Phyllis Nagy’s screenplays have brought her many accolades, including an Oscar nom for “Carol.” The writer, who also teaches at UCLA, brings her second directorial effort, “Call Jane,” to AFM. The film, which stars Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara and Chris Messina, is set in the 1960s and follows Joy (Banks) whose pregnancy is tainted by the threat it poses to her own life. She has nowhere to turn until she stumbles upon the Janes, an underground group of women united by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), who risk everything to provide people like Joy with choices. Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi wrote the script. Nagy talked to Variety about the film.
The topic has always been timely, but now especially, women’s reproductive rights are under assault on many fronts.
When I became involved with this, it wasn’t that timely. I mean, in this country, such things are always a little bit timely, but now there’s a sort of, urgency, I suppose, to it. That’s different. It feels different. What attracted me to [the film] when [producer] Robbie Brenner sent me the script was the story of the Janes, which I wasn’t familiar with or as familiar with as I should have been… and this sort of almost outlaw action by the Janes.
Did the subject matter put off investors?
Apparently not. You would have to talk to Robbie Brenner. I think it’s always very difficult to get money for anything. But when I came to the project, [Brenner] had attracted a bunch of equity financing and there were foreign sales. And once I started adding cast, that picked up and more people got excited.
It’s a powerful cast.
When I came on board, Elizabeth was already attached. I did a pass on the script and subsequently the casting just fell into place. It’s a very deep cast, even small roles. There are a couple of “Carol” alumni, Corey, Michael Smith and John Magaro, who were absolutely tremendous, and Aida Turturro, Wunmi Mosaku, Rebecca Henderson. I was very lucky to get all these people.
How did you approach the material?
I had a few rules of thumb. One of the most important was that we weren’t judgmental about anyone’s behavior in the film. At the center is the question of abortion and is it right for one person or another, and although I think the point of view of the filmmakers is clear that we are advocates of choice, I felt like there was no point in being smug about it or censorious or judgmental. I think it’s important to understand that [choice] means something like abortion is not personally right for some people, too.
The film is also funny, which was important to me, which is something I brought to it. So it is like life, I think, unpredictable and not expected. I think this is not the movie people expect.
What were the biggest challenges shooting under COVID protocols?
This was challenging because, hey, we were making a period feature. We shot on film. We shot on 16 millimeter, and we had 23 days in which to shoot basically a two-hour script. And throw COVID into the mix and all of the precautions and it was that it was just a huge challenge to shoot. But somehow, miraculously, we made it through, we made our days, we were early, we did it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.