Sian Heder was spending a day at Griffith Park, looking up at the sky when her thoughts turned to the gravity that was keeping her from floating away.
“It’s one of those things that we all take for granted,” says Heder. “If you actually had to describe what it is to most people, unless you are a physicist, it’s very hard to really break down the mysteries of the world that exist in our everyday that we’re not aware of and I liked [the idea of gravity] as a metaphor for feeling tethered to other people and to being on the planet.”
This thought inspired one of the most striking images in Heder’s debut feature “Tallulah,” not long after it begins in which its titular young woman (Ellen Page) finds herself at odds with Isaac Newton and nearly everything else in the world after she’s abandoned by her boyfriend and seeks safe haven in, of all places, New York. It is at that point that an audience’s feet is likely not to touch the ground again as Heder tracks the dizzying and often dazzling madcap adventure of Tallulah as she finds herself taking care of a 1-year-old who seems to be in even more dire straits that she is, a baby born to a boozehound named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) who barely notices when she nearly crawls off the outdoor ledge of her fancy hotel. Offered $100 to babysit, Tallulah winds up taking the money and the kid, convincing Margo (Allison Janney), the estranged mother of her boyfriend that the child is her granddaughter and leading to a citywide manhunt once Carolyn decides she wants her daughter back.
As wild as things get, Heder keeps things grounded through her considerable empathy for each of the three women, all of whom fight against their own ideas of who they are to figure out who they could be if they could let go of the past. In tracking three women who couldn’t be more different than one another, yet all humbled when what they consider their greatest strength – for Tallulah, her individualism, for Margo, her intellect, and for Carolyn, her beauty – has failed them recently, the film trenchantly observes the moment in which they realize how much or how little of themselves they’ve given to others and finds tension in whether they can put themselves out there again.
Bursting with color both in cinematographer Paula Huidobro’s lively camerawork and Heder’s punchy script, with plentiful and sharp one-liners delivered with gusto by “Talullah”‘s three strong leads, the film is filled with the kind of passion one would expect of something that it’s writer/director spent eight years trying to get off the ground, even with the celebrated short “Mother,” from which it’s adapted after her own disastrous experience as a babysitter, as evidence of Heder’s brilliance behind the camera. In the interim, Heder refined her writing skills on such shows as “Men of a Certain Age” and “Orange is the New Black” while becoming a mother herself, a bevy of experience that all enriched “Tallulah” and as people begin to discover the film the world over after being made available to stream on Netflix, she spoke about adapting a funny short into a full-fledged tragicomedy, the rigors of a frenzied production on the streets of New York City and the importance of drawing upon personal details of her own, her friends and her actors to make such a richly emotional film.
You’ve said you initially planned to be an actress, then had started writing before the inspiration came for “Mother,” the inspiration for “Tallulah,” so when did you get the directing bug?
I think I’ve always had it. I started writing because I wanted to direct and I knew that, a lot of times, the way that you get your first film made as a director is to have a piece of material that people want and then you say, “Guess what? If you want this piece of material, you also get me.” What you also don’t know when you are starting out is that you’re the liability on your own movie. You’re trying to get your financing and you’re going, “Why is this taking so long?” You don’t realize you’re the unproven entity that’s attached to your own project.
My love for writing almost followed my desire to be a filmmaker. When I started writing for TV, I would always write very short, succinct action lines. I’d say, “Margo’s apartment,” but I wouldn’t describe the apartment because I always intended to be the person to design that apartment. Then when I started working with directors in TV, they would’ve [already] location scouted and the apartment was completely wrong because I didn’t take the time to write the four other descriptive lines about it. So sometimes I had to train myself the other way. You’re not always going to be the person making your own material, so [I learned] how do I write in a way to communicate the depth of the world that you actually want to see?
I love writing in its own way, but it can be very lonely and I’m a very social person, so while it brings its own solitary, weird, in your head, fun journey, it’s a very different kind of experience than directing, which is much more engaged, human, exciting and dynamic.
Did you actually know before making “Mother” that it might be part of a larger story you wanted to tell?
It was based on a real experience I had where I was working as a babysitter and had a really strange, horrible encounter with this mother that I felt like didn’t deserve to be a mom. I wanted to take her child and didn’t. I wrote it as a short. I didn’t know what it was. I just wrote the scene down and when I did, I was crying because I thought it was just the most heartbreaking scene in the world. At the time, Naked Angels, a theater company in New York, used to do this thing where actors would come and they would cold read people’s scripts. Writers would bring in 10 pages and then actors would show up and perform it, so I read this scene as a part of that, at a bar in front of a bunch of people. Everybody was howling with laughter.
This scene that I’d written as this terrible tragedy was suddenly hilarious when it was performed and that conflict of emotion was really interesting to me. That’s always where I think my work is most interesting as a writer, and I made the short film for the AFI Directing Workshop for Women and then [because] It ends with her taking a child out of a room, of course, people would watch the film and go, “Then what happens?” So by its very nature, it demanded to be a bigger story because it was such a cliffhanger of a film.
The script evolved a lot over the years. It took so long to get the movie made that I was re-writing constantly — I would have a funny thing happen to me in my life and that work its way into the script. I became a mom and suddenly I had a lot less judgement for that one character that was supposed to be a bad mom, but suddenly she was more relatable to me, so that got re-written. Even Allison Janney told me a little detail about her own mother in our first meeting [about the film], and the next time she read the script, she said, “You put that detail about my mom in the script.” And I was like, “Because it was interesting.” I think she was surprised that it had found its way in there so quickly, but to me, those little details are what make the story.
Allison’s character Margo seems like the X factor to the film because the character wasn’t part of the short, and from what I understand I understand Ellen’s character Tallulah was partially based on a friend and then Tammy Blanchard’s Carolyn was based on the mother you babysat for, so how did Margot come in? Because these three characters form an interesting dynamic together, did they inform each other?
They did. [As you say] those two characters existed already. [Ellen’s character] is this ruthless person who doesn’t have any family or any ties and is the last person in the world you expect to be a mother. Tammy’s character, Carolyn, is this trainwreck of a mom who was a very sexual creature and blames motherhood on the loss of that sexuality, and Margo was a bit of a blank slate. I knew I wanted [Tallulah] to take the baby somewhere and she almost started out as me. At the time when I was writing, I was feeling a bit lost and isolated in Los Angeles and I really couldn’t connect with anybody and in contrast to the other two, [I thought] who was the person I would need? I needed the person that held on too tight and invested too much in being a wife and a mother and lost herself in the process because she was clinging to the people around her to be her everything.
I liked the contradiction of [Margo not being] who you think of normally as a person who all they want to do is be a mom — that she was actually hyper-academic, very driven, and ambitious and it was very uncool to want those [family] things. That character evolved in thinking about it in more of a intellectual way and talking to some male friends — my husband and others — about their relationship to their own mothers who invested too much in their sons or needed their sons to be everything that their partner hadn’t been. That made it much more personal — the idea that her need was too much for the people around her. She still has it and lies to herself in order to bring in Talullah and the baby because she wants that family so badly. Once you meet with your actors, they bring their own thing too. When I met with Allison, there was an experience with her own mother and loss and loneliness and in those conversations, the character evolved as well.
There’s also a slight difference in tone between the short and the feature – while you don’t shy away from the mildly surreal, “Mother” has an almost Almodovar/David Lynch vibe in a timeless Hollywood way whereas “Tallulah” has a modernist New York sensibility. Why the shift?
I’m so glad you said Almodovar because that was someone that I really thought about a lot when I made the short. A short is a very specific thing because it’s such a small time period that you really can create a mood and that mood can be sustained. I thought of [the setting for “Mother”] as this weird spider’s web that [the babysitter] comes into, but I felt that that would be oppressive in a feature film. It needed to breathe by nature of production because you’re moving so quickly, so it felt more right in grounding it a bit more in reality. It also was more practical in terms of our production schedule. The short was all dolly shots and focus pulling in the mirror — very studied, calculated. Alexander Payne actually saw the short and I remember him saying to me, “You need to be looser with your camera.” He was right.
That was great as a filmmaker to create a very specific piece [in “Mother”], but to let the audience lose themselves in the story, you want the camera to disappear a little bit more and allow people to just have an experience of your character, especially this piece [since it] is a very character-based piece and it was a lesson for me between finding the balance [between] having visuals that were important to me and exciting that I felt attached to, and also understanding where I needed to get out of the way and just let the actors do their thing and let the camera record that without imposing some visual language on it.
That said, was it crazy going into the streets of New York like you did? I’ve heard you didn’t have a formal blockade for the shoot on Chambers Street.
The Chambers Street thing was so crazy. We were shooting this chase scene where Carolyn’s character sees her child across the street and chases Margo and Talullah. We were shooting with a very long lens on a very busy intersection at 5 pm — it was rush hour on Chambers Street, so it just packed with crowds on the street and we, of course, didn’t have enough [production assistants] to control anybody. So we’re having the scene play out and by the way, with everything that’s going on in the world, our cab driver was played by a black actor and this white, blonde woman [Tammy Blanchard], who get in a fight, and I don’t think we realized that no one could see that it was a movie since we were shooting from all the way across the street [with the long lens]. To all eyes, here’s this fight between this angry black man and this white woman who’s screaming at him.
We had three cop cars pull up, screech to a stop around this whole scene and try to jump in. The actor’s screaming, “I’m an actor. I’m an actor. This is a movie,” and pointed at us across the street. It was simultaneously funny because it was weird, of course, but it was also a little bit scary because who knows what’s going to happen in that moment. You just have crazy moments when you don’t have enough money and you’re shooting in New York City. Half of my visual effects were trying to take out people on their iPhones filming my actors as they’re acting. You just can’t control the street. That’s what makes New York so fun and such a great backdrop for a movie. It’s already production designed and exciting. It also is wild.
There’s a great Tumblr you set up devoted to the making of the film and on the first day of shooting, you can be seen popping a bottle of champagne. I thought there must be a story behind it.
There’s a great story behind the champagne! The movie was set up initially eight years ago. My agent gave me a bottle of Dom Perignon as [a gift, saying], “This is great and you can pop this the first day of shooting.” The movie fell apart and it didn’t happen. I thought, “When it comes back together, I’ll pop the champagne the first day of shooting.” It came and went again and that bottle of Dom sat on my shelf for eight years and became this incredibly depressing object. Every New Year’s, my husband would go, “Can we please just drink this bottle of champagne because it’s so sad? It’s sitting there and covered in dust.” Then we would move and bring the champagne with us. He’s just going, “Sian, let it go.”
But it came to represent so much because it was the hope that the movie would still get made. It was the belief in my determination that [the movie] was going to get made and that I wouldn’t drink it until we were drinking it on set. When I came to New York for pre-production, of course, I forgot the champagne. But I called my husband, had him fly in with it and bring it to set. My agent came to set the first day. We popped it and drank it next to a dumpster on set in the middle of the streets of New York. It was the most satisfying, warm, flat bottle of champagne I’ve ever had in my life.
“Tallulah” is now streaming on Netflix. It also opens theatrically on July 29th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and in New York at the Village East Cinemas.