Sundance Interview: “Call Jane” Director Phyllis Nagy

By Morgan Roberts

The feature film, “Call Jane” (2022) had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film details the life of Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a Chicagoan who finds herself in need of an abortion. Except, in 1968 America, there is no way to legally access an abortion. Joy then seeks help from the Jane Collective – or the Janes – to, as safely as possible, terminate her pregnancy. This then sets Joy on a new course of joining the movement of providing accessible pregnancy termination and to take matters into her own hands.

“Call Jane” is brought to life by renowned theater and film director Phyllis Nagy. In the early 1990s, Nagy’s playwriting career started at the Royal Court Theatre. Her plays have been performed in many countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Nagy directed the 2005 film, “Mrs. Harris” which garnered her Primetime Emmy Award nominations for writing and directing. Nagy also wrote the 2015 film, “Carol.” Nagy would win the New York Film Critic Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and go on to receive nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay, Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. ITOL writer Morgan Roberts sat down with Nagy to discuss her film “Call Jane,” the importance of choice, and women being included in all aspects of film.

Phyllis Nagy, director of Call Jane, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Morgan Roberts: First, I just wanted to take a moment to say that we are talking today on the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and your film about what life was like, before there were any legal protections premiered yesterday. So just kind of wondering how you’re feeling about that. And about what this film means to so many women?

Phyllis Nagy: Yeah. I mean, it’s a coincidence. I mean, we didn’t schedule it this way. [chuckles] But it turns out that the urgency is even more relevant than when we were first talking about making this. Abortion rights have been under attack from the moment that Roe v. Wade, the laws were enacted. So it’s not new. But it seems new to people who probably have grown up. I mean, the generations below me, have grown up with choice. And with the sorts of protections that older generations of women and others who needed protection didn’t. So we have a two pronged fight on our hands, which is to combat complacency, from wherever it comes. And there are people of my age who don’t think it’s a big deal. Like it’s, “well, you can go to California or New York,” and I think, “well, yeah, but what if you can’t afford to do that?” There aren’t that many people, except rich people who don’t work right now who can just pick up, you know, and go wherever they need to go to get medical care. And abortions I see, as you know, as medical care. It’s not something that is like elective surgery, although I’m sure there are people who would argue that it is.

Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. And I think what the film does so beautifully, is showcase that there are so many reasons that someone needs to seek an abortion because our main character Joy is a married woman who, up until a medical crisis, actually wanted to carry the pregnancy to full term. So can you kind of expand on the stories that, you know, you were having to highlight? Because obviously, there are so many examples of women needing to seek pregnancy termination?

Phyllis: Sure. I mean, as with anything, when you’re making a two hour film, as opposed to a 10 hour limited series, or a documentary in which you can quickly establish these things, there was a cross section, I suppose, of women. There’s the married woman who wanted a child. There’s the young woman who is a sexual being in the 60’s who needs multiple abortions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are the poor women. The women of color. The people who don’t generally have access. And the repetition of these abortions, I think, these procedures in the film are just really pointing out just how many different kinds of women need this. Someone in a Q&A last night said, “you know, nobody wants an abortion.” It’s not like you wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go, you know, have an abortion for the hell of it.” I mean, okay, maybe. I can’t speak for all women, but generally, this is a personal, painful decision. And this has never been easy for women, and many, many women have died trying to provide safe abortions throughout history. You know, you can read stories of, in ancient times, women tried to drink hemlock or put all sorts of things into their bodies in an effort to do this and it never ends. It never ends. 

Morgan: One of the things that I was extremely struck by in the film is that you actually show an abortion, that full procedure, and I was very moved because we don’t ever see the procedure. I mean, obviously, it’s not the full 20 minute procedure, but very frequently we see someone backing out of an abortion or we see someone, you know, before and after, but we never actually get to see what that process is like. So just kind of wondering about what was, what did it mean to be able to portray that on screen and what went into crafting that scene?

Phyllis: I always thought it would be important to show the procedure. There is that scene in the script that at a certain point, I think stopped short of actually watching the procedure. But I knew that we had to do that in order for the rest of her journey to make sense. So this was a set. It was the only set we built of that room in the hallway, because all of the procedures apart from the last one take place in that room, in that building. So we built it so that we could be completely private. And we spent an entire day on that scene, basically. It was the most setups we had in the film. It had to be planned really carefully. It was one of the advantages of not having enough time, really, is that you have to plan it really carefully. And it was a closed set. You know, Elizabeth [Banks] and Cory [Michael Smith] and I were there. And Wunmi [Mosaku] earlier in the sequence. And that’s the way it was when we did all of those sequences in that room. So people felt it was an “as you need to be there” basis, you know?

Morgan: Yeah, it was also so beautiful to kind of see the evolution of what that procedure became. The first time we see it, it is very isolated, very technical and just not attached to humans. And then as the film progresses, we add more and more humanness into the procedure somewhere. Could you talk a little bit about that as well?

Phyllis: Well, I think, as Joy becomes more involved, and Dr. Dean sees what an asset she could be just in helping the women get through it, we proceed through it until eventually, without giving anything away, there is a whole different kind of procedure that is portrayed. And the differences between that procedure, and the first one we see are very blatant. But we need that journey through the other procedures to get there.

Morgan: Obviously Elizabeth Banks is kind of the performer that holds the film together. But there are so many beautiful, nuanced performances. As you’re looking at everyone’s work, what are some of your favorite memories of working with these extraordinary women and men that are in this film?

Phyllis: I mean, it was so quick, you know, we shot it in 23 days. So it’s four weeks. Sigourney [Weaver] was with us for the first two weeks. So all of the Janes were here for the first two weeks, and it was the first thing we shot of course, and that was extraordinary, because we were just throwing everybody into the deep end of it all. And the energy that those Janes had with each other and with Sigourney it paid off, you know? It was just, there they are; they feel like how those women might be and then we sort of whittled them down, right? We got to the point where it was just Joy and her family, ultimately. And that seemed I mean, again, we had to plan that in a certain way, but it actually worked. Chris Messina, who plays Elizabeth’s husband, was marvelous. There’s some contingent of “Carol” alumni; Cory Michael Smith, as Dean and John Magaro, who comes in for that long scene late in the movie and plays a detective was wonderful. I’m you’re just everyone was really working at a high level, and also not to neglect Wunmi Masako and Sigourney Weaver, who’s pretty amazing in this.

Morgan: Really, parts big and small, everyone really showed up, which makes the film so wonderful. The other part of the film that I love so much is you choose to shoot it actually on film; can you talk about what went into that decision? And what do you like so much about shooting on film? 

Phyllis: Well, I mean, there is nothing like it, you know, obviously, but specifically Super 16. Because, when you don’t have time or money, film is very forgiving of certain things that you can’t hide when you’re working under limited circumstances. Let’s say we didn’t have to do much in the D.I. Film is very kind to production design, to costuming, to all of that. But more than anything else, I felt like we’re making a period film that isn’t nostalgic. I’m not interested in creating a tribute to the 60’s. I was just interested in putting them in the 60’s and having it feel contemporary in that way. Like we’re watching people at the time, then obviously, you have to shoot on film, there was no way that digital can do that.

Morgan: I mean, we’re working with cinematographer Greta Zozula. What was that like, working with her and being able to kind of capture the aesthetic of the 60’s and also the timelessness of the story?

Phyllis: I mean, again, we work together, all through prep. And even before official prep, because we needed to pin down a shot list that we would change on the day occasionally. But in order to make the argument that the film would be a cost efficient thing and all, we had to do this work in advance. We also talked about certain films and certain looks that we really wanted to go for. And we shot with a single camera, most of the time. We did have a few days of shooting with a second camera. But of course, there’s a different operator, and sometimes those things are not usable. It was helpful during our car scenes. But even some of that we couldn’t use so we, you know, we talked about how much film we thought we would use based on the number of takes I like to do. I’m not an obsessive shooter. And we stuck to the plan. I mean, you sort of have to when you’re making, you know, indie movies on a budget.

Morgan: 23 days, yeah, you have to.

Phyllis: So digitally, I would have been tempted to do twenty takes of something but that is of course, the temptation.

Morgan: Absolutely. And one of the things that I find so incredible about the film is the way that it holds both heart, humor, and history simultaneously. So what was the work like in ensuring that balance sustained throughout the film, both as you were shooting as well as in the editing room?

Phyllis: Well, I mean, it’s tricky, isn’t it? Because, you know, it feels very much to me like the rhythms of life. Sometimes it’s easy to be overwhelmed by subject matter. And with something like this, that can be dangerous, although, I credit that there are people who would prefer that kind of approach. Like this isn’t funny and wait a minute, why are we-but it never was a question that this would be the approach. Both Elizabeth and I spoke at length before I signed on – she was already with the project. And we realized that we were of the same mind about these things. And that it was necessary not to judge, not to be preachy, to allow people space in order to focus on why choice is important. But while not shying away from the bluntness of the argument, or the procedures or anything like that, I think that the two things coexist. And we’ll just see if people [agree].

Morgan: Another thing about the film is it it really highlights the intersectionality of politics, and how that is very important in people’s lives in so many ways that they don’t quite imagine, because I mean, the film opens with the very famous 1968 Democratic National Convention protest that led to a very public trial afterwards. So kind of wondering, the decision made to open with that as well as how to balance so much of what history brings to our lives.

Phyllis: I had always had a vision of how that opening should be in the script. It did open with Joy and her husband already moving through crowds of people in the street and trying to get to their car. Of course, there was no way we could recreate the riot. Nor did I think it necessarily a good thing, to approach it that way. But what I did think was we start with introducing her into her cocoon of a world; the hotel, the elegance of her dress, or the back of her head, her husband being made partner. But she’s drawn to the door in the street, and wham, there she is. It’s a different kind of subtlety, right? That, but we are very much saying here she is, these are two worlds colliding. And it’s not going to be long now before she’s personally invested, maybe not in the yippies, but in her own political struggle, which she doesn’t probably know or sees that when they’re going through it as a political struggle. It’s my life. You know, I need to save my life, because I need to be here for my child and 50% odds, that’s not great odds. I might be here, 50%, might not be here. And so that is her decisive political action.

Morgan: And you show women at various stages of their understanding of how their existence is political. So what was that like? You know, trying to make sure that there was space for that humaneness? Because obviously, there are so many women at different stages of understanding their role in it.

Phyllis: What was fortuitous is that a lot of the women who came in for procedures, the Janes, who are actually doing all the work of mimeograph, or painting the walls, or whatever they’re doing, they were in and out, so there wasn’t a lot of time for them to have these kinds of discussions that would lead to self-consciousness of presentation. It’s like, carrying the weight of womanhood of the entire history of the struggle on your shoulders is what you wanted to avoid. And that’s with all the characters more or less, right? You don’t want somebody playing a feminist, you want them to be one. And the best way to do that is to just let people be who they are in the room on the day. And there wasn’t hardly ever a choice that someone was making that seemed wrong or contemporary. That’s the other thing, allowing women to be as women were in the 60’s, rather than what they are like today. There were very different issues of race representation, all those things were different. And we were very mindful of that, too. So it’s also how that feeling of them being represented actually, ironically, means putting them back into a mindset where they weren’t represented.

Morgan: Exactly. I think Wunmi [Mosaku] brought up an amazing point last night about being the only woman of color in the room all the time and how she both struggled with it, and what would then keep that character in the room. So I’m wondering how some of those scenes played out because there are some scenes where we do kind of highlight that white women don’t always get it right when it comes to pushing the movement forward.

Phyllis: I think that was true, then, as well. When I was reading about the history of the Janes and various other groups, of feminist political groups at the time, I came across this interesting set of articles about how the Black Feminist Alliance and various other groups just were not, they weren’t treated well by some of these groups. But also they didn’t want anything to do with them. The Black Panther movement was something else too. And I thought that was fascinating. It’s like, why, why? Well, for various reasons. And I knew it was important there was this character in the room. I don’t think  she was in the room, actually, in the real Janes, except later, right? When we got more into the 70’s, there was more. And the women were performing the procedures themselves, there was more room to bring in, obviously, women who were pay as you go. They couldn’t pay $600 for an abortion, $800, whatever these men were charging at the time. So it was important if she was to be there, to make it a little uncomfortable,but not for her as a person. Except, of course, you can’t; if you’re acting that, in that room, you will be uncomfortable. But to make it uncomfortable for everyone else in that way. So, you know, what the best thing for her to do is to say listen to what she says. And Virginia says, “We marched together in Memphis,” and it’s like, “uh, okay,” you know? Yeah, that’s exactly what happens. No need to belabor the point, no need to have tons of rhetorical debate about it. It’s like, “yeah, why don’t you pay for it? Yeah, go ahead.” And so without creating imbalance in the narrative, I think it’s fair to say that these issues are touched on in a way that hopefully honors the questions and allows people to say, right, and that’s still going on.

Morgan: Absolutely.  And just to kind of wrap things up, you know, this film is about the many ways that women support each other. And with you at the helm of this film, we noticed there are a lot of women also working behind the camera with you. So, what are ways that women are supporting each other in filmmaking in creative spaces in telling their stories.

Phyllis: Yeah, there are a lot of women. One of the screenwriters is a woman, the principal producer is a woman, and it was very important to me to do this movie with as many female heads of departments, which is harder to get than you than you might think. Not because the producer was saying no. It was the contrary. But because what’s happened and what’s heartening is a lot of these women are working in TV now. So, you know, left out of the feature film equation for such a long time that, yeah, they’re taking their jobs and they’re making their money. And that’s great, but it meant that was a little bit of a challenge from time to time. The one head of department that wasn’t female was our editor, Peter McNulty, who was a great collaborator and a great guy. It’s not that I said, “No men,” it’s just, you know, we tried, as best we could. Hair and makeup, all these departments had women in charge. And it was very odd to see those departments that didn’t have women in charge. We did try. You know, I suppose this is more on the directors and the producers than anyone else to say, yes, we support that. We’ll find people and if we can’t find anyone, we did our due diligence. People also have to try to involve non-white women, if they can, in these jobs. And I think we’ll see more and more of that as more and more opportunities present themselves for people to be presented to you as an option. At the moment, sadly, very, very few opportunities to hire women of color were presented. Although we had a bunch of people in the crew. But yeah, yeah, as a director, and as a producer, you have to step up, I think. And isn’t there some new-I can’t remember, is the Academy making some sort of rule about hiring? Like, if you don’t hire a certain number you’re not diverse? So that’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in 2020-whatever it is, when it takes effect. How that will affect, you know, the mission, like in action movies. I mean, I think it’s not you know, it’s not a dull, literal rule, but I know that there are a lot of people who are up in arms already. You know, okay, let’s fight that fight.

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