Sarah Polley Established Protocols on Women Talking Set for Parents: 'Most Days We Were Home for Dinner'
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Becoming a mom made Oscar nominee Sarah Polley feel like she had to step away from the esteemed directing career she'd built.
"I did what a lot of female filmmakers do, which is once I had kids, I moved into writing exclusively because I didn't want to completely disappear on my kids for many months at a time," the mom of three, 42, tells PEOPLE in this week's Women Changing the World issue. "It was sad to know that the profession I had invested so much time and energy into getting better at was something that I didn't feel I could keep doing and be a present parent."
Polley, who started acting as a kid, also sustained a head injury that resulted in a concussion that lasted for more than three years. "I actually couldn't make a film even if I had wanted to at that time," she says.
When Dede Gardner, 55, and Frances McDormand approached Polley in 2019 — after she'd recovered from her concussion — about directing an adaptation of Miriam Toews's novel Women Talking, the former child star admits, "I was really scared of a whole bunch of things. I'd never made a studio movie before. I hadn't made a movie in 10 or 11 years. I had three kids at the time."
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Gardner and McDormand, who also appears in Women Talking, promised Polley could do things her own way. That meant having a therapist available on set to tackle the movie's sensitive subject matter, offering the cast and crew unlimited breaks and perhaps most notably, committing to working shorter hours — 10-hour days versus a typical film set's 16.
"Most days we were home to be able to put kids to bed or even sometimes for dinner, which shouldn't be revolutionary, but on a film set it is," Polley says.
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She also wanted Women Talking's child actors to feel comfortable.
"With kids on set, we always had a rule that if anyone was unhappy, even if they were just bored, they could just leave," Polley says. "There was always a way to work around things. I worked with enough filmmakers that I saw muddle through things that I felt confident we as a team could figure out how to make room for these things without sabotaging anything."
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And they didn't. Women Talking received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as nods at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards.
"It's been amazing to see how the film has entered the conversation and to have this evidence that we didn't sabotage the movie by creating a different kind of more humane working environment," Polley says. "It really helps me on the next one to not be able to make that case."
Polley calls her shooting Women Talking "a euphoric experience."
"I was able to really feel an enormous amount of gratitude every single day," she adds.
Polley, who opened up in her memoir Run Towards the Danger about her negative experiences on sets growing up, found working on a set like Women Talking to be "tremendously healing."
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"There's really nothing more healing in this life than to be able to return to an environment in which you were hurt and have a different, better experience," the Canada native says. "And to have agency in that environment and to be able to construct something that will be better for other people, it's really the best thing that can happen to you."
Polley credits McDormand, 65, and Gardner's support with being able to create an environment that allowed her to return to filmmaking as a mother.
"It's in our nature to resist change," Polley says. "Those are two women who have had to change the way they work every single time. I've certainly heard it myself many times, 'We don't need to reinvent the wheel.' It's like, actually most of the time you do."
Women Talking is in theaters now.