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Sundance 2016: Fiction collides with reality for 'Tallulah' creator Sian Heder

"Tallulah" is a story born from real-world experiences that is nevertheless tinged with magical realism. It's also a film in which the themes on-screen were in no small way mirrored by the off-screen saga of creating it.

Premiering at Sundance as part of the U.S. Dramatic competition, the film is the feature debut for writer-director Sian Heder. The story is an expansion of her 2006 short film "Mother," and Heder has in the intervening years pursued a burgeoning career in television, most notably as a writer and producer on "Orange Is the New Black."

The story of "Tallulah" found its inspiration in a time in her career when Heder worked as a nanny for hire, often at upscale L.A. hotels to look after the children of wealthy guests for a few hours. When one woman struck her as a particularly unfit and disinterested mother she wondered what would happen if she kept the baby for herself. "Tallulah" explores that possibility.

The film has three powerful and nuanced performances at its core, weaving a delicate blend of comedy and drama, weight and whimsy. Ellen Page plays the title character, a vagabond scamp who rambles into New York City. She gets work as a temp nanny and after an encounter with wasted trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), Tallulah impulsively takes her baby.

Unsure of what to do next, she goes to her erstwhile boyfriend's mother, Margo (Allison Janney), whom she has never met, and passes the baby off as her own. These most unusual of circumstances push all three women toward unexpected junctures.

Sundance Film Festival 2016: Full coverage | Photos of the scene

Though Heder first wrote the script before she herself was a mother — "I wrote the movie from a place of judgment," she said — by the time the movie was in production last summer she had a small child and was pregnant with another. She saw how her perspective on her own story had changed in particular toward the story's perceived bad mother.

"Continuing to work on the script I suddenly realized that Carolyn wasn't the villain and I couldn't judge her in the same way that I had," Heder said. "The character you start off hating you find empathy for."

Though a first-time feature filmmaker making a movie about mothers while herself pregnant and caring for a young child is an obvious hook, Heder is wary of the film being pigeonholed in any way.

"You don't want the story to be the story of the mommy filmmaker," Heder said ahead of the festival in Los Angeles. "I think if the subject matter of the movie hadn't been so aligned with what happened, I would feel like I didn't want that to be a part of any of this, like who cares if I was pregnant, who cares if I had a toddler, but the whole story is about that.

"And there is so much pressure on women to be nailing it all of the time. The irony is my experience of having to leave my child to make the movie made me feel like I was failing in some way like the mothers in the movie are failing," she added.

Born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., Heder, 38, first came to Los Angeles to be an actress. After making "Mother" she transitioned to working in television, first on "Men of a Certain Age" and then on "Orange Is the New Black."

For years Heder tried to get "Tallulah" off the ground. At one point the film was about to go into production when she found out she was pregnant with her first child and put making the movie on hold. So when financing came around again and she again found herself pregnant, Heder decided to move forward with both projects — the movie and the baby.

"She called me and said I have to tell you something," recalled producer Heather Rae, "and I said 'You're pregnant, ha-ha.' And she said, 'Yes.'"

Producer Russell Levine of the company Route One Entertainment, who helped finance the picture, was unfazed by the unexpected news.

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"My first thought was 'that's fantastic.' Then it was 'How pregnant is she and how much insurance do we have to get?'" Levine said recently. "We're very fond of working with women filmmakers, and that's kind of part of the package."

Much of the creative team behind the scenes, including cinematographer Paula Huidobro, who also shot the "Mother" short, consisted of women.

"I didn't set out to have all women," Heder said. "It was on our first scout I looked around and realized it was seven women in the van — assistant director, gaffer, production designer, costume designer, DP, producer. I actually had a little moment of, 'I didn't mean to do that. It just kind of worked out.'"

"I think Sian and I both agree that it's whoever is the best man for the job," added Rae, whose previous credits include producing 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner "Frozen River," which would go on to be nominated for two Oscars. "And that's how we went about hiring."

Even before the festival, "Tallulah" is already something of a success story: Streaming video rights were sold to Netflix. Theatrical rights are available, but the film's financial burden has already been lifted.

"We're going to be a profitable film," said Levine of the Netflix sale. "You'd like to have a film as many people can see as possible in the best circumstances. And we think that's with a healthy theatrical run."

Edgy streaming series such as "Orange Is the New Black" are all the rage, so it's an interesting moment for Heder to turn to cinema to tell her story. In a sense Heder is moving in the opposite direction against the tide of cultural momentum.

"I think I love the idea of telling a complete story that has a complete beginning, middle and end, that's compact and finite," she explained. "Like a great play, you sit and you have a singular experience. And it doesn't go on and on. Obviously I'm in TV world and what creates a story engine that can go on for years and years is very different from what creates an involving story for two hours."

Though it took many years and the birth of two children to see it through, Heder's exploration of motherhood and beyond in "Tallulah" has brought deep creative satisfaction.

"I was walking through the East Village and there was a line of trucks," she said, recalling a moment during the film's production, "and I'm thinking, I came up with this thing, I sat down and had an idea and now all these people are here making exactly what I wrote down in exactly the way I wanted to make it. There's something so fulfilling about that."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

Twitter: @IndieFocus

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Reality prompts a script rethink for `Tallulah' - Newfound motherhood adds fresh perspective to writer- director Sian Heder's story of a baby-stealing nanny." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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