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Tallulah's Director On Motherhood & How Every Human Is Horrible

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
It has taken more than a decade for Sian Heder’s latest movie, Tallulah, to arrive. Ten years ago, the filmmaker and Orange Is The New Black writer made a short film, Mother, that debuted to critical acclaim at Cannes, before playing at theatres across the globe. Riding that momentum, Heder developed Mother into a feature-length script. But when she tried to actually make her movie, it kept starting and stalling, again and again, for years.

"You start to feel like a crazy person after a while," Heder conceded over the phone recently, adding that she was sometimes on the brink of just letting it go. Obviously, she did not, and thank goodness for that, because Tallulah might be one of the best films you’ll see all summer. And you won’t even have to leave your air-conditioned living room to do it.

In an exclusive Netflix release on July 29, and starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney, Heder’s latest venture is fundamentally a story about parenthood. It's about how parents fail their kids in the small ways and also the big ones — how they endure not only the judgment of their spawn and partners, but also the scathing voices inside their own heads that incessantly whisper about how they are fucking it all up.

"I’m particularly interested in characters, especially women, who are not self aware — who are maybe even a bit delusional — about who they are or what they want."

Sian Heder
Tallulah, called Lu (Page) is a modern-day vagabond: She lives in a van, going wherever she wants whenever she scrounges up the money to do it, with her boyfriend, Nico. When he grows tired of that lifestyle and jumps ship, Lu finds him in New York City, showing up at his mother’s upper crust apartment. Margo (Janney) is suspicious of the street urchin on her doorstep, claiming to be her son’s girlfriend. But when Lu stops by with a baby she’s snatched from a neglectful mother, claiming the child is Nico's daughter, Margo is compelled to take them both in. What follows from there is an aching, but laugh out loud funny, analysis of what it means to be a mother in a world where women are judged for their every move.
We spoke to Heder about how her real life inspired these heartfelt characters, and how inside every single one of us lurks the capacity to be truly terrible.

Is there real-life inspiration behind Tallulah?
"The inspiration came because I was a nanny and I was working at all these high-end hotels: I had this really odd encounter with a very messed up mother character. The script came from that judgmental place. I was looking at this woman and thinking: I could do a better job of raising this child. Of course, by the time I shot the movie, 10 years later, I had a 16-month-old and I was six months pregnant. So I had a lot more compassion for my villain character."

By the end, even after how horrible she was, I found myself feeling so sorry for her.
"Yeah, I’m interested in always subverting expectations that we have of characters, because that’s a lot of life. Human beings never feel villainous. They all feel justified. Even horrible actions — it’s coming from somewhere in them that feels righteous. I’m particularly interested in characters, especially women, who are not self-aware — who are maybe even a bit delusional — about who they are or what they want."

Lu is a tough character to stomach in this film — is she also built from someone IRL?
"She was modelled a bit on a friend of mine who I grew up with, and [who] ended up living out of her van for many years. [My friend] eschewed all of these societal norms: She didn’t have a bank account. She didn’t have a phone. She was just living completely off the grid. I found her in New York and I was just so freaked out that she was living in her van as a young woman, so I said you have to come stay with me. And she stayed with me for two weeks and kind of turned my life upside down during that time. On one hand, I was totally in awe and envious of her because she didn’t give two fucks. She had a dollar in her sock. She would walk up to any truck on the street and say what do you have back there and can I have a box of it, and they would give it to her. She just had this charm and charisma. That was her way of floating through life.

"I think over the course of the time that she stayed with me I started to see that this enviable quality of living moment to moment was also quite selfish and dangerous, and there was this much darker side to that. Someone who lives a consequence-free existence can’t truly make connections with other people, and have relationships, and have love in their life, because it’s a narcissistic way to live, in a sense. In society, we have to have consequences in our head because that’s the reason we behave and are kind to each other. I liked that duality."
We seem to be in the midst of a major mum judgment moment. Is Tallulah a response to that?
"I do think that mum-shaming is trending culturally as a conversation. Not only [that] but the internet has opened up: Not only are we seeing the mum in the grocery store and judging her, but people are mean online because it’s easy to be mean online. There’s no face in front of you that’s going to crumple. Louis C.K. has a joke about that: It used to be, you would call kids fat and they would cry in front of you. Nowadays you can tweet that or put it on their Facebook page and you don’t feel the person on the other end having that reaction.

"For some reason, I think mums are attacking other mums; not only are the people without kids judging people with kids, [but] the people who should be the most empathetic — other mums — are finding themselves throwing barbs at each other. I don’t know where that comes from. It might be insecurity or vulnerability about their own parenting choices. It’s a strange thing that’s happening.

I think it's sort of like slut-shaming — you shame another parent's decisions because you think it inoculates you against mistakes they've made.
"Yeah. Because there’s so much self-doubt that goes into being a parent, period. You almost have to cling to this dogma because if you don’t wholeheartedly believe in the choices you made, then there’s this intense fear of: ‘What if I made the wrong choice, and what if that’s going to affect my child?’

"I had two natural childbirths, and honestly, if I didn’t believe wholeheartedly that that was the right way to go, then why the hell did I put myself through that? It was horrible, it was so damn painful. [But that’s also true] the other way around: If you get an epidural, you have to believe that natural childbirth people are crazy because you need to feel really solid and good in the decision that you’ve made. I think a lot of it is coming from self-preservation."

Uzo Aduba is incredible in your movie — and she also seems to be the only voice of consistent reason, right?
"It’s hilarious that Uzo plays Crazy Eyes [on Orange Is The New Black] because she’s the least crazy person in the world. She’s the most grounded, centred confident human being. And so, because I know Uzo personally and I knew that kind of force and mothering quality that she has, I just felt like she could be that part — she could be the conscience of the movie."
There's this line toward the end that Allison Janney delivers that basically suggests every person on Earth is horrible. Do you believe that?
"I think we all have the capability of being horrible. We’re flawed, all of us. And that doesn’t change when you grow up. It doesn’t change when you become a parent. Good people are capable of making really bad decisions, and everybody makes mistakes. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film. Carolyn [the 'bad mum'] offers up this incredibly vulnerable statement [and asks], “Am I a horrible person?’ From what we’ve watched in the beginning of the film it would be very easy for [Allison, as Margo] to say, ‘Yes, you are.’ But she doesn’t. Instead reacts with compassion and with mercy and says such a loving thing.

"To me, that’s sort of what I want people to take from the film: Even in the most reprehensible behaviour, that there can be a need to be cared for and loved behind it."

Tallulah is set to release on Netflix July 29.
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!