“I’ve never stolen a baby – but I did once seriously consider it,” says Sian Heder, the writer and director of Tallulah, a dark comedy starring Ellen Page as a rootless young drifter who impulsively takes a toddler from a negligent mother, after agreeing to babysit.
Heder, a writer and producer on hit TV series Orange is the New Black, received rave reviews for the film when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
And in a year of self-reflection about the lack of diversity within the film industry, the movie – co-starring Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard and Uzo Aduba – provides a female-centred storyline, as well as a nearly all-female cast and crew.
“I didn’t really concentrate on that or even realise it until I looked around on set one day and saw so many female faces,” Heder confesses. “I’m used to Orange Is The New Black so it’s normal for me. But we had quite a few women within the technical crew too.
“What’s more important to me is that I’ve created three women characters who are fully rounded and often, pretty dislikeable.
“Ultimately, Tallulah is a story of female identity and questions whether every woman is designed to embrace motherhood. Parenthood is incredibly complex.”
Heder, who grew up in Massachusetts but who has family from South Wales, says the idea for her first feature film was inspired by her own experiences more than a decade ago after she moved to Los Angeles.
“When I first moved to try and make it in the industry, I was supporting myself by working as a babysitter at high end hotels. I wasn’t Tallulah by any means, but I was really struggling.
“I would be going to these incredible suites every night and often I felt I was witnessing a weird abuse. I felt there was a lot of neglect amongst the wealthy towards their children that was hidden by hiring nannies and housekeepers.
“I had a lot of weird experiences – many people didn’t even bother to learn my name before they were out of the door, leaving me with their kids. But there was one that really stuck with me, one woman where I really felt I should take her toddler from her. When I left my shift that mother was passed out drunk on the bed. I cried all the way home.
“Of course I wasn’t going to take her baby because it would have technically been kidnapping. To me though, it felt like it would have been rescue. And that’s what generated a ‘what if’ scenario – what kind of woman would be impulsive enough to take a child she felt was being abused?”
Heder went on to develop an acclaimed short film around her idea in 2006 called Mother. “For various reasons, actually making the feature film took much longer to get off the ground, but during that time I became a mother myself and my perspectives changed again,” she explains.
But the writer believes the film neither “glorifies nor trivialises” the act of taking a child from its mother, saying that the film is “very much about a woman’s identity, and about looking for a mother and becoming a mother”.
“Deeply flawed human behaviour doesn’t stop just because you become a parent,” she says.
“Tallulah explores the blurry lines of morality, but I wanted to approach it with a sense of humour as these conversations can be such a downer it can almost be inaccessible.”
Page, who rose to fame a decade ago playing pregnant teenager Juno MacGuff, says the character of Tallulah is something “brand new” in cinema.
“I had really never read a role quite like her, or met a character like her before, she’s very unique,” Page says.
“Tallulah, or Lu as we call her, has had a lot of trauma in her life when she was small and has spent her life since then running from it, becoming seemingly footloose. Yet when she sees this perfect little baby, who hasn’t had everything spoiled for her yet, she bonds with her and she wants to protect her.”
“My main co-star was the baby,” Page emphasises. “And having most of your scenes with a 15-month-old changes your performance because your first impulse isn’t to act, it’s to take care of the child. You have no choice but to be in the present moment in every single scene because you have no idea what your co-star is going to do or how she’s going to react.”
Heder says when she first wrote the script, the character of Carolyn – the woman with the child Tallulah abducts – “was a clear-cut bad mother”.
“She was the villain of the piece. I was judgemental toward a certain kind of woman who I thought shouldn’t have kids. But by the time I made the feature I became more like her, and in fact more like the other characters, too.”
Motherhood, she says, has made her less judgemental towards other women – particularly if they are mothers themselves and struggling.
“When the movie was being shot, I was six months pregnant and also had a 16-month old daughter,” she says. “So there’s a lot about how we women struggle with our perception of ourselves: Who we’re supposed to be versus who we feel like. I found I had a great deal of empathy for all of the characters.
“Even though I supposedly turned the order of things on its head – the ‘kidnapper’ Tallulah, is the heroine, and Carolyn the ‘bad mum’ is the villain – I feel the audience will end up rooting for them both.”
Tallulah will premiere on Netflix on 29 July.