When was the last time you saw a film with three complex female leads get a high-profile, wide release? That’s what’s happening tomorrow to Tallulah, which Netflix snapped up at Sundance Film festival this year.
Written and directed by Sian Heder, the film is a showcase of female talent behind the camera too – something that she says was “certainly a hurdle” in getting the movie made.
Indeed, the project began life as a short film way back in 2006: Mother, which screened at Cannes that year, came third in the festival’s Cinefondation award.
That introduced audiences to Lu, a stranger who is hired by a neglectful Beverly Hills housewife to babysit – only for her to wind up kidnapping the child.
It was based on what Sian Heder jokingly refers to as her “illustrious career as a babysitter”.
“When I first moved out to LA I was an actor and supporting myself by working as a nanny for all the fancy hotels and I had a lot of weird, twisted experiences I could write 10 movies about, but I had a particular encounter with one mother I thought was so outrageous,” she explains to us, in an interview following the movie’s UK premiere at Sundance London.
“She was a horror show, really, but it was simultaneously the most tragic thing I’d ever been a part of and the most hilarious. Like, when I told the story, it was so funny to people, but I left there crying.”
She speaks with an immediately engaging habit of being irreverent and serious without changing topic, switching from recalling the sad memory to chuckling at her own situation.
“”The darkest things in life are also very funny sometimes. I think that’s always part of my work.”
“I was driving a $500 Buick and the driver’s side door didn’t open and the valet at the hotel would have to crawl across the passenger side to get into the car,” she laughs.
It’s that mix of light and dark that has marked out Heder’s career as writer so far – it’s no coincidence that she worked on Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black.
“I think I’m always interested in work or storytelling that hits both of those things at the same time, when you can feel that squirmy kind of humour, so I think I’m always excited by things that live in that place,” she admits.
“The darkest things in life are also very funny sometimes. I think that’s always part of my work, it definitely is on Orange Is the New Black, where it can be the most tragic, heartbreaking thing one moment and have the biggest laugh the next.”
We’re speaking just after the screening of the film at the festival.
“It’s always nice to hear it with different audiences,” she reflects. “The thing I realised was that different people laugh at different things in the film and I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before. There aren’t these big communal laughs, there are a few, but the guy next to me would chuckle, then in front of me someone would laugh. It was the first time that I registered that different people are connecting to different types of humour the film.”
That ability to connect with different people is a trait that separates her out as a director, too, with Tallulah finding time in its 110 minutes to sympathise and empathise not just with Ellen Page’s homeless lead, but also the self-centred mother Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) and the older woman with whom Tallulah ends up forming a friendship (Allison Janney).
At first, Sian notes that she felt most sympathy with Tallulah – but that slowly changed.
“I was more Tallluah than anybody else, but the thing that’s interesting is that I’ve sort of been everyone in my movie – I’ve been Tallulah and after the birth of my first child, when she would cry 24 hours day and I was so sleep-deprived and thought I was losing my mind and felt like a bad mum all the time, I’ve been Carolyn. I’ve certainly had moments of feeling like Margo, where I’ve felt disconnected and like my best-laid plans haven’t worked out.”
“I didn’t set out to hire an all-female crew. It just sort of evolved that way.”
It makes for a very rich, complicated story because we’re never judging anybody. A drama featuring three complex female leads, though, is a sadly rare beast these days. How aware was she of that?
“Well, I am female!” she laughs. “I’m interested in stories about women, because I am a woman – that’s the perspective from which I view the world. It’s underrepresented and the idea of drawing really complex, flawed, nuanced female characters is something I feel quite invested in. Both because I think there’s a lack of those stories out there and because women are fascinating.”
Funding was also tricky, she reveals.
“It certainly was a hurdle in terms of finding financing. That was something I heard a lot: ‘You have three women at the lead of your movie. Even if one of them was a man, you would have a much easier time.’ So it was definitely a hurdle finding financing.”
Once it was up and running, she continues, hiring a female crew and DoP wasn’t intentional at all.
“I didn’t set out to hire an all-female crew. It just sort of evolved that way, because those were the people I thought were best for the job, truly. I was surprised when I looked around in the location van on the first day and I was like ‘Oh my god, I hired a crew of women!’ But it’s definitely a hurdle, but it’s the reality of how things are and I think they’re changing and moving – it’s going to happen, but it’s not quite there yet.”
The Netflix deal, though, means that the film will be seen by people around the world. The streaming service pounced on the film before it had even aired at Sundance in the US. Was she surprised?
“Yes, I was very surprised,” she comments. “My financiers were over the moon about it – they showed up at Sundance and were like ‘That’s the fastest return on any investment we’ve ever had!'”
That makes a crucial difference for indie filmmakers, notes Heder.
“It’s a joy when you can return the money you were given plus a lot. It helps you make your next film because people trust you as a business plan.”
“Netflix and Amazon are reinventing distribution.”
How much are Netflix and other VOD services changing things, particularly in the way that female-led films can get produced?
“Both Netflix and Amazon are reinventing distribution,” enthuses the director. “They’re reinventing indie film, because they are incredibly aggressive, in a good way, and bold and willing to make content that other people might not make. They sort of have their own model and they let artists be artists and they don’t meddle a lot. I’m very excited by this new outlet and Netflix has definitely been a great supporter of new work, so I couldn’t say enough good things about them! I’m very glad it ended up there. I trust them and I think they have great taste.”
Between Orange Is the New Black and Tallulah, it’s hard not to agree. With distribution now assured, meanwhile, perhaps Heder’s biggest challenge on the film was actually the adaptation of her own short into a full-blown feature – something that the funding problems inadvertently helped with.
“Sometimes, I’m quite glad it took so long to get made, frustrating as it was when I was in the middle of it,” she reflects. “I look back and realise that I needed to grow up as a human being, both as an artist and as a person, who’d just had more life experience, and got some of the complexities of how crazy this life is.”
Revisiting the actual short during production was “the strangest thing”, she observes.
“When I shot the short, I shot the 10-page scene in five days, but here, I shot it in one! When remaking something you’ve already made, I had a very different approach, I had different actors, but it was still strange, revisiting a piece you’ve already created with fresh eyes, both trying to recreate it and reinvent at the same time.”
That shifting perspective, though, feeds directly into how Heder’s filmmaking and storytelling is so in tune with human drama.
“We’re always evolving and therefore our art is always evolving. I’m a different person than I was six months ago. Now, I watch the film and there are things that I would change because I’ve grown up since then,” she muses, temporarily moving from light-hearted chatter to something more wistful. “That’s sort of the amazing thing about being an artist is you make a marker of the time you were at in your life when you made it. It’s why you want to continue to make movies!”
Tallulah is available to stream on Netflix in the UK and worldwide, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription. Read our review of the film here.