Writer and director Sian Heder’s new film “Tallulah” explores the concept of motherhood — specifically whether someone can and should be a mother. Ellen Page stars as the free-spirited Tallulah and Allison Janney plays Margo, the mother of Tallulah’s boyfriend. The film follows its titular character in a haphazard effort to rescue a neglected baby and convince Margo that it’s her granddaughter.
“Tallulah” is the longer version of Heder’s critically acclaimed short film “Mother.” The creator spoke with Variety about the balancing act of writing and directing her own feature, what she learned from Jenji Kohan and Ray Romano and working with a 15-month old on set.
How did you come up with the concept “Tallulah”?
Tallulah the character was based on a friend of mine basically who was living out of a van and traveling around the country, finding odd jobs. She was a bit of a drifter and quite a character. I had been writing about her in a kind of character-study-way without having any idea what I wanted to do with her. I just knew she was intriguing to me as a person.
When I first moved out to L.A., I was working as a baby sitter at all of these 5-star hotels and I had a lot of strange encounters with parents. I had a specific night where the mother was so erratic and nuts that I desperately wanted to steal her child – and I didn’t. But I thought my friend would have. She lived kind of with her own moral compass where she was in survival or fight-or-flight mode all the time, and absolutely would have made an impulsive decision like that. It led to deeper issues about motherhood and who’s meant to be a mother. Is that something that exists in all women or a choice that some people shouldn’t make?
Was it hard to be both a writer and a director for this film?
I think it’s easier to do both because there’s no preciousness about the writing. You can yell, “Who wrote this crap?” and you know the only person who will be mad is you. It gives you a lot freedom. Because you have written the project, you know the heart of the story, but at the same time you also know that those words can change if they’re not getting at the heart of what the scene’s about. Having that intricate knowledge of the script and knowing what can get thrown out is important. Definitely working on “Orange is the New Black” and having that experience as a writer where you’re forced to think on the fly and rewrite for a different location or a scene doesn’t really work and you need to rewrite the dialogue – so having that skill set was incredibly helpful.
How is it different writing for TV on a show like “Orange is the New Black” and doing your own project?
The best part of a writer’s room is that you have six brilliant minds to work with so if you get stuck you’ve got other people to turn to who can creatively problem solve. At the same time, there’s a lot of personalities and a whole dance that you’re doing to kind of work as a hive mind. I love that experience of a writer’s room but it’s also very freeing to just have it be your voice and ask for exactly what you want without questioning it. When I’m alone I miss that dynamic nature. Working for Jenji and Ray Romano made me a better writer because they questioned me and pushed. My voice grew a lot by working with them, but it was freeing to do something that was completely mine.
You previously made the acclaimed short film “Mother.” Are the two related?
I shot “Mother” as a scene but it evolved into the feature. So the dialogue and the story of “Mother” is like exactly in Tallulah, it’s the end of the first act. The short film had a whole life and went to Cannes and film festivals. Everyone who saw it said it had to be a feature because it was begging to be a longer story. It evolved and I wrote it into a script and then it evolved more as I found my way and found out what I wanted to say with the feature and what I wanted that story to be.
I’ve been a fan of both of their work for a long time. I remember seeing Ellen in “Hard Candy” and thinking that this kid was incredibly interesting. And she was a kid at the time! In a way I needed for Ellen to grow up in order to be in my film. I met with her, she had read the script and really connected with that character. We went out for Japanese noodles and pretty much fell in love. She’s someone who is a deep-thinking and a complicated human being and had a really interesting take on the character. She understood the feral nature of Tallulah and really wanted to push for the project to happen.
When I met with Allison it was the same thing. But we weren’t having noodles, we had wine at 8 a.m. Both of these women are very funny people who also have this deep emotional well and crazy dramatic chops as actors. That combination is hard to find — people who can get the rhythm of laugh-out-loud moments, but then in the same turn really go to some incredibly heavy emotional place. I was lucky that they had the history and the relationship they had in life because I do think that translates to the screen. It’s very hard to build chemistry as a director if it doesn’t already exist. The fact that they are such dear friends and get such a kick out of each other and make each other laugh I think really helped.
How did Netflix get involved in the mix?
Netflix saw a trailer for the film at AFM and it was before Sundance and even before we were done cutting the film. They wanted to buy the streaming rights. I had a history with them through “Orange” and I really felt like I trusted them and respected them a lot as a creative person. A lot of times you’re dealing with studios or networks that you feel like make decisions from an arbitrary place and Netflix always had story-based notes, they were always thinking about the artist and what I was trying to say. When they made an offer on the movie it just felt like it was the right home for it.
The baby in the film is spot-on! Was it hard working with such a young actor?
You should see my dailies! It is truly insane, hands down the hardest thing. There’s a reason you don’t see many movies with toddlers as leads. The age we were working with… they can’t take direction and are too young to understand anything but they’re still able to walk around. I wanted her to feel like a character and not a prop. We put up with a lot of production challenges in order to make that child feel like a character. Scheduling was insane. When your AD is sitting there talking about nap schedules… You’re working with the most fickle actor you could ever work with. But the parents were so cool and giving and allowed me to, while respecting the babies, tell the story I wanted to tell. People keep asking me, “How did you get the baby to cry?” and I say, “How did I get the baby NOT to cry?” Ellen Page had a full time job as a baby sitter and an actor. But we ended up with these genuine moments that felt alive. We worked with two cameras so we could capture everything that happened with the kid so it felt real.
One very interesting aspect that briefly appears in the film is the concept of gravity. How does that figure into the larger landscape of the film?
I’ve always been interested in magical realism and that human emotion can become so intense that it translates into a physical reality. It’s very visual and it’s a way to tell a story. I like those lines in film where Michel Gondry or people who sort of cross those lines in terms of reality. Cinema is a visual medium and you can create an emotion with images. The idea of gravity was a way of physicalizing our need as human beings for connection and to have our feet grounded to something. The battle that exists within all of us between the need to escape and the need to feel connected. So it was a way of taking that idea and the emotion and making it physical and in the moment.
“Tallulah” will be available for streaming exclusively on Netflix July 29.