How ‘Women Talking’ Pulled Off the Riskiest Change From the Book to the Movie

Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated “Woman Talking” is based on the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews of the same name. But when adapting the book for the big screen, the team made one major shift in the editing room that changed the emotional tone of the film entirely. According to editor Christopher Donaldson, he and Polley decided to removed the character of August (Ben Whishaw) as the story’s narrator and reworked it so that Autje (Kate Hallett) would tell the story.

When Polley was writing her adaptation of the novel, about a group of Mennonite women and young girls who are trapped in a circle of sexual abuse, she followed along and set up the story around August, who learns about the horrors of what’s happening to these women.

“The first 10 pages of the script are about August,” Donaldson tells Variety. But in the editing room, the more he and Polley worked together, the more they began to re-envision the film. “We saw the script as a template and emotional roadmap, but the script no longer worked for us, so we needed to create a new visual language and emotional logic.”

Donaldson explains, “Ultimately, what we needed to do was take this script, and give it a completely different emotional tone and context. There was this feeling that the voice of August, which had been so central to the novel and easily transferable to the script, was the wrong prism through which to envision the film.”

It was a risky change, and Polley hadn’t yet completed her director’s cut when they decided to switch narrators. So, it was there in the edit that Hallett’s character Autje, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Mariche (Jessie Buckley), became the primary narrator. She tells the story of “Women Talking” to Ona’s (Rooney Mara’s) unborn child.

Since Donaldson and Polley needed Hallet’s voiceover, which wasn’t in the original cut, the actor was called to record her lines during the post-production process. Says Donaldson, “When you’re putting the lines in, all of a sudden, the movie just came alive.”

The team also retooled the beginning of the movie. The scene where August teaches the young boys walking along the fence was originally meant to open the film, but Donaldson and Polley pushed it back. “While it is no longer the first scene of the movie, it comes back much later in the film,” Donaldson says. “We used it when he’s talking about the boys and their potential for doing harm to the women.”

Donaldson and Polley’s next challenge was establishing the first scene of the film. “That became the image of Ona waking up and realizing she had been attacked,” he says. “Those images are fed by the voiceover that is in the script.”

Similarly, in the fourth scene, Claire Foy’s character Salome, along with Ona and August, is sitting and watching her daughter walk through the field. The characters are explaining more to August about what’s happening to them and discussing the collective responsibility of their trauma.

This was another example of a scene being re-envisioned in the edit. Donaldson says, “We took Salome’s lines and Ona’s lines, and we integrated them into Autje’s voiceover. We used the images of the child in the field, but we removed August, Salome and Ona from it. We constantly went back into every scene and said, ‘How do we focus this around a singular point of view?’ It was so much a matter of honing in on what is the individual point of view of the scene — what is the emotional truth of this scene — and changing the prism of the film from August to Autje.”

Donaldson says his experience working on the film was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. “It’s thrilling as an editor to be able to rewrite the script that extensively while doing everything you can in your power to maintain the spirit and intent of the script,” he says. “It was a wildly creative moment.”

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