Most of the new drama Women Talking takes place on a single set – a hayloft – where Mennonite women who repeatedly have been drugged and sexually assaulted by men in their community hold a secret meeting to vote on what to do: stay and fight, leave, or do nothing.
Sarah Polley, who wrote and directed the film based on Miriam Toews’s novel, spent weeks before shooting commenced, mapping out on which haybale each of her 12 main characters would sit while they debated their decision, and at what moments they’d change places. When the cast arrived on set – including Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara and Frances McDormand – the bales were in their final position, and Polley walked each actor through her movements.
But in the film, the scene begins with an empty floor, and the characters move the haybales into place themselves. So on that first day, Polley asked her actors to note the bales’ positions and how they were stacked. “Try to keep track of a few, and each other,” she said. Then the actors moved the bales against the walls.
Polley called “Action,” and “this beautiful choreography happened organically,” she recalled during an interview in late September, after Women Talking wowed the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. (It was first-runner-up for TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, edged out by Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans.) “The women were moving around each other in this dance, passing bales to each other, pretty much silently. It was so egoless and so competent.”
The rebuild took about four minutes, and everyone landed at the exact same moment. The hair on Polley’s neck stood up. She, her cast and her crew all felt it. They were going to tackle this tough but essential subject together, and it was going to go well. Polley called, “Cut.”
Immediately, McDormand, who is also a producer of the film, yelled out, “Now get a group of male actors to do this and see how it goes!”
Women Talking is women filmmaking, at every level. Polley, McDormand and their other powerhouse producer, Dede Gardner (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave), made sure of it.
Polley, 43, hadn’t directed a film since 2012′s Stories We Tell; she’d been busy writing (including the limited series Alias Grace and a book of personal essays, Run Towards the Danger), raising three children and recovering from a severe concussion.
But after she “wolfed down” Toews’s novel – inspired by true events in a Mennonite community in Bolivia – and learned that McDormand and Gardner held the film rights, she e-mailed her manager, Frank Frattaroli, who is also McDormand’s manager. (The two women had met over the years and expressed mutual admiration.) Frattaroli sent back an e-mail he’d received the same day from McDormand, asking, “What’s Sarah Polley up to?”
“It felt meant to be,” Polley says. She’s just dropped off her kids at school, and we are sitting in my garden, eating croissants and dodging drowsy bees. I’ve interviewed Polley many times, and she’s always excellent company, at once modest and authoritative. One minute she’s unfurling complex ideas; the next she’s chortling wickedly. At one point a squirrel jumps onto the table and makes off with my leftovers. “You little ...” Polley says to it, admiringly.
Polley wanted to adapt Women Talking. McDormand wanted her to direct it, too. Polley couldn’t see that happening – travelling to a location, shooting 12-plus-hour days – not with three young kids. “Fran corrected me,” Polley recalls. “She said, ‘Men wrote the rules of the film industry. It’s time for us to rewrite them.’” They crafted a budget based on 10-hour days, shot in and near Toronto, so everybody could be home for bedtime.
“It was good for everyone, not just the women,” Polley says. “There were men in the crew who’d become accustomed to never seeing their kids. There were people who risked accidents driving home after 14-hour days. I realized, ‘This is something female filmmakers can contribute to the conversation.’ It made it possible for me to imagine making films again, which I had ruled out until my kids were a lot older.”
She dug into months of writing. Her first draft hewed close to the novel, including pages of backstory about August (Ben Whishaw), the sole man in the hayloft. (Because the women weren’t taught to read, write, or where they live on a map, they need August to take notes.) Women Talking is the first film Polley directed within the U.S. studio system. She thought she needed to spoon-feed the audience. Gardner’s response surprised her: “Did you write the backstory because you wanted to, or because you felt you had to?”
“They cut to the point, Fran and Dede,” Polley says, laughing. “Don’t look to them for extraneous compliments. But doing only what I wanted to do became an organizing principle for me, for the script, the shoot and the edit.” Women Talking now clocks in at a lean 104 minutes, and for all its dialogue, is a model of economic storytelling. Revelations, even the biggest ones, are not lingered on.
“I just wrote and rewrote and rewrote,” Polley says. “I did more drafts of that script than anything I’ve done. I wanted to be as rigorous as possible. I think I’ll continue that.”
Casting the film was like “casting an organism” – Polley didn’t hire anyone until she’d found everyone. She needed to see Mariche’s (Buckley) wounded anger next to Salome’s (Foy) furious leadership next to Scarface Janz’s (McDormand) hardened resignation. The toughest role to cast was Ona (Mara), a luminous peacemaker who is “very close to whatever enlightenment is,” Polley says. The scene in which Ona enumerates what the women want – three things that should be so simple – elicited in me a storm of tears: “We want our children to be safe. We want to be steadfast in our faith. And we want to think.”
At one point, Polley’s casting director, John Buchan (who is also her brother), suggested she read for Ona. She scoffed: Ona was the trickiest role! Great actors had auditioned and not found the balance! Buchan told her, “I know. But at this point you’d be on our list. Like, not high on our list. But someone we’d see.” Polley erupts in a gleeful, self-deprecating cackle.
Although Polley doesn’t depict any of the assaults, the facts are so harrowing that she hired an on-set therapist, Laurie Haskell, who specializes in sexual assault and how the brain processes trauma. She’s frequently called as a trial witness to explain why victims can’t remember the details of their attacks – a blankness Polley herself experienced after allegedly being assaulted by the disgraced radio host Jian Ghomeshi, which she writes about in Run Towards the Danger. “I knew that some of my cast and crew have had similar experiences,” she says. “So we all did a lot of checking in with one another.”
Women Talking arrives at a pivotal moment in the #MeToo era – just weeks after the film She Said, which details the producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault; and just as alleged abusers including director Paul Haggis and actors Kevin Spacey and Danny Masterson are in the headlines.
But Polley’s film is not about how all men are evil – far from it. It is full of ideas about forgiveness and working together. It asks ambitious questions: How guilty is an individual who lives in a hierarchical, patriarchal system that okays terrible behaviour? How much damage do women who’ve internalized that system do to each other? As one character notes, “It’s not just the men and boys who’ve been excellent students.”
“I’m not into villains,” Polley says. “I’m interested in what makes people do what they do, and how they got there. We can identify harms in the world, and what we need to fight to change, without insisting on villains.”
There is one aspect of traditionally-male filmmaking that Polley wanted to emulate, however. “So few women got to make movies in the past, we didn’t get to have our sweeping, classic epics,” she says. “I wanted this film to feel big in the old-fashioned sense – I wanted to push in the camera as someone delivers a big monologue; to make it wide screen; to use a crane and a drone.”
In the past, she’s shied away from “that stereotypically male way of seeing the universe: Like, you see the globe, and then we zoom into the globe, and then we zoom into this football game, as if the football game is the only thing on the whole globe that matters,” she says. “That always made me laugh and sort of sickened me at the same time. But for this film I realized, ‘A conversation among women about how to remake the world? That deserves every bit of gravity that these other stories, about war or football or dirty cops or whatever, have been told with.’”
On her sets, Polley doesn’t want to be “the big, loud dictatorial man.” She wants to collaborate and make collective decisions. “A lot of the best decisions of this film, the ones I’m proudest of, were four, five people in conversation with each other,” she says. “Very much an echo of the film itself.”
But – and this is a crucial distinction – she wants everyone to know that collaboration is her conscious and specific directorial choice. “Sometimes when you say, ‘I want to be collaborative,’ people assume that means you don’t have a vision,” she says. “But collaboration is my vision. My vision is, ‘My process looks different from the way most men I’ve worked with operate.’ It’s a confident process of wanting people’s voices to be heard and credited. It’s a feminist process. I don’t have to act like all the dudes I hated working with.”
Film has always been a collaborative art form, so the notion that a single auteur exerts total control “has always been a lie,” Polley continues. “I’m blowing the roof off that. Because I’ve watched it my whole life – a director very comfortably taking credit for ideas that came from their costume or production designer or cinematographer or editor. I think it might be nice if even the most dictatorial alpha dudes were honest about what the process is.”
Making Women Talking changed Polley: She outgrew cynicism. “I really gave that a good run,” she says. “But it’s not there anymore. I saw what was possible in a group of people working together, giving all of themselves with pure intentions. It will be hard to settle for less now that I know it’s possible.”
And though her film doesn’t flinch from darkness, it ultimately made Polley feel hopeful. The characters have a saying: “Whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is excellent or worthy of praise, think about these things.” Polley now repeats that to herself every day.
“It’s so easy to get stuck,” she says. “I feel like this unstuck something in me. Talking about what we want to build, rather than what we want to tear down – I found that so liberating. There’s always another way of viewing something that leads to a world of possibility.” Even, maybe, in filmmaking.
Women Talking opens for an exclusive Toronto run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Dec. 23. It will expand to additional locations in January.