When the producing duo behind Babe Nation Films, Katie Nolan and Lindsay Tapscott, along with the screenwriter Alanna Francis, pulled up to the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of their film Alice, Darling last September, Francis took one look out the car window and said, “Nope, I’m not getting out.” Alice, Darling stars Anna Kendrick, who’s best known for the Pitch Perfect films, and her fans thronging the entrance to Roy Thomson Hall were doing a lot of excited vocalizing. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for the Anna Kendrick power on a red carpet,” Nolan said in a recent video interview with Tapscott and Francis. But the women pushed each other out of the car and waded in.
It’s an apt metaphor for what’s happened to Babe Nation in the seven years since Nolan and Tapscott joined forces to create a boutique production company that develops and produces character-driven movies (and soon, they hope, television series) from women and under-represented international filmmakers. Their first few films – including White Lie, about a university student who fakes having cancer to gain advantages; and The Rest of Us, written by Francis, starring Heather Graham as a mother trying to forge new bonds after a death – landed them on “ones to watch” lists.
But smack in the middle of those seven years came the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, sparking a still-modest-but-fingers-crossed-it-keeps-growing reckoning about who gets to tell which stories. Now Babe Nation is in an excellent position to expand what they’ve believed in all along.
Alice, Darling hits their sweet spot, which Nolan sums up as “different, elegant, personal.” During a weekend trip at a lake house to reconnect, long-time friends Alice (Kendrick), Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) realize that Alice’s life with her partner Simon (Charlie Carrick) is not as shiny and perfect as it seems. “When Katie and I read the first draft, we both said, ‘I feel seen,’ ” Tapscott says. “Every woman who joined the project said the same thing.”
As with all of Babe Nation’s films so far, Alice, Darling’s director, Mary Nighy, is making her feature debut. It’s about a complex topic, in this case coercive control in relationships. It features layered protagonists who sometimes make bad choices – what Nolan calls “women written in all of their mess, the way we want women to be seen on screen.” And it’s stubbornly nuanced: Early on, Francis toyed with the idea that Alice should reveal bruises, because she worried that psychological abuse and coercive control wouldn’t seem “bad enough.” But Nolan and Tapscott reassured her that her initial instincts were right.
The producers themselves are “driven by gut instinct,” Nolan says. “Our first human response to a project is the one we use to make a decision. All signs point to yes when something resonates deeply within us as women, when it stirs us to ask, ‘Am I like that?’ ”
As the duo try to grow into a marketplace that’s shrinking for independent films and character-driven dramas, will their gut instincts be enough? “Short answer, no, probably not,” Nolan says. “We do need to be thinking about ‘the market.’ ” (She sticks out her tongue at she says that.) But they will adhere to two core principles: They want their next project always to be bigger than their last, in budget, commercial viability, reach and scale. And, in 10 years, they still want to be having dinner with everyone they’ve worked with. “We look at it as building a long-term, large family of creatives we believe in,” Nolan says.
About that marketplace. “When we started, people were reluctant to take us seriously,” Tapscott says. In the wake of #MeToo, “the market has and hasn’t changed. It hasn’t gotten easier to finance our films, but it’s gotten easier to persuade some people to take a risk.” They rhyme off a list of like-minded projects they can reference now: Fleabag, I May Destroy You, the work of Celine Sciamma and Laura Poitras.
Alice, Darling was the first film Babe Nation made with a marquee star, and their “minds were blown” by how quickly financing came together. So that’s a strategy they plan to pursue: Develop the hell out of a script, attract a name lead and let the financing meet them where they need it to. As well, Elevation Pictures served as an executive producer/distributor; the duo hope that collaboration will continue. This summer they will shoot their first co-production (with France), Bonjour Tristesse, a modern interpretation of the Françoise Sagan novel from the 1950s. They’ve been developing it “since we were born,” Nolan says wryly.
They have two other films in development – a drama about Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship with the painter Rebecca Strand in 1930s New Mexico, and a late coming-of-age story between two women in their 50s – and a television series about two nurses who work in a fertility clinic. “Like Nurse Jackie but for fertility,” Tapscott says.
She and Nolan have noticed that their prodco’s name is a litmus test – the people who get its cheekiness are the people they want to work with. And when someone asks, “What will it be like when you’re making films in your 60s and still called Babe Nation?” they reply, “It will be great.” They do joke, however, that in the credits of their final film, the words Babe Nation will morph into Dame Nation, and their work will be done.
When they and Francis finally made it into their Alice, Darling TIFF premiere, they soaked up every moment. Like the one where, in the middle of a scene of Simon being a jerk, from the top of Roy Thomson Hall a woman’s voice called out, Oh, for god’s sake. (But she used a choice expletive.) Or the moment at the after-party, when a male attorney they’d worked with approached them, visibly shaken, and said that the film made him realize he needed to re-examine his behaviour toward women.
“That was such a powerful moment,” Nolan says. “We’re making movies for the women in our lives. Our female demographic is always top of mind. But how great that anyone who watches them can have that personal reaction.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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