When Sian Heder arrived in Hollywood a few years ago with dreams of becoming an actress and screenwriter, she made ends meet working for a nanny agency that provided baby-sitters for children of guests staying at four-star hotels.
"It was kind of the most perfect job for somebody who had other agendas, because they would call you and say, 'Can you be at the Beverly Hills Hotel in an hour?' " Heder said as she sat at an outdoor cafe here.
But there was one day when the door to the top suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills opened and what happened next would lead Heder to write and direct a 15-minute dark comedy called "Mother" that is in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, in the short films category. It screens today.
"Right away it was clear she was drunk or something was off, she was on pills or something," Heder recalled. "The woman had been in the room for a day and it looked trashed.
"It was almost as though this woman had been looking to hire a friend or a confidant. She had come to the hotel to have an affair. She didn't have any friends, she was hiding out from her husband, she had this toddler with her, and she had never been alone with the toddler before, she'd only had a nanny, and she wasn't able to bring the nanny because the nanny would tell the husband about the affair. She had no clue how to put a diaper on the kid."
Over the course of the night, she learned that the woman had come from no money, married a wealthy guy who wanted children and got stuck with motherhood without really knowing what to do.
"I so wanted to take the kid," Heder said. "It was the most absurd kind of abuse I had ever seen. The little kid wasn't being beaten. There was just this narcissism and neglect.... So, I left the room and went to the concierge and said, 'I'm really worried about this kid. Can you do something about it?' And he said, 'If there is no abuse taking place, we really can't do anything.' "
Heder thought of calling the county or state, but then thought, " 'I'm really in this woman's life for one night, I have no idea what her history is, maybe this is just some bad time for her.' I left the hotel, got in my car and cried the whole way home, and I thought, I should have taken that kid."
It so happened that Heder had been writing scenes and character studies about a wayward girl who lives out of her van for a possible screenplay. The idea then came to her for a short film about a young woman who sleeps in her car, eats from trays of food left outside hotel rooms and is unexpectedly thrust into baby-sitting a toddler with an irresponsible mother. The movie ends with a troubling scene that makes audiences wonder what happens next.
The script for "Mother" was one of eight chosen, out of hundreds of applicants, to be awarded a grant and a fellowship with the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute. She was given $5,000 and then three weeks to raise the rest of the money to make the film.
Heder, 28, and her boyfriend, David Newsom, 44, a fellow actor who produced the film, said they raised the additional $15,000 by writing to friends and acquaintances, and even setting up a website that solicited money for the project. Newsom said investors were told up front they wouldn't make money in return.
"I had people who sent me $10 and I had people who sent me $2,000," she said.
The film, which features Angela Featherstone as the boozy mother and Ashleigh Sumner as the reluctant baby-sitter, was filmed over five days last summer at the Loews Beverly Hills Hotel. Heder said they contacted numerous hotels before they found one that was willing to cooperate.
"We're approaching these hotels and saying, 'Hey, AFI is a nonprofit, we're poor filmmakers, we're struggling to make this film,' [and they said], 'OK, $15,000 a night.' We're going, 'That's our whole budget.' We finally found this hotel that gave us the presidential suite, the executive suite and use of the hallway for four days for $4,500."
Heder, who has worked off-Broadway as well as in TV and films, grew up in Cambridge, Mass. The daughter of artists attended the theater program at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Heder said she submitted the film to various festivals and was rejected by about a dozen of them. But after someone at AFI submitted it to Cannes on her behalf, she received a call that she initially thought was a joke: A man with "a heavy, thick French" accent called her cellphone to say she had been accepted.
"I'm like, 'Who is this really?' "
Heder said her next project is a feature-length film, a spin-off of "Mother." She already has a screenplay called "Tallulah." Now she hopes to find financing, estimating she will need $2 million to $3 million.
She said her film explores a female dilemma: Who is meant to become a mother?
"I don't think every woman is a mother. I think there is some idea that because you're a woman, you have the capacity to be a mother. But I think there are women who really shouldn't have kids. That's why I don't have any animosity towards those women. I actually feel sort of feel sorry for them because they probably know they shouldn't have kids, but then they do it anyway."
Female directors face a different set of challenges, Heder said.
"It's a very lonely life," she said, noting that while the number of female producers is growing all the time, the number of female directors is not keeping pace. "You're on set a lot and you're away from your family if you have one, and I think that's easier for men to do ....
"I also think that women don't seem to help other women. I don't know why that is. It's almost like women who are successful, who have made it, are very protective of their place. I'm not sure whether they are afraid of being infringed upon by other women directors, but just in my limited experience, I've found there isn't a whole lot of support.
"I also think that women don't really get another chance. You get one chance to make a great movie and then if you have one failure, that's basically it for you. Whereas, if you are a male director, you can make a hit and then a couple flops, and then maybe another hit. You're given more than one chance. With women, you get one shot."