Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is always attracted to the off center, whether it’s a murderous schoolmarm (“Mrs. Harris”) or a wistful gay romance (the Oscar-nominated “Carol”). With “Call Jane,” she’s directing for the first time since HBO movie “Mrs. Harris” in 2006. An acquisition title that debuts in Sundance’s Premiere section on January 21, “Call Jane” is a fictionalized story set in the real-life Chicago underground abortion network of 1968. (That world is also the subject of the Sundance documentary “The Janes.”)
Deluged with writing offers after her Oscar nod, “I was to write classy adaptations that wouldn’t be too offensive or out there, yet what I’m interested in are things that are not safe,” Nagy said. “Not really.”
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When producer Robbie Brenner (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Fighter”) brought Nagy the “Call Jane” script, Elizabeth Banks was attached to star, and the screenplay had seen at least four directors and two writing teams. “It was a compelling tale, but what one might expect,” said Nagy. “[I felt] it really was about the Janes. I needed the story to be unpredictable and personal and seen through the eyes of someone who’s actually going through a procedure, or a hard time.”
Brenner raised $8 million via private financing and Protagonist foreign presales. “She had a strong point of view, at the same time it wasn’t preachy or medicine,” said Brenner on the phone. “God knows, none of us want any of that. I saw it as a coming-of-age story of a woman who, in the face of being closed off in her life and not having many options, finds herself. Phyllis was the perfect person to direct this movie. I knew she was going to elevate everything about it, because everything she does is precise, specific, and non-compromising.”
Nagy centered the “Call Jane” script on the experience of Banks’ Joy, a suburban housewife with a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) whose life is threatened by her pregnancy and gets no support from the medical establishment. Her unexpected odyssey leads her to the Janes.
In the prior scripts (under WGA arbitration Hayley Schore & Roshan Sethi won credit), “Joy was more secondary, she was more of a housewife,” said Nagy. “In other words, she had no interesting skills that she wasn’t using. She had no desire to be anything other than what she was, which was a wife, a mom. The husband was more traditional in that way. And so the family was something that I really worked on to get key in that first act.”
In Nagy’s film, Joy has a loving relationship with her lawyer husband (Chris Messina), who expects dinner on the table when he gets home from a tough day at the office but also leans on his wife to edit his courtroom arguments. Joy is on her own as she tries to safely end her pregnancy. The Janes help — for a hefty fee.
After Joy’s harrowing abortion, which the film plays out beat by beat for 10 minutes, she is recruited by head Jane and radical feminist Sigourney Weaver. Nagy’s bravura opening long take follows Joy from behind at a fancy hotel dinner, looking like an elegantly coiffed Hitchcock blonde, as she pushes open the hotel doors to watch the 1968 riots on the streets of Chicago. Like many Americans that year, her consciousness is about to be raised.
Filmed during the pandemic over 23 days in May and June, 2021 in Hartford, Connecticut, Nagy shot with one 16mm camera. (“Who does that?” said Brenner.) Nagy packed the “Call Jane” ensemble with local non-pros to add authenticity. While Nagy allows Weaver to look a remarkable 72, she’s surrounded by “real women who aren’t glammed up,” said Nagy, “who are in the background. They were local lawyers and doctors from Hartford who wanted to participate.”
In a departure from reality, the writers added a key woman of color (Wunmi Mosaku) to what was “basically a white organization,” Nagy said. Mosaku’s character opens the debate among the Janes about how to deliver abortions to women who cannot afford them. The real Janes performed thousands of free abortions; before that, the mafia had a grip on the black market for unsafe operations.
“Call Jane” is hardly a radical call to arms. “It’s a mainstream arthouse movie,” Nagy said. “This is a movie about what it’s about. I didn’t want to preach to the converted solely. When we were editing, I would show it selectively to people I knew to be conservatives in L.A. Yeah, they voted for Trump. And I knew we were onto something when those people would say, ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’ This movie allows you to focus on choice.”
While Nagy’s film has a pointed message, “it is allowing for the viewer to have another point of view, which a lot of times, consciousness-raising or politically motivated films don’t,” she said. “My personal challenge was to allow people to be entertained. Because I do believe that’s important, to have a sense of humor about it. And to keep people guessing in some way. Like, I didn’t want this to be predictable. It certainly does have a message. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is not a movie that insist you share the sentiment, necessarily.”
Nagy had no idea that the movie would be so timely. “We’re not done and we never will be,” she said. “And here we are, looking at the flames. We’re all going up. And I’m glad it happened that way. Because if the Supreme Court had come up right now, I might have said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this because it’s just too close to what’s going on.’ But it is also why I like period [films], because you can play with things in a period without being hectoring about it.”
Next up: If all goes well, Brenner will find financing for Nagy’s biopic about the last years of Welsh actress Rachel Roberts’ life, based on her journal “No Bells on Sunday.”
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