Making a movie at any level can be a test of endurance and mental fortitude. Now, imagine trying to wrangle a full-scale Hollywood production when you can barely see straight.
Sarah Polley, the 44-year-old writer-director of the Oscar-nominated drama “Women Talking,” physically couldn’t make a movie for years after a nasty concussion left her with lingering symptoms. Being unable to cope with environments full of noise and light rendered the idea of her functioning on a chaotic movie set nearly impossible.
Enter Micky Collins, Ph.D., clinical and executive director of UPMC’s sports medicine concussion program and chair of sports medicine. He prescribed a series of treatments for Polley that she rigorously added to her daily routine. They worked so well that she was able to film “Women Talking” with a clean bill of health.
“In the many months of making this film, I didn’t have a single day of concussion symptoms,” Polley told the Union Progress.
Polley and Collins recently sat down with the Union Progress to talk about everything from the film itself to how Polley’s time in Pittsburgh permanently transformed her life to the amount of patients Collins has seen who found out about him through Polley’s recently released memoir, “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations With a Body of Memory.”
“She’s very selfless in terms of wanting to document that experience because it was powerful for her,” Collins said. “She’s touched the lives of so many people because of what she’s done with that book.”
Somewhere between heaven and earth
“Women Talking” is an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. It’s based on a real-life case of men living in an isolated Bolivian Mennonite community systematically raping the colony’s women in their sleep over the course of many years. Toews’ novel imagines the secret discussions between some of the abused women about how they can best respond to these atrocities.
Polley’s film adaptation is set in 2010 and mostly revolves around these talks within a group that includes the mostly reserved Ona (Rooney Mara), fiery Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and resolute Salome (Claire Foy). The minutes of this momentous meeting are taken by August (Ben Whishaw), the colony’s schoolteacher, who is sympathetic to what these women have been through.
When Polley first read Toews’ novel, she grew excited about the prospect of “finding the best actors in the world” to embody these women in the process of making the most important decision of their lives. She spent about a year putting together an ensemble that, in her estimation, ended up feeling like a theater company with how close they all got.
“The idea of these magnificent actors having this passionate, complicated, ultimately hopeful conversation was really exciting to me,” Polley said.
Most of the film takes place in the hayloft where the clandestine meetings are occurring. Polley took inspiration from Toews describing the hayloft as feeling like it was “floating somewhere between heaven and earth,” and she subsequently shot it with the goal of allowing audiences to get the “sense of sacred space” occupied by the women.
Though its subject matter is quite heavy, Polley believes “Women Talking” is “a really hopeful movie” containing “a story of liberation.” Oscars voters appreciated it enough to nominate “Women Talking” for best picture and Polley for best adapted screenplay. One could argue that “Women Talking” deserved a bit more love from the academy, but Polley is much more passionate about how films driven by Black women, such as “The Woman King” and “Saint Omer,” were totally snubbed.
“I’m thrilled that [‘Women Talking’] is able to enter the conversation on this level,” she said. “It automatically means a lot more people will see it and be in dialogue with it. That’s what you really hope for as a filmmaker.”
Trusting the process
In 2014, Polley’s life took an unexpected turn when a large fire extinguisher fell on her head at a community center. The concussion that followed led to months of dizziness, terrible headaches and cognitive issues. It got slightly better as time went on, but she still would experience relapses “when life got too hectic.” She lost her ability to multitask and “slammed again” with symptoms after the birth of her third child.
Four years later, a friend pointed Polley toward Pittsburgh and Collins. He had helped launch UPMC’s sports medicine concussion program in 2000, after years of conducting research into how concussions affected athletes at various sport-centric universities. That work led him to the conclusion that healing from concussions is both possible and, most importantly, “process” rather than protocol.
“Athletes run into problems with this injury,” said Collins, whose daughter Payton is a sharpshooter on Mt. Lebanon High School’s girls basketball team. “If it’s not treated and managed appropriately, they’re going to run into more problems. The best way to deal with problems from concussions is to deal with it and manage it effectively when you have one.”
Collins is pretty in demand these days, but he still keeps four to six slots open every day for consultations with out-of-town patients. His reputation as a foremost expert in concussions and head trauma has led him to see many a celebrity client — including, famously, Penguins star Sidney Crosby. When Polley walked into his clinic in 2018, he knew she worked in film but had no real idea “who she was relative to her success.”
Like all his patients, Polley was interviewed, examined and tested by Collins and his team before being prescribed a treatment plan that included a daily regiment of both physical and vestibular exercises. Most importantly, Collins strongly encouraged Polley to start immersing herself once again in concussion-unfriendly public spaces like loud restaurants so she could start “strengthening my brain back to health,” as she put it.
“It was a paradigm shift for me,” she said. “He’s extremely motivating. He’s got that sports personality where he’s incredibly encouraging but very firm and convinces you to do more than you think you can.”
In terms of how he approached her treatment, Collins said it didn’t matter that she wasn’t an athlete, professional or otherwise.
“What I applied to an NFL quarterback,” he said, “I applied to Sarah.”
‘Getting my life back’
Polley was only in Pittsburgh for one day during her initial UPMC visit, before returning six weeks later for a follow-up appointment. It was her first time here, and she recalled walking around the city and marveling at the “amazing art” it had to offer.
“I loved it,” she said. “I kind of couldn’t believe how amazing it was. I sort of fell in love with it separate from the miracle of getting my life back there.”
Polley said she is “so beyond grateful” for what Collins and everyone else at UPMC’s sports medicine concussion program did for her. She described herself as a “more physically active person now,” and generally feels “capable of far more than I did,” before visiting Pittsburgh. She also thinks her healing process has helped her become “more present parent.”
As far as Collins is concerned, Polley was “an outstanding patient” from start to finish. She hosted a private screening last month of “Women Talking” for UPMC’s concussion program at the AMC theater in Mt. Lebanon. Collins thought it was “a very powerful piece,” and a testament to how seriously Polley took her treatment plan.
“I’m so proud of her for working hard,” he said. “The things we ask patients to do are not easy. It completely goes against the patient’s instincts. It takes a lot of work to go into this, and Sarah put in the work. For her to come out of this feeling normally and going on to write that movie and book … that’s what it’s all about as a clinician.”
He said that “hundreds and hundreds of patients” have come through his clinic claiming they heard about his services through Polley’s essay on her UPMC experience in “Running Towards the Danger.” Collins said it’s “neck and neck” between Polley and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. for whose book has earned him more referrals.
“You have an Academy Award nominee and a race car driver,” he said. “It just shows you how this can happen in so many different ways.”
To this day, Polley feels she wouldn’t have been able to make “Women Talking” if she “had not gone to that specific clinic” in Pittsburgh. For her, “Women Talking” is evidence of how Collins’ techniques for curbing concussion symptoms can work wonders for anyone who is willing to face their condition head on.
“I had to do this to prove to myself it worked as well as I thought it had, and it really did,” she said. “I’m just so grateful he’s doing the work he’s doing.”