Cambridge-born Sian Heder brings ‘Tallulah’ to Boston for stirring Q&A
The writer-director shared stories of the uphill battle to bring women’s stories to the big screen, the emotional evolution of the film from conception to exhibition, and the thematic connections to her work on ‘Orange is the New Black.’
About halfway through the very warm and wise new film Tallulah, our title character played by Ellen Page comes clean and admits that she was not, as she’s been claiming all along, named after actress Tallulah Bankhead — but rather Tallulah’s Bar and Grill, the long-gone Davis Square haunt that famously featured sixty-five beers on tap. “I waitressed there,” laughs Cambridge-born writer-director Sian Heder. “We did have sixty-five beers on tap but the guy never paid his bills, so we were always out of like sixty of them. There were always collection agencies coming in and we would have to lie and say he wasn’t there. It was a funny, weird place.”
A feature-length expansion of Heder’s award-winning 2006 short Mother that the Rindge and Latin grad made at the American Film Institute, Tallulah finds Page’s drifter spinning stories about more than just the provenance of her name. An awkward encounter in a New York luxury hotel with a boozy, unfit mother (Tammy Blanchard) ends with hobo Tallulah grabbing the trophy wife’s one-year-old baby girl and bolting, eventually enlisting an ex-boyfriend’s mom (Allison Janney) as an unwitting accomplice in one of the screen’s more unorthodox kidnappings. Heder brought Tallulah home last week for a boisterous, emotional preview screening packed with old friends and family at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, followed by an expansive Q&A with DigBoston film critic Jake Mulligan.
“The initial germ of the film came about because I was working as a nanny in L.A. when I first moved there, dealing with a lot of uber-wealthy people and their children and I was driving a five-hundred-dollar Buick,” she explained. “I was encountering a kind of neglect that was happening with high society people, masked by nannies and housekeepers and tucked away. I wrote the film initially from a place of judgement. I thought this woman was horrible and doesn’t deserve to be a mom, and I should take her kid, I could do better.”
But over the ten years it took to bring Tallulah to the screen (time Heder spent as a writer on TNT’s Men of a Certain Age and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black), something happened that changed her perspective on the story. “I became a mother, and then I had a lot more compassion for this character who was my villain. My daughter was really colicky for the first six months. I was incredibly sleep-deprived and I felt like everyone knew how to do it except for me. Suddenly this woman who I’d seen as this horrendous, repulsive character was empathetic. So I went back and rewrote my script from that place.”
During filming, she was six months pregnant and had a sixteen-month-old at home, which Heder claims provided a baby-whisperer skill-set that came in handy with certain members of the supporting cast. “Toddlers in particular don’t do anything you want them to on set. It was really hard, but it was also kind of amazing because the actors were forced to be very much in the moment. You can’t lie. You don’t know what that kid is gonna do, so you have to be very fluid in how you shoot. There were honestly times when the entire crew was on the floor singing ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands.’”
Baby Madison was played by twins Evangeline and Liliana Ellis, but as child labor laws limit working with infants to two hours a day, plenty of backup babies were required. “When you’re on set you get sort of desperate because these babies aren’t behaving — one’s down, the next one’s down, and you’re like ‘bring in the one with the wrong face!’ They weren’t little enough that you could throw a doll in there and wrap it in a blanket, American Sniper-style, and hope that the audience doesn’t notice. My daughter became, honestly, like my backup disaster baby. When everything was going to hell I would call my husband like ‘put her in an Uber and put her in costume and bring her to the set!’”
Over the course of Tallulah’s long journey to the screen, Heder was told more than once that funding the $6 million film would be a lot easier if she switched one of the main characters to a man. “There are not a lot of women that bring financing the way male movie stars do. But I want to tell women’s stories. You know, I think part of the reason the film did take so long to get made is they were very complicated characters and on the page they were sort of unlikable. They were morally ambiguous and were making really bad decisions.”
It’s something these characters have in common with the ones on Heder’s most recent day job: “The similarities with Orange [Is the New Black], it’s interesting what I learned on that show and in approaching this movie. On that show all the women are in prison. They’re all people that you judge immediately because they’ve done something terribly wrong. I like the idea that you can subvert that initial judgement and impression, and you can get to know those people and fall in love with them and see their humanity. The idea I could do that with these three women in this film was exciting to me. The world is hungry for real women. Not movie women. I think that there are complex people — we are complex people. And that needs to be shown.”
Tallulah opens Friday, 7/29 at the West Newton Cinema and on Netflix.