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'Women Talking': Sarah Polley says it shouldn't be 'exotic' to work on a supportive movie set

"I think it says something about our industry that the working conditions on its own is such a big story," Canadian director Sarah Polley says

While Sarah Polley's Women Talking can easily be celebrated for the affecting performances and the honest way it depicts the impact of trauma, the film continues to be admired for how the production actually functioned on set.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Claire Foy revealed that she had been "taught" in the film industry to "shut up, do what you’re told, don’t fight back," highlighting how different Polley is as a director.

Polley ultimately feels that she, and other directors, are "responsible" for helping create effective conditions of an on-set working environment.

"You have to be really conscious about how you do it, which isn’t to say we did a perfect job, I'm sure there are ways in which we did things wrong and can do the better next time," Polley told Yahoo Canada.

"But it was incredibly important to me that people feel like they were in an environment where they could speak if something wasn't working, or take a break if they needed to, people could get home at a decent hour and see their kids.”

“I mean, these are all just basic, decent human things to do and they shouldn't be so exotic. I think it says something about our industry that the working conditions on its own is such a big story, because I just feel like it should just be the very bare minimum.”

It was incredibly important to me that people feel like they were in an environment where they could speak if something wasn't working.

This image released by United Artists shows Rooney Mara, from left,, Claire Foy,  Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in a scene from
This image released by United Artists shows Rooney Mara, from left,, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in a scene from "Women Talking." (Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing via AP)

What is 'Women Talking' about?

Women Talking is based the novel by Miriam Toews, which is inspired by the Mennonite Manitoba Colony in Bolivia.

In the Mennonite colony shown in Women Talking, the women have gathered after discovering that the men in the community have been drugging and raping women and girls. These horrendous actions were largely dismissed as acts of ghosts, Satan or "an act of wild female imagination."

Over a two-day period, while the men of the colony are in the city, the women meet to discuss what they should do. They have three choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave, even though these women know absolutely nothing about the world outside the colony.

The women in these discussions are Agata (Judith Ivey) and her daughters Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), and a niece of Salome, Neitje (Liv McNeil). There is also Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and her daughters Mejal (Michelle McLeod) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mariche's daughter Autje (Kate Hallett).

Ben Whishaw is August Epp, a teacher who is generally considered "unmanly" by the men in the colony, who takes the minutes of these discussions, because the women are illiterate.

Frances McDormand, a producer on the film, plays Scarface Janz, who is largely not present in the discussions, along with her daughter Anna (Kira Guloien) and granddaughter Helena (Shayla Brown). Scarface Janz is a staunch supporter of the "stay and do nothing" decision, believing that the men should be forgiven so the women can avoid excommunication and banishment.

“I think forgiveness can be a tricky thing if misused,” Sarah Polley said. “Ultimately [forgiveness] is what I think a lot of these women in this film want to be able to move towards, but in order to get there, harm has to have stopped, and they have to create a distance between them and what has been harming them.”

“There's a line in the film where Judith Ivey's character says, ‘Forgiveness can sometimes be confused with permission.’ I think we have to make sure that it's not permission to be further abused or traumatized. It's not an alternative to getting yourself out of harm's way, which I think has to come first, or at least alongside.”

WOMEN TALKING, from left: Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, director Sarah Polley, on set, 2022. ph: Michael Gibson /© Orion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
WOMEN TALKING, from left: Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, director Sarah Polley, on set, 2022. ph: Michael Gibson /© Orion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

'We just wanted to make sure people felt really safe and supported'

With such a deeply complex and emotional narrative, one way Sarah Polley helped to create a more constructive, supportive set environment was bringing on Dr. Lori Haskell. She is a clinical psychologist who is an expert in trauma and sexual violence, specifically related to the effects of physical and mental trauma, including their impact on memory.

“It was tricky subject matter, it brought up a lot of stuff for a lot of people,” Polley said. “We just wanted to make sure people felt really safe and supported, and I did have crew members and cast members who had been through abuse and assault.”

The director added that Haskell helped to provide a "safety net" during difficult moments.

“She was an amazing resource in terms of helping the actors understand how these women would be walking alongside and within their trauma,” Polley explained. “She was there for them on the days that we had more difficult scenes, not every day, but she was always available to us whenever anyone needed to talk.”

Polley is an actor herself who has been honest about the issues she had on set as a child actor, particularly in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Now she continues to advocate for resources, like an on-set psychologist, to be made available.

“I think that there should be someone like this onset whenever there's subject matter that could be hard for people,” Polley said. “I also think there should be an independently hired child psychologist on set...to assess, separate from the parents and the production, how a kid is doing and have a lot of authority in terms of what a kid is allowed and not allowed to do.”

“I think that we can start to think creatively about how to create safer, better working environments for people, generally, on sets.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 13: Sarah Polley attends the
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 13: Sarah Polley attends the "Women Talking" Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 13, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

With progress comes 'backlash'

Back at the screening of Women Talking at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, Judith Ivey stressed how rare it was to be able to work on a film alongside a large group of women actors, with women in directing and producing roles as well.

“One of the great gifts at my ripe old age is being in a project with nine beautiful women who are wonderful artists, directed by a wonderful female artist, produced by a beautiful female producer, and another female producer, and that's a rare, rare situation, unfortunately," she said. "It may not happen for me again in my career’s lifetime, but I hope it becomes the norm for all of these young women."

In terms of women getting opportunities to tell women-centric stories, that actually make it to the big screen, Sarah Polley said that while progress is being made, she's also very conscious that women are also experiencing "backlash."

“I think there are so many interesting female filmmakers working today, there's obviously a long way to go but I think we are seeing the beginning of that and hopefully that continues," Polley said. “I also feel like we're really experiencing a backlash right now too."

"We've had about five minutes where people have been talking about, in the mainstream, hearing more female voices, and you can already feel the course that we're going, ‘OK that's enough. It's time for you guys to shut up.’”

There's obviously a long way to go.

While many have connected Women Talking to being a #MeToo movie, doing so is overly simplistic. Women Talking, through Miriam Toews' novel and subsequently Polley's adaptation of that story, is incredibly layered and dynamic in the way that it comments on trauma and community.

“I understand why people are building that frame around it, but I'm not sure there actually is one,” Polley said.

“I think that what it's doing is sort of it's having a conversation about what kind of world we want to build, not just the one we want to tear down, and how we might find our way out of society that’s structured on such imbalance and harm.”

Women Talking opens in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Dec. 23 and expands to additional cities in January.