“Women Talking” is not an obvious cinematic undertaking. Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel follows several Mennonite women who realize they have been drugged and raped by the men in their community. While some of them are arrested, the others head to town to secure bail for their release. During that time, the women gather in the hayloft to discuss their options: Should they stay and fight, flee, or do nothing?
On paper, the single location and dialogue-driven scenario readymade for the stage. Yet writer and director Sarah Polley, with her first feature in a decade, has transformed Toews’ novel into an absorbing ensemble piece informed as much by the power of the close-ups of the women as it is by their debate. Polley made the successful transition from celebrated actress to filmmaker years ago, having garnered an Oscar nomination for her 2006 directorial debut “Away from Her,” but that movie and 2012 romantic drama “Take This Waltz” were both two-handers. With “Women Talking,” Polley combines roughly a dozen major characters and a bleak scenario that could easily collapse in a mess of undercooked details with the wrong touch.
Fortunately, she returned to her hiatus from filmmaking with a veteran’s grasp of balanced storytelling aided by a handful of first-rate performances. Among the beleaguered women arguing through their options are commanding turns by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley, each of whom gets ample screen time to make their case in a movie that manages to feel gripping, consequential, and inquisitive at once.
Produced by Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand (who has a supporting role as well), “Women Talking” was the toast of the Telluride Film Festival, where Polley was the recipient of a tribute and the movie was met with raves. Since then, it has gone on to another warm reception at TIFF, and now arrives at NYFF ahead of UA/MGM releasing it theatrically in December.
At Telluride, Polley sat down with IndieWire to explain how she found her way back to filmmaking and the many potent issues that her new work brings up.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: You decided to direct this movie during the pandemic and hadn’t made one in some time. Did quarantine change your relationship to filmmaking?
Sarah Polley: I rewatched all of my favorite filmmakers’ films. I would ride my exercise bike and rewatch all of Sidney Lumet and Bergman’s movies. I just went back to things that really impacted me. It was kind of like going back to film school as an older person and seeing films I’d loved differently to analyze my relationship to them. “Orlando” was one of the films I went back to again and again.
Your last narrative feature was 2011’s “Take This Waltz.” How eager were you to make another one?
I was not looking for another film to direct. I love writing and spending time with my three little kids. The idea of working really long hours on a film set was not something I was interested in. I was originally given it by a friend in my book club who said you have to make this into a film. She just pitched it to me in the kitchen one night. At the end of the pitch, I said I’d love to make this into a film.
What was it that had such an immediate impact on you?
It raised so many questions for me that I wanted to unpack, but also, this was a film I wanted in the world for my kids in terms of what it had to say about how you analyze a world that isn’t working in a productive way, how to imagine a world that might work, and how to take the lead to go and create it. That was worthy of a few months when I was otherwise occupied.
How do you go from that response to putting together a big ensemble drama? It’s a more ambitious undertaking than the scale of your previous work.
I found out that Frances and Dede had optioned it. I sent an email to my manager, Frank Frattaroli, who’s also Fran’s manager and had introduced us a few times. I just asked if they had found a writer or director for the project yet, which was a surprise to him, since I wasn’t looking around. The same day, Frances emailed him asking what I was doing. It felt very meant to be.
How challenging was it for you to consolidate this story into a script?
I worked on the script for a very, very long time with many, many drafts. There came a point where I would do a draft for every character. I would do a draft from one character’s point of view completely and then the others. You’d start to see the gaps of where you were letting characters fall off. The challenge was to map everyone’s individual journey.
I assume it was longer than the final version, which is 104 minutes.
My first draft was longer than it should have been, as were our first cuts. I think we had our first cut was two hours and 20 minutes. I knew from the beginning when I wrote this script that for me as an audience member this needed to be 100 minutes or less. I just knew it had to have a propulsion and emotional intensity. The forward motion that was really important given what we were asking of people with this very, very intense conversation. I think it was a process of trying to whittle it down to its absolute essence, not completely destroying every moment that had texture but also being quite brutal with ourselves.
This cast must have been a challenge to assemble.
Dede and Frances and I had this very intensive casting process that went on for almost a year. It was really about trying to get that exact architecture right in terms of the personalities and dynamics and the competitions and the love. It was a really, really complex process to put that puzzle and group of women together.
So much about the movie is driven by language — it’s loaded with monologues. How did you sort out the rehearsal process?
We did a couple of read-throughs. I worked with each actor individually and with their families. Then we did rehearsals on Zoom, then we did read throughs in person, but fully masked so no one could see each other faces in person. It sucked at the time — but in retrospect, it was kind of nice that no one actually saw each other’s faces live until we were shooting even though we had all this rigorous rehearsal. I think it weirdly served the function of the raw intimacy that we wanted to create.
You mean the masks helped foreground other forms of expression?
I flirted with the idea of always rehearsing in masks. You actually don’t know what’s going on with the other person. It added a layer to the film that we all wish wasn’t there in terms of the life and what it did to this world. There’s a layer in the film that wouldn’t have existed without this.
There has been some question about which Oscar categories this whole cast will fall into. Who do you think is the lead?
It’s a very hard question to answer. Depending on what people map onto the movie, they connect very strongly to one character over the others and feel that it’s very obvious that the person is the lead or heart of the movie but it’s what they bring in terms of their own lives. It’s very subjective.
You mentioned your commitment to your kids during this time. Were you able to see them during the shoot?
I was unwilling to work normal film hours. We worked 10 hours days. I saw my kids every night. I was able to be present. They really were willing to break the model for how you make movies to make it possible for someone with little kids to do it and not be absent from their family. That was huge for me and so many women who have had little kids haven’t been able to go back to directing with that option. Men, too. People of all genders want to spend time with their kids and not disappear for four months to make a film.
It’s hilarious to me that it’s this big victory we did 10-hour days because actually the 40-hour work week was won a long time ago by the labor movement. But in the film industry it’s unheard of. If you want and need to go back to work when you have a six or three-month-old, that’s fine. The idea that you don’t have the choice to be there with a baby that’s just come out of someone’s body — it feels like a violent thing to force upon a person if they don’t choose that.
What’s it like to go home from set when you have small kids waiting for you?
One day we shot this scene outside and it was 100 degrees and we had like tons of extras. I was literally running up and down all day sweating. It was our most stressful day of filming. Then I got home and suddenly had poo all over my arm. I remember thinking, “I don’t think anyone else is doing this at the end of the day.”
What about Rooney Mara, who had her one-year-old son with her?
Rooney was unreal. She had her baby there and was on her own pretty much because Joaquin [Phoenix] was doing another film. Her baby that was this beacon of absolute calm and made everyone who was a parent feel like they’d done something terribly wrong. She just looked so happy all the time. She was brilliant with her baby and brilliant on set. It was almost alarming to see someone that competent. The energy that brought to set was extraordinary.
In terms of the material itself, you can’t get much heavier than a group of rape victims coming together to commiserate. How did that impact the mood on set?
We had a therapist on set for the more difficult scenes. She’s this woman named Doctor Laurie Haskell who specializes in trauma after sexual assault. Hard stuff came up for a lot of people, not just cast and crew. It’s not just that we were showing violent scenes. We were bringing up thoughts and feelings and emotions that a lot of people had been living with for a long time. Some of those conversations made their way into the film.
You worked real-life experiences from the cast and crew into the screenplay?
There was a collective sense of people contributing. It wasn’t like I was some master therapist director. We had a group of people who were willing to be generous with their own stories. I didn’t want it to become a self-aggrandizing situation.
When did it occur to you to take this approach?
People had responses to the material and it would result in conversations from the beginning of the writing process all the way to the feeling on set while we were shooting. We would shift moments based on how people were hearing them and how it was impacting them and what people felt they needed to hear. Not in terms of feeding someone’s self-help. But in a scene where someone makes an apology, we’d ask, “What does that apology look like and how would it be meaningful to you and have an impact? How can we change it so it would?”
You said during your Telluride tribute that working with Kathryn Bigelow two decades ago opened your eyes to how challenging it was for women directors to work in Hollywood. How did this impact your own filmmaking ambitions at the time?
It helps me to take every swipe in stride, to realize that this is what it’s like. In a systemic way, I could kind of sit back and criticize it and be conscious of wanting it to change. On a day-to-day level, I didn’t want to get bogged down by it. I wasn’t going to be thrown off by a bunch of sexist swipes that I knew were coming. Of course those happen. Every financing meeting I had when I was trying to make my first film, which never got made — well, of course there was sexism in those meetings. The sense was, “How could you ever take an actress seriously as a director?”
Yet you made several shorts during that period, which culminated with “Away from Her.” What kept you going?
I did find my way after a few short films to crew people who were incredibly supportive and treated me with an enormous amount of respect and made feel like I belonged there. But it took a long time. I actually want to get things done. I know people a bit older than me that just stopped. I think of that generation of filmmakers in their 60s and 70s. How many great voices did we never get to hear? At some point you can’t keep smashing against the wall. A few of those women made it through and a lot of them didn’t. We lost so many voices in the same way that we’ve lost so many BIPOC voices. How many generations are we losing to the everyday grind and battle of feeling like people don’t want you in a room?
You weren’t active as a filmmaker when the #MeToo phenomenon picked up momentum. How did it impact you to see these issues being discussed in Hollywood after experiencing them up close?
There was this collective conversation about injustice and trauma. Sometimes it’s hard to name things that have happened to you as harassment or assault or trauma or injustice until there’s a collective language for it. That collective language shines a light on experiences you’ve had in a certain cultural framework. Like so many people I turned my head around, looked back, and said, “Oh yeah, that’s not the funniest story in the world. That’s a story about assault. That’s a story about harassment.” Things got reframed, which was helpful for a collective language. I saw a lot of men positively impacted by those conversations as well.
How does “Women Talking” reflect this change?
When there are words for something, it changes the nature of what you’re doing yourself in terms of interpretation your own actions. I loved that Miriam’s book came out when it did to introduce more complex and nuanced questions than we were ready to have at that moment about what individual guilt means in a society that’s based on toxic social hierarchy and injustice. Is this an issue of individual guilt? Yes, in some cases, but is it more an issue of a kind of toxicity that has seeped into our culture? What does a good man and better world look like in terms of what we want to tear down? I was so interested in the very hopeful impact of what it means to imagine what a better world looks like.
Where do you fall on cancel culture?
I have a lot of really complicated feelings on both sides. I think what’s most interesting to me is allowing us to have those conversations. There’s such a thing as accountability. There is a really fruitful conversation to have around people making mistakes. I’d love to see more complicated conversations about that. There also has to be a fulsome conversation about what we can all learn from someone making mistakes and apologizing well and then doing better. Ultimately we all want to do better. That’s going to involve us challenging ourselves a lot. That’s going to mean bad days for everybody on Twitter.
In “Run Towards the Danger,” you write about how Terry Gilliam created an unsafe environment on the set of “The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen.” How do you feel about the movie itself?
I’ve seen so many responses to that essay with people saying, “I don’t think I can enjoy this movie anymore, knowing what happened.” Really? Because that’s the only good thing that came out of that experience for me — a really great movie. So please, don’t throw away the movie.
What about the way people see Gilliam as a result of this?
I love Terry Gilliam movies. I refuse to think of him as a monster. I don’t think he is. I think he screwed up a lot of stuff, and he hasn’t taken responsibility for it, and that sucks. But he also had great qualities and made beautiful work. I just feel like I’m interested in having a conversation with him and hearing his perspective on what he saw. I would hope that he’d listen to mine.
How did this experience impact the way you work with actors on your own sets?
I did my best to create a safe and healthy working environment, but I’m sure there are moments where I fell short. I don’t know what they are. I hope someone will tell me one day and I hope I will be willing to sit with them and hear them out. You always have to question whether everybody felt OK at the end of the day. We did have some amazing, challenging conversations about what wasn’t working and how to make it better. That’s all you can do.
You weren’t looking to make another movie when “Women Talking” came along. But now…?
Every film to me has maybe been my last. But I loved this experience and I’m appreciative of it in a way that I haven’t been before. I can see making a film again in less than 10 years. [laughs] I never had a sense of what my next movie would be. It was always about having something essential to say. The intention is always a conversation I would like to start for people to have.
How much more do you see yourself taking these hard looks at your past and processing them in public?
For me, the great joy in life is getting further and further into looking at the hard parts and the things that are moving you in subconscious ways in your present in ways you’re not aware of and the way the past and present are talking to each other and the way your past experience informs how you move through the present. Also, depending on what your root is and the agency you feel in your present life, how that can kind of change your relationship to your past on a molecular level. I think there’s a kind of healing possible in that space.
But is it hard for you to talk about yourself?
I got to a point in my life where I’d just mined my own stories enough. It doesn’t feel raw to talk about them. I’m really interested in conversations where people talk about how they’ve come to be for better or worse. I’m very interested in hearing about other people’s pasts and ways of getting places. I don’t feel particularly private or protective or have many boundaries around my own rocky journey.
United Artists will release the film in theaters on Friday, December 2.