Sarah Polley touches on her own past for ‘Women Talking’

Writing the script for ‘Women Talking’ required a rigor and toughness I had not known before. I have never written so many drafts of anything, and always, at the end of the work I had set for myself, I could see still more before me. It was not a matter of expansion but of continuous concentration. How could I tell this story effectively and not let it linger, giving us the space to go back and sort out the meaning of a word like “forgiveness,” which changes and becomes more nuanced as the characters’ conversation deepens?

The film had to move like a bullet while at the same time giving us the necessary breaths to think.

At some point in the writing process, I realized that in order to follow their trajectory respectfully, I needed to write two passages from the perspective of the nine main characters. Even if a character wasn’t active in a scene, they were affected—and sometimes radically changed—by the exchanges happening across the room. I needed to give each of these women a chance to be the only important character in my mind for a few drafts, to follow the details of each of their emotional and intellectual responses to the unfolding conversation.

In order to capture the spirit of the novel, I often had to resist my desire to get too close to it. I started with a board of index cards on my wall, each one describing a “non-negotiable” moment from the novel that couldn’t be cut from the film version. As I look at the bulletin board now, with its yellow and blue cards, emphatically declaring the moments I loved too much to part with, I see that more than half of them either weren’t shot or were cut in the editing room.

I was similarly attached to the wonderful narration of Augustus, the male character whose minutes of a meeting we read as the voice of the novel. While this works so beautifully in the book, we realized deep in editing that in order to feel connected to the film, it was necessary to hear this story through a female voice. I got to go away for a week and write, stream of consciousness, from the perspective of the youngest character in the room (played by the great Kate Hallett), as she wrestles with the past from an unknown future. To do this, I had to mine my own experiences in a way I had previously avoided.

The character of August, played by Ben Whishaw, narrates the book. For the film, which also stars Rooney Mara and Claire Foy, that’s right, the narration had to be in a female voice.

(Michael Gibson / Orion Releasing)

Up until this point in the process, some of my favorite lines had come directly from my collaborators’ personal experiences. The line “Sometimes forgiveness can be mistaken for permission” came from someone in the production who had experienced domestic violence and finally realized that every time she verbally forgave her partner, it was actually acting as permission to be violent with her again. Greta’s apology to Marice for her complicity in her daughter’s abuse was informed by a crew member sharing that he had never received such an apology from his parents in a parallel situation and helped us understand what she would need to hear and see to move on with his parents.

Now, having to write a narrative from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl processing violence and observing, with brutal honesty, the complex dynamics of her community’s response required me to bring some of my own past experiences to the table in the way that so many of my cast and crew already had. This narrative was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.

Making this film was a constant process of letting go. I am abandoning the structure and many details of the novel that I loved so deeply in order to approach it spiritually. I’m giving up on the idea that I’ll ever be done with this conversation. abandoning seriousness in favor of humor and joy. to let go of things I loved dearly but no longer belonged. It was liberating and painful.

The best scene I’ve ever shot in my life is an exchange from the novel in which Uncle Ernest, the owner of the hay, suddenly appears as the women prepare to leave at the end of the film. He has dementia and at first wonders if they are angels and he might be dead. He also becomes menacing as he wonders if they are going to burn down his barn. This sudden obstacle in the last 10 minutes, from a confused, lovable and sometimes menacing man, turns into a moment of hilarity and deep sadness as Agata, one of the elders, has to convince him to return home with one of the younger women in order to hide their plans, which include leaving him.

They love him and have to wrestle with their complicated feelings about leaving him behind, but their priority must be to start off into another world where they could break free. How painful it was to realize that this scene in which David Fox and Judith Ivey did such a masterful job did not belong in the film. While it worked beautifully in isolation, it slowed down the critical urgency of the outcome of the debate we were living for an hour and a half, and had to go to respect the whole.

While the experience of making this film was, at its core, a joy, it was also one of many such disappointments, and if making this film taught me anything, it’s how to live with disappointment, to see the essential function and let it push me forward instead of holding on too tightly to what I thought.

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