Emerging Directors: Sian Heder and the Power of Women's Voices

by Gabriel Lerman July 27, 2016
Writer director Sian Heder and a scene from her fil "Tallulah"

Writer/director Sian Heder and Elliot Page in a scene from Tallulah.

Getty Images/Netflix

As international journalists covering the entertainment industry, we at the HFPA are constantly on the lookout for up-and-coming talent. We know that the unknown filmmaker of today can very easily be the award-winning powerhouse of a not too distant future. This is an occasional series highlighting new, promising directors from all over the world.

Name: Sian Heder

Provenance: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Age: 39

Sian Heder’s first feature as a director comes at the perfect moment in the long debate about diversity in Hollywood. Tallulah, which opens this Friday, July 29 in the US after a premiere in Sundance (where it was promptly snapped up by Netflix), is perhaps an ideal film when it comes to female power. The story revolves around three women, portrayed with gusto by  Golden Globe nominees Elliott Page, Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard, each of them living maternity from a different perspective. Blanchard portrays a rich mother quick to leave her young daughter in the care of just anyone so she can go and meet her lover. Page is Tallulah, a homeless woman who happens to sneak into the girl’s room and ends up running away with her. Janey is the mother of Tallulah’s former boyfriend who becomes the stolen girl’s reluctant and guilty grandma. The team behind the camera is also 100% female, from Mexican DP Paula Huidobro to production designer Sara K. White.

Heder, a former actress who won several awards with her first short, Mother - which later became the basis for Tallulah- is also a writer for the Golden Globe-nominated show Orange Is the New Black.

Tallulah started as a short - did it come from your own experiences as a nanny?

Yes. When I first moved out to Los Angeles I was an actor and I was making ends meet by working as a babysitter at some of the fancy hotels in LA.  And I had strange encounters with parents that I felt like were unqualified to be parents, but because of their extreme wealth, they could hire housekeepers and nannies and people that protected them from the reality that they probably shouldn’t have been mothers or parents. There was a particular incident where I really felt like every cell in my body wanted to take the child, but I didn’t. But I was interested in the kind of person that would. And creating a character that really acted from her gut and acted from a sense of her own morality and what she felt was right as opposed to what the world would feel was right. And so that was where that character of Tallulah was born from. I made it as a short film first and then spun it out into a feature. The script evolved over many years and got much deeper and certainly my own experiences of becoming a mother and then having a lot less judgment for my villain, and how we would rewrite that character and understanding Margo, Allison Janney’s character on a much deeper level. As a writer, I have many, many drafts of the script and it was very different from what I had started out with. 

How distant is the character Tammy Blanchard plays from the real cases that you met?

That scene is almost verbatim from something that I lived. I mean, I have a secret desire that that woman will see the film and recognize herself somehow and it will be some sort of wake-up call. Particularly with dialogue and working on Orange Is the New Black, where the characters come from all walks of life, sometimes the way people speak can be so specific. Certainly, there was a way that that woman spoke and presented herself that was intriguing to me.

But if we have to take a subject among the film’s many themes, I think that unqualified mothers is the biggest, because, in a way, the three main characters in your film are unqualified mothers.

They all are. I think every mother feels unqualified. I think that is the secret about motherhood that no one reveals until they are in it, is that motherhood is wrapped with guilt that you are failing. And I think there is something interesting to me about the idea. And it’s not just mothers, I think it’s all parents, it’s high reach for the mother, but definitely, the expectations that society has for you and the expectations that you put on yourself, and I was interested in exploring the way those can flip. And it’s almost like you can do no right and you can do no wrong at the same time. Aside from physical abuse and reprehensible behavior, we are all going to have moments of neglecting our children or being selfish, or making a choice that isn’t in the best interests of your offspring. So I think I was just interested in that, that flawed human behavior as part of all of us.

Do you think that this story could only have been told by a female director and a female writer?

I don’t know if it only could be told but I definitely feel that there’s a unique perspective to being a woman. I think that the details of those characters were very much from a female perspective. And I think it’s in the conversation right now of why aren’t there more filmmakers and women’s stories. I do think it is so important to have diverse voices behind the camera because the stories in front of the camera become so much more specific and alive and true to the women that we know in our own lives. I have had men respond so well to the movie because they are seeing complex, complicated women that feel real and feel like the women in their own lives, as opposed to movie women, which are somehow removed and less dimensional and deep.

Which was the contribution of Elliot Page to your movie?

Elliot is just such a hard worker as an actress and the schedule that she was asked to work on and handle for this film was insane. She was so invested in telling the story the way that I wanted it told.  She was a true collaborator who had discussions about the script, story and character, and tried to get to the heart of what I was trying to say as a filmmaker and not just her role as an actor. She was a big champion of the film. She pushed hard to get it made. Those actors were attached for several years to the movie as it was trying to come together. They stuck with it and believed in it. Aside from just being talented, both Elliot and Allison are lovely people to be around. I joke that I had a no-assholes policy on my set, but I really did. Production is so difficult by nature- to have really fun easygoing people on your set just makes everything so much more an incredible experience.

Do you think that coming from Orange Is the New Black, this film had to be released on Netflix, or was it just a coincidence?

I don’t think it was a coincidence and it was a different team actually that saw the film.  They saw a trailer for the film at AFM and approached us before Sundance. I think it’s not a coincidence in the sense that having worked with Netflix and Orange Is the New Black, I really trust them as a company and I think they have great taste.  And whenever we got network notes on Orange, I felt that they were smart and coming from a story place as opposed to an executive, arbitrary place. I trust the campaigns that they have and I always felt that they had classy advertising, and it’s a place that I go to watch movies.  So I felt like it was a great home for the film because they would get it. That they would understand what was like to tell a complicated story about women that was both funny and incredibly dark at the same time.

You are not only experiencing the female power as a director but you are also involved in Orange Is the New Black, which has been an amazing success. Do you think this female voice is something that we have been a long time waiting for?

I think we are so inundated with media that stories are forced to get more interesting and more specific in order to catch our attention. And I do think that there is a kind of boilerplate Hollywood movie that was made for a long time that is not as interesting to people anymore.  Because television has gotten better and better and there are incredible characters and anti-heroes and rich stories being told on television and it’s made people long for that same specificity in film. I just think the world of Orange is a world that people have not been in before, and yet those characters are so relatable and they feel like people that you know or that you have dealt with before, and so I think it’s a combination of a very unique setting that is interesting and intriguing, but also characters that feel so human and relatable.