Call Jane is not the film you'd expect it to be based on its logline.
The new film from director Phyllis Nagy tells the true story of the Jane Collective, a female-led network that operated in Chicago throughout the late 1960s and early '70s. The underground collective offered ways for women to obtain safe abortion procedures during a period of time when abortion was illegal in parts of the United States. The film's contemporary relevance is, unfortunately, undeniable. However, Call Jane is not the serious or somber film that its subject matter might lead you to believe.
Instead, Call Jane is a rousing, often lighthearted drama. For Nagy, it was the film's unexpected tonal approach to its subject matter that appealed to her in the first place. "It gave me a chance to approach these topics with a light touch, one that opens the conversation up to many people who might otherwise feel judged or challenged by the material," she says.
The film also gave Nagy the chance to assume a different creative position than she had on her last film, 2015's Carol, which Todd Haynes directed and Nagy scripted. (Nagy received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.) On Call Jane, Nagy sat in the director's seat, helming from a script written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi. That meant approaching the filmmaking process differently than she had on Carol or her directorial debut, 2005's Mrs. Harris, which Nagy wrote and directed.
"I always feel for the writer," she admits, though ultimately she had to exercise the same discipline on Call Jane that every director must. "What happens when you're told you have to cut six pages here or there in order to make the movie? It's tricky. In the end, I had to make those decisions.”
In conversation with A.frame, Nagy discusses the challenges she faced making Call Jane, as well as the close bond she formed with the film's star, Elizabeth Banks.
A.frame: Coming off the success of Carol, there were surely many different projects you could have chosen to pursue. What drew you to Call Jane?
A couple of things. I saw it as a chance to address, in a serious way, what collective action can achieve and how a group of women got together to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem in a way that normalizes the problem at hand, which in this case is abortion and abortion procedures. That interested me, because the filmic literature we have tends to focus on the mistakes, the trauma, or the exotic exceptionalism. Call Jane gave me a chance to bring the topic back to what it really is all about, which is healthcare and collective action. That really excited me.
There aren’t many scenes in this film that Joy (Elizabeth Banks) isn't in. What was your collaboration like with Elizabeth?
Elizabeth and I had a lot of conversations before we even shot the film. Like many other productions, we were interrupted by COVID-19. We were supposed to go shoot before the pandemic hit, so filming was delayed by almost a year. Then, even after we got started, we were shooting under many layers of masks and visors and all that, so it ended up unfolding in a way where Elizabeth and I were able to have a lot of leisurely conversations before we even got to set.
That must have made it easier to communicate with her once filming began.
Yeah, once we were there, we worked very closely together in this shorthand sort of way. She's directed films herself, so she understood why she was being asked to do things in various ways. She understood how we needed to do our setups and appreciated how we were having her act through everything. She also just wanted to be an actor in this, so she really put her head down and focused on the material. We didn't have a lot of time for much else, either. We only had 23 days to shoot this.
There are several difficult scenes in the film. What was your process like on-set when you were preparing to film, for instance, Joy's abortion scene with Dean (Cory Michael Smith)?
Dean's office was the only set we built for the film. That room and the surrounding hallway and bathrooms. I knew it had to be private, and I knew we were going to be there all day for that scene. It was the most complicated sequence in terms of setups, and I needed both Cory and Elizabeth to feel absolutely at ease. I needed to be able to have them act through the scene no matter what the setup was. So, it was just me, my cinematographer Greta Zozula, and the actors on set that day. No one else was there.
Visually, there's an emphasis in the film on how women — and particularly Joy — move through the spaces they're in. Can you talk about how you landed on that recurring motif?
I'm glad you noticed that because, while the film is not a strict POV movie, it nonetheless centers around Joy from the get-go in a very different way than we center her later on. We have to experience this story, more or less, as she does. Otherwise, the film doesn't work as a representation of really anything. While there are a couple of scenes that don't feature Joy, I wanted the audience to still feel her presence. I like to say that the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy of the movie are Elizabeth and Sigourney Weaver. That's exactly how I see them, so I found the juxtaposition of what Elizabeth is doing in the film with what Sigourney is doing in, say, her one scene with Cory, to be very compelling.
Sigourney brings a magnetic, surprisingly calming presence to the film. How did you make sure that her and Call Jane's other supporting characters never took the film too far away from Joy's perspective?
We never have, let's say, a Jane meeting without Joy. Sigourney and Chris Messina’s character are the only other people whose perspectives we dip into. There are a few scenes with Joy's family that show them living without her whilst she's off becoming a secret abortion activist, and I actually had a lot of talks with Peter McNulty, my editor, about this very thing. Those scenes just further add to the overall tension of the film. They keep a dramatic balance going in the film, because Joy herself pretty much steps out of her own, original POV when she goes off with the Janes. By still keeping up with her family, we’re able to remain in her POV even when she's not present. It's a tricky thing. [Laughs]
You're someone who has written and directed your own projects, written scripts that were directed by someone else, and now, with Call Jane, you've directed a film from someone else's screenplay. Do you enjoy the various dynamics and responsibilities that those different roles bring?
I have a different view on what each of those things are. I think I'm most brutal if I am the writer-director, because there's no question that the writer side of me suffers. But writing for someone else is liberating because I have no responsibility. There's a certain freedom in that, which can either be quite wonderful or make you want to hide at certain points. On the other hand, when it comes to working on someone else's script, I'm very sensitive to what it's like to be a writer. You know, one tries as best as one can to remain faithful to the writer's vision whilst also respecting the necessities of production.
By Alex Welch