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Female First UK - Tallulah - Sian Heder Exclusive Interview
by Helen Earnshaw, published on July 25, 2016
Sian Heder is a filmmaker to watch out for this year as she is set to make her feature film directorial debut this summer with drama Tallulah.
Tallulah, which sees Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page take on the title role, it is a movie that lit up the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has been winning over critics and audiences.
We caught up with the writer and filmmaker to chat about the movie, what inspired the story and making the leap into feature film for the first time.
- Tallulah is the new film, so can you tell me a bit about it?
Tallulah is the story of a young woman, who is played by Ellen Page, who is rootless, living out of her van and travelling around the country with her boyfriend, who is a privileged Manhattan kid. He ditches her and the life that they are living to go back to his mother in Manhattan. She tracks down the mother to seek him out and is turned away.
She ends up in a fancy hotel scavenging for food from room service trays and is pulled inside a babysit by a strange, drunken, trophy wife woman; she is there to have an affair and has brought her toddler. She has Tallulah babysit for her and, over the course of the evening, Tallulah decides that this woman is negligent and undeserving of her child and takes off with the baby.
She returns to her boyfriend's mother and passes the child off as her own in order to be taken in. Ultimately, it is a story about three women whose lives are radically transformed by this kidnapping act. But it is about disconnected people finding connections.
- The movie sees you in the director's chair and you have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you and what inspired the story?
When I first moved out to Los Angeles I worked as a babysitter for all of the five-star hotels in L.A. (laughs). I had a lot of very weird encounters with very wealthy parents and discovered a kind of neglect that was happening among very rich people, which was hidden away from view because it has been protected by housekeepers, nannies and money. I had a really bizarre experience with a mother one night - she is very similar to the character in the film - and I really thought about taking her child with me when I left, but I didn't. The film became a fantasy wish fulfilment on me taking the child - or rescuing the child in my eyes. But it is also a meditation on motherhood, who should be a mother and whether that something that exists in all women or whether some women should just never have babies.
It is interesting because when I wrote the film, I was not a mom and then in the course of trying to get financing and the movie made, I had a child and it radically altered my view on my own movie. I re-wrote the script after that and I had a lot more empathy for my villain. I think that has made for a much more complex and interesting story because I didn't have judgement for the 'bad mommy' anymore, I understood her and empathised with her as well. I think that did make for a much stronger and complicated story.
- I was actually going to ask you about that? How much did the story change from the initial idea that you had to the film that we now see on screen?
I think the main transformation was the fact that it was much more black and white when I started; Tallulah is this vagabond hero who rescues this baby from this horrible woman. By the time that I had re-written it and shot the movie, it was much more about three complicated, dysfunctional human beings who are trying to make their way in the world. All of them were morally ambiguous, all of them had deep flaws and were making bad decisions but were ultimately good people.
I think it became a broader story than I set out to tell because it was much more about the many aspects of being a woman, a human being and a parent in general. The story became bigger. I think that the more life experience that I had, the more I knew about being on the other side of it and how hard it is to be a mom. It is hard to be a mom when you want kids, so if you have kids for the wrong reasons and don't want them, I can't imagine how difficult that is.
- The movie sees Ellen Page take on the title, so what were you looking for when you were casting this role? And what did you see in Page that made you think she was perfect for the part?
She is an unlikable character on the page; she is a thief, she is a scam artist, she is living in her van, is pretty disconnected from other people and is someone who is morally adrift. I knew that in order to make that character work, I needed someone who had a lot of charm and charisma and was pretty loveable; otherwise, there was something that could feel cold and calculated about her. I wanted her to feel feral almost - like a little animal who had just got out of a zoo and doesn't know to do with herself.
When I met with Ellen, there is something so charming about her that you just want to love her despite all of her flaws. I think that was really important for me when casting that part; that you would feel charmed by her and drawn to her despite the fact that some of her behaviour is pretty reprehensible.
- Allison Janney and Zachary Quinto are just some of the other names that are on board, so can you talk a bit about bringing this talented cast together?
I have always been a fan of Allison and I think that she is an underrated actress for her level of talent; I think she's Meryl Streel level talented. She has brilliant comic timing, wit and humour but she also has very deep emotional wells as an actor. I just wanted to be able to showcase all of that. I met with her and felt that she understood this part in a deep way. Both Allison and Ellen are really fun people and that made the shooting of the movie incredibly enjoyable. It was a very hard shoot and it is very hard working with babies but we laughed a lot and they just have a great sense of humour about the whole thing. I was just very very lucky to have those actresses sign on.
Zachary Quinto has been one of my best friends since I was eighteen years old. It was right around the time that he was shooting Star Trek and I was like 'can you squeeze in two days for my movie?' I just knew that that part - even though it was a small scene it was such an important scene and you needed to feel that there was a rich history with all of these people. John Benjamin Hickey, who came on to play Margot's ex-husband, has been friends with Allison for twenty-five years and so they had a really rich history in real life. He is also friends with Zach. There was a chemistry with all of my cast - they knew each other and had worked with each other before - and that made my job as a director easier.
Zach has been a friend of mine for a long time and there is a scene in the movie where Ellen and Allison lie in bed and talk about death with each other and have a laughing attack about how we are all going to die. That is almost verbatim of a moment that Zach and I had when we were vacationing together in Berlin. It was my birthday and we were meditating on how sad it was that we were all going to die and just couldn't stop laughing about it. That went straight out of our lives and into the movie.
- They always say that you should never work with children - how did you find that experience?
I concur, you should never work with children (laughs). It was very very challenging and I totally get why they threw a doll into American Sniper as a fake baby. If you are working with a new-born it is easy - even if you are using a real baby - you have eight of them and you swaddle them up in a blanket in someone's arms and you can tell that it is moving. I really wanted the child to feel like a character in the movie and when we were casting, my producers were like 'can she be a little bit older or a little bit younger?'
I chose a kid who was walking and sort of talking - but not talking enough to take direction or understand - but very much roaming around. It was the perfect age for me because I wanted the child to feel like a person and not just a baby, but also she was still pure, untouched, and salvageable as a person; in terms of getting away from this mother. It was important that there was still enough of a blank slate there that you felt that this person had not been damaged by their environment.
We worked with twins. It is very very hard to be on set with fifty crew members, take a child away from its mother, put them under lights and into the scene. Everyone says, 'how did you make the baby cry?' The trick was making the baby not cry as the babies cried all the time (laughs). All we had to do to make the baby cry was to take it away from its mom. The thing that was really challenging were the scenes where they are supposed to be bonding or laughing together.
Sleeping was really hard. There are a couple of scenes where the baby is sleeping and we would pre-light the room, let the parents go and put the baby down for a nap while we went to shoot something else. When the baby was sleeping, the entire crew and actors would creep into the room and we would shoot the whole scene almost whispering. It was the quietest set that you have ever heard in your life as no one wanted to wake this baby. Ellen Page could probably put out a children's album of all of the songs that she made up to entertain those babies on set.
It was really challenging for the actors. In a way, it is really great because it forces them to be in the moment and to be really reactive; you have to be very present because you just don't know what the kid is going to do. It is also very challenging because when a baby starts to cry on a set, your instinct is to help that child and make that child stop crying. It definitely changed the feeling on set and it was challenging to push through that sometimes - for my actors and for my crew.
- Tallulah marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the whole experience?
I love it. I want to do it all the time (laughs). It is so exciting and I still get chills when I... at one point, I was walking through the East Village and there was a line of trucks all the way down the street and I was looking at these massive trucks, all this equipment and all these people and I just thought 'oh my god, I just made this up. I had an idea one day and just sat down and wrote it and now all these people have turned up to make it.' Last night at the premiere, I was watching the credits thinking 'all these people came to make this project' and that is really inspiring.
The best part of directing is the fact that you draw on the talents of other people; you are taking these talented artists and corralling their vision and moving it towards your vision. It is just wonderful. Television is exciting as well and I think that I will continue to work in both worlds but film is where I want to be.
- Tallulah premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, so how was that experience? And how have you been finding the response to the film so far?
Sundance was a total whirlwind because I have never done press like that and I have never had that sort of madness. I was six months pregnant when we shot the movie and I had a sixteen-month-old and then I went into labour the night that we locked the picture. I had a two and a half month baby when I went to Sundance and there was a lot of pumping in weird bathrooms between press junkets; it probably wasn't your classic Sundance filmmaker experience (laughs).
It was really magical and the response to the movie has been so positive and huge, especially from parents. I have found myself having really deep conversations about their guilt around parenting and loss of identity. It has really touched people and that is what you really want. The critical reviews are great and they have been very positive, but the audience reaction has really... those have been the best conversations for me, about how it has touched people.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am set to write and direct a studio project and developing a television show.
Tallulah will premiere on Netflix on Friday, July 29th.