‘Weird scenarios and borderline negligent’: How Sian Heder gave birth to her ‘Tallulah’
Cambridge native Sian Heder is announcing herself as a formidable talent with her first feature film, “Tallulah.” Reuniting actresses Ellen Page and Allison Janney from “Juno” (2007), the film tells the story of a young woman who steals a child left in her charge by a wealthy, negligent mother.
Heder, 39, graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and from Carnegie Mellon University’s acting program, but her onscreen time in Hollywood didn’t amount to much. She gained her footing with short films “Mother” (2006) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2012), as well as writing for the television series “Men of a Certain Age” and “Orange is the New Black.” She made it to Cannes with “Mother” and to Sundance with her latest, which is getting a limited theatrical release but a giant audience by being distributed through Netflix starting Friday – some 83 million subscribers.
She spoke with us about the challenges of filmmaking and what it was like working with a predominantly female crew. Her responses have been condensed and edited for publication.
On the inspiration for the film:
“It was when I first moved to L.A. and I was making ends meet by babysitting for high-end clients, and I encountered really weird scenarios and borderline negligent parents. I was interested in the idea that we typically associate that with poor people, but it’s happening amongst wealthy people as well. One instance had me thinking, ‘What if I had actually stolen that child?’ By the time of the film, I’d become a mother and had to rewrite the script, as I’d gained a new empathy for the mother character Carolyn, played by Tammy Blanchard. Everyone is flawed.”
“It’s very easy to vilify mothers – we hold them to very high standards, but it’s very hard, even when you want kids. I was a very confident pregnant woman, so I was confused about why I wasn’t nailing it right away … which make the character Carolyn more interesting. The question was, how do I create a character that you first loathe and feel for at the end?”
On the casting process:
“I’ve been a fan of Ellen Page since ‘Hard Candy.’ In her work she is so funny and dry, but she has so much emotional depth too. I knew that the part could be unlikable if played by the wrong actress. She needed a tangible charisma.”
“I first met with Allison Janney having wine and found she understood something really deep about Margo and the idea of best-laid plans gone awry. She hasn’t been a leading lady on film much. She deserves the roles Meryl Streep is getting.”
On “Orange is the New Black”:
“It was a really good training ground – it moves very fast. You have to rewrite in the moment, and the skill sets I learned there are very helpful to me. The flow of that set is very indie – it’s so pressed for time. “Tallulah” was a 22-day shoot, a schedule that was most challenging, especially shooting in Manhattan. It was a very ambitious shoot. You had to learn how to use the budget you had.”
On working with kids:
“I didn’t anticipate how challenging working with a 15-month-old is. They’re very creeped out by working on set, where you have to learn about how to get them away from their parents. Ellen really formed a bond with Evie, one of the girls playing the daughter. She was would cry when Ellen put her down.”
On having a female production team:
“It was really exciting, but it wasn’t purposeful. I just hired artists I really wanted to work with. I think it felt that we put a lot of conventions on their head, starting with me being six months pregnant and our female director of photography running a crew of macho guys. It was nice to have a mix of men and women. It felt like a family.”
Her advice for female filmmakers trying to make it in Hollywood:
“There really is a lot of prejudice in Hollywood. Fight it by making good work and really push that through by making a story you believe in. The second is getting a script to a place where it’s airtight – people overlook that step.”