“There’s nothing wishy-washy about working with Phyllis Nagy,” Elizabeth Banks tells Deadline of working with the Call Jane director. “She’s very gentle with her direction but she’s also firm with what she expects or wants out of something, which I really appreciate.”
This gentle but firm approach seems to be just the kind of manner that was needed when it came to bringing Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s Blacklist script about women’s reproductive rights to the big screen.
Call Jane, which is screening in competition at the Berlin Film Festival tomorrow night following its launch at Sundance last month, stars Banks, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Mara and is Nagy’s directorial feature debut. The project is inspired by a network of women called the Janes, who arranged safer illegal abortions in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s. Nagy, a prolific writer who has earned an Emmy nomination for her screen debut Mrs. Harris and an Oscar-nomination for her adaptation of Carol, crafts what Deadline critic Anna Smith describes as “an upbeat, non-judgemental note while exploring the gender and body politics of the time.”
“I grew up in an environment where the right to choose was not an absolute right and where the issue of women’s rights was always pretty dodgy,” Nagy tells Deadline. “So, when I saw this script, what excited me was the opportunity to speak to more than the converted with this in a way that actually was completely serious but also entertaining.”
The film, which has already done good business internationally through Protagonist Pictures and has been picked up in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions, sees Banks star as Joy, a traditional 1960s housewife who unexpectedly falls pregnant. She then finds the Janes, an underground abortion movement led by Virginia (Weaver) who save her life and give her a sense of purpose: to help other women take control of their destinies. It’s produced by Robbie Brenner (The Dallas Buyers Club), David Wulf and Kevin McKeon.
“What I loved about the script was that it did not revert to some of the tropes that I think other movies in the past which have dealt with women’s rights or even abortion have done, where we tend to see people suffering or women suffering,” says Nagy, who is in Berlin this weekend with the film. “We don’t see movies about women working together to solve a problem and this was something that greatly appealed to me.”
Banks, who was attached to the project before Nagy boarded, felt compelled to the character of Joy because she was a woman living in a period of time where she felt the constraints of her gender.
“I think it’s important that we present this in the movie,” says Banks. “It’s not just about the agency over her abortion decision. This is a woman whose choices have been limited by the time in which she lives and the community in which she lives in.”
While it’s been nearly 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade, which affirmed a woman’s right to have an abortion in the U.S., the country’s conservative right has been campaigning for decades to overturn the ruling. Last September, Texas banned abortion procedures once cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy – the most restrictive abortion law in the U.S. in decades. The state of Mississippi is also challenging abortions leading many legal experts to believe the ruling could lead to the unwinding of the Roe V Wade judgement.
While Call Jane shot in May and June 2021 in Connecticut, Banks says that “suddenly the stakes of this movie felt incredibly high versus it just being a really cool and fascinating story to tell.”
“We talk about abortion as if it’s this highly controversial thing when in fact, the majority of Americans want Roe v Wade to remain legal,” says Banks. “They want abortions to remain accessible. There’s a lot of relief in the experience of taking control of one’s life.”
Nagy says that, at a certain level, lawmakers have been chipping away at Roe v. Wade since it became the law of the land, so “this is not a surprise to me and it’s probably not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.”
“I think that there are markers along the way that have nothing to do with abortion, per se, that points in the direction of a mighty reckoning coming with the conservatives,” says Nagy. “This is about women’s rights to choose their own destinies way beyond the fact of abortion. I’m glad that Call Jane is going to hit at this moment and my hope is that people will engage with it on its terms rather than insisting that it be all things to all people.”
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