Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and other actors in the ensemble of Sarah Polley’s extraordinary drama “Women Talking” were walking into the Werner Herzog Theatre for a post-screening Q&A Sunday just as a few members of the audience were leaving the venue. A friend of Buckley’s spied the actor near the entrance and embraced her, sobbing. They clung to each other for nearly a minute.
“Never had that happen before, nope,” Buckley said later, still feeling the moment deeply.
It’s likely to occur again, given the film’s thoughtful, moving examination of faith and forgiveness, of women coming to terms with trauma and debating how to move past it — if that’s even possible. Adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, “Women Talking” centers on the women in an isolated, fictional Mennonite sect who have been drugged and sexually assaulted. The women and girls must decide whether to stay and forgive the men — the only way, they’re told, that they can enter the kingdom of heaven — or stand and fight the men. Or pack up and leave the only home they’ve ever known.
Polley, who adapted and directed the film, describes the story as “bewilderingly hopeful,” which sounds like a bit of salesmanship — except it’s true. (“I’ve shown it to some teenagers,” producer Dede Gardner says by phone, “and they literally vibrate. It seems it’s almost anthemic to them.”) The conversations these women have in a hayloft — they must make a decision in 48 hours before the men are bailed out of jail — are thrilling in their clear, empathetic and nuanced understanding of the validity of differing viewpoints and, ultimately, the power of community.
In a tented area outside the Herzog Theatre, the women of “Women Talking” — Foy, McDormand (who has a small, key role and is a producer), Buckley, Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, newcomers Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil and, of course, Polley — shared a joyful camaraderie and respect. Rooney Mara, another standout, sent her regrets, as she was putting her child down for a nap. Judith Ivey and Gardner had left for home earlier in the day. But this movie, which will also screen at the Toronto, New York and London film festivals ahead of a Dec. 2 theatrical release, has a deep bench and the conversation could have gone on for hours.
Fran, you came on stage and knighted Sarah with a plastic knife before the movie’s world premiere Thursday. Have you ever knighted someone before?
McDormand: No, but they need to get a nicer sword. It’s all I could find.
Polley: I was very happy with it, actually. I thought there was a metaphor in it. Like, receive this but don’t take it too seriously. It can change and break at any moment.
Your face, Fran, just radiated joy.
McDormand: With the COVID restrictions, we didn’t get to be together as much, so this is our time to be together and celebrate with this [she gestures at the surrounding mountains] as our background and the quote-unquote “casualness” of Telluride. But I never expected to get to do what I’m doing. I never thought it was a possibility. And this represents the best of the best of the last 10 years, and I believe this represents a shift in our industry.
And it started with “Moonlight.” Our poster says, “From the producers of ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Nomadland,’ a film by Sarah Polley, written, adapted and directed by Sarah Polley.” Those three things together are, for me, a real change in the industry. The moment that “Moonlight” not only existed, but was not recognized in a way that it needed to be, it shifted something in our industry that needs to be acknowledged. It’s time for real shifts in the paradigm of power.
“Moonlight” and “Nomadland” — those two films and those two filmmakers — changed the conversation, and “Women Talking” is a direct descendant of that. Now it’s up to the audience. They have to take some responsibility and continue the conversation.
Buckley: Someone asked at a Q&A this morning what happens to the women after the movie ends. And in my head I thought, “That’s you. You are them. They are you.” It doesn’t end with the film. That’s you telling somebody else to go watch this film and then coming out and saying, “Well, where do we go next?” And then being brave enough to step into that scary place.
McNeil: We’re hoping that the audience might have their lives changed by having those conversations.
Foy: You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The way this film has been made with the people who made it … that’s difficult to ignore. When I started acting, this wouldn’t have even been possible. Not because nobody wanted to see it, but because nobody believed in it.
The dynamics of the debate in the barn felt authentic and truthful. Anyone who has been on a committee can relate to the way the discussion ebbs and flows. The women listen to each other and, in hearing different perspectives, open themselves up to changing their views.
Buckley: Gloria Steinem said in order to move forward we have to unlearn things so that we can learn new things for our future.
Polley: We live in a world where we’re all shouting at each other. Being open to a conversation changing your mind is a radical act right now. To be able to be transformed from the beginning of a conversation to the end and to change your mind … we lived that with this movie, from the very beginning in the script phase.
Buckley: Unexpected things happened.
Polley: We’d take the process you see in the film and use it. During prep, we’d literally be throwing stuff up on the board and saying, “Let’s have this hard conversation.” There was a moment when we had to cut the budget. We called it “the week of pain.” And everyone had to bring up every idea they could possibly think of and they weren’t allowed to think about anyone’s feelings. And then we just debated each and every idea. We put a number beside each item. And we cut a million dollars in two days. And it was really OK. Nobody walked away, saying, “I can’t believe we had to lose this thing.”
At every point leading up to making the film, we had these difficult conversations that lifted us up instead of dragging us down. People got their hands dirty, and it was really, really fun.
Foy: And that ended up in the film. I didn’t realize how much of the movie’s story hinged on people changing their minds. When Mariche [Buckley’s character] finally says, “I get it,” I really was like, “Oooooh. We can all move forward because you can’t leave one behind.” That doesn’t make coming terms with that decision easy. You don’t suddenly go, “I feel great now. What a weight off my shoulders.” But you can’t go back. You can only move forward. And that’s terrifying. I didn’t realize a lot of this until I was acting it in the movie.
McDormand: Here’s another example. Miriam [Toews] chose August [a male schoolteacher trusted by the women] to be the narrator of the book. That came along with the adaptation, but we questioned it in development. Can you see “Women Talking” and hear a man’s voice first? Don’t we need to hear a female voice?
Polley: It was a collaborative conversation with Dede and Fran where it was Dede saying, “Maybe it was Ona [Mara’s character] talking to her unborn baby” and then Chris [Donaldson, the film’s editor] saying, “What if it’s Autje [Hallett‘s character, the youngest in the film]?” And then I said, “What if it’s Autje talking to the unborn baby?” And it was this amazing, collaborative process of people building on each other’s ideas.
McCarthy: Did Miriam like that idea?
Polley: She likes it a lot. It really works in the book for August to be the narrator. But I think the film needed a more immediate connection.
Buckley: I love that the book and the film sit beside each other. You can have two different experiences.
McDormand: I’m not sure I want to say this because it seems so petty, but, um …
[The group collectively implores McDormand to “say it, say it.”]
McDormand: The fact that Sarah is acknowledging how many different voices went into that decision, because I dare say, a man of my generation would be taking full credit for that. “I chose to do this because I’m the visionary filmmaker that made this film.” And I think that what we’ve started, when people say they’ve never seen anything like this before, its because I believe we’re changing something. Am I naive?
Foy: If people are willing to listen, then no. You have to be willing to grapple with it.
Buckley: I had that experience the first time I read the script. I couldn’t contain it all. It wasn’t until I saw it that I really understood what we were doing. We couldn’t see it when we were in it because we were in it.
McDormand: We needed to see ourselves dramaturgically in a larger whole. And to Sarah’s credit, she gave everyone the opportunity to do that up in the hayloft. No one was ghettoized by age or experience. Everyone had a voice.
McCarthy: We were in a parallel world, working on this movie. In that hayloft, we were actors and our characters, listening, taking in the information and jumping on it, debating, disagreeing. We were working on the movie and in the movie.
McLeod: I’m the youngest of five, and I have four big brothers. So I was dubbed the “emotional” one my whole life. And no one could truly understand me. I didn’t have the outlet or the understanding of how to express myself. So I accepted that title for many years. And I struggled with that. Hearing the characters and the language used in the script and in the book validated so many things that I didn’t even understand I needed to hear.
So it’s not only the power of the film and the story, but it meant a lot to me as a person to be around this many women. I don’t think I’ve ever been around this many women in my entire life! Just being surrounded by feminine energy for the entire process. You don’t realize how special it is to be surrounded by women until you’re not anymore. And it’s just so comfortable to be around.
McDormand: You hear things differently, don’t you? I recently realized a male in my life often does this. He stays in one place and says, “Come here.” And I realized how long I’ve gone there. And I started to go, “No. How about you come here?”
It was interesting being on set. We had extraordinary male collaborators. It wasn’t an all-female set. We’re not a bunch of Amazons. It was an incorporated group of people. A lovely, lovely man we work with would go, “Come on, come on ladies!” I’d be like, “Come on ladies? Hmmm. I’m going to think about what ‘come on ladies’ means.”
Polley: We had a talk about that. [Laughs]