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‘Women Talking’ Producer Dede Gardner On How Sarah Polley’s Film Reflects An Epidemic of “Violence Against Women”



For producer Dede Gardner, Women Talking, like many of her films, is about complicity. The United Artists feature is inspired by real-life events that occurred in a remote Mennonite community where women were repeatedly raped by the men in their colony, and she hopes the film, as it is seen more after being nominated for the best picture Oscar, will shed a light on violence against women and how working together as a community can produce positive change.

“We made the movie to prompt conversation and to put — what I don’t think should be radical — somewhat radical ideas into the slipstream, and so to whatever degree the nomination helps create that opportunity, I’m really grateful,” Gardner, co-president of Plan B Entertainment, tells THR.

The producer, who is a two-time Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlighttalks about what drew her to the film, the challenges of filming in a hayloft, and director Sarah Polley’s snub in a year when, once again, no female filmmakers were nominated in the best director category.

Why do you think the film has resonated so much with audiences?

I’d like to think that it’s because the film engages the audience with something that’s helpful, and by that, I mean it’s positing something that everyone can do, which is to imagine a different future. So I hope that one of the reasons it’s resonating is because it’s not a movie that’s focused on judging what happened in the past, but instead it’s forward-moving in terms of its directionality and in terms of what it’s suggesting as possible, and I think that’s an exercise that everyone can participate in. I hope, anyway.

Were you ever concerned it wouldn’t resonate with men as much?

Honestly, it didn’t cross our minds. I think the idea of ​​imagination and planning for a different future belongs to everyone. I also felt very committed to putting expression to something that happens all over the world every single day. I’m not afraid of saying that violence against women is an epidemic and it’s complex and it’s layered, and every reaction to it is individual and different, and so to try to portray the conversation around that felt imperative. And, like with everything, you hope that you gain allies as you go. The movie also works very hard to show what it looks like to come together as a collective with different perspectives and to see what is possible when people listen, and to portray people changing their minds in the interest of the collective. That all felt like a worthwhile use of my time.

What drew you to the project?

I loved the book. I just devoured it. I was really excited to work with Frances [McDormand]. I was really excited to try to make cinematic what are essential conversations that people are having in big and small ways every day. I think the presentation of “Do we do nothing, do we stay and fight, or do we leave?” is actually a decision we make countless times in our lives, and I thought it would be really fun and thrilling to try and put cinema to it. And I suppose facing up to authoritarian behavior and philosophy is the great task of our time. The movie is a lens through which to examine that bigger issue.

Who was cast first?

We went to Ben [Whishaw] because we knew we wanted him as August. The rest of the hayloft was like weaving a tapestry because you were building families, you were building multiple generations. You wanted the families to register as families. You also wanted them to feel distinct so that the audience didn’t get confused. I don’t say this very many times in my life, but in this case, we had the benefit of the pandemic, which is to say, we just incubated for an extra year. You could just put it up on a wall and someone would come out and someone else would go in and you just built the families. We built them over time, and we built them as a collective. And then once we felt like we had each of the pieces in place, we went to everyone at the same time on the same day.

I read that you chose not to have August narrate the film, as his character does in the novel. Was that before or after you cast Ben Whishaw?

We shot it with his narration. We cut it with his narration. It is his narration in the book, and it makes a lot of sense in the book because [the women] cannot read or write. So that ability was the only way to get the story out in the form of text, but when we saw it, as good as it was, and it was beautiful, we realized that the story needed to be taught. What we did realize when we saw it is that the movie needed to be narrated by someone who had experienced assault. It had to come from the inside out of that collective, and then that began a conversation around “Well, who?” Throughout the shoot, everyone was quite taken with Kate [Hallett]. She’s a beautiful performer and very thoughtful, and hearing from someone who is the youngest generation in that hayloft felt important. And then came the idea [that] if the movie is a [generational] story about what you shed and what you keep, for good and for bad, this idea of ​​her speaking to Ona’s unborn child felt like the completion of a circle that the movie was trying to imprint.

What were some challenges you faced during production?

We had an exterior farm and then we built a replica of the hayloft on a stage for the longer conversations because it was going to be impossible continuity-wise to do those on location. It was hard. The subject matter was hard. It was intense. You’re covering nine people in different conversations. I mean, some of these scenes took days to do. It was [during] COVID, so there were mandatory breaks. I think of it as a marathon. You just had to go in every day and then you’re dealing with the normal stuff, weather, and you go into the hayloft onstage earlier because you get rained out of the farm, which I think people were nervous about at first and it ended. up being a blessing because it gave sort of release valves throughout the schedule. But it’s an extraordinary group of people who were very caring of each other. Sarah [Polley] is a really caring and formidable leader, and so there were just some basic human rules, like if someone needed to stop, we stopped, or someone needed to take a break and work some stuff out, we did that. We had a therapist available. We took walks. It was just everyone being, like, “Let’s just all be careful and give space for whatever might come up.”

Do you see a common thread with all the projects you take on as a producer?

I love story, and I care about it, and I always try to come to it from the inside out, meaning I go in through the narrative first. I suppose over time, because I’m old, a thing that keeps reappearing — and I can’t say I was totally conscious of this — is complicity, both good and bad. I’m interested in that as an idea and as something to really investigate and hold up to the light.

Sarah was snubbed in the best director category, much to the surprise of everyone. To you, what does this say about the industry as a whole?

Obviously, I was hugely disappointed. I think it’s a big gaping absence. It’s unfortunate. She deserved it. I think everyone noticed the absence and there was genuine surprise that the picture was nominated. I know we were surprised.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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