Siân Heder writes and produces on the acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” for which she has received multiple WGA nominations. Her first short film, “Mother,” received top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, Seattle International, Florida Film Festival and played in over 40 festivals worldwide. She won a Peabody Award for her work on the celebrated television series “Men of a Certain Age.” She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and alumna of the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women and Film Independent Directors Lab. “Tallulah” is her debut film. (Press materials)
“Tallulah” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 23.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
SN: When a young, reckless woman (Ellen Page) has a chance encounter in a hotel with a boozy, negligent mother (Tammy Blanchard), she impulsively makes the decision to “rescue” a toddler. Pursued for kidnapping, she takes refuge in the home of her boyfriend’s mother (Allison Janney), and the two women form a tenuous but powerful bond.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SN: I used to work as a nanny for all the high-end hotels in LA and had a lot of weird experiences with mothers whose children seemed more like accessories than anything else. One night, I was so disturbed by the erratic behavior of a particular mother, I seriously considered taking off with the kid.
I had been exploring the character of Tallulah already, based on a friend who was living off the grid out of her van. She was someone who lived with very little fear or sense of consequences for her actions. She seemed like the perfect person to steal a baby and set in motion a chain of events that could deal with some of the issues around motherhood and responsibility that I wanted to explore.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SN: There’s a reason you don’t see toddlers as main characters in movies. When I was trying to get the film made, producers would ask, “Can’t the baby be older? Or younger? Do we really need a kid who is walking and not talking?” It was important to me that the child feel old enough to have a personality, but still young enough to not be damaged.
As Tallulah tells Carolyn the mother, “She’s still little! She’s not fucked up by you yet.” However, trying to work with 15-month-old twins was a scheduling nightmare and an enormous challenge for my actors. Try staying in character with a screaming baby in your face. There were a lot of times on set that we found ourselves completely stopped down while we plied the babies with Cheerios. There were moments I wished I could go all “American Sniper” and throw a fake baby in there. I think my favorite moment was watching a bunch of macho grips fall to the floor singing “If you’re happy and you know it” in a desperate attempt to get the baby to cooperate. It was worth it, though. We ended up with amazing performances. And the child really feels like a character in the film.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
SN: I want people to feel conflicted. I want them to feel for characters they started out hating. I want to start conversations about what it means to be a parent. About the responsibility we bear to ourselves and to each other.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SN: Three pieces of advice come to mind:
1) Look out for each other. I think the more we support each other as a community, the more successful we will be. I’m a part of Film Fatales, a collective of women directors who meet to share advice and provide support for each other’s projects. I think the more we can build an old girls’ network to rival the old boys’ network, the better off we will be.
2) Know the kinds of stories that you want to tell, and don’t be pushed into writing kids’ movies or Hallmark shows just because you have a vagina.
3) I think a lot of women feel like they have to choose between making movies or making a family. When I directed “Tallulah,” I had a 16-month-old at home and was six months pregnant. It’s not ideal, and you need a fantastic partner or support system — both of which I had — but it can be done. My son was born the night we locked picture. A movie baby through and through.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SN: It took a lot of years to get this project going — to find the right cast and find the money. It takes persistence and patience. I had met with Ellen Page and Allison Janney, loved them both and knew that I had found my actors. These attachments helped a lot in terms of generating excitement.
My producer Heather Rae had been pushing to find financing and had a couple of interested parties when Chris Columbus read the script. He was in business with a company called Route One. Heather and I met with Russell Levine at Route One and hit it off. They came on board as our financiers and have been great throughout. They really stood back and let me make the film I wanted to make.
It takes a lot of tenacity to push a project forward. You have to really believe in your story and fight to the death for it.