A Conversation with Sarah Polley

In December of 2022, I had the pleasure of chatting with writer-director Sarah Polley about her new film Women Talking. The film, based on Miriam Toews’s novel of the same name, tells the story of the women in a Mennonite colony coming to grips with the fact that they have been sexually assaulted by the men in their lives, and debilitate while the men are absent from their community about what their options are in order to create better lives for themselves: leave the colony, fight for their own rights, or stay and do nothing.

The film, which I had reviewed for Film Cred, would go on to garner Sarah Polley her second Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, but along with that, her first ever win. Down below is our conversation, which you can listen to on Spotify – and transcribed by myself for listeners’ sake. (This interview was conducted over Zoom, so audio might not be perfect – and Polley has personally requested that it be published in this format.)

Jaime Rebanal: In between the time you’ve made Women Talking and Stories We Tell, you’ve also written the miniseries Alias Grace, so what drew you to bringing Toews’s novel to a feature film format?

Sarah Polley: It was a book that I had read and I loved so much, and I was just so riveted by the questions that it posed. I got so excited about it, and I saw that Frances McDormand and Dede Gardner had the rights to it, and I reached out to them and then they reached out to me. It felt very meant to be.

JR: I was always struck by the way Women Talking was colour graded – and I’m sure it’s a question that you’ve been asked numerous times at this point, but can you talk more about the decision to go with this distinct look for your film?

SP: We always wanted it to exist within the realm of a fable, that there was never the sense of docudrama or some sort of overly rooted in gritty reality, there was a sense they were looking back on this time. So we wanted there to be a sense of a faded postcard of a world that had already passed, because I think the very fact of them sitting down to have this conversation consigns the world they’re living in to the past because they’re already changing it.

JR: I think it’s a really fitting look for this film, considering the difficult questions it asks about what to do when facing routine sexual assault. Can you also talk about what it was like trying to approach this and rehearsing it with your actors?

SP: I wanted to create as nurturing as a space as possible. So we had a really amazing onset clinical psychologist, Dr. Laurie Haskell. So she both helped prep us in terms of talking about the impact that trauma has on the brain but also as a great container. So when stuff came up for people, both cast and crew, there was someone to talk to.

JR: Earlier, I’ve also asked you at the Lightbox about how your acting experience has impacted the way you direct your stories. Have you found that was also the case with getting the ensemble together for Women Talking?

SP: Like in terms of how working with other directors impacted me?

JR: Yes.

SP: I think that I was really curious about finding out what each actor was most drawn to. Cause that’s certainly happened to me a couple times as an actor where I would go in for one part but the director would have the imagination to see me in a different part that I felt more connected to. So I tried to stay attuned to what the actors were gravitating toward.

JR: One thing that I’ve always loved about the film is the fact that despite the title being “Women Talking,” it’s shown that this problem has never been one that only affected those who identify as female but it also involves the young boys and you’ve incorporated a trans person played by August Winter as part of the conversation too. Can you talk more about that?

SP: I do think that this is about everyone and I think that patriarchy hurts everybody: men and women, and people of all genders. So that was sort of an important thing to touch upon and it’s not simple. You know, like it’s not a simple delineation of who’s impacted negatively by these hierarchical power structures and these sorts of places and institutions and societies that enable abuse. I think it’s pretty universal.

JR: Having read the novel, I was also caught by the fact that while the novel uses “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas, you selected “Daydream Believer” in its place. Did you find that the song just fits better with your film?

SP: We were experimenting with this: it was actually another note that came from another editor that we showed the film to and one of his notes was that he felt that the song was too literally speaking to what’s happening. I started experimenting with the songs and that was one of the songs that Chris Donaldson, one of our editors came in with one day, and it just worked. It just resonated for all of us and gave us chills. It also gave a break in the emotional landscape which was important. There was something so incongruous about it that we thought was helpful.

JR: And honestly, I think that it fits much better for your movie cause I can’t imagine it having the same impact with “California Dreamin’” personally.

SP: Exactly.

JR: What was the biggest challenge you faced making this movie during COVID?

SP: It was hard enough because I’ve been in real lockdown and my kids hadn’t gone to school for a year. I hadn’t left the house much, really, at all. I hadn’t been to any indoor space with other people. It was a huge shock to my system and a lot of other peoples’ so just getting through that anxiety was a big deal for me, making sure that the protocols were really safe for people, that we had lots of protocols in place to ensure people were safe and in fact, we didn’t have any cases of COVID on our set. We were really careful and rigorous. And I think just the challenge was keeping track and keeping in mind that many different actors and characters, and making sure that I didn’t drop the ball on any of them. Which I wasn’t always successful at, but just trying to attempt that was intense.

JR: Are there any filmmakers you felt had directly inspired many of your own choices as you were making Women Talking?

SP: Not directly, no. But I did spend the last ten years revisiting all my favourite films. I spent this time away from being behind the camera to like, kind of go back to film school and hit the filmmakers I’ve missed and revisit the ones I’ve loved. So I think I’ve felt much more film literate by the time I made this film than I had with my other films. So [Ingmar] Bergman, Sidney Lumet were obviously really impactful for me. Those were the two that come to mind the most.

JR: I was also about to ask if Sally Potter did lay a bit of an influence cause I know you programmed Orlando, which is showing at the Lightbox as part of your own series there.

SP: For sure, she had a huge influence on me.

JR: After the film’s premiere at TIFF, you were the first runner up for the People’s Choice Award. What’s the one thing you hope for those who are about to see the film? And what did winning the People’s Choice Award mean for you?

SP: We were thrilled with it. I was just thrilled to know that it was selected. I think that it’s a film about community and so it’s best experienced in community. So my hope is that people don’t see it alone or at least see it in an audience with people.

JR: You have any advice for upcoming filmmakers? Figured I’d ask since I know many fellow Sheridan students also look up to you.

SP: I think, to me, it feels really important to focus on the kind of things you want made, the things you want to do out of the gate. I think I’ve seen a lot of people over the years that I went to film school with or throughout the years, film students think strategically about what they should do to put themselves in the right position to do what they want to do. And I haven’t seen that pan out very well very often. And the people who seem to go the furthest are the ones that sort of begin as they mean to continue. So you begin by doing the things you most want to do even if it’s on a very small scale. Obviously we all have to make a living as well so there is some strategy that has to go into that for a lot of people and that’s important and I don’t want to minimize that. But in terms of the kinds of films that you’re making creatively or shows that you’re working on creatively, I think, sticking as close to your own original voice as possible is the best route.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.