Q: Frances McDormand had optioned the book upon which this film is based. Sara and Dede, take us back to those early conversations with Fran and the two of you — how did this project originate. Lay out the foundation for us.
DG: Fran McDormand called and said, “I have something I want to talk to you about.” She came and handed me this book, which I’d heard of but I hadn’t read yet. It was early in the book’s incarnation.
I read it and was really stunned by it. I drew a whole map of what I thought the Colony looked like and where everyone lived in relation to one another. It was almost like I could see it. And then we set about thinking well, who should adapt this?
Sarah was the very first and, frankly, only name we had on our list. I’d wanted to work with Sarah for many years, but Sarah, as we know, is selective. To our incredible amazement, she had read the book also and had reached out. Sarah and Fran share a manager, Frank Frattaroli. She said, “Can you see, does someone have this book?” And she learned simultaneously — I think the same day — that we had it. So, in a way, it felt ordained.
SP: I had read the book and really fallen in love with it. I wasn’t thinking about what my next film would be as a director, and suddenly I had this burning desire to make this into a film. I reached out to Frank because I had seen that Fran and Dede had the rights, and they had reached out within the same day.
Q: Could you each elaborate on those initial instincts you had that would ultimately bring you all together? What was it about the book at the moment you read it? What was it that compelled you to want to bring this to the big screen?
SP: There are a lot of conscious reasons which are probably less important and urgent than the unconscious reasons. So when you really want to make something, there’s a certain amount of unpacking you need to do about something you don’t understand, and that’s why you seek to make it.
I was so drawn to the questions around faith and community and democracy, about recovery, forgiveness and healing. I thought it was such an unusual way of addressing and tackling so many things in a way that was organic to the thing itself. It read, to me, as a kind of fable in which we could map out a lot of conversations that were actually too difficult for us to have in the particular moment when the book came out If we were to put them in their own contemporary context or our own secular lives, it allowed for a way of asking the really sticky difficult questions that have been really hard to ask.
DG: I was very struck by the phrase at the beginning of the book, at the end of Miriam’s statement that says, “This is an act of wild female imagination.” I thought — first of all, regarding Sarah, I think “Stories We Tell” is one of the great jiu jitsu expressions of imagination I’d ever seen.
I also found the book really cinematic, or potentially cinematic. I thought, “Oh, this is a conversation in which we see heart-minds change.” If we can put imagination to that so that it finds cinematic expression, then that’s the highest bar ever — but it would be a thrill to try.
Q: There was a statement that Fran McDormand shared in the note. Sarah, how did you react to it? She said, “What surprised me was how epic Sarah saw the film.”
SP: Yeah, I felt like this film deserved a large canvas.We’ve seen a lot of stories told about war, and football, where it’s the only thing that’s happening on planet Earth. It might even [involve] a shot of the planet hanging in outer space to convey it’s literally the only thing that’s happening. It’s a football game.
I veer away from bombastic gestures in filmmaking but I felt like I really wanted to challenge myself to not be too subtle about the gravity and the meaning of a group of women sitting around talking about what their world should look like, how to change it and how to break the world they live in and make a new one. I thought that’s deserving of feeling [as if it was] the only conversation in the world — for moments at least — which must be broken because we’re human. For me, I didn’t want to be apologetic about how big and important this conversation was.
Q: Dede, a [moment] ago you [said] Sarah Polley is “selective.” Can you both reflect on that statement for just a moment.
DG: Well, thank God. Look, it’s hard to make a movie. They take time and years of your life. In our cases, we’re both mothers, trying to raise humans, and we have other things. I think if you’re going to give this sort of commitment — and I think we knew this one would take every fiber of our being and that we’d fight for it all along the way — the best are selective. I hope so.
SP: I want to feel like I can’t not make a movie. I feel like there’s a lot of movies and books, and a lot of stories being told. I want to feel like I won’t survive if I don’t get to tell that story. I want to feel that urgency around it.
I have three small kids. I also didn’t have a lot of models of people who are able to be present with their kids and be filmmakers. I knew mostly male filmmakers who nobody cared if they disappeared for three, four months or six months. Maybe they did, but they just didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a model of how to do that, and it was really important for me to stay present.
What was amazing was that Dede and Fran created this model for us where I did get to be almost every night [with] my kids to put them in bed and we worked ten-hour days. So now a new model is in the process of being created with a bunch of female filmmakers. That’s really exciting for people of all genders, to not feel like you have to abandon all of your other obligations and duties to be making a film.
I also had a concussion for three and a half years, so I actually couldn’t make a film. I probably would have come back maybe a little sooner. I recovered, so I’m very, very excited to get to make this.
Q: Fran McDormand saw the story in all its dimensions: I want to read this quote from McDormand. “It’s not about taking down the patriarchy, it’s about illuminating a matriarchy that has been there since time immemorial.”
SP: I’m also a fan of taking down the patriarchy, but I also like that lens on it as well.
SM: I think that some of the beauty of the film is that you as an audience — and us watching it now — you’re flies on the wall watching moments between women that you have never been privy to before. I really loved the idea of an audience hearing and seeing our days: what we ate, how we talked to each other, how we sang. All those quiet moments, and I think that’s a really beautiful element of the movie that was really important to Sarah and she captured it incredibly well.
MM: Going off of that quote of what Fran said, it reminds me of something I’ve always thought in the back of my head. Women have this built-in strength and resilience — I like to call it superpowers — that are within them and only come out within the realm of women. I think this was almost an exposure to the strength and resilience that I feel women naturally have as they take on the world. In many different instances, we have to work a little harder in the world to be recognized for various things to get ahead of something. The quote reminded me of that as I think it’s touching on the superpowers we have and this movie helps to bring them to life.
Q: There’s a line that forgiveness can sometimes be misconstrued as permission. We’re facing a lot of that now. What do you all have to say about that?
SP: I’d love to talk about the origin of that line. This film was an incredibly collaborative, collective process from the beginning. That line came out of a very collaborative conversation where people were sharing their own experiences. It’s not in the book.
The apology that Greta gives to Mariche — I think of it as a sort of pivot point. The necessity of that apology to move the group forward as one — is that that person needs to be given it in order to move with the group. That’s part of the adaptation. When I wrote it, the subject of Mariche’s domestic abuse ended up getting more of a spotlight on it. There was a conversation where people were sharing their own personal experiences with domestic abuse. That line came up spontaneously in a conversation, of someone realizing that forgiving their partner at the time over and over had been misconstrued, it was actually granting permission.
Forgiveness is a very, very nuanced, tricky, delicate thing that we have to wield carefully. I think when harm is still being done, forgiveness can be misconstrued as permission. There also has to be accountability and an end to harm before forgiveness is a reasonable ask. It may be something that someone needs to come to on their own but it’s not a reasonable expectation or even a goal while harm is still being perpetrated.
CF: What I loved about the film was the fact that — there’s a moment in it when Greta [Sheila McCarthy] — it’s you, isn’t it, who says that we can only forgive when we leave. I think that forgiveness is often something that someone else is demanding of another person. It’s very rare that the person who is going, “I really want to forgive you.” It’s often that “you’re going to have to forgive me” as if that person’s done something terrible. I think these women understand that forgiveness — they can’t give forgiveness because the men are asking for it. They have to give forgiveness for themselves, so they can move on with their lives, be whole and still have faith — and come to terms with what’s happened to them. I loved that concept of the fact that forgiveness can’t be given if it’s asked for, I don’t think. These women have to find forgiveness for their own souls to be able to move on.
Q: The dresses you’re wearing have been quite fashionable in the past few years but would be out of place if you wore them on the streets of New York. In the context of this film, how did wearing them help you to embody [your characters]?
SM: I have to tell you a funny story about that. I loved the dresses. They’re polyester and are as strong as the women. If the world ended there’d be cockroaches and polyester Mennonite dresses. I swear that’s all that would be left.
We had a Starbucks across the street from where we were shooting. I walked in and thought, “Wow, the look and the thing.” The barista looked at me and she went, “Wow, cool dress.” I thought, “Yeah, we should start that fashion.” They were incredibly comfortable to wear for those months — and hot, yes.
SP: Our costume designer is the amazing Quita Alfred.
Q: Talk about using the song “Daydream Believer” which changed a bit of the mood when it was playing.
SP: In the book, “California Dreaming,” it is the song. We were very attached to that for a long time. We played with other options as well. Then one day I came into the edit suite, and our editor Christopher Donaldson was like, “Don’t hate me” and pressed “Play.” I really liked it but wasn’t sure.
I went to our trainee, Sabrina, and assistant Craig [Scorgie], and was like, “What do you think?” They were [moving to a beat] like that. So I trusted a vibe that I didn’t quite understand in myself, plus the group, and that was the way we were moving forward. It has this unconscious effect on me. I can’t quite pin down what the connection is or why but it captured something for me. It was not my idea, but I really love it.
Q: This film shows the current social discourse about violence against women and children, reproductive rights, self-identity. How do you feel that this film puts these things on the table, and how do you feel it will be accepted in the social context of what’s being discussed now?
SP: I’m not sure I can give a complete answer to that question because I would have to go away, think about it and write about it. But my gut instinct is that the thing I am most excited about in the material, in the book and film, is this model of what a truly democratic process could look like we’re able to inhabit, understand and grapple with the perspectives of people who are on opposite sides of the spectrum, as we are on any given issue, and be able to converse and find a way to move forward productively.
These women know that the world they live in is broken and harmful, and that it has to change. In order to change it, they have to find a way to talk to each other, and hear each other even when they don’t want to. For me, that is one of the great hopes of the film: that they are able to have this conversation which none of them necessarily really want to have. But they must.
Q: The decision to not show the violence being done against the woman was more powerful and sensible than showing the actual acts. What was the thought process behind it?
SP: It’s really hard to show sexual violence without it becoming fetishized in some way that you might not even intend. I find it really traumatic to watch. I have a really hard time watching films where I see an explicit scene of sexual assault. I often don’t think it was necessary. The film’s about the impact that it has and what they do with that, and how they move forward. I didn’t see any point in showing the assaults themselves.
I did see a point in showing that moment right after an assault, which I think is one of the most important moments in any of these cases. The trauma makes it so that it’s very hard to consign any detail to memory. There’s this obliteration. It’s what becomes problematic for so many women taking the stand and being asked to remember consistently small details. [What] I was really interested in was what happens to memory right after trauma. We show those moments right after, but the act itself seemed far less important than that.
Q: Talk about how having a story set in a closed religious community of shared faith opened up the possibilities for storytelling. What kind of conversation were you able to show?
SP: The writer of the novel, Miriam Toews [“taves”], grew up in a Mennonite community. I’ve had a lot of interactions with Mennonite communities over the years, and really developed this enormous respect for those communities through both these interactions, but also the photography of Larry Towell, who’s a huge influence on the film.
Even though these events did take place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in 2010 (and that is real) the background of this story — not the conversation — but the background [was important]. It was very, very important to me as someone who isn’t Mennonite to show the best of those communities in terms of the sense of the collective and the community.
I wanted to meet those women on their own terms when it came to the faith. So whatever my religious or non-religious beliefs were, [to] greet their beliefs and faith with respect and honor, and honor that, became a real guiding principle for me. Both because I mean it and also because I’m not Mennonite.
You have to be very conscious of how we’re representing an already misunderstood community. We don’t say the word “Mennonite” in the film, but they are. It was incredibly important for us to be respectful — especially because we’re telling such a difficult, horrible story of something that happened.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the collaboration with the actors, and the adaptation process?
SP: Dede, Fran and I had endless conversations throughout the script writing process. All of us are in that script in many different ways, and there are little moments from all of our lives in there. So those conversations went on for maybe two years. Then the process began with the actors with a lot of meetings and conversations, and then there was rehearsal.
JI: I have to say that when she was speaking about showing such respect, this is one of the greatest attributes of Sarah Polley, — her respect for everybody. That’s what makes a collaboration so beautifully unfold and join. I think we would all agree that the respect you feel coming from your director in every conceivable way — also happens in the story. As someone said earlier, these women can hear each other. They may not agree. They fight and argue, but they still respect each other. That was contagious, I think, coming from our director.
LM: I think on the topic of Sarah’s immense respect for everyone and everything, it was definitely a really good first acting experience for both me and Kate because we know that Sarah’s had experience as a child actor. She knows what it’s like being young and vulnerable on a set, and how scary it can be sometimes. I think she put great care into taking care of us. She made a great effort to make us feel comfortable and happy, and because of that we had a really great time.
SM: There was a moment when we were shooting, when I’m sitting at the edge of my bed with my teeth in my hand. After we shot it, the next day I said to Sarah, “I should have made my bed.” On the last day of the shoot, Sarah came up to me — everyone had gone home — and said, “Do you want to make your bed?” They rebuilt the set and the crew were there. We came on the set to reshoot the whole scene. Sarah said, “I’m just doing this because this was an idea that Sheila had. It’s not my idea, but it’s a great idea so we’re reshooting the scene.”
I can’t think of another director in my life that would have ever done that, and then give them the credit. It’s to your point: the collaboration was unending.
SP: It was a really good idea, Sheila.
Q: This question is for Kate and the younger members of the cast. There are a lot of scenes where the young people are sitting and listening to the women talk. What was your approach to listening to things that might happen in the young girls’ future, if they haven’t happened already?
KH: I’m a very internalized [person]. I’m pretty quiet, I don’t speak out a lot. So it was fairly easy to put a lot of myself into the character and just be listening to what everyone is saying around me. I was listening to the energy that everyone is giving off. I think with the performances that everyone else gave, it was so easy to watch and react to what everyone was doing and feed off of what they were giving.
It really helped that Liv was a lot of fun to hang out with on set. We would just talk and have fun, and then be able to do some hard work and then go back and have some more fun. We could take some pressure off. We’re method actors.
LM: I agree. It was really easy to listen to. I didn’t feel any need to jump in. It didn’t feel like I was waiting for my line. It felt natural to sit and listen and watch and learn.
Q: Sarah, your cast talks a great deal about the main thing that you give to people as a director is respect. How do you as a director create a collective sentiment and a collective opportunity with that respect?
SP: It really helped by having a scarred childhood by being a child actor. It gave me some tools. For me — and I think this has to be genuine, and can’t be like something you say to yourself — it has to be something you have to be declarative about, both within yourself and to others. The experience of the people making the film is more important to you than what the film ends up being. That’s a really hard thing to maintain.
There’s a lot of pressure to prefer what you’re all creating over the experience of the people. I have seen — very rarely — filmmakers care deeply about the people they work with and still make good work. I cling to that as a model and say to myself every morning, make it easy, get out of the way. If you lose a day of shooting because someone is uncomfortable, that’ll be just fine. You’ve got a lot of really amazing people to help you figure it out.
I think that has to be a bit of a mantra, because it’s an industry built on an emergency room mentality. There’s always less money than you’d like. There’s always more pressure than you’d like. I don’t think I’m always successful at it. My operating principle is one of unconditional, positive regard and creating that space for people. I got that term from Lindy Davies, who’s an amazing performance consultant. And creating that space where people do feel supported. But I fail at it, too. I think everybody fails at it. So you take those moments, pick up the pieces and figure out how you would do it differently next time. There were some learning experiences for me on this as well.
Q: How did you do those barn scenes when you had single shots but at the same time you have the person listening. Did you use more than one camera to keep it alive?
SP: Yes, we did. We used more than one camera, and that was a real learning curve for me. I’ve only ever used one camera, and I’m used to being able to give complete single focus. You go away for 10 years and you come back and no one uses one camera anymore. We would try to be as specific as possible of who we have the camera on listening to and who was talking, but there were always surprises. Back in a room of that many great actors, you sometimes find that the scene is not about what you thought it was about. Or it’s about that thing, but it’s also about that other thing that has this other momentum and drive to it, or this other thread that you have to follow.
Knowing where to put my attention can be really tricky at times. I felt like I was watching some of the best acting I’d ever seen in my life. How could my attention be divided at this moment? It was so interesting the way people listened. I think this group of actors is obviously amazing as speakers, but the quality of listening and the space they held for each other was the most captivating thing to me — and the way the dynamics were shifting.
There’s this one moment when Sheila is giving a speech and suddenly she looks over — I saw in the dailies, she was looking off somewhere. I didn’t know where she was looking. So we went to Jessie [Buckley] and we realized there’s this whole thing that was happening between Jessie and Sheila that wasn’t as peaceful as what Sheila was saying. There was this complication that came into that, where Jessie was looking at her when she said, “Let’s process it into fuel, having had something completely unresolved with her mother.
Being able to find and trace that thread. It was so fun looking through the footage and getting to watch what was developing on the monitors. I certainly wasn’t in control of it all.
SM: We did a lot of takes, days and days of an 11-page scene. I felt like we were creating a piece of theatre as opposed to a film.
SP: There were about two and a half or three days where we were shooting one scene, where Claire has one of her biggest, most intense monologues. We had to do it. Just to go around the room, we did Claire I think twice, or three times. By the end, Claire had done that at full tilt 120 times — we calculated — and hadn’t wavered. The energy never wavered. I would keep looking over and go, “My god, she’s still doing it.” The stamina was incredible with this group.
CF: I really love the reaction that it got, guys. Thanks. It makes it all worth it.
Here’s the trailer of the film.