Sian Heder's Hill to Die On

Writer-director Sian Heder talks Tallulah and Orange is the New Black.

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Sian Heder's Hill to Die On

Sian Heder’s directorial debut Tallulah sold to Netflix before even premiering at Sundance—one of the festival’s first major acquisitions. Starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney, the film centers on a young woman, Tallulah (Page), who’s unexpectedly thrust into motherhood after taking a baby from an incapable parent. When she confides in her ex-boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Janney), the women form a unique bond. A writer and producer on Orange is the New Black, Heder is no stranger to tackling female relationships, or to the Netflix family either.

Paste sat down to talk with her at the Nantucket Film Festival, where she was honored with a “New Voices in Screenwriting” award. With the success of her feature and the excitement around OITNB, it’s clear that Heder is in fact one to watch.

Paste: You started off acting—how did you get into writing?
Sian Heder: I started becoming a writer because I was so tired when I was bartending of telling people that I was an actress. They give you this kind of pity face and “How’s it going?” One night I was working at this Hollywood spot called Les Deux and these two guys were at the bar and they said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a writer.” They said, “What do you write?” I said, “Movies,” and [one guy] said, “What are you working on?” I said, “I can’t really talk about it.” [Laughs.] This really bizarre story had just happened to my neighbor and I just told him the story as though it was the screenplay I was working on. He said, “Do you have a treatment? I’m a producer here’s my card.” I call him up the next day. Two weeks later I get a call and he says, “Hey, I’d love to take this out with you and pitch it.”

Paste: Did you send him a treatment yet?
Heder: I didn’t even know what a treatment was! I’m calling all my writer friends, What is a treatment? I wrote this five-page treatment overnight and we went out and we pitched this thing.

Paste: It’s so LA!
Heder: It’s hilarious and bullshit artist LA style. So nothing came of pitching it out but I thought, “I need to write this screenplay because obviously there’s something here.” I wrote the script and it was the first time I sat down and wrote a screenplay.

Paste: Did you read like Save The Cat or anything?
Heder: I didn’t read a damn thing! I literally just wrote the story. I finished it and I sent it to Zach Quinto, one of my oldest friends. He read it and he called me, “You’re a writer.” At that point, I had to learn to write. I felt like, as an actor, in writing you get to be every single one of your characters. It really fulfills that part of you. Then I used mentorships from older writers I really respected, the AFI DWW program, the Film Independent Labs. I did the Nantucket Screenwriters Colony. I was always a part of writers groups. I wouldn’t say I taught myself to write because I used the teachers around me.

Paste: Consistently, my female friends and I find it hard to find a mentor. How to you approach them? Do you walk up to them and say, “I love your work?”
Heder: I think it’s tricky. In my early 20s, I had a lot of older male mentors and the line got blurry. There was always a point where I felt like, Oh no, is this going to go South? But then there were people that, even if those lines were blurry, they were reading my work and giving me genuine feedback and it was up to me to be very clear that what I was looking for was guidance and not to be someone’s arm candy in Hollywood. There were also just great storytellers that I knew, other writers that were coming up with me, whose work I really respected that helped me find my voice.

The first show I worked on was Men of a Certain Age. Mike Royce and Ray Romano, those two guys made me a better writer. Then I went to work on Orange is the New Black and Jenji Kohan and every writer in that room was incredibly talented and incredibly creative. Being in a TV writers’ room, you’ll come up with what you think is the most brilliant idea in the world. You’ll take it back in the room and people will go, “That sucks. Throw it out. Start over.” There are always more ideas. The creative well is endless and bottomless and you can always re-invent. Something better may come of it. That was really helpful in directing my own work. Even on set I wasn’t precious.

Paste: Watching Orange is the New Black, this season there are some big issues you’re coming up against. Have there been particular moments where, on the opposite end, you’ve fought for something that you think is right?
Heder: We’ve had epic battles in the writers’ room. Each season you have ideas of where you want the show to go. There are big personalities in a writers’ room and everybody has strong opinions. We always call it: Is this your hill to die on?

Paste: What were some of your hills to die on?
Heder: I wrote the transgender episode [“Lesbian Request Denied”] first season.
Paste: Thank you for doing that.
Heder: Yeah, I think [Sophia] was really important to me. There could have been a tendency, because she’s a big personality, to marginalize her in a way or make her a side character and I felt like I was always fighting for Sophia—her story with her wife, her child—to be front and center on the show. Crazy Eyes was a character I was always fighting for. I wrote the episode second season [“A Whole Other Hole”] where it’s revealed that Lorna is completely full of shit and is actually stalking the guy.
Paste: That’s such a good episode.
Heder: I was assigned to write her flashback episode and it was going to be this sort of meet-cute love story of how she met Christopher and when I went off and looked at it on my own I thought, “This woman feels completely full of shit to me. Wouldn’t it be fun if everything is a lie?” In prison nobody has the internet, nobody can Google you—you can be whoever you want to be. What if she had made everything up?

Paste: See, I thought that was something you decided at the beginning of the show.
Heder: No, I went and watched everything with her, read everything with her, and I thought, “This is not ringing true.” That would have been my hill to die on. I brought that into the writers’ room and I was like, “Guys, this is what I want to do with Lorna.”
Paste: What did they say?
Heder: They loved it! Had they not loved it—fthat would have been one where I would have thrown myself on the ground.

Paste: You have this thing with lies, too. Tallulah is somebody, like Lorna, that lies. They’re very similar characters. Where does that come from?
Heder: It’s not so much liars. I’m interested in good people making bad choices—dishonestly about our true needs or true wants. Lorna is someone who is not self-aware. Tallulah is someone who is not self-aware. As someone who is, to a fault, self-aware in my own life, I’m very intrigued by characters that are a bit delusional.

Paste: As an actor, your job is to look within. The only way you can play a role, I think, is to bring yourself to it. Yes, it seems luxurious to be not so introspective!
Heder: I think we are all living with some perceived sense of self that is not totally accurate to who we are. Margo, who Allison Janney plays, is someone who takes no accountability for her own life. She’s someone who has been wronged by her family. I think there’s no accountability for the part she played in that. I’m just interested in those contradictions in people.

Paste: I see so many parallels in the characters that you write. Orange is the New Black explores gravity and being trapped somewhere and attached to something. Then Tallulah isn’t tied to anything. This idea of being “tied” to something or “trapped” or “chained,” is that something you feel drawn to explore?
Heder: I’m always drawn to family and human beings and their need to connect and that connects to gravity and to our connection to the earth, to each other—this idea that people need people and it’s not always the people that you start out with. Our own families fail us a lot of the time. How as human beings do we find the people that become our tribe? That’s definitely prison. These are people from all walks of life who would never be a sisterhood. Piper Chapman would never sit down with those women in life.
Paste: Ever!
Heder: Ever. There’s something about this idea that in prison these relationships form. Real life Piper, when we talk to her, [we ask,] “Are these people still in your life?” They’re not because those relationships don’t translate into the outside world. It’s a very specific environment where these things can happen. I guess I’m interested in circumstances that force unexpected people to connect.

Paste: Do you feel like that’s what’s happening in your writers’ room?
Heder: No, because we’re all very similar people. I actually wish the writers’ room were more diverse.

Paste: Who’s in the writers’ room? I would expect a lot of women.
Heder: It’s mixed men and women. I would say it’s largely this same sort of type of person who reads the New Yorker! [Laughs.] I think sometimes that’s who ends up being [a] writer in Hollywood. I’m writing a movie right now for Lionsgate. I just went to Gloucester and met a bunch of fisherman. You cannot make that stuff up! Sitting down with someone who comes from a completely different background than you and hearing their story…research has always been a big part of it for me. Certainly whenever I’ve ever had to tackle a subject that I don’t know a lot about, like the transgender community, sitting down with people who’ve made transitions and hearing their personal stories, I don’t think I would have been able to write anything as specific and true if I hadn’t done that.

Paste: You wrote Tallulah a long time ago before you had kids. “Not getting the mommy gene” is something that’s talked about in the script. Did you feel that fear or did that change after you had kids? How did having children serve as research for this?
Heder: I think there’s this idea that all women have it in them to be mothers. I don’t think it’s true and I don’t think every person should have kids. There’s a lot of pressure to do it because society tells us that’s an essential part of being a woman. I was someone who always did want kids. I had my daughter and she was incredibly colic-y and very, very hard, and knocked me sideways. I was sleep deprived and I would drive to the Orange writers’ room—I went back to work when she was two and half months old—and I would pull over my car because I’d be falling asleep on the way to work. I thought, “Wow, this is something I really wanted and it’s this hard. What is it like for people that don’t really want it and decide to do it?” That idea was really important to me. Motherhood is a complicated thing to tackle because no woman wants to admit how much grief there is for your former self.

Paste: After you have children? What’s your former self? Who is that person?
Heder: My former self slept till 11 every day, she went to brunch, she read novels, she traveled.
Paste: You’re at brunch now! You’re traveling!
Heder: Yeah! [Laughing.] She has perfect tits! She has a huge social life and went out to dinner all the time. You spend a lot of time being about you and then you have kids and it’s not about you anymore. By the way, look at that superhero over there.

[She points to her husband who’s on the lawn wearing her eight-month-old and holding her daughter.]

Behind every lady director who has children there needs to be a daddy wearing a baby and holding a two-year-old!