We’re All Tank Girl: Director Rachel Talalay Puts Bold Women on the Big Screen

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“I’ve never considered myself the ‘Woman of the Year’ type,” said director Rachel Talalay into the microphone as she accepted her award from Women in Television and Film Vancouver in June. “I’m more the ‘Tank-Girl, post-punk feminist warrior.’”

For those who never saw Tank Girl or were too young to remember Talalay’s 1995 film, imagine a gnarly future world where power and water go hand-in-hand. The protagonist isn’t out to save the day: She’s a riot grrrl anarchist (Lori Petty) in a candy necklace. Foul-mouthed and post-grunge, openly sexual and quick to commandeer army property — she’s pure id.

But the world wasn’t ready for that. Critics panned it. Talalay’s work opportunities dried up. Meanwhile, young women of that early-stage internet generation made Tank Girl their shero, seeing her as a sign that there were others like them out there, trapped under mountains of mixtapes and Manic Panic hair dye.

Since then, the film has developed a cult following and Talalay is finally back in the director’s chair, both for work with the hit television shows Sherlock and Doctor Who, and through her new film On the Farm, which screens this Saturday at the Women Texas Film Festival

We’re talking on the phone and she’s excited. She’s back to doing what she loves: telling stories about bold women and bucking convention.

Talalay now lives in Vancouver, and her newest film, On the Farm, taps into one of the city’s darkest times. In the late '90s and early 2000s, women went missing. Lots of women. They were addicts and prostitutes from the city’s downtown Eastside, and they were vanishing at an alarming rate.

Slow response by law enforcement mixed with longstanding bias against the city’s most marginalized citizens; meanwhile a murderer roamed. By the time action was taken the fates of possibly as many as 49 women were sealed.

Talalay is careful not to give the killer too much room in her film. Instead he exists more as a shadow figure. A boogieman. “Everything we did was to diminish his portion of the story,” she said. “It’s not a movie-of-the-week about a terrible serial killer.”

Pulling from a piece of investigative journalism by Stevie Cameron that looked into the domestic sides of the victims and their families, Talalay created composite characters whose storylines and attributes mirrored the lives of those affected.

“I really wanted that documentary style where you could feel like you’re in that world,” she explained. “So instead of it simply being this dark, hopeless world, there are real people fighting real battles, and those are the people who you need to root for.”

Her protagonist, played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, anchors the film. She has a little Tank Girl in her too, which makes sense: It’s why Tailfeathers tried out for the role. “She showed up and said, ‘I came into the audition and had to meet you because I love Tank Girl so much,’” said Talalay. “Then she gave the audition that just blew my mind.”

“I just really admire her performance,” Talalay says, “and if 20 years later that’s the result of Tank Girl, then that’s worth it, too.

Talalay’s career didn’t start with a comic book anti-hero, but it nearly ended there. She began as an assistant production manager at New Line as it transitioned from a counterculture distribution house to a film studio. That’s where she directed her own Nightmare on Elm Street film, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, and got started with special effects. She also branched out to produce, working with fellow Baltimore native John Waters on churning out the cult hits Cry-Baby and Hairspray.

So, why the decades-long drought between then and now? Talalay has only just begun speaking out about her experiences as a woman in the film industry. It’s a topic that’s been taboo for her entire career.

“We’re touching the tip of the iceberg now and starting to talk about it,” she said. “Just by succeeding in the work, I did good things for women — but what a terrible way to, that I was shut up for so long."

In her Woman of the Year speech to WITFV, Talalay spoke in-depth about her fear of being blacklisted and very recent struggles she’s faced in her career

"As a woman director, I’ve had my own battleground," she says. "In the big picture, I may look like I’ve held my own, but I haven’t. The scars are deep. And the problems aren’t over, as everyone here knows. The film industry is a disaster on gender and diversity and First Nations issues. I have spent many years being told never to mention it, threatened that it was 'a sure fire way never to get hired.'

"Recently I was talking to my agents about my ambitions after finishing directing Sherlock. And they said, ‘Yes, you have done Sherlock. Yeah, the other Sherlock directors have all been offered pilots and features off the back of it. But remember, you are a woman.' 

"It kind of took my breath away, to hear it stated so plainly. It wasn’t aggressive. It was so painfully casual, they probably wouldn’t even remember saying it. That’s what shocked me.

"They simply meant, 'We’re just going to have to work that much harder, but also be realistic about your expectations.'"

Oddly, Talalay isn’t bitter. Sure, she’d like a lot of the 2000s back, but she’s having fun in her current projects and feeling “hopeful for the first time.” So what’s her dream gig? She’d like to make more conscious-raising work like On the Farm, and one more big superhero film, this time with the funding to do it right.

“She-Hulk,” Talalay says with excitement in her voice. “There are some early storylines from She-Hulk in the '70s and '80s that are Deadpool, they’re Tank Girl! And she’s the opposite of Hulk in that she loves her 9-foot, green alter ego. That’s the woman we all wish we could be. That’s the Tank Girl of her.”

The Women Texas Film Festival runs Aug. 19 to Aug. 21 at Texas Theatre (231 W. Jefferson Blvd.). On the Farm screens Saturday at 5:15 p.m. Individual tickets cost $11. 

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