IndieWire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.
Sian Heder’s path from actress to screenwriter and director wasn’t exactly traditional. Ask her to tell you the story of how she went from wannabe thespian to Sundance filmmaker, and she’ll laugh, “You mean my bullshit scam artist bartender story?” Yes, that one.
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in acting, Heder struggled to find herself — or her passion — in Hollywood. A storyteller by nature, Heder had often been told she should be a writer or a director, but she was determined to make the acting thing stick. But a chance encounter at her day job (bartender) pushed Heder to basically B.S. her way into what would become her first crack at writing and directing. In 2005, Heder completed her first short, “Mother,” inspired by a story that happened to one of her neighbors. The film didn’t make it into Sundance, but did play in competition at Cannes (not too shabby). Suddenly, Heder had a whole new career to dive into, including films and writing for TV series like “Men of a Certain Age” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
“Mother” eventually beget “Tallulah,” Heder’s first feature, which stars Ellen Page as a well-meaning loner who sort of, kind of, accidentally kidnaps baby and tries to pass it of as her own to her boyfriend’s unimpressed mother, played by Allison Janney. It’s a tricky film, and it’s one that Heder was repeatedly told couldn’t be made, but the final product ended up being a big at Sundance (where, yes, it was accepted to premiere earlier this year) and one that sold to Netlflix for a pretty penny. There’s no denying that Heder is a filmmaker now.
I was always a storyteller and a writer. When I was at Carnegie Mellon as an actor, people told me I should be directing and I had an eye for performance and other people.
I came out to LA and was bartending; I was in the whole LA scene and I got so tired of telling people I was an actress. One night, these guys were sitting at my bar and they said, ‘What do you do?’ and I said I’m a writer for movies, and I was completely full of shit. They asked me what I was working on and I ended up pitching this story that had happened to a neighbor of mine as if it was completely made up. One of them was really intrigued and he said he was a producer and he would love to take out my story, it was such a Hollywood cheeseball moment. I took his card and called him and then frantically called everyone I knew about how to write a treatment.
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I wrote this five-page treatment that I’m sure is insane, I didn’t know what I was doing. I went out and pitched this project, I was flying by the seat of my pants. At first, nothing happened with it, because it was probably terrible. But it made me realize I should try and write scripts. I started writing and reaching out to people I knew were writers.
I applied to the AFI Directors Program for women and made a short film through that program that went to Cannes and all over the world. It kind of launched something, opening up things for me as a writer in a powerful and fast way, I was playing this game of catchup where I was learning how to write on the fly.
I remember the sheer panic of walking into the writers’ room of “Men of a Certain Age” and having no idea what I was doing. There I was, sitting next to Ray Romano, wondering how to pitch jokes and how this whole thing worked. I thought my career was moving faster than my skill level. I had to frantically keep pace by giving myself a film school education along the way.
I look back on four years of acting school as a total mindfuck. I don’t know that it was valuable for me, being in the middle of the floor pretending I’m a wolf eating off the floor at eight in the morning.
The strongest thing you get out of film school is a crew. You get resources. You get to collaborate with those people. Film school gives you resources, equipment and a crew — you meet writers, you meet directors, you have a community of filmmakers. That was something I had to seek out on my own.
When I wrote “Mother” and worked with those actors in my short, they were characters I’d never seen before and I wanted to follow. How they change, how they bend and shift. I think that’s the most exciting thing, when your characters talk back to you and tell you what they want to do.
For years and years, people were telling me [that] financially this movie didn’t make sense. Having three women as my leads, and if one of them could be a man, you’d have a much easier time with it… That frustration when you’re in the process of it is intense. There’s a kind of determination you’d have to have with it as a filmmaker, that “I believe in this story and it needs to be told” and that “I’ll keep fighting the good fight.” There’s so many “no’s” along the way and that can be really heartbreaking.
I think that places like Netflix are definitely becoming a home for diverse voices. I think audiences are getting smarter and savvier, there’s so much content available that more people want more specific content and more specific voices. They’re looking for things they haven’t seen before, and because of how Hollywood has functioned, these characters are women, these characters are people of color, these are stories that haven’t been told in a nuanced, complicated way. I think people are hungry for those stories.
Sundance rejected my short film. When we were accepted into competition at Cannes, I thought it was a joke and hung up [the phone]. I truly thought it was my husband calling from outside our apartment. Then the phone rang again and they said, “Hi, no, really, you were accepted.”
READ MORE: ‘Tallulah’ Producer Says Executives Told Her Stories About Women Were Not ‘Commercially Viable’
It was a dream to go to Sundance. When I went, they showed me their final corkboard [of film picks] and a card that said “Tallulah,” and they said, “It’s a good sign because it only has one thumbtack hole in it, that means it went up and stayed up. The ones with tens of holes, they came off the board and then got put back on.” I still have that little index card.
The average for male filmmakers is 2-3 years [in between first and second projects] and the average for women is 10 years. It’s so much effort to get your project and movie off the ground, you’re so focused. What I heard from a lot of filmmakers at the lab was that all of these filmmakers are in a rush to finish it for Sundance, then you premiere at Sundance and everyone’s going, “What’s your next thing?” and you haven’t had two seconds to think about it because I’ve been so all-consumed with this other projects.
I want tough notes on every script I write. I want to hear people poke holes in my stories, for people to realize this little hole in my script could become a big hole in my movie. In that respect, my process hasn’t changed. I want people to challenge me and question my choices and push me harder. To me, I think that community is just as important.
The day when you start having no self-doubt, you’re fucked. You should always be pushing yourself to be better than you are, to have people challenge your choices. That’s what makes great work to me.
“Tallulah” will be available on Netflix and in limited theaters on Friday, July 29.
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