A Mother’s Search

Sian Heder recounts the long-gestating birth of Tallulah, her new indie drama about a transient teen who steals a rich woman’s baby.

©2016 Netflix
Ellen Page in Tallulah.
July 29, 2016 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Sian Heder

I've always been interested in the familial relationships that we seek from strangers, from people we encounter in life...It’s part of everyone’s journey, going out into the world to find our tribe.

Less than one month after the fabled heroic journey of one Luke Skywalker and the crass, scrappy, beer-smuggling sojourn of legendary trucker Bo “Bandit” Darville commanded the collective consciousness via silver screens the world over, Sian Heder was born in New England. A budding actress from birth, Heder has virtually nothing in common with the son of Darth Vader or Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s main squeeze. But these were the cultural heralds to Heder’s 1977 arrival on the planet.

Thirty-nine years later, Heder, a story editor and co-producer on Netflix’s critical and commercial powerhouse, the twice WGA Award-nominated Orange is the New Black, is about to freewheel her long-gestating feature film writing-directing debut into the summertime blockbuster demolition derby. Tallulah, starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney, can brag of no Wookies nor aerodynamic Trans Ams, no talking canines nor quippy phantoms. Instead, it is a hushed, poignant, quietly thrilling corkscrew rush of life as we oft wish it were sliced, superlatively acted and crafted with sure hands and certain skill. Inspired by a long-ago incident in Heder’s own life, the tale of the transient teen who steals a rich woman’s infant was transformed by Heder into a 2006, award-winning short film, “Mother,” on its long and winding road to the silver screen. Tallulah, a Grand Jury Prize nominee at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, premieres on Netflix ahead of a limited theatrical release.

If Tallulah is rich with full-blooded characters, pithy, but never precious, dialogue, and potent acting moments that keep Satan busy at the crossroads every hour of the day, it’s likely because Heder spent her early career in front of the camera. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious School of Drama, Heder spent a decade doing unsatisfying, undistinguished episodic roles on series television. (You know the gig: Young Waitress on The Sopranos, Mom #2 on Charmed, Rape Victim on Law & Order: SVU). By a series of events almost entirely improbably, Heder found herself typing “Fade In” atop blank pages, paid for her efforts. In addition to her writing and producing duties on OITNB, Heder was also a staff writer on TNT’s acclaimed Men of a Certain Age.

For now, Heder is enjoying the fond reception being afforded Tallulah, her maiden voyage as a feature film writer-director.

It must be a wonderful feeling, finally letting Tallulah loose on the world. In the time it took to get this film made, you’ve established yourself as a formidable, unique writer, gotten married, become a mother.

I know! It’s like I spent half my life making Tallulah! Well, not really. But close.

So…Big relief that the film is out of your hands now?

It’s so weird. When you're in the middle of it, it feels so frustrating and like making this movie is never going to end. It’s just always something, The financing’s almost there and then it all falls apart. Again. When you’re finally all set up, the actor you had lined up can’t do the film anymore because there’s a studio job lined up for them. It’s always a series of near misses and almosts and heartbreak and frustration when you’re trying to get a movie made. But now that Tallulah is done and we’ve been enjoying these last six months with the movie finally being seen by audiences, I just feel so grateful. And it doesn’t seem like it took so long.

In what ways are you grateful?

I feel really grateful that making the movie took as long as it did, however weird that sounds. It was, like, 10 years, and I actually think now that was exactly the right amount of time to make this movie. I evolved so much as a person during that time, as a storyteller, as a filmmaker. I’d grown up. I had more experience. I’d become a wife and a mother. I had the right crew. The right cast. All of these things I wouldn’t have had if the movie had come together simply the first time I tried. There's a kind of a hindsight about the filmmaking process that I wish I could go back and share the details of with my struggling, twentysomething self. “There’s a reason for all of this, Sian! Hang in there!”

The film is profoundly concerned with the idea of “Mom”—mothering, parenting, instincts, maternal love. How did the script change after you became a mother yourself?

Well, I basically rewrote the whole thing. Becoming a mother gave me a whole other perspective that made the film much more complicated and nuanced than it would have been if I had made it eight or 10 years ago…

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that there’s this family we’re all born into and then there are all of these family-like relationships we go out into the world to find, to create. I've always been interested in the familial relationships that we seek from strangers, from people we encounter in life, and how our own blood family sometimes doesn't fulfill the needs that we have. It’s part of everyone’s journey, going out into the world to find our tribe. We’re all just looking for connections, right?

Fundamentally, yes. Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk once said that all of his books, despite the window dressing and genre trappings, are basically about the occasionally shocking extremes to which we will go to make that connection with other human beings.

Yeah, that makes sense to me. It’s something we do when we’re younger, definitely—like, when we’re first stepping into adulthood. But then it happens again when we become parents. We’ve spent all of this time wanting to be selfish and autonomous and to fulfill our own needs, desperately wanting and needing other people, and then all of a sudden you’re a parent and that version of you is gone too! You come of age again.

So how does that inform the development of Tallulah?

Well, I am a woman who really did want kids and made the best decisions I could to do that job well. That got me thinking: what about a woman who didn’t want kids, whose decision-making was often coming from the wrong place? What kind of struggle with reality is that woman going to have when there’s a newborn baby dropped into her lap?

So by having one experience, you were able to better imagine—and then write—the other side of the experience?

Yes! I’m a very intuitive writer. I’m not formally trained. I didn’t go to film school, or screenwriting school. I always loved telling stories, but I saw myself as an actor for a long time. I loved getting inside the heads of the characters I was cast as. I had some great mentors and teachers, people I worked with, people who guided me, who showed me that there are aspects of acting in writing and there are aspects of writing in acting. So it’s always been kind of intuitive for me, and it just felt right to me—like, I almost couldn’t help it—to see the mothering thing from all of the angles that I wasn’t feeling too.

When did you know that storytelling was something you had to do? When did you begin writing, in other words?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actor. I got really into acting in theater, and that was a very deliberate choice on my part: theater acting is a very community-driven experience. You work with a tribe to create this thing. Acting on film never really felt the same to me. I was much less interested in acting on film. I loved theater. And that love was really, mostly about connecting with other people. It wasn’t really about pushing myself or growing as a person or deepening my own personal life journey in some way; it was about building a community. Eventually, I realized the best way for me to make sure the community was built was to start writing the stories we were going to tell. And then I lied my way into my first job.

That sounds like a good story.

I was working as a bartender at this place in Hollywood, and you get to talking with customers sometimes and eventually it comes out that I’m an actor—which always inspires people to give me, like, a “pity face.” So one night, this guy at the bar asks me how it’s going and what I’m doing, and I totally lied to him and said I was a screenwriter. I don’t know why I did that, but I did. And then he asked to read my screenplay!

Bluff called!

So I had to go off and write a screenplay!

Good grief, there are a million ways to get where we need to get.

It was just this total L.A. bullshit moment that actually forced me to sit down and write a script. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, I did a lot of training and mentorship programs. I did the Film Independent lab and the AFI Directing Workshop, Nantucket Screenwriters Colony. I never went to film school exactly, but I sort of built a pretty great film school education, piece by piece.

How long until you realized you actually had a knack for screenwriting?

I don’t know if I’ve had that epiphany yet, even when the checks clear. I read things I wrote two weeks ago, and I’m, like, “That’s terrible!” I don’t really know… I enjoy writing. When I watch one of my Orange episodes, I laugh. I enjoy that. But I also think that every time I turn in a script that’s the moment I’ll be discovered as this total fraud. That’s the moment where everyone realizes: Sian can’t write!

For many writers, there’s a certain amount of self-doubt that goes along with the creative process.

Yeah, Ira Glass has a great quote about it. He was talking about how his case level tends to be higher than his skill level, and how he thinks that’s actually a really great thing. You want to be striving to be better than you are. That’s his theory anyway. So if I wasn’t reading my own writing and thinking, “Man, this could really be better,” then I should probably just stop writing.

Orange has been an absolute juggernaut for Netflix. What are the differences for you, writing a feature like Tallulah, which is a very personal project, and writing an episode of Orange, which is really Jenji Kohan’s baby?

You have to write so much faster when you write for TV. I probably have two weeks to write a script for Orange, and Tallulah I worked on for years. With Tallulah, I’d do a draft, put it down for a few months or a year, revisit it, do another draft. It was a very organic, meandering kind of thing. I didn’t begin knowing exactly where I was going or what I was going to do. I’d write a scene and I’d be grateful for having “heard” the characters speak through an entire scene, and then I’d move on. With Orange, you’re in the writers’ room, surrounded by really talented, experienced people, and you’re breaking story together, you’re outlining, then you go off and do your own thing, then you bring it back to the table. It’s a much more structured way to work, which is probably good for me. I’ve been really lucky on Orange; Jenji and I, we share a sense of humor and a lot of sensibilities, an aesthetic. That’s a really important thing to me, but I don’t know how to find it exactly. It’s just pure luck. When you work with someone like that, then their notes never feel like a compromise. You’re in service of someone else’s vision, but you’re never compromising yourself to get there.

In the writers’ room, you probably found another version of that community we were discussing earlier.

Yes, exactly! It’s so weird that I’m a writer because I’m such a social person. The idea of me, alone in a room with my thoughts, that’s not a pretty picture. It’s not really where I want to be. As a result, I’ve figured out ways to make writing more of a social thing. Before I was in a writers’ room, I was in writers’ groups, where everyone brings in their works in progress and a bunch of actors read the stuff out loud. That’s a great way to see if you’re getting better as a writer—put your stuff up on its feet. Give it a physical dynamic. Let actors try to speak those lines! I don’t like having to think my way out of script problems by myself; I like reviewing and slashing and yelling about scripts with other people.

Relying on the group dynamic for much of your productivity, is your writing less routine between seasons of a TV show?

No. I have to be strict. I'm writing a movie for Lionsgate right now, and I have a schedule that I have to stick to. It comes down to sitting down at my desk every single day, which can be very challenging for me. I actually love research, which is sort of where a story comes alive for me. That’s where you find true things that are more wonderful or bizarre than you could make up. But whether I’m researching or writing—or rewriting—it’s always a struggle to put my butt in the chair, but I do it anyway.

Many filmmakers have lamented the indie marketplace of recent years, but isn’t it possible that outlets like Netflix are the new indie marketplace? Netflix gave Tallulah a rich deal ahead of the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.

When it comes down to it, what you’ve said is exactly true. Netflix and Amazon both really shook up Sundance this year, which really frustrated a lot of the traditional fires. Netflix and Amazon, they’re gold, they have their own models, they are fearless, and they have a lot of money. That combination is kind of great. They also have sizable subscriber bases—big, built-in audiences, which means that there is the potential for a lot of eyeballs to see your work. All of that’s so great.


Some filmmakers are in love with the idea that their film should still play in theaters. Tallulah will play theatrically. That was important to me. I want people to be able to go out and have that communal experience in the theater with this story. There’s something about that experience that cannot be replicated in any other way. But the idea that someone in Portugal—a mom with, like, four kids, who can never leave her house—can punch up Tallulah on their television and experience the story that way? Yes. I say yes to that. What’s the point of making a movie if nobody’s ever going to see it? We can moralize and philosophize all we want about this, but the bottomline is that films are made for audiences and filmmakers need to go where audiences are.

What are some things you’ve learned about screenwriting, from that first “bar-bet” script to your award-winning work on Tallulah and Orange?

A lot of writers are afraid to take notes—even if the notes ring true for them. It comes from a fear that following the notes will too much dismantle the story they wrote, as they wrote it, and that the story will end up becoming something completely different. That does happen, obviously! But my community bent, my experiences in writers’ rooms, and just who I am constitutionally speaking, they’ve led me to being not very precious about my own work. That’s allowed me to throw things out into the universe without worrying if it’ll unravel or becoming something else or what not. Maybe it should unravel because the script I thought was a sweater isn’t actually a sweater! Maybe we should pull all of the threads on this thing and figure out what it actually is! Maybe it’s a sock! It’s so hard to write, I know. You’re sitting there. You’re pulling out your hair. It all feels so personal. You get attached to little lines of dialogue or tiny pieces of description. And you just can’t imagine changing any of it, let alone letting any of it go. But sometimes we write things that just don’t belong in the story we’re writing. It’s that simple. So let it go. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by so many smart, good people. They’ve allowed me to get comfortable with the idea that if I’m hearing the same note from more than one person, it’s probably a note worth listening to.

With your background in acting, how important is it for you to hear your work along the way?

Very. It’s always a good idea to hear your work. It’s really important to me, for sure. If you’re writing a screenplay, it’s not meant to be an object; it’s supposed to be this living, breathing thing that actors can actually climb inside and make even better than you made it. So getting some actors to read your script out loud is hugely helpful for me—even if they’re bad actors!

Oh, you don’t know any bad actors, do you?

No, no, no. I don’t know any bad actors, are you kidding? What I mean is: a good actor can sometimes mask bad writing because they’re so good. A bad actor is going to let you know very clearly: your script stinks. If you want to really hear your writing, have some shitty actors read your script to you.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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