Do nothing. Stay and fight. Or leave. These are the choices put in front of the women in Sarah Polley’s long-awaited return to directing. Based on Miriam Toew’s bestselling novel of the same name, the film boasts a stunning cast lead by Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and reunited the director with costume designer Quita Alfred.
The acclaimed film focuses on an isolated religious community where a group of women grapple with the aftermath of brutal violence and their next steps.
Costume designer Quita Alfred first worked with Polley over thirty years ago on “Road to Avonlea,” an award-winning Canadian TV series. Decades later with a lengthy resume, Alfred considers her work on this film the best experience of her career. “I have never worked on a project where everyone was so supportive of each other on every level,” says Alfred. “We received support from the producers and from Sarah without question.”
It wasn’t just the collaborative atmosphere that made the experience special, “Women Talking” broke new ground with its ten-hour shooting days and having a therapist on set at all times.
Although the film doesn’t explicitly state this, the events are set in the Mennonite community (like in the novel). Alfred was quite familiar with that community, having grown up in Southern Manitoba in Winnipeg. “You can go to Walmart and see women dressed the way the women in our film are dressed,” shares the costume designer.
The very first fitting with the actresses was done in real polyester dresses made by real Mennonite women. Knowing that they were real and had been made by those women had a real effect on the cast. The reactions varied as some found the costumes freeing and others restrictive. “I just loved Sheila McCarthy’s reaction in the fitting, I remember her looking at herself and just becoming Greta,” recalls Alfred.
In addition to the delicate subject matter, the actresses also had to contend with the heat. “Of course, everybody’s opinion changed as the two months in a polyester dress in 95 degrees went on,” adds the costume designer.
Alfred spoke to Awards Focus about reuniting with Sarah Polley, the many similarities she shares with the book’s author Miriam Towes and owning the biggest collection of Mennonite clothing in North America.
Awards Focus: Could you talk about how this project came your way? Had you worked with Sarah Polley before?
Quita Alfred: Yes, many, many years ago when Sarah was young on a television series called Road to Avonlea. Sarah was the lead and that’s how we knew each other and it was a very serendipitous situation for me, I had literally not heard a word from her since. I got this e-mail from Lyn Lucibello, our Toronto producer, saying they had been talking with Sarah and my name came up. My jaw hit the floor. All these years watching from afar all these wonderful things Sarah produced and did, encouraged and supported, becoming this amazing filmmaker and human being. When I got the e-mail and then the call, I thought it was a joke at first because it was too good to be true. I was thrilled.
AF: Were you already familiar with the book by Miriam Toews at that point?
Alfred: I hadn’t read that one but within an hour after speaking with Sarah I had it downloaded. However, I am a very big fan of Miriam Toews and I grew up in Southern Manitoba in Winnipeg, about 45 minutes from where Miriam grew up and we’re almost the exact same age. Her writing really touches me very deeply because many of her references are my references, they were part of my childhood and my youth as well.
AF: Talk about the research that went into this and getting to know more about the Mennonite community.
Alfred: In Southern Manitoba where I grew up, seeing someone from the Mennonite community is an everyday occurrence. You can go to Walmart and see women dressed the way the women in our film are dressed. So, I was very familiar with Mennonite culture through my friends, my colleagues, my babysitters when I was young, and also through my neighbors there today.
However, I reached out to people who could help me delve deeper into the more traditional side of the culture because the women in our story live a completely secluded life.
I’ve heard many people say this movie has a period feel, especially regarding the costumes but that’s not the case at all. These are contemporary women living in a contemporary situation and all communities and cultures unfortunately suffer from domestic violence and sexual abuse and secrets and lies.
AF: What were the initial conversations with Sarah Polley regarding the costumes?
Alfred: Once Sarah and Luc, our DP, explained to me the desaturated look of the film, I had to choose fabrics and patterns accordingly. Then I divided the families into moods. I stuck to small patterns that were almost hidden. That didn’t want to express themselves.
Sarah didn’t know that when she first called I was in Winnipeg in Southern Manitoba, she didn’t know that’s where I was from. And I said, “You know I am literally looking at my neighbor Friesen’s house right now in the heart of the Mennonite world.”
I told her if you give me a minute, I will find you everything you need to know about what we are trying to do in a week.
I called a colleague, she called her mom, her mom’s best friend lived in Winkler, Mannitoba. She was a modern Mennonite woman by culture. She in turn called her friend in Southern Ontario and suddenly I had two cultural consultants who opened a world to me that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.
AF: How did you approach building this wardrobe? You had very narrow parameters as people of this community wear very modest clothes.
Alfred: Once I learned more about the specifics of plain dress and the limits of it, we had to use color instead of detail. No earrings, no jewelry, no buttons, no pockets. Nothing prideful or showy. The women in conservative Mennonite communities are so limited in their expression.
For instance, Frances McDormand’s character Scarface Janz is a seamstress in the film, the details of her bodices was the only place we could express a little something. We made sure it looked like hours of handwork and precision, to imply the tightness of her world.
I had the most amazing sewing team, some of whom have known Sarah for as long as I have.
AF: Is there a detail that you are especially proud you were able to put in or add to a costume?
Alfred: This was actually Frances McDormand’s idea. A cloth pouch with an opening that ties around your waist. She found these, sent me the picture and said, “What if we adopt these for our purposes? We could put mic packs and masks in them, even sides.” It was a brilliant combination of reality and utility and function.
AF: You’re working with an amazing cast here, could you talk about their reactions to the clothes? Obviously for an actor the clothes they wear form so much of their character.
Alfred: The reactions ran the spectrum, and they were amazing and rewarding, and even revealing. Some found the clothes freeing because of the shape and the simplicity and the way that they negated the body, which is what in real life those dresses aim to do. They’re made to subjugate the women and to remind them of their place below God and below their husband. And others found them very, very challenging because perhaps it reminded them of a challenge that they had in their own life at the time.
We initially tried real dresses. I have something like 531 real Mennonite polyester dresses bought from real women on real communities here in Southern Ontario and Manitoba. So, before we had mockups built, we put real dresses on the actresses and knowing that they were real and had been made by women like the ones they were going to portray in the movie was a tool they could use. I just loved Sheila McCarthy’s reaction in the fitting, I remember her looking at herself and just becoming Greta.
AF: Do you still have all those dresses? Was that what you kept from the set?
Alfred: Everything, I have it all. In Winnipeg in a warehouse there are approximately 10,000 square feet of Rubbermaid bins full of dresses, hats, overalls. Clothes that were beautifully made by Mennonite women in their kitchens.
I kept it together because it’s now an amazing collection and I may actually talk to the museum in Steinbach, Manitoba. I probably have the biggest collection of this clothing in North America right now.