Orange Is The New Black's Sian Heder on her debut film, and why bad people make good characters
The film debuts on Netflix on July 29th2
Amid all the online squabbling over Paul Feig's new female-led Ghostbusters, one of the more reasonable responses was "Yes, we want more women in film, we just want original stories instead of remakes." Anyone onboard with that sentiment should be watching writer-director Sian Heder closely. The Orange Is The New Black writer and co-producer recently took her debut feature film Tallulah to Sundance, where it was an instant hit. But even before the festival, Netflix was rushing to pick up the streaming rights. The film debuts on Netflix on Friday, July 29th.
The film stars Ellen Page as Tallulah, a rootless young woman living out of the back of a van and treasuring her independence. Then a string of circumstances run her up against Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a rich alcoholic housewife who's obviously neglecting her toddler. Lu impulsively steals the child and runs to her ex-boyfriend's deeply troubled mother Margo (Allison Janney), claiming the toddler is Margo's grandchild. The story builds from there into a tense but often wryly funny thriller and family drama, but while the plot is taut and nerve-wracking, Tallulah's real strength is the complexity and unpredictability of its characters. Like the ensemble Heder writes for on Orange Is The New Black, Tallulah's characters all have notable flaws, but it's easy to sympathize with their struggles, and with the way a few bad choices spiral rapidly out of control. Even the minor characters, like Margo's ex-husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and his lover (Heder's friend Zachary Quinto), get a little space for empathy, even when they're at their worst.
Heder took Tallulah's story directly from her own real-world experience as a Los Angeles agency nanny who was largely called to work for rich clients out of expensive hotels. The neglect and indifference she saw in that job inspired her first short film, "Mother," which she expanded into Tallulah. I recently talked to Heder about that short, why she cast OITNB star Uzo Aduba as Tallulah's only real grown-up, and how she writes characters who transcend their obvious and immense failings.
You made a short version of this film 10 years ago. How has the story evolved for you since then?
Sian Heder: In that time, I became a better writer. I started writing for television. I wrote more movie scripts, and my skill level evolved. So I went back and revisited the script. And also, I evolved as a person. I grew up a lot and had a different perspective on the world. I became a mother during the time when I was trying to get the film made. It definitely gave me a different perspective on my bad-mommy character, because I had a lot more empathy and compassion for her. She was less of a clean-cut villain for me, and more of a complicated person. And then little details happened in my life that I added into the script, because they're funny moments. I would have an experience and think, "Well, that would work for one of my characters," and go back and write it. There were several things in the movie that were moments I had, or things that I witnessed along the way.
"I am certainly not for simplifying men to tell stories about women. I think everyone can be complicated."
You've said that a woman you know inspired the character of Lu, and Carolyn came from your nannying experience. What else can you point to that was inspired by your life?
Almost everything in there. Margo has a turtle; my parents have had a turtle for 20 years. That was such a weird, random pet. There were moments — the scene where Allison and Ellen lie in bed together and talk about death, and they have a hysterical laughing fit, that scene was from my real life. On my birthday, Zach Quinto and I had taken a trip to Berlin, and we were both very melancholy, and we started musing on the fact that we were gonna die, and how sad that was. And then we had this cathartic laughing fit. I wrote the scene, and it found its way into the script. There was a detail Allison told me in our first meeting, about her mother and how after her father was gone, the side of the bed he used to sleep on got filled up with papers and work. It was almost a person-shaped mess that lived on the other side of the bed. I just thought that was such a beautiful detail, I wrote it into the script. Nobody's safe — if you tell me something, I'm gonna write about it.
How did working on Orange Is The New Black affect how you write female characters?
It's mostly working in a writers' room and having different perspectives and voices. Hearing people's ideas, and getting into a huge fight in the writers' room because you're adamant about a plot point and then you see the contrary idea executed, and it's brilliant and it works, and you go, "Oh wow, I was wrong, and there are other ways to go. There are plenty of narrative choices that can pay off and build." So I learned a lot like that, about people's writing styles. [Orange Is The New Black creator] Jenji Kohan taught me a lot about writing. Her sense that there's always comedy, even in the darkest moments, was very important when I looked at my script. And then I think they have similarities. All of the women on Orange are so to speak, bad people — they're in prison. But they're so full of humanity, and we care about all of them. So we're able to have those two things simultaneously, where you can judge a person's actions and think they aren't moral people in our societal sense, but they're very human, and we love them anyway. That was important to me in approaching all of the characters in Tallulah as well.
How did the casting come together?
I met with the actors — Ellen had read it. Her manager passed it along to her, and she loved the part. I had Japanese noodles with her, and we talked. She had just spent time with this friend who was living in a Gypsy community in England, and I think she just really related to Lu's rootlessness and desire to be free and unencumbered by anything. We connected as people, also. She's a very thoughtful deep thinker, and I loved that.
And then Allison is just so funny, and yet has such an understanding of tragedy in her own life. She and I had to go out for wine in the middle of the day when I first met her. I've always admired her work. I think she's such a talent, and a bit of an unsung hero. Obviously on The West Wing, she was a very powerful leading lady, but in film, she often shows up for a few scenes as comic relief. It was really exciting to think about the arc of this character, and her exploring the complexities and darkness of this woman as well.
"Zach Quinto and I had taken a trip to Berlin, and we started musing on the fact that we were gonna die."
What about Tammy Blanchard?
Tammy is a Broadway actress for the most part. She's done a lot of film, but that's what she's known for. My casting director, Tiffany Canfield, brought her in and said, "You've gotta see this woman, she's incredible." And Tammy is actually one of those people who, when you start mentioning her to New York actors, every New York actor knows who she is and loves her work. So she definitely felt like someone who should be a bigger star, and she blew me away with her audition. It felt dangerous and vulnerable and funny and tragic, and I really fought for her to play that part. I just felt like she got it.
She starts out as a villain up against a non-traditional hero, but by the end, the situation is complicated enough to spread the sympathy around. Was it important for you to not demonize or simplify any of these characters?
Yeah, I'm always interested in subversion of expectation with character, because it happens all the time in life. We meet someone and have an immediate judgment, and often those judgments are completely wrong. They're on the surface, and when you get to the heart of it, there's something much more complicated and interesting underneath. So I wanted to do that with my characters. Someone recently gave me a great compliment — they saw Tallulah and said, "Wow, that was like watching drama-pool, like a pool game where you thought a ball was gonna go in one direction, but instead, it veered to the left, and then they're going all over the place." That was a great compliment to me because that was what I was interested in as a writer: you think you know where things are going, but you don't. And you think you know how to feel about these characters, but then you find yourself feeling something else. And the audience is left with conflicting emotions where they're rooting for people they didn't wanna be rooting for, and I like that. A friend of mine saw a screening and she said, "Oh my God, halfway through the movie, I was filled with dread, because I realized I cared about everybody, and there was no good way for it to end." And I thought, "That's great." To actually care about everybody in a movie, what an accomplishment! That was my biggest challenge as a director, and I'm glad it was successful for some people.
Uzo Aduba's character feels like the only fully adult character in the film. Was it important to you to have a character who wasn't problematic or compromised?
Yes. I mean it's ironic that Uzo Aduba plays Crazy Eyes on Orange Is The New Black, because Uzo is the least-crazy person I know. She is so grounded and centered as a person. I wanted her for that part, as the only grown-up, the voice of reason, the one who calls another character out on her shit in such a clear and clean way. Her scolding is a short scene, but it feels so necessary. So having Uzo play that part, when I knew what she would bring to it, was a grounded, warm, truth-telling. It was really important to me. I'm so grateful that people I had relationships with, like Zachary Quinto, and Uzo, showed up for me. Because even in those small parts in your film, you want characters to feel like they're representing whole words, like you could follow any of them, and they would have a riveting story as well. That was important to me, and I felt lucky that even in the small parts, my cast was full of phenomenal actors.
Lu seems like a hard character to write, given how unpredictable she is, and how short she is on resources — not just material ones, but empathetic and intellectual ones as well. How did you approach making her sympathetic while staying true to her limitations and problems?
I think the thing that makes all of these characters sympathetic is that they're not self-aware. There's nothing malicious or manipulative about what they're doing. Tallulah is manipulative, but it's for survival. She lives moment-to-moment, and is in survival mode all the time, and looking almost like an animal to make her next move. She's very much in fight-or-flight mode all the time. Ellen and I talked about that — she's the character who walks into a room and immediately knows where all the doors are, because she might have to make a quick getaway. She's very different from me. I'm an overthinker. I'm always tensed up and analyzing everything. So it was very freeing to write a character who trusts her body and not their mind, who's really living in the present, and is not aware of consequences.
When she steals that baby, I think it's something her body feels like doing in the moment, and so she just goes with it. Later, she has to say, "Oh my God, what have I done." But there's not this overthinking. There's something childlike about each of these women. Carolyn is basically a toddler herself, and of course she can't be a mother, because she's not a grown-up. Margo is this academic, and she's obviously very intelligent, but she's naïve. Tallulah even says that to her: "You're naïve, you trust too much, you believe in people too much." Margo has a kind of blindness in her life against the truth. She was in a marriage with a gay man for 20 years, and refused to see it. And now here is this girl on her doorstep, and there are so many red flags she's not picking up on, or doesn't want to pick up on. Characters that are a little delusional and not self-aware are very interesting to me.
With all the hysteria going on over social media about female-led films that don't show the male cast in the most positive light, and the ongoing attempt to get women working behind the scenes on films and to tell more women-centric stories, what does it feel like to be promoting this film in this environment?
It's a great time, in a sense. I feel like there's an openness to diverse voices, because so many people in Hollywood are being overtly shamed. And that shaming is important, because the conversation needs to actually lead to change about where the money goes, and the projects that get backed and financed. The men are a small part of this film, but everyone is a real person. And even villainous characters, like Margo's ex-husband, who's harsh with her in his scene, or even Carolyn's husband, they are people. They have a leg to stand on. They're actually making reasonable arguments.
I am certainly not for simplifying men to tell stories about women. I think everyone can be complicated. But audiences are hungry for new stories, and a lot of the stories that haven't been told yet are stories about women or people of color. These diverse voices haven't had a shot, and I think it's important for the money to follow that. I'm glad the conversation's happening. The prejudice against women behind the scenes is definitely there, and I'm acutely aware of it when I get phone calls about my female DP, asking questions like, "Can she run a crew?" That's an absurd question that I don't even want to dignify with a response, because she's shot like 20 features. Of course she can run a crew. It's not a question you would even think to ask if she were a man. So I definitely am feeling that it's a real thing. And I understand what Jodie Foster means when she says, "I want to be seen as a director, not a woman director." You're a filmmaker. Your gender is not your whole voice. But it's a huge part of who we are, and I'm glad that the conversation's happening.