Exclusive Interview: Oscar-nominated Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy on directing abortion film Call Jane “it’s like a lightning rod, this subject matter”

Phyllis Nagy received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations, among many other accolades, for her screenplay for Todd Haynes’ exquisite 2015 film Carol, based on her friend Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Following Emmy nominations for writing and directing the HBO film Mrs. Harris, Nagy’s second feature film as director, Call Jane, world premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently acquired by Roadside Attractions for US distribution. Based on real events, the film opens five years before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and centres on Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a suburban Chicago housewife as she becomes involved in a clandestine organization of women providing abortions, known as The Jane Collective, or simply Jane, led by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). This year’s Sundance lineup also featured The Janes, Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary about the group, and Audrey Diwan’s Happening, based on Annie Ernaux’s novel looking back on her experience with abortion in 1960s France.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Phyllis Nagy the day after the film’s premiere at Sundance to discuss why she wanted to direct Call Jane, her approach to developing the screenplay with writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, her decision to shoot on Super 16mm, and the queer films and books that have made a lasting impression on her.

Elizabeth Banks appears in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How actively were you looking to direct again when Call Jane came to you?

Phyllis Nagy: “I realized that I’ve always wanted to direct. Not that I don’t want to write too, but I don’t see myself as a writer for hire solely. I did a fair bunch of that in the wake of Carol because the work was there, so you make some money and that was fine. But I started thinking about it a couple of years ago when a couple of projects that I had been developing from my own work ran into very bad luck. One of them was due to a political situation in the two countries that were co-producing it and the other one was because COVID started coming. You spend a lot of time trying to develop work and it’s so easy for it to go south.”

“At that time, I let it be known that I was looking for something that I didn’t write to direct. Robbie Brenner, the producer of Call Jane, sent me this script and I didn’t know very much about the Janes at the time, I just knew that they had existed. Then I started reading about them and I thought that there was an opportunity to make a movie that is politically urgent, but is warm and funny, and it could be lots of things that issue-based movies aren’t; gentle, looking for empathy. I saw the potential for that and then it was another year and a bit before we got to the shooting stage. Elizabeth Banks was already attached to it when I came on, so I had a very long meeting with her about it and thought, ‘great, we’re on the same page about this’. I’ve known her for years so I thought, ‘okay, this will really work’. Then the rest of the casting commenced.”

Aida Turturro appears in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

When it came to the development stage of the screenplay, what were some of the areas that were vital for you to focus on getting right?

“The big area was to make sure that we were allowing for a variety of reactions to this choice—choice being the main thing—and having characters that we weren’t judging, no matter what. It’s fine if a character in the film judges another character, because that’s part of the journey of Elizabeth Banks’ character Joy Griffin for instance. But we the filmmakers are allowing people to believe abortion is the only way; abortion is never the way; it’s right for some. That’s the approach that I wanted to make sure we were using with every political discussion that I felt we had to have; lightly, lightly. That either works for people or it doesn’t. It’s like a lightning rod, this subject matter, and that was one of the things that made me think maybe I shouldn’t do this. But then I thought, ‘no, I should’, because I knew that there was a way in which this could be different, certainly than purely issue-based movies. It can enter into a conversation with other movies about this subject that are approached differently.”

There’s a lot to engage with in terms of films and newspaper articles at the moment, and we’re talking on the 49th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

“Yeah, and we’re still in the same place basically, probably actually slightly worse than 49 years ago and it’s about to get a lot worse.”

Elizabeth Banks and Cory Michael Smith appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

You immerse us in Joy’s point of view in the film and when she goes for her abortion we follow her very closely. I love the time that you took over that first procedure from her being collected in the car, to going up in the elevator, then being alone in the room waiting for the doctor. Can you give us an insight into that scene and the decision behind showing us the procedure in so much detail?

“I always knew that we needed to show a procedure in its entirety and it was obviously hers that needed to be shown. It’s part of Joy Griffin’s journey and the empathy we can generate for her. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire abortion procedure on film. We get bits and pieces of it. It sounds odd to say ‘my favourite abortion film’, but mine is Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women (Une affaire de femmes) with Isabelle Huppert that was released in 1988. It’s about an abortionist, Marie-Louise Giraud, in Vichy France, who was one of the last women to be guillotined in France in 1943.”

“We have the same abortion procedure, which we also see in Happening, and you realize, Jesus, nothing has changed. That was the 1940s. But what they don’t do, is go through the steps. We had to go through these steps in this film in order for the rest of the scenes to make sense. We have a number of procedures which are charting the different kinds of women who needed procedures for whatever reason. We don’t ask, although Joy asks. But the last procedure which we see is in a house, unlike the awful little room for doctor Dean’s procedures. That can’t resonate unless we’ve spent all that time in there earlier.”

Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

When Joy starts to become involved in the Janes, doctor Dean disparagingly says something to her along the lines of, ‘Has Virginia run out of her activist dykes?’ Commenting on her coming on board. The sexuality of the women running the Janes is besides the point and isn’t really focused on in the film, but I wondered when you were doing your research whether you found that quite a lot of lesbians were involved?

“I can only assume that there were. This wasn’t a feature of any of the research I’ve read, like, ‘Oh boy, there was this lesbian and that lesbian’. However, what we do know is that throughout the history of activism, lesbians are often involved in these things. Sigourney’s character is a lesbian in this. We don’t make a big deal about it, but it’s there, she has a girlfriend. I wanted to make sure that we in some way reached out to the sisterhood there too.”

Elizabeth Banks and Wunmi Mosaku appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

There’s only one Black member of the Janes as we see it in the film, Gwen played by Wunmi Mosaku, could you talk a bit about the perspective that gets brought in through her character?

“This was tricky and this is another license that the script takes. I added the difficulties with the Black activist groups, but it wasn’t until later that Black women were really involved with the Janes. It was Heather Booth—who was there last night for the online Q&A, which was fabulous—white college students, and later on housewives. That’s true. Until they could provide abortions to women who didn’t have $600 or $800, there was very little involvement from women of colour. There was some, as there always is, but the best way to highlight something in a narrative is to have one of it, so that her story isn’t diluted by a whole lot of other stories, which it would be today. Today there would be a lot more call and a lot more involvement I would think, but then there just wasn’t.”

“What is interesting about what Wunmi does with this, is that she uses her own discomfort about being the only Black person or the only Black woman in the room to fuel that awkwardness in the fictional room. I think that works really well. We have the well-meaning white woman who does a lot of good for poor women, Virginia, doing what white well-meaning liberal women always do; ‘I have Black friends’ or ‘I have gay friends’ is basically what she’s saying when she says ‘We marched together in Memphis’. That’s how it was. We don’t have to make further speeches about it. These things are bluntly stated. There is a a gentleness about it though that isn’t soft-pedaling anything, but in a culture where things are expected to always be explosive it can feel a little bit subdued. Which is fine. You can’t navigate and legislate for every single reaction, which is the difficulty of movies like this. You want to make sure you’re getting it right, but what is ‘it’? You have to choose the ‘it’?”

Elizabeth Banks, Chris Messina, Grace Edwards, and Bianca D’Ambrosio appear in Call Jane by Phyllis Nagy, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilson Webb.

I love the look of the film, the Super 16mm that you chose to shoot the film on really immerses us in the period along with the costumes and the production design. It doesn’t fetishize the era, we’re just in it. What were your guiding principles there?

“That was exactly it. I had no desire to fetishize the 60s, to make a fantasy 60s, or to comment on it. One of the ways you do it on a budget is by using film, because its very texture gets you there, it does a lot of the work. Also, a lot of period things that I watch, I look at ordinary middle class characters who are wearing the most astonishing things that we’d all probably love to have, but you think, ‘hang on, how did they get that?!’ So there was always the guiding principle of insisting, let’s make this real. We were on location for everything except doctor Dean’s abortion room, which was a set that we built. We wanted to get the right scale of houses. Virginia is a little wealthier than the rest of them, so that was a beautiful brownstone. But Joy and her husband live in this quintessential cottage, as does Lana, the character played by Kate Mara.”

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Courtesy of Neon. Arnaud Valois in BPM (Beats Per Minute). Photo credit: Celine Nieszawer/The Orchard.

Carol, which you wrote the screenplay for, was voted the best LGBTQ+ film of all-time in the British Film Institute’s 2016 poll, which I contributed to, and it came third in The Queer Review’s LGBTQ+ Films of the Decade 2010-2019. The film continues to be celebrated and cherished by audiences and critics. Having helped to create that piece of work, I wondered what your own favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture is or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?

“Well, I’m just going to exclude Carol on the grounds of bias! There are so many answers to that question, but I’m going to go with two films that are relatively recent. One is Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute)/120 battements par minute. I thought that was just extraordinary and it had a profound effect on me emotionally. The other film that I greatly admire of late is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I like her work generally, including her most recent film Petite Maman. That’s extraordinary and feels queer to me in a very interesting way that isn’t literal. But those are both recent things. I remember reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness when I was a kid, before I knew anything really, and I remember thinking, ‘I’d hang myself too in that circumstance, but God let me never, ever have to go through this in any way, shape, or form’. So I suppose that book has had more of an effect on me than I might think, although I don’t cite it as an influence—it’s not—it’s just ‘let me stay away from that’.”

It’s interesting how much things can impact us before we really know ourselves.

“Yeah, like reading all those books like Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, where you don’t know, but it’s titillating and thrilling. They obviously had an effect, and of course reading the work of Patricia Highsmith before I knew her was hugely influential in many ways, even though nobody’s really queer in Highsmith’s work; it’s a crime to be queer.”

By James Kleinmann

Call Jane premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed in the United States later this year by Roadside Attractions.

Watch our exclusive interview with Phyllis Nagy below:

Oscar-nominated Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy on directing CALL JANE premiering at Sundance 2022

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