about people from everywhere for that role. But there was just something about when we met with Sheila, where she captured both Greta’s lightness and her wisdom. It's a very hard thing to do, to play someone who has that kind of eccentricity but coupled with very deep-rooted wisdom. It's very easy to go too far in one direction or the other. So she was able to just hold all of who that character was very, very lightly, without losing any of what she contributes or adds to the insight of the group.

Ben Whishaw plays the one male character throughout most of the film. He's got a reputation as being a very soft, very vulnerable actor. He’s basically like a raw nerve in half of his movies. Was that a trait you were looking for to play that character?

That character had to be the best listener in the world and Ben Whishaw is the best listener in the world, both in his work and also as a person. He’s someone who makes a lot of room for other people. He always tries to see things through other people's points of view. He's a reflector. He's not somebody who takes up a lot of space. I think that whoever played that role had to understand not only how to play that character, but how to be in that room, which is not an easy thing to do. I think it's a very tricky role to play. How do you take the right amount of space and no more? How do you listen? How do you not disappear and yet not assert yourself too much? It's a very, very tricky line he had to walk.

How did you first come across Miriam Toews’ book and what about it spoke to you?

It had a very profound impact on me. It had me walking around asking myself questions for weeks because I think it took some questions that I had, and that were certainly in the public conversation at that time, and made the questions bigger, harder, mightier and more complex, and more nuanced. Lots of questions around faith and forgiveness, but also, more importantly, at that moment around what does guilt mean? What does individual guilt mean, in a world where there are these kinds of corrupted systems of power? Who's to blame for what? What are the right remedies for these things? Are there remedies for these things? What does it mean to process trauma alone versus in a community with a whole lot of other people? What does it mean to develop a language around those experiences and around how they get processed? 

For me, the most fascinating aspect was this raucous debate between these women that looked to me like actual democracy, which I think is something we don't get a picture of very often. We get to vote every four years. That's not democracy. This kind of rigorous, messy, fulsome, difficult conversation in which you have to consult and grapple with people who don't think like you do, and figure out a way forward because, ultimately, you do have the interest of a better world in common hopefully. That, to me, was such an interesting thing to get to capture. And also, this notion of an almost uncharted, hopeful premise of being able to imagine what comes next. Like, if we do move on from this world, if we do tear down the structures that aren't working, what are we going to build in their place? That just felt like such a hopeful exercise, in general, I think at this moment in time. 

I really loved how they tell Whishaw that his character’s duty now is to teach the boys and to make sure the boys have that future, that hope, that good grounding. I'd love to hear a bit about how you incorporated children into the film. 

I think ultimately, what these women are doing and talking about is what they're going to create for their children. And it involves going back and looking at what didn't work for them. That's a really, really hard process, I think, for all of us. But they have to do it on such a big scale. The stakes are so high for them, and the stakes are so high for their kids. It was interesting shooting the stuff around the kids, because ultimately there is this sense, or I want there to be a sense in those scenes, of what they're fighting for, what they're thinking about, what their faith feels like to them. At its best, and at its purest, but also kids aren't only innocent vessels. They're also products of the world they're growing up in and they have the seeds of the things that have gone wrong in them as well because they've been planted there. So I think when you look at those kids, there's hopefully a sense of hope, purpose, faith, and beauty, but also hopefully questions as well in terms of how do you become in a society that is set up in such a hierarchical, unfair way?

I’d love to talk about your adaptation process. You mentioned finding the language to process these complex emotions. And in your script, it’s both very dialogue-heavy, but also contains so many emotions. Do you start with charting emotionally where you want these characters to get to or do you start with dialogue and then work to emotion?

I kind of instinctually always go with what are the moments or images, for me, that won't leave me. So after I read a book for the first time, if I'm going to adapt it, I immediately write down what I think the script is, without rereading it first, just to get a sense of what my initial blush of what those moments were and what are the things that lodged in me and what are the images that are most important. I always find that exercise fascinating, because then you go back and, of course, like, you mined the book for a year, and you're staring at it and you read it over and over and over again. 

I'm always fascinated by that second read, of realizing that a few of the images that were most important to you or things that were said that were most important to you weren't actually in the book. It's interesting as a reader realizing how much we are projecting and mapping onto what we're reading. I mean, I see it with films too. People quote back to me a line that's actually not in the movie or an image that's not in the movie. There's something similar, but clearly the person has taken that thing, processed it through their own life, and thrown it back out into the world. I think that's key with adaptation. I think taking those things that are unconsciously pulling you towards it, and trying to figure out what they are like, where's the space between you and the book? I think that's the space in which the adaptation happens.

Did filming during the early days of COVID impact the setting of the film?

Yeah, it impacted everything. But, it also lent a focus and an intimacy to the whole process, both the writing and the making of it, because we were really only just seeing each other.

During filming, you worked as a pod?

We really did. We didn't see any other people.

I'm sure that you're sort of helped sort of get that community feeling.

It lent an intensity and a focus and intimacy, I think that might not have been there.

Was there much of a rehearsal process?

Yeah, there was two weeks of rehearsal, which was really, for me, it was, it's key. I don't want to make a film without rehearsing, but for this film, especially, it felt like we really needed to know it inside and out before we could start.

I read that there was a therapist on set. Could you talk a bit about the process of working with them?

I knew that I wanted someone there for the more difficult scenes that I thought could bring stuff up for the crew and for the cast. Because being in that enclosed space together, for days and days and days, and talking about some of these experiences, inevitably, things are gonna come up for people. The actors were really good. So, you know, their performances did evoke a lot of memories and emotions for people on set. So we didn't have the therapist there every day, but we had her there for the scenes that I thought would get tricky. And it was great to see how many crew members used her as well as the cast, and just that people felt that permission to take that time and talk. I think it really served the film to have an environment where people felt safe and people felt like there was room and time for them to have real responses to process them. 

I think we often think about film as the art after it's done, and not the art as it's being made, so I love the idea of having the therapist there while the art is being made.

I think there's this idea that you're either process-oriented, or you have a distinct vision. I have a distinct vision, but the vision is my vision in combination with whatever comes out of a collective process with people I really trust. Those two things together are my vision. Like, there's not one that exists without the other. I think that the idea of a safe environment where people feel like they can make a mistake is really key to the process of a film like this, where you're asking so much from people.

I also read that you said Sally Potter’s “Orlando” is one of your favorite films and one that you return to often, so I was wondering if it has inspired your filmmaking process.

“Orlando” didn’t consciously or directly impact it, but I'm sure it's there. Sometimes I'll see a film I made a while ago, and I'll suddenly see influences that I didn't see or think about while I was making it. I think these things end up being part of your molecular structure while you’re making a film and you see little bits of it come out.

Are there aspects of sort of what Sally Potter and Virginia Woolf were exploring about being a woman in a world that speaks to you?

That’s interesting. Yeah. I remember that moment where she transitions to being a woman. In that moment in the film, I remember I was 13 or 14 when I saw it, and I remember seeing it in the theater, and the many levels of complex emotions that it brought up in me to see that character suddenly be female and what the meaning of that was for me and the power and the heartache of that was for me, at that age. I couldn't put my finger on it, or articulate what the reasons were, but it was hard to see that character become a woman. I felt concerned and sad. When I saw that, and then I remember that led for me at that age to a whole unpacking of what does that mean that I feel that way? And why have I been made to feel that way? And why do I live in a world that lets me feel that way about being female? So I think that was probably a pretty pivotal moment for me.

There are so many emotions in this film and there's so much left for the audience to grapple with at the end. What do you hope people take away with them when they leave?

I hope that people see really different things in the film and argue about them in a productive way. I think what I like about the conversation these women have is that ultimately everyone at some point changes their mind. I think that's becoming a rarer and rarer thing, when we're in conversation with each other about contentious things, that there's any room in which to have our minds changed or to change other people's. So, I'm interested in that experiment. I hope people disagree about the film. I hope they listen to each other, whether they like it or not. I just hope it leads to more talking. I hope it leads to more thinking about what a world would look like that was a good one, that worked for people, regardless of gender or race, or class. Because I know we've spent a lot of time thinking about what isn't working, and that those are important conversations to have, and we need to keep having them, but I think there's a really exciting act of imagination on the other side of that, which is, what do we want to see?

Are there any other female directors that either have inspired you as a director yourself or that you think maybe haven't gotten the attention they deserve?

Isabel Coixet was a huge mentor to me and her films. She was just amazing for me as an actor and, also in terms of thinking about myself as a filmmaker. Audrey Wells was a huge mentor to me. She died a few years ago. She was a huge mentor to me, and she really took me under her wing and she read every script I ever wrote. This is the only thing I've ever made where Audrey didn't weigh in. That was really painful. I feel like this film was more for Audrey than anyone else. I think this film would have been like the film Audrey would have been most proud of in terms of taking on a very overtly feminist project. She did a lot of nurturing of people. She did a lot of mentorships. She took it very seriously. She's a huge influence on me. I knew her since I was like 19 years old.

I love to hear that. I love her films and it's good to hear that she was a great teacher as well. 

She would literally drop everything if I had a script. She would drop whatever deadlines she was doing, even for my first short films, and it would be her first priority to get back to me and that meant the world to me. I do think that that generation of women did a lot of reaching down and pulling up with all their might anybody they saw that might join them because it had been so brutally hard for them in such despicable ways. They were so determined to make the world easier for my generation and for the generation coming up. It's unbelievable how they shifted things.

"Women Talking" will be available in select theaters on December 23rd and available everywhere on January 27th, 2023. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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