Tallulah writer-director Sian Heder on bringing a vision of homelessness to the screen we don’t often see...|
by Adrian Lobb, published on August 5, 2016
In new Netflix film, Tallulah, indie star Ellen Page plays the title role. Tallulah is a young homeless woman, seemingly drifting, living out of the back of a van and always on the move. If there is a hidden sadness deep within the character, it rarely reaches the surface. Instead, Page plays Tallulah as defiant, witty, upbeat, charming and independent.
This is a vision of homelessness we don’t often see on screen. Most depictions of homelessness are of older men living on the street. Films with the stories of homeless people at their heart are also a rarity – notwithstanding Hector and Time Out Of Mind, two fine recent films, in which Peter Mullan and Richard Gere respectively.
Despite an apparently melodramatic plot – in which Tallulah impulsively impersonates a babysitter at a five-star hotel, abducts the little girl after judging her mother, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), to be too drunk and too neglectful, tracks down her ex-boyfriend’s mother Margot (Allison Janney) and claims the baby is her granddaughter – the story is an affecting portrait of three women trying to connect.
The film (see trailer below) is the feature-length debut of Sian Heder, who has most recently been one of the lead writers on Orange Is The New Black – and features fine cameos from Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto and OITNB’s Uzo Aduba. We caught up with the writer-director to talk about Tallulah…
Where did the idea for the film come from? The inception of the film came many years ago, when I was working as a babysitter at all the 5-star hotels in LA and had a lot of very strange encounters. One of them led to a short film. I came home in tears and wrote a scene based on the night I just had. That short film went to Cannes, but I always felt it was begging to be a feature. It ends with her taking the child – so people would watch and then ask where she went. In the course of trying to get it made, it changed a lot. My characters became richer and more developed and moved from being a film about this one girl to being an ensemble piece about these three women who are complicated and flawed. It is interesting, I wrote a film about motherhood before I became a mother, then became a mother during the course of getting the film made. I think that was an important life experience to have under my belt, because it is very much about the process of becoming a parent, and guilt and flaws and all that stuff I don’t know I would have understood as deeply without that experience.
What does your film say about the modern world and our need to connect? In a lot of ways we are living in an increasingly disconnected world and society. People have lost their tribes. And I think traditional families are failing people in a lot of ways and community sometimes doesn’t exist. So I was interested in the idea of strangers radically transforming each other’s lives through an impulsive encounter, and what it means to be searching for a tribe and finding it in the weirdest of ways. These are not people you would ever expect to connect or be in each other’s orbits.
It plays with the sympathies – Ellen Page’s performance means we are on her side, even though she has abducted a child… I like that it is the first pro-kidnapping movie ever made! No, I liked to play with people’s allegiences and sympathy. You have a ‘villain’ [Carolyn] you start to care about, and this is confusing because you also care about the protagonist who is the abductor. I am interested in stories where you feel multiple emotions at the same time.
The shaming of mothers seems to be a hot topic in some parts of the media yet the film feels non-judgmental… The ironies about this movie. I had a 16 month old and had to leave my child to make this movie. She was cared for, but I was very much gone during the days we were shooting. That, and the guilt I felt about making my art and not being there – and that I was making a movie about being a neglectful mom or feeling like a neglectful mom – those feelings are so complex. I am very surprised to have made a non-judgmental film because I am a very judgmental person [laughs]. But what makes it that is that I can put myself in the shoes of every character in this film. I can see myself being all of them in the past or in the future. So I can find empathy for all of them, with all their flaws.
And Tallulah is not the everyday depiction of homelessness? No, and I think that part of the role was tricky. Tallulah is a very damaged person who doesn’t know she is damaged. So it is not someone dwelling on all this bad stuff that has happened in her life. She does not see herself as this walking wounded person. Ellen and I were talking about Tallulah as someone who lives with a lot of joy in her life. She is ok with herself the way she is. She has a lot of charm and gusto and energy, she is this magical creature, but underneath that is a lot of pain and deep wounds and history. The idea was that we were going to choose a couple of places where you saw that, and through the connection with this child, all that stuff keeps bubbling up. By the end of the movie, she is quite raw, she has to face all this pain she has been carrying around for a long time. And Ellen wanted to go there.
Tallulah and Margot’s relationship is quite something… Everyone in the film is looking for a mother or a child. And they find each other. Margot wants a child and Lu [Tallulah] wants a mother, but is becoming a mother at the same time. So I think it is quite a beautiful relationship. And they are the most unlikely of people. If Margot walked by Lou on the street she would take a wide circle around her.
Fans of Juno will be delighted to see Page and Allison Janney reunited… They really, really love each other. Allison is very tall and Ellen is very tiny, when you put them together, they are the cutest pair in real life. They are almost different species of human. But they have a natural chemistry. They enjoy each other. They really admire each other and elevate each other’s work. It was exciting to cast people who had a history. You are working to alienate them at the start of the story, rather than trying to create chemistry for the later scenes. It is an easier job…
Tallulah is available now on Netflix.