Speaker 1: Hello, you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.
Alison Herman: Hi there. I’m Alison Herman, a writer for The Ringer, a Writers Guild member, and the host of this episode of OnWriting. Today, I’m so excited to speak with Sarah Polley, the writer and director of the feature film Women Talking. The film is adapted from the Miriam Toews novel that was inspired by true events. The film stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, and Frances McDormand as a group of women who have only two days to decide how to take action against a group of men who have been arrested for years of abuse toward the women in the remote and isolated Mennonite community.
In addition to Women Talking, Polley wrote and directed the 2006 film Away from Her, which earned her first Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay. Women Talking is now nominated for the same award, as well as Best Picture. Polley’s other writing credits include 2011’s Take This Waltz and the 2012 documentary Stories We Tell. I have so much I want to speak with Sarah about, so let’s get into it. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.
Sarah Polley: Thank you for having me.
Alison Herman: Of course. So maybe a good place to start would just be a very simple, could you just describe your first encounter with Miriam’s novel Women Talking and what emotional response it brought out in you?
Sarah Polley: Yeah, I read it when it first came out and I had a really profound response to it. I read it really quickly. I’m a very slow reader generally, and I kind of inhaled it and it just provoked so many new thoughts in me that I hadn’t really had before, which is such an amazing thing for a book to do. So I was profoundly emotionally impacted by it, but I was also intellectually so stimulated by it and made so hopeful by it because it’s really this project of imagining this radical democracy between this group of women who don’t agree with each other on so many essential things, having to come together to find a way forward.
And I think that idea of a way forward was also so critical to me at that time. I think we were in the middle, it was the very beginning of the Me Too movement when it came out. We were in the process of identifying so many harms and that was obviously really important work. But it was like this book kind of pulled back and gave this bird’s eye view and looked at the systems that allowed for these terrible things to happen, that looked at more about systemic injustice than individual culpability. And most importantly, for me, looked at what a way forward might look like.
Alison Herman: So when you were having these new thoughts and these emotional responses, were you having them at the same time that you were thinking, “Oh, I could adapt this,” or did that come at a later time?
Sarah Polley: I was. I think, for me, when I want to adapt something, it hits me pretty instinctually and pretty quickly. There’s not a lot of thought involved in it. It’s a gut instinct, and that’s only happened to me three times in my life, and I had that instinct. And so then it was thinking about how would this translate and what is most important and how do you hew spiritually as close as possible to this novel. And how does that require you to actually move away from the novel a little bit, which I always find is one of the most interesting things about adaptation that sometimes in order to capture the spirit of the book, you have to let it go a little bit.
Alison Herman: Yeah. One of the most significant and notable changes the film makes to the novel is that the identity of the narrator is shifted. And I’m not sure whether this is true, but I heard that you wrote drafts of the screenplay from the point of view of essentially every character before you decided on the eventual narrator. I’d love to hear more about what that process was like for you.
Sarah Polley: Sure. So the first process was something that happened in the script development process where I just realized in order to keep these nine, sometimes 12, characters alive, both in my own mind and also in terms of being able to track their arc properly and not drop the thread on them, I had to write a draft of the script from each character’s point of view as though they were the only important character to me. I think I did that two, and in some cases, three times throughout the course of the year or two that I was writing the script and then finding the narrator was completely different.
So we actually not just wrote… I didn’t just write it with August as the narrator, the Ben Whishaw character, which is what it is in the book. I actually shot it that way and I recorded the voiceover and edited it that way. And then at some point about three months into the editing process, we realized we actually needed a different narrator, that it was really important to hear this story told, to hear these thoughts and insights through the voice of someone who had actually experienced what this group of women had experienced.
So then it was a process of figuring out who that narrator was, and we settled on Autje, who’s the 16-year-old and the youngest character in the room. And it really came also from partly just falling in love with Kate Hallett’s performance, who plays Autje, and figuring out how can we center this character more. So then there was a whole writing process during the edit where I literally went away for a week and wrote stream of consciousness. I tried not to think about how it would fit into the film and came up with this many, many pages of narration, which we kind of plucked from to create sequences or put it in places it hadn’t been and watched the film transform. So it was a really interesting thing to have this full writing process happen again in the edit room.
Alison Herman: That process of writing screenplays from the point of view of different characters. Had you done that before with any prior screenplays, either adaptations or original?
Sarah Polley: Oh, I’m so glad you asked me that question because as you asked me that question, I just suddenly realized why I did it, which is I made a documentary called Stories We Tell about my family, which tells the same story from multiple points of view. So that film for me was my first experiment in this idea of a chorus of voices and no singular perspective but many, weighing in on the same narrative. So as you asked that question, I realized, “Oh, that’s where I got that idea,” is that I’d just come from this idea of making a film, not from one perspective, but from many. I mean, just when I say just come from, I mean 10 years ago, but it was my last film, so.
Alison Herman: It’s relatively recent. Well, I’m also curious, since obviously the final film can’t be told from, or in a way I suppose it is, it can’t be told from every single perspective at once. But I was wondering what that process of working through that story from all these different angles, what of that process ultimately made its way into the final film that we can see right now?
Sarah Polley: I think a lot of things. So I would add interventions from people where they had said nothing, things like… I’m thinking specifically as an example of Mejal, the character who has that fit when she has that PTSD blackout. And she’s silent through a lot of the film. She doesn’t talk that much. And I think in my first few drafts of the script, I’d really lost the thread on her. So that that PTSD episode she has came out of nowhere. And doing a draft or two from her point of view really allowed me to track how does she get there, what are the things that are being said in this room that are keying into her experience or provoking things in her in such a way that she does have this breakdown, that she does fall off her chair and kind of go back into this flashback.
So just being able to track how different things set on the other side of the room were actually really directly impacting a character or even maybe transforming them. It made a huge difference in terms of even just the way the dialogue played in terms of who I was focusing the camera on. And ultimately also to be able to answer actors’ questions because even if an actor is sitting in the corner of a room for three or four days, they’re going to want to know what’s happening. And so just for me to have to actually embody each character was really important for me to be able to direct it.
Alison Herman: Out of curiosity, how long did that process of drafting all those drafts end up taking in total?
Sarah Polley: I don’t know. I will say that I wrote this script probably 20 times more than I have any other thing I’ve made. And I really learned rigor from this process and ruthlessness and the idea that nothing’s ever done. I think it helped that I had just written a book and I’d really discovered through writing this book and working with my editor that it’s actually endless the number of times you can rewrite something and make it better, which was something I actually didn’t know about film writing. I think there was a sense I always had, and it was borne out by evidence actually. As an actor sometimes I’d see this great script and I’d see it then get worked on and worked on and worked on and get worse. And so I was always really cautious of overworking things. But this experience really taught me that it can be incredibly fruitful, especially when you’re dealing with such intricacies and so many dynamics between people. I mean, I think I probably wrote 50 to 60 drafts of this script.
Alison Herman: It’s quite a lot.
Sarah Polley: Quite a lot.
Alison Herman: When doing adaptations, sometimes you’re working with classics where the author may not necessarily be with us, but Miriam Toews is still very much a working and living writer. And I was wondering what kind of interactions or conversations you had with her, if any, over the course of this adaptation process?
Sarah Polley: Yeah. So I mean, I feel like if I had to describe myself as anything, I would say reader. The thing that I want to do most in life is read books. So I think that, for me, the great joy is when you have someone like Miriam or Margaret Atwood who are alive and engaged and actually want to have a conversation because as a reader, you get to sit with a writer you revere and ask every question you’ve ever wanted to know about a book and get underneath it. So I would never miss that opportunity.
So with Miriam, we sat for hours. I asked her everything I’d ever wanted to know about the book. I asked her what was most important to her about this adaptation. If there was one thing, what would it be? And her answer was the laughter, which became a great North Star for me in terms of every time we can find laughter, enjoy in this film, we have to. And she’s tremendously funny as a writer. So I think preserving that was really important. And also in terms of the way this community of women would relate to each other when the men weren’t there.
And then I did show her the first draft that I was really happy with and the last draft, and whenever there was a moment where we weren’t sure casting-wise, I would connect with her. And then we showed her a cut that was pretty close to being done. So she wasn’t like hands on every day and she gave me all the freedom in the world. But I’ve also been really lucky with both Margaret Atwood and Miriam Toews. They’re both people who really understand film and their cinephiles. And so there’s no confusion for them that this film is their book, their book is done, it’s on a shelf, it exists. And there wasn’t a preciousness about this being literally exactly what they had written.
Alison Herman: Yeah. Miriam herself is from a Mennonite background, which clearly informs the book and eventually the film. And I know in addition to Miriam, you also worked with some consultants from that community. What feedback or advice did you get from those consultants that ended up working its way into the script?
Sarah Polley: Sure. Yeah. And I’d had a lot of connections with Mennonite communities throughout my life for various reasons. And so yeah, we did have Mennonite consultants at every stage. So one of the things that I thought was really important, and Miriam and I talked about this and I talked about this a lot with some of the Mennonite women I know, was that there’s a difference between these women realizing the harm that the patriarchal power structures around their faith have created and the faith itself. And the faith itself and their relationship to it was something I wanted to deeply honor. Because actually I think what these women are in the process of doing isn’t abandoning their faith. It’s abandoning the power structure and the rules around their faith, and actually in doing so, moving closer to honoring their faith as it means something to them. So that was really important and trying to understand as much as possible what was good and beautiful about that faith and about those communities.
One thing that a conservative Mennonite said to me at some point was sometimes when Mennonites have been represented on screen, people just take a mishmash of details from all of the Mennonite communities ranging from Canada to South America and just put them with this kind of buggy and these kinds of clothes and just go, “It’s Mennonite.” But all of these hundreds and hundreds of communities are very different from each other in ways that might be not obvious to an outsider, but are very obvious if you’re Mennonite. So we were very specific in production design and costume design that it hew very closely to the specific Mennonite community where the background for these events happened.
Alison Herman: Yeah, that actually touches on the next question I wanted to ask, which is that in addition to adapting Miriam’s novel, Miriam was also drawing from a true story that happened in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. And I was wondering how those real events and the people affected by them factored into your research and writing process as well?