Phyllis Nagy On Her Terrific New Film, ‘Call Jane,’ And Why It’s Probably Not What You Think It Will Be

Call Jane (which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival), considering the subject matter, probably isn’t quite what you think it is. At least, for one, I wasn’t expecting a movie about a suburban Chicago woman, Joy (Elizabeth Banks), facing the prospect of death from congestive heart failure if her pregnancy does not end, who seeks out an abortion from an underground network called the Jane Collective (run by Sigourney Weaver’s Virginia) to be this … well, purposely absurd at times, creating comedic moments in a movie where we probably wouldn’t expect many comedic moments. But, as director Phyllis Nagy tells us, this is the tone she was hoping for.

This is Nagy‘s first time directing a theatrical feature (in 2005 she directed Mrs. Harris for HBO), and since her Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay for 2015’s Carol, it sounds like there’s been a frustratingly long list of false starts leading to this moment. But, seven years after Carol, Nagy has her film and it’s a great one.

Nagy explains below, but there are a few things she wanted to convey with this movie. One is obviously the contrast between then and now, as we await a Supreme Court decision that could make underground networks like the Jane Collective all too needed again. Call Jane ends in triumph, as Roe v. Wade is decided, and then we come to our own reality where that same decision is on the brink of being overturned. Nagy also has an interesting thing she does with the men in this movie. As she says, she didn’t want to demonize them. And Chris Messina as Joy’s husband and Cory Michael Smith as Dean, the abortion doctor, really are handled in a fascinating way.

The last time I talked to you it was the morning you got nominated for an Oscar for Carol. It was one of those reaction interviews, which I actually really love doing, because everyone’s in the best mood.

I remember that day. I was trying not to be in too good a mood because there were others in the film who weren’t nominated. Right?

We talked about that, but you were still very happy.

Okay, good.

I’m surprised it’s first your feature film as a director.

I mean, things work in a funny way. Don’t they? There was a feature that I dearly wanted to do, and I have been retained as writer and director on a couple of them. And over the course of the last, I’d say three years prior to taking on Call Jane, things fell apart: bad luck, COVID, the Korean-Japanese diplomatic situation, believe it or not. That’s a long story for another day.

Oh, wow. Okay.

Yeah. So it wasn’t for lack of trying. And I think at least a couple of those things will come to fruition, in the light of this being out there. And, hopefully, people will see it and say, “Oh yeah, she can really do that.” Well, maybe not. You never know.

Well, my opinion doesn’t mean much, but you certainly can. This movie is great. I just wouldn’t say anything if I didn’t think that.

You see a lot of movies. You know.

I do.

Anybody who sees a lot of these movies has an opinion that’s, how do I put this diplomatically, more interesting to me than perhaps somebody who only watches one movie a year. I think that’s a fair thing to say. That’s not to discount the person who watches one movie a year.

Though, if someone was only going to watch one movie a year and they picked this one, that would be flattering.

Yeah. That would be great. But I mean, just in big, broad general terms it’s always interesting to me that people who watch a lot of movies, who’ve seen all the good and all the bad and everything in between, their opinions are interesting to me. So I’m not a person who thinks critical discourse is not valuable. Well, that’s a tactful way to say that.

I’m still having trouble putting into words how I felt at the end of this movie. Because it ends on this positive note of Roe v Wade being decided, but then it hits you, we might be headed back to this. So I feel good about how the movie ended, but then bad about actual life.

And I think that’s what the ending should make people feel like. I mean, on the one hand, these two ladies have pushed a rock up a hill and helped to create a situation where something looked possible. But listen, getting equal pay, shouldn’t be as hard. Now, we know from the comfort of what, 50 years later or something, none of that happened. It still hasn’t happened. And so, burning up those cards and being overwhelmed with the names and the last menstrual period – which is what LMP is, somebody asked me that the other day, which is why I mentioned it. And it’s overwhelming, and it’s happening again. Our whole world is going up in flames.

And so, the ending is triumphant, but it’s also not. It’s, wait a minute. We have work to do. So somebody, a friend of mine, called it a call-to-arms. And I think that’s fair, too. Not literal arms. I mean that metaphorically. But yes, it is. Can you call it like a, feel good, feel bad movie all at once? I’m not really sure. But that duality, which I think is present in the film, in its themes, in the way it’s shot, in the things that we’re looking at. I think that’s fair. It’s both things at once. And hopefully one day, we will not be there anymore. But listen, we’ve had hundreds of years of this, so I don’t know. What are the odds?

I kept thinking about these types of networks. After this coming Supreme Court decision, which is all but certain to overturn a lot of things, there’s going to be at least a lot of states where these networks are going to have to exist again. Not everyone has the money to fly to New York or California.

That’s right. I mean, that’s what people were saying at the time of the Janes. And even before we started shooting it, there were kind of feminist organizations saying, “Well, wait a minute, rich women could go to Europe, apparently.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. What is your definition of a rich woman?” These days, it’s even more narrow. Middle class people can’t just up and fly to Stockholm. I mean, I don’t even think I could at this point. It’s so expensive. So I’m terrified, but I also know that New York and California and various states that are like those states will have something in place. You can be sure, because everybody is mobilizing.

Or Illinois…

Right. Or maybe it’s Chicago, but it’s a hell of a lot easier getting to Chicago than it is to wherever. But it is scary. And it’s already having a catastrophic effect on women in Texas and certain other states. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. The Supreme Court probably will chip away at this, maybe not totally, in June, but that’s even worse. We just see an erosion of this, as we’re seeing with other things like voting rights.

I’ve been following this pretty closely and the most disturbing thing about the Supreme Court, when they had the arguments, it sounded like John Roberts wanted to do what you’re saying, like, “Can we reach a compromise and chip away?” And the other conservative justices sounded like they just wanted to go all in.

It’s going to be bad. I mean, I suppose if there is a silver lining to something so draconian, is that a total cutting us off at the knees will mean an uprising. I don’t know what form that’ll take, but people will mobilize much more quickly if they do not have an excuse to hide behind the chipping away. Well, you can still blah, blah, blah. Which is why I think the chipping away is more devastating. It gives allegedly good-minded people an excuse.

You do this great job in the movie of showing so many women go through this. There’s a lot of movies you just say, oh, if people will only watch this, they will maybe understand more. And I truly believe this with this movie, but I’m also so defeated. I don’t believe anyone who thinks the other way is going to sit down and give this a shot…

Yeah. I hope they do. If they do, it’s because it’s not judging them in a condescending way. So hopefully, somebody will at least watch it and say, “Women have a hard time with this.” Not that that’s going to change anything.

You have this kind of montage of Joy being told these different techniques on how to do this herself, like “falling down the stairs.” And it’s kind of almost played in such a, I don’t want to say a comical way, but such an absurd way. It’s all these absurd suggestions were actually what people were told to do.

That’s exactly what was meant. So you got it. I mean, the film does have a tone that encompasses both the comic and the serious, because I just think that’s how life is. And that sequence in particular that you’re talking about, the doctor saying, “Do you think you’re suicidal?” And falling down the stairs. Of course, it has a particular tone. And I think the movie can relax people into going with it, and then all of a sudden, boom, you have a 10-minute scene of an abortion, which is … You know?

Yes.

Right? And it goes down because of what surrounds it, I think. So I’m glad. That’s absolutely right. I mean, at least it’s what I meant. I think other interpretations, people will have, probably equally valid, but yes, I did intend that tonal shift.

Everyone is so great in this movie and I don’t want to be the guy singling out a man in the movie, but your casting of Cory Michael Smith as Dean, the “abortion doctor,” really encapsulates so much about the allies at the time. Basically, “Yeah, I’ll be on your side. I’m going to make a lot of money off of it.” But he also plays it in a way where you don’t think he’s an evil person either. There’s something so good about the way you presented that character.

Yeah. He’s such a dupe! You know? Women are really just running circles around him. He keeps being taken in. But he’s sweet in it. You know? It’s like, “Yeah, I like you. I like older girls.” I mean, I think there’s a tactic to that and to Chris Messina.

Oh, I love Chris Messina.

He’s fantastic. Oh, and John Magaro. Yeah. So one of the things, this was in my script, the men are not being demonized in a way that you might expect. This is the ’60s, and I grew up at the end of the ’60s. I was living in New York. I was a kid, but I saw all sorts of different kinds of men. Right? Hippies and Yippies and coexisting with women in a way that isn’t that behind the fence kind of menace. So I’m glad you didn’t hate Dr. Dean. You understood that tactic.

Well, I didn’t hate him because, he’s obviously in it for the money, but at least the way you portray him, he’s not treating anyone particularly poorly. And he’s very good at what he does.

Yeah. Yeah. It makes sense. There’s an emotional sense to it. And he’s not harming anyone. And he’s right, he’s actually better than a lot of the other people that were there performing these procedures who weren’t doctors. So yes, right.

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