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Sarah Polley: Bringing my own experiences ‘was by far the most challenging thing’


Writing the screenplay for “Women Talking” required a rigor and relentlessness that I had never known before. I’ve never written so many drafts of anything before, and always, at the end of the work I’d set out for myself, I could envision even more. It was not a matter of expansion but of constant concentration. How could I tell this story efficiently and not let it linger, while still giving us space to return to and search the meaning of a word like “forgiveness,” which shifts and becomes more nuanced as the conversation of the characters get deeper?

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

At some point during the writing process, I realized that in order to respectfully follow their trajectory, I had to write two passes from each of the nine main characters. Even when a character wasn’t active in a scene, they were influenced – and sometimes fundamentally changed – by the exchanges across the room. I had to give each of these women a chance to be the one major character in my mind for a few drafts, to track the details of each of their emotional and intellectual responses to the unfolding conversation.

To capture the spirit of the novel, I often found myself resisting my desire to get too close to it. I started with a board of index cards on my wall, each describing a “non-negotiable” moment from the novel that couldn’t be cut from the movie version. Now when I look at that bulletin board, with its yellow and blue cards, emphatically highlighting the moments I loved too much to ever part with, I see that more than half of them were either unrecorded or in the editing room cut. .

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

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

(Michael Gibson / Orion release)

Up to this point in the process, some of my favorite lines had come directly from my collaborators’ personal experiences; the line “Sometimes forgiveness can be confused with consent” came from someone in the production who had experienced domestic violence and eventually realized that every time she had verbally forgiven her partner, it had actually functioned as permission for him to be violent again to be her. Greta’s apology to Mariche for her complicity in her daughter’s abuse was communicated by a crew member who said he had never received such an apology from his parents in a parallel situation, helping us understand what he should have heard and to move forward in a relationship with his parents.

Now that I had to write a story from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl coping with violence and observing with ruthless honesty the complex dynamics of her community’s response, I had to bring to the table some of my own past experiences in the way that so many of my cast and crew already had. This narration was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to write.

Making this film was a constant process of letting go. Letting go of the structure and many details of the novel that I loved so much to get closer to it spiritually; letting go of the idea that I would ever be done with this conversation; abandon seriousness in favor of humor and joy; letting go of things that I loved dearly but that no longer belonged. It was liberating and it hurt.

The best scene I’ve ever shot in my life is an exchange from the novel where Uncle Earnest, the owner of the hayloft, suddenly appears as the women are about to leave at the end of the movie. He has dementia and at first wonders if they might be angels and if he might be dead. He also becomes threatening when he wonders if they are about to burn down his shed. This sudden obstacle in the last 10 minutes, from a confused, sweet and sometimes threatening male intruder, turns into a moment of hilarity and deep sadness when Agata, one of the elders, has to convince him to go back to his house with one of the younger women to hide their plans, in which he is abandoned.

They love him and must struggle with their complex feelings to leave him behind, but their priority must be to go to another world where they can be set free. How painful it was to realize that this scene where David Fox and Judith Ivey did such a masterful job didn’t belong in the movie. While it worked beautifully individually, it delayed the crucial urgency of the outcome of the conversation we’d already been in for an hour and a half, and it had to disappear to be respectful of the whole.

While the experience of making this movie was at its core one of joy, it was also one of many such heartbreaks, and if making this movie has taught me anything, it’s how to live alongside heartbreak, to seeing its essential function and letting it propel me forward instead of clinging too tightly to what I used to believe.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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