“The urgency of telling this story is what brought me back to directing”: A Q&A with Sarah Polley on adapting Miriam Toews’s Women Talking

“The urgency of telling this story is what brought me back to directing”: A Q&A with Sarah Polley on adapting Miriam Toews’s Women Talking

The film opens in Toronto for an exclusive limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox today

Universal Pictures

If there’s a Canadian filmmaker who can do a Miriam Toews novel about womanhood and trauma justice, it’s Sarah Polley. In her adaptation of the bestselling 2018 book Women Talking, she brings a restrained urgency to an old conversation: women banding together to rise against patriarchal oppression. Women Talking, whose script she wrote, is Polley’s latest directorial effort following a decade-long hiatus since Take This Waltz in 2012. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and finishing as runner-up for the People’s Choice Award, Women Talking is also a likely Oscars contender, having already earned nominations for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay at the Critics’ Choice Awards. It has also been nominated in the original score and screenplay categories at the Golden Globes, a first for Polley.

The film follows an isolated group of Mennonite women who have been repeatedly drugged and sexually assaulted by the men in their community. They secretly gather in a loft to discuss whether they should do nothing, leave, or stay and fight. We spoke with Polley about the film’s powerhouse performances, what drew her to Toews’s haunting story, and the ongoing reckoning for systems of gender and power.

What has it been like to watch Women Talking generate so much buzz?
It’s been amazing. It’s unusual to witness that much love between such a big group of people and to see the way they showed up for one another. It was magical to experience the amount of support that the cast had for one another during filming and still do. Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara and Claire Foy have been doing their interviews together. I could see actors in this situation kind of vying for the spotlight, but they refuse to be like that.

The film’s producer, Dede Gardner, has said that she had been trying to work with you for a long time. But you’ve been selective about your projects, and you weren’t planning to make a film. What was it about the book that changed your mind?
The urgency of telling this story is what brought me back to directing. I have other projects in development, and I’ve been thinking about them, but this one felt like I had to do it now. There is an urgency to her book. It has this searing nature that poured through my veins—it raised questions that I had but didn’t have words to articulate. And, in the film, the language is there; that’s the real horror. There’s this sense of nuance and complexity in terms of the issues Toews raised in her book that were so sticky and interesting and rich and difficult. I loved the idea of spending some time trying to unpack those questions with an amazing group of actors.

Sheila McCarthy, who plays Greta, an elder among the women, has said that the cast felt like they were living in a parallel world where they were both the characters and the actors working together on the film. Was that your intention with the style of filmmaking?
I have been moving toward that more and more: the idea of creating a more collective, collaborative environment where people feel agency and are credited with coming forward with ideas. I think that taking 10 years off was a good thing. I wasn’t in the film world, and I was able to see how other communities work well together. I saw how groups of people function best, and then I brought that information back with me into the industry. With Women Talking, everyone was bringing ideas to the table all the time. Everybody signed up for this project. I wasn’t going to pretend I was the only voice in the room. And then to have a group of actors who are visionaries in their own right was a huge gift. It was like having many filmmakers in the room giving everything they had.

Universal Pictures

You also gave credit where it was due and shared who brought which idea in.
I can’t imagine how you could be comfortable taking credit for an idea that isn’t yours. I’d be in full shame mode for weeks. If you make a film of this scale, there are literally hundreds of people who have to be creative and put everything they have into it to make it happen. That’s what’s exhilarating about filmmaking–building an idea with many people gets you much further than you could have gone on your own. I love the cacophony of voices that it takes to create a single moment. We wanted to be slightly radical in terms of opening up the space and making room for everybody. But, to me, that’s just what good filmmaking should be.

You’ve said that the hardest part about making Women Talking was the narration, which was done by Autje (Kate Hallett), a young girl. What did you mean by that?
I had kept the film at arm’s length in terms of my own experience. Obviously, things seep in. It’s inevitable. But, consciously, I didn’t want this to become autobiographical or even a therapeutic project in any way. This, for me, was about Miriam’s novel and the collective experiences of so many people, not just my own. It was a challenging assignment; I had to go into my own head and think, Where was I at 16? There are some echoes of my 16-year-old voice. I had to be in my body, in my life, in my own experience and express something deeply personal. But the cast and crew were enormously generous with their own insights and experiences. So I came to rely a lot on how things were resonating with people. I was lucky that people were automatically talking about their own lives as we were shooting. It was a natural part of the conversation to be able to approach them and say, “Does this work for you?”

The movie also highlights that, while the story is about women talking, it’s also about men listening.
I love that this story is also about a really good man, August, who actually does know how to listen. He knows how to take in someone else’s experience and process it and absorb it and then be of help.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Women Talking opens in Toronto for an exclusive limited run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox today and elsewhere in January.