How Sarah Polley Infused ‘Women Talking’ with Hope, Humor and Reasonable Working Conditions

“I know what your next movie is.”

It was a member of Sarah Polley’s book club who first approached her with the statement: “I know what your next movie is.” But that was followed by some conditions. Recalls Polley: “She took me into the kitchen and said, ‘When I tell you what the background of the story is, you’re not going to want to make the film. So just bear with me.’ She told me the backstory and I said, ‘I don’t want to make that into a film.’”

The book in question was Miriam Toews’ “Women Talking,” the story of women in a Mennonite community who learn that several men have been drugging and raping them for years, blaming demons for their injuries. Toews wrote the 2018 novel after learning about a case in Bolivia in which seven men were put on trial for such a crime in 2011. Toews’ novel details the secret meeting that takes place in a hayloft between the women who are presented with only a few options — they can forgive their abusers, fight against them or leave the community they have known all their lives.

After hearing more about the book, Polley was quickly won over. “She proceeded to tell me the story of this group of women having this passionate, rigorous debate about in what direction they would take their future,” the filmmaker says. “And by the time she finished describing it to me, I was riveted, and I ran and got the book.” 

A professional actor from a young age, Polley had already directed three acclaimed films, including 2006’s “Away From Her” and 2011’s “Take This Waltz.” Her last film had been 2012’s “Stories We Tell,” a fascinating and deeply personal documentary made after the filmmaker learned she was the product of an extramarital affair. But in 2015, Polley was struck on the head by a fire extinguisher and suffered a debilitating concussion that left her in bed for weeks and brought her directing career to a halt. Though she had improved, she had other reservations about the grueling schedule of making a movie.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

But Polley found out that the rights to the book were held by Frances McDormand and Dede Gardner and reached out to see if a writer-director was attached yet. “Literally, in the same hour, they had reached out to me a bit earlier to see if I was free,” Polley recalls. “So it felt very meant to be.”

Polley’s adaptation attracted a stellar cast, including McDormand in a supporting role. Rooney Mara plays Ona, a woman who won’t let the crimes shake her faith even after finding herself pregnant from a rape. Claire Foy plays her sister Salome, who is fueled by understandable fury. Jessie Buckley plays Mariche, an abused wife who is also the mother of Autje, played by Kate Hallett in her first professional acting role. Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy also star, as does Ben Whishaw in the role of August, the lone male ally who attends their meeting and takes the minutes as the only person who can read and write among them.

Variety spoke to Polley about her return to filmmaking and the positive response to the film, which hits theaters Dec. 23.

I speak to a lot of people who are really excited about this movie. I’m not totally surprised given its quality, but at the same time did you ever worry about finding an audience? You’re not a big-budget summer blockbuster.

Sarah Polley: Or are we? (Laughs.) I mean, I’ve been thrilled by the conversation around it and I’m just excited that people are engaging with the optimistic, hopeful momentum of the film, which is the aim of it. It’s not a carnival of grief and rage. It touches upon those things but the idea is: then what? How do we move forward? What is community? What does building a different world look like?

I’m really delighted and surprised that those conversations are coming out of the film, and that’s what people are hearing about. Because it would be really easy for people to have a false assumption about this film — that it was going to leave them feeling bleak and hopeless. Which is not the film we designed. 

I keep telling people: it’s got some very funny moments. Yes, there are serious moments but also there’s humor in the way that even the darkest parts of life have humor.

Polley: The humor was so important to us. When I first met with Miriam about adapting it, I asked, “If there’s one thing that’s most important to you in the translation of this book to film, what is it?” And she said very quickly, “The laughter.” So that was a north star for us of going, “We have to make sure anytime we find laughter or joy or a sparkle anywhere in this film, that we not shy away from it. Because people have to feel permission to feel any number of things at any given moment.”

Going back to how you weren’t looking to direct — did you consider yourself retired or was it that nothing had spoken to you in a long time?

Polley: It was a combination of factors. The first one being I had three little kids, I didn’t want to work 17- to 18-hour days when they were little. So a big part of that first meeting was: Can this be done another way? Can we have humane working hours and can I and the rest of the group be home to either put our kids to bed or care for parents or handle whoever people’s caregiving responsibilities were.

The second one was, I had a 3½-year brain injury where I couldn’t work. I had a really serious concussion and had post-concussive syndrome that lasted a really long time. I had recovered from that by the time I took on this project. But those two things combined had sort of kept me out of directing for a really long time. And I just didn’t think that I would ever be in a position to be able to ask for 10-hour work days. Having Fran and Dede there made all the different. Fran’s response was very immediate, they said they would figure out a way to make it work. 

Dan Doperalski for Variety

I hear so many stories of people who stop directing simply it takes so much away from your life. 

Polley: I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who’ve made one film and then had children and self-selected out and are now screenwriters. And I was one of those people. I’ve been writing scripts for the last 10 years and doing rewrites for other people. Because that was how I could be an active, present parent and still work. 

So obviously, there’s a lot of barriers and systemic barriers to women working. But there’s also the problem of people not wanting to miss their kids’ childhoods, and we have lost a lot of women to that. So I was just one of many people who had chosen that path. To have someone to offer me a way back into my job that didn’t require me to completely disappear on my kids for the time – I was so grateful for that.

I’ve never fully understood how we all became OK with 17-hour workdays. And when that became the norm.

Polley: Remember how the labor movement fought for the 40-hour workweek? What happened? You basically have to be someone who doesn’t want to have any kind of domestic life or caregiving responsibilities in order to make films — it makes absolutely no sense. I feel like things are beginning to change and people are starting to fight for this more and more. But it’s a slow process and it’s going to require people like Dede and Fran who have the will and power to make that happen.

People work faster and better and more happily when they have slept. And when they’ve seen their families or their loved ones. That’s just a fact. And also, it’s unsafe if you’re asking people to be around big heavy equipment and drive long ways back home after working 17-, 18-, 19-hour days. 

In your adaptation, the character of Autje, a young girl, narrates the story. But the book is told through the meeting minutes taken by August. Can you talk about that change?

Polley: In the book, it worked beautifully to read the story through August’s notes and interpretations. Because, as Miriam says, it’s not just women talking, it’s about men listening and taking notes. And there was something almost subversive about her putting a male voice at the center. And we shot it that way. I scripted it that way. And it was in the editing process where we knew there was something missing. And were trying to put our finger on what that was. And I think what we realized was that with the sort of immediacy of an image in front of us and the intimacy of sound in our ear, we needed a female voice who had experienced these things telling us the story. And also, there was this opportunity for a sense of a future in that narration, a sense of things moving forward. And that gave it a much-needed sense of hope. And in a strange way, my feeling is that even though the film became less literal in terms of the adaptation from the book, it now captures the spirit of the book better than we were when we were more literal in the adaptation.

Also in the book it specifies this takes place in a Mennonite community but I don’t believe it’s ever stated in the film — or is it?

Polley: It is a Mennonite community. And in the book, it is very clearly mentioned as a Mennonite community. Miriam is Mennonite. But this film lives more in the realm of a fable. I didn’t want people in more secular cultures to be able to use the word Mennonite, to push these issues away and “other” them and make them feel like something distant from us. I didn’t want to give people that excuse. 

So I feel like I think anybody who knows what Mennonite committees are like, will identify it as Mennonite. We were very authentic in terms of the details of the communities and the wardrobe and the production design. But also, I think, in telling this story, as a non-Mennonite, there are some really serious, ethical questions to be asked, especially because it’s a community who cannot, by its very nature, speak back. They can’t go to a newspaper, they can’t write an op-ed, they can’t go on television and criticize the way this film was made. So I think you have to be conscious when you’re making a film about a community that’s not your own. And I think you have to tread quite carefully. And my sense was, it would do the overall discussion, a disservice to allow people to say, “Well, this is something that only happens in this very isolated, religious, misunderstood community.”