By FF2 Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
Interview: Sian Heder, Writer-Director of Tallulah
Sian Heder’s name is best known for her work on critically acclaimed shows such as Men of a Certain Age and Orange in the New Black. But she got her start in the business writing and directing her award-winning short Mother, about a wealthy, detached mother of a toddler whose child is stolen when she hires a stranger to babysit. After completing her short, she realized there was plenty more about the subject of motherhood and connections she wanted to explore and began adapting the short into a feature.
Ten years, and lots of changes, later she has the dramedy Tallulah. Ellen Page stars in the title role as a homeless thief who steals a baby, alongside Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard in two extreme versions of motherhood, and features supporting performances by Heder’s friend Zachary Quinto, John Benjamin Hickey, David Zayas, and Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba. With her impressive cast, Heder has put forth an almost character piece in the tradition of the 70s films of directors like Hal Ashby, that just happens to star three of Hollywood’s best character actresses; a compassionate comedy-drama about human nature and humanity’s frailties. Heder spoke about making her feature film debut Tallulah, released in limited theaters and Netflix this Friday, and complexities of what it means to be a working mother in Hollywood.
Q: What was it like doing one of the most physically demanding jobs while you were pregnant? Did you considering postponing production?
A: I was 6 months pregnant and had a 16 month old when we went into production and went into labor the night we locked picture. It was insane. It’s sort of the female director story no one’s having. Because when you have kids the question’s really about being a working parent, who happens to be a female, and how you manage to do them at the same time. And it’s sort of impossible to really do them both at the same time, you almost have to put parenting on hold while filming and then put filming on hold to be a parent. Because juggling the two’s kind of impossible. But being pregnant during filming actually helped me because I always get sick during production, because I run myself ragged trying to do too much. But I couldn’t do that on this project, and had to be conscious about eating every two hours and making sure I went to bed as soon as I got home. So I was the healthiest I’ve ever been because I was so disciplined about not letting myself get run down.
Q: The short was completed in 2006 and you started working on the feature script soon after. What big changes did you want to make when telling this kind of story as a feature, and how did the script change over those 10 years?
A: I was very interested in the characters I created on the short and wanted to see how they would evolve and what they would do in a longer story. I was particularly interested in the bad mommy character. I wanted to subvert her and see if there’s a way for people who hated her to come to empathize with her by the end of the film. It’s exciting as a writer when characters starts to talk back to you, that’s what writers mean when they say they’ve come alive. That’s what was happening in this case, and there were different themes I came across and wanted to explore in this film. The short was a shocking, impressionistic view of a bad mommy getting her kid stolen, but the feature was a more complex look at motherhood and humanity. Being disconnected people trying to make connections. The feature started to spin out and I wanted to touch on bigger human themes with this project.
Q: The character Allison Janney plays wasn’t in the short. Where did her character originate from?
A: Tallulah, Ellen’s character, is based on a friend of mine who lived out of her van for a couple of months, traveling around the country. And she was living off the grid, but also kind of a scam artist. And she came to stay with me when I was in New York and kind of turned my life upside down. So in a way, I was Margo (Janney) in that scenario. But she was the hardest character for me to write, at least when I first started writing it, because I was still in my 20s and hadn’t had my kids yet. And here I was trying to relate to woman in her 50s who had experienced a lot of loss and frustrations with the course her life had taken. But then she became a combination of a couple of the mothers of the men in my life. Margo’s kind of a combination of my husband’s mother and Zach’s mother. They told me these stories about their relationships with their mothers, and I started to hear about these women who loved their families, but maybe relied a little too much on their sons to give them emotional fulfillment. So she was born from those composite characters, and then Allison brought a lot of herself to the character. She told me stories about her own life and her own mother, and those worked their way into the script. Basically, no one’s safe around me. If you tell me stories or give personal details, I’ll use em.
Q: She’s such an interesting character because she was right on that turning point for how society defined motherhood, when the perfect mom went from being the suburban housewife to the have-it-all working mother. And she’s clearly as uncomfortable with that label as Tammy and Ellen’s characters are with being mothers in their own generation. The label of motherhood takes on so much in society and adds a pressure to their lives.
A: I liked Allison’s character because she’d be younger than my mom, but kind of that generation. And I feel like there was a time, around the feminist movement, when it became uncool to want to just be a wife or a mother. And Allison was part of this world of academia and professional ambition, when even admitting that she wasn’t that ambitious and her life goal was to have a child and invest primarily in her family. And that felt like something secret or shameful for her to admit. I liked that, I liked that she’s someone contradictory. She’s certainly an intellectual and brilliant woman, but her need for a family was very basic and almost traditional. As for the label’s women get, I didn’t look so much at them in terms of how motherhood’s been portrayed in the media, but looking at women from my own life and the archetypal characters. Tammy’s this very sexual creature, a woman who always traded on her femininity, and felt resentment towards her child because she felt she had almost robbed her of her sexuality which had been her main tool. Ellen’s this sort of androgynous, feral creature who makes it through the world on her own. She’ll use her sexuality when she needs to, but often needs to push her femininity down to be invisible. She thinks she isn’t a nurturer, but surprises herself with her nurturing instincts. And Margo’s a woman who hasn’t had sex in 8 years because she married a gay man. She’s someone who has lost the memory of being a sexual creature, she’s shut that down. I think too often, women become simplified on screen, but we’re complicated creatures and exploring those complicates and contradictions are part of the reason I want to make movies.
Q: Having worked on so much television, did you think about how you would make a somewhat intimate story cinematic?
A: The interesting thing is, in the 10 years since starting this project, TV has completely changed and become quite cinematic, so you start to wonder if there is any difference. But on both Men of a Certain Age and Orange is the New Black, they are shows more about people’s faces. They are sold on the close-up and listening to them talk, in a way something like Game of the Thrones isn’t. When thinking about this as a film, I thought about the idea of magical realism, which to me feels very cinematic. Times when emotional moments translate into physical ideas we’re seeing, rather than just use a close-up of someone’s face. We still have a lot of close-ups in this movie, but I think moments of magical realism on TV’s are still somewhat rare. I was so lucky to have Paula Huidobro who’s my DP, on this project. We worked together to try to find the key image in each scene that said something about the emotional life of the character or thematic ideas we were getting at. Because the visual language of the film’s so important to me, it works right alongside the performances. By the way, I want to champion Paula specifically, but also champion women DPs in general, because talking about women in film there seem to be about four female DPs in this business and that’s ridiculous.
Q: Did you come up with a color scheme for each of the characters to be identified with?
A: I did, but more specifically I thought about the spaces they would each be inhabiting. With Tallulah, she’s someone much more comfortable outside, and indoor spaces can feel confining and claustrophobic. But after she steals this baby, the outside world becomes much more threatening and inside space becomes much more womb like, because they’re a protection. We also thought about the hotel room that Tammy’s in, which is this cold, bright, almost sterile space, compared to Margo’s apartment which is very warm, but almost claustrophobic. When we are first in that apartment there’s no natural light and the curtains are closed. There’s too many pictures on the walls. It’s become a museum to her former life. And Tallulah’s van is tiny and intense, but felt like a whole world existed inside there. So we certainly paid a lot of attention to the production design, talking about those spaces in great detail.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (7/28/16)
Top Photo:Ellen Page in Tallulah
Bottom Photo: Allison Janney in Tallulah
Photo Credits: Coco Knudson, David Newsom provided by Netflix