How bestselling novel ‘Women Talking’ got Sarah Polley back into filmmaking

Sarah Polley receives the SFFilm Award for Storytelling throughout SFFilm Awards Evening at Yerba Buena Middle for the Arts in San Francisco in December. Photograph: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Sarah Polley admits she wasn’t truly seeking for a new task to direct following the launch of her third movie, the intensely own 2013 documentary “Stories We Explain to.” The Canadian baby star-turned-screenwriter and director was centered on boosting her three younger small children in Toronto when a member of her ebook club “literally took me aside and pitched me in the kitchen area, declaring, ‘You have to make this guide into a movie,’” Polley shared in an interview with The Chronicle final month, the early morning right after acquiring the 2022 SFFilm Award for Storytelling at the Yerba Buena Middle for the Arts for her most current movie, “Women Speaking.”

It was 2018, she recalled, a calendar year immediately after the #MeToo movement exploded in the media, and the guide her close friend was extolling was Miriam Toews’ well timed, urgent novel “Women Speaking.” One of the year’s critically acclaimed guides, it has a timeless, fable-like quality but was encouraged by horrifying authentic gatherings: the systematic sexual assault of dozens of girls and ladies in the early 2000s in a distant Mennonite village in Bolivia. Males in the community drugged their victims in their sleep with a cow tranquilizer and then raped them. The perpetrators went undiscovered for 4 yrs, during which time quite a few of the women blamed demons for their mysterious accidents.

“It was incredibly powerful,” Polley said of reading the ebook for the 1st time. “It just went as a result of me like a bullet. There’s a thing inexplicable about the energy of the book, like some variety of alchemy in which your subconscious feels a minor remodeled following you’ve browse it.”

Miriam Toews’ novel ‘Women Chatting,’ set in a Mennonite colony, reflects #MeToo movement

Actors Rooney Mara, from left, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy and director Sarah Polley on the set of “Women Talking.” Photo: Michael GIbson / United Artists Releasing/Orion Photographs

Plenty of other women agreed. The book grew to become anything of a literary rallying cry for how women may possibly go over developing a far more just and equivalent, publish-patriarchal planet. It also grew to become the fantastic inspiration for Polley’s filmmaking comeback soon after a 10 years-prolonged hiatus.

Actress Frances McDormand optioned the ebook and achieved out to Dede Gardner, the president of Brad Pitt’s Strategy B Enjoyment, about bringing it to the display as co-producers. They agreed that Polley, whose movies dating back to her directorial debut, “Away From Her” (2006), show a complex emotional comprehension, “was the excellent match for the material,” mentioned Gardner in a video clip push conference. “I’ve desired to function with Sarah for a extended, prolonged time, but she’s very selective.”

The absorbing film of concepts Polley has made — starring Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara and McDormand (in a modest but important supporting part) — which hits theaters nationwide Friday, Jan. 6, has presently landed on numerous critics’ greatest-of-2022 lists, which includes the Nationwide Board of Review and the American Film Institute, soon after premiering in pick out metropolitan areas about Christmas weekend.

Scene from the film “Women Chatting.” Image: United Artists Releasing/Orion Photographs

“I never ever regarded like the assaults themselves” onscreen, Polley reported. As its title indicates, the drama normally takes area for the duration of a prolonged clandestine assembly between the women who’ve collected in a hayloft to go over how they need to react to their collective trauma.

It was significant to Polley that the movie feel potential-oriented, relatively than a lamentation about previous wrongs. In its place, she said, “the primary people invest the movie discussing how to go ahead and rebuild a superior planet for themselves and their children.” They weigh the deserves of 3 attainable paths forward: Do they stay and forgive their abusers? Do they continue to be and struggle for modify? Or do they go away and begin a new lifestyle somewhere else?

Whilst none of the ladies have any official education and learning (their just one male ally, played by Ben Whishaw, usually takes notes for them) and they have little being familiar with of the exterior earth, they share a deep scriptural and philosophical being familiar with of oppression, culpability and forgiveness.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy in “Women Speaking.” Image: Michael Gibson / United Artists Releasing/Orion Pictures

Polley acknowledged the book’s release in the wake of the #MeToo motion “certainly added to the way individuals talked about the guide, but my gut is it would’ve landed as powerfully beforehand far too since this is a discussion ready to burst open. It’s historic and has been going on eternally. What felt revelatory was Miriam’s concentration on the problem of what kind of planet we want to build if we seriously had been to tear down the patriarchy. If this form of violence (against women and girls) ended up to finish, then we all have to redefine ourselves.”

It’s a sentiment voiced in the movie by Mara’s character, Ona, who is pregnant with her nameless attacker’s newborn: “When we’ve liberated ourselves, we will have to question ourselves who we are.”

For the duration of an onstage Q&A adhering to a screening of “Women Talking” at the Mill Valley Film Competition in Oct, McDormand explained, “The movie asks, What if? What if a team of females can get collectively and have company and acquire action for their long run?”

The triple Oscar winner, who has lived in West Marin for 17 decades, exuded enthusiasm about the movie and her hopes that “it reaches a big viewers due to the fact, whilst it’s not an reply to something, it is a conversation starter.” She was eager to share the film on faculty campuses and get diverse teams of younger individuals “talking about the future, not about the horrible existing,” she said, referring to the Supreme Courtroom final decision a couple months earlier declaring Roe v Wade unconstitutional.

McDormand also shared that Polley, when 22 yrs her junior, taught her a excellent deal about “matriarchal leadership.”

“Sarah had an definitely clear eyesight of the movie,” McDormand claimed, and nevertheless, she famous, Polley also sought out the thoughts of other folks on her all-woman output team, even shifting the film’s narrator in article-manufacturing from Whishaw’s character, August, to Ona’s unborn boy or girl just after conversations with McDormand, Gardner and other people.

Polley also devised a nontraditional timetable — much less days, more time several hours — so the forged, like Mara who had a new child little one, could stability work and loved ones time in the course of the shoot.

Sarah Polley on the established of “Women Chatting.” Picture: Michael Gibson / United Artists Releasing/Orion Photos

Taking charge of a complicated movie with additional than 10 primary people for her first directorial exertion in 10 a long time, Polley reported she feels privileged to have had this sort of inspiring female job types, this sort of as Audrey Wells, the San Francisco screenwriter (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) who died in 2018.

“She was my to start with authentic mentor and she really took it on herself to introduce me to so several of my preferred movies when I was 19,” she reported. “She experienced the variety of tenacity I imagine most feminine filmmakers of her technology had to have or you didn’t survive in this organization.”

Polley also sought advice from a further Bay Space-born filmmaker, Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, when she was about 20, inquiring if it was tough remaining a lady behind the camera. “She obtained this extremely intense look and mentioned, ‘You just have to be like a doggy with a bone,’” Polley recalled. “Everyone will test to choose it absent from you, and you just have to keep onto it.”

Polley is gratified by the development she’s found in Hollywood considering the fact that then, in terms of female-led productions.

“Things aren’t all far better, but there is absolutely been a shift where I don’t come to feel like people today are seeking to method the plan of me currently being a filmmaker and a female at the exact time, which I used to come to feel all the time,” she said. ”It’s awesome to just be taken care of like a filmmaker amid numerous other filmmakers.”

“Women Talking” (PG-13) opens in theaters on Friday, Jan. 6.