A story about a woman who is overwhelmed with the demands of parenting after giving birth to her third child; a woman who loves her children but fears being swallowed up by the role of mother and cut off from her own self.
Tully is a new comedy from Academy Award-nominated director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno).
Tully marks a happy reunion for Reitman, Cody and their Young Adult star Charlize Theron.
Charlize Theron plays a mother of three including a newborn, who is gifted a night nanny by her brother (Mark Duplass). Hesitant to the extravagance at first, Marlo comes to form a unique bond with the thoughtful, surprising, and sometimes challenging young nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
Tully was conceived in 2015, soon after Diablo Cody gave birth to her third child. With two young children who required much time and energy, Cody had no illusions about her capacity to handle the exhausting work and sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn. She hired a night nanny, who came to her house at 10pm and watched over the baby until early the next morning.
Diablo Cody is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of films such as Juno, Young Adult and Ricki and the Flash. She also created the Emmy and Golden Globe winning series “United States of Tara” alongside Steven Spielberg, and the WGA-nominated series “One Mississippi” with Tig Notaro. Through her new company, Vita Vera Films, she will continue to develop shows for both cable and broadcast television.
Night nanny services have been growing in popularity for over a decade, particularly among professional women in major metropolitan cities. But Cody didn’t know about their existence until the success of Juno brought her to Los Angeles to work in the movie business.
“Growing up in Illinois, I’d never heard of night nurses. I thought it was a completely strange idea but kind of brilliant, too,” she remarks. “I stubbornly resisted having the night nurse with my eldest child. Resisted with my second child. Third child, I completely swallowed my pride. The night nurse helped me take care of the baby so that I could be rested in the morning for my other kids. And it was revelatory. Because even with help, you’re tired. It was almost shocking how much I fell in love with the night nurse because it felt like she was my savior.”
That experience gave her the idea for a film about a new mother’s postpartum struggles and the surprising young night nanny who restores her to life. She wanted to tell a story about a woman who is overwhelmed with the demands of parenting after giving birth to her third child; a woman who loves her children but fears being swallowed up by the role of mother and cut off from her own self.
The idea fit the criteria she has set herself as a writer. “My mission in my career is to write roles for women that I have not seen before,” she explains. “I had never seen a film about postpartum depression. I feel like there are so many feminine experiences that have not been represented in films, so I’m constantly going back to that well.”
She laid out her idea for Reitman before she began work on the screenplay and told him she wanted him to direct. “Jason always understands what I am trying to convey and he’s so respectful of the decisions that I make in the script. I have so much agency as a writer and that’s unusual.”
Reitman was excited to see where Cody’s story would lead her. “I really enjoy Diablo’s approach to everyday life that examines women as truly complicated people,” he remarks. “From the beginning Diablo has fearlessly written unapologetic women as leads in her scripts, characters that are smart and admirable and funny, but are also deeply flawed. And I think because of that, women and men can relate to her characters.”
Filmmaker Jason Reitman made his feature film debut with the 2006 Sundance hit Thank You for Smoking. He notably earned Academy Award ® nominations for directing Juno and Up in the Air, the latter of which earned Reitman a Golden Globe Award, WGA Award and BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay. His other films include Young Adult, Labor Day and Men, Women and Children. Reitman has produced three seasons of the Hulu comedy series “Casual” through his Right of Way Films. He also executive produced the Academy Award-winning film Whiplash and the Jean-Marc Vallee directed Demolition through the production company. He is in postproduction on The Front Runner, which he is co-writing and directing.
Cody fleshed out a fairly ordinary life for her protagonist, Marlo, who is uneasily awaiting the imminent arrival of her third child with her husband Drew. Marlo is accustomed to juggling the demands of a full-time job and parenting two children, eight-year-old Sarah and five-year-old Jonah, who has special needs. Marlo loves her kids, but she had not planned on having another at age 40. She’s not eager to talk about the subject and she’s definitely not comfortable when her wealthy brother Craig gifts her with a night nanny.
Tully introduces Marlo in the final days of her pregnancy, offering a glimpse of the stable existence that is about to be disrupted. “I liked the idea that Marlo had gotten settled into a comfortable life,” says Cody. “She’s a working mom and she’s dealing with a kid who has special needs, but she had things under control. Then she got pregnant and that was the curveball.”
That curveball gathers velocity once Marlo gives birth. In scripting scenes of labor, childbirth and immediate postnatal period, Cody drew on her own experiences to show the process as it often is in real life but less so in films. “Childbirth is not like the screaming pioneer woman you often see. You’re in a hospital, there are a lot of beeping machines and you’re being supervised. And staff won’t release you from the hospital until you show them that you can pee. Obviously they’re doing it because they’re looking out for your health, but it’s such a strange experience to have to pee on command as an adult. I’d never seen that in a movie.”
She also wanted to counter the film and television conventions of serene mothers and joyous family gatherings in hospital rooms. When Craig and his wife visit her in the hospital, they quickly realize that Marlo would rather be alone. “Sometimes you don’t want anyone to visit you,” Cody reflects. “People expect women to be completely blissed-out at every point in the process, otherwise they’re perceived as ungrateful or even cold. In reality, you’re dealing with a lot of complicated emotions when you have a new baby.”
The film’s take on pregnancy and its discontents is as witty as it is honest. Marlo can’t escape comments related to the baby inside her, whether it’s from a relative, a school official or a censorious stranger at a coffee bar. Depending on the company she’s in, Marlo will offer a mordantly funny description of how she’s feeling – hint: not “glowing”; or cover up her internal panic with a reference to the baby as a “blessing.”
Once she is home with baby Mia, Marlo’s life is completely given over to parenting her three children. Three weeks into a sleep-deprived blur of newborn care, regular child care, late-late night TV, breast pumps and diaper genies, Marlo goes off the rails during a meeting with a school official. In desperate need of help, she reconsiders Craig’s gift and retrieves the phone number of the night nanny.
That person is Tully, a cheerful dynamo who is thoroughly at ease with babies and glad to share various arcane facts about their development. Looking even younger than her 26 years, Tully is not what Marlo expects a night nanny to be. “At first, Marlo is uncomfortable with Tully,” says Cody. “She doesn’t quite understand who she’s dealing with and she’s a bit alarmed by the fact that Tully is this kid. At the same time, Tully is able to speak to Marlo in this very specific and bizarre way and they quickly form a connection.”
Like a modern Mary Poppins, Tully helps Marlo in ways that go beyond childcare. As their bond deepens, Tully becomes the friend that Marlo so badly needs. She guides Marlo to the point where she can come to terms with the distance between the life she led at Tully’s age and the life she lives now. And this insight makes it possible for Marlo to feel whole and awake again.
Cody sent the first draft to Reitman on New Year’s Eve, 2015. “I immediately fell in love with it,” he affirms. “Less than a year later, we were making the movie.”
There’s been a kind of synchronicity throughout Reitman and Cody’s history together. “Diablo and I have made a film every five years now, give or take,” says Reitman. “It’s interesting because we’re just about the same age and we have similar personalities. It seems like we’re sharing a diary and we’re both writing into it.. So, every few years when I get a script from her, I know it’s not only going to reflect her sensibility and what she’s been going through and learning over time, but it’s going to reflect all those things that I’m feeling and thinking but I just can’t articulate. And I’m just so grateful.”
For Reitman, Tully expressed thoughts and feelings he’s had as he has watched his child grow up. “Diablo wrote a script of that not only spoke to the idea of parenthood, but to that moment when you actually have to close the chapter and say goodbye to your youth,” he comments. “Something that has fascinated me as a father myself is your child becomes this mirror through which you look back at your own childhood and realize for the first time who you were as a kid. Diablo brilliantly used this relationship between Marlo and Tully as a way for Marlo to understand her children better and as a way for Marlo to look through Tully as a mirror into herself.”
Over the next few months, Cody polished and refined the script, getting feedback and suggestions from Reitman. He felt a responsibility to make a film that was truthful about what it was like to be a mother of a newborn and sought input from a group of young mothers. “I wanted to be very respectful of how difficult those nights alone are,” he explains. “I sent the mothers a questionnaire filled with very personal questions. I was amazed by how forthcoming they were; and not only about how having a baby impacted their sleep and their physiology but how it impacted their other children, their husband, their marriage, their sex life. They were a great help.”
A truthful depiction of those nights also meant acknowledging their comic dimension. When a container of freshly-pumped breast milk spills, it’s awful but also funny: a nursing mother’s version of the proverbial banana peel. Marlo zones out in front of late-night TV while pumping milk. Sleep deprivation doesn’t do much for Marlo’s physical coordination, either. In a moment drawn directly from a questionnaire answer, her grip fails as she’s scrolling through her phone – and she drops it right onto her baby.
As Cody worked on subsequent drafts, she brought certain themes to the surface, including the pressures felt by contemporary mothers. Says Cody, “Despite all the progress we’ve made in terms of women entering the workplace, becoming breadwinners and having the freedom to pursue different paths in life; despite all that, there’s still this expectation that women are the glue that hold the household together. There’s still this feeling that we are the overseers of the domestic sphere. That’s very difficult when you’re also in a breadwinner role or helping support a family. Marlo works in HR; it’s not her dream job but her income is important. And yet, she’s also supposed to be making the cupcakes for school or she’s not a good mom.”
It’s not the life Marlo envisioned for herself when she was Tully’s age, as she’s reminded whenever Tully bounds through the door. “Tully has so much energy, she’s so enchanted by the world. She’s involved in all these exciting and dramatic relationships,” says Cody. “Tully will barge into the house at night and starts eating everything out of the refrigerator. Whereas Marlo has all this anxiety about her body.”
Marlo’s 20s aren’t coming back and that’s one of the things she has to come to terms with. “This is definitely a mid-life crisis movie, no question about it,” Cody comments. “I think that we’re all familiar with the male mid-life crisis, with the red Corvette and the young girlfriend. But you don’t see a lot of depictions of what women might be dealing with in mid-life. In a way it almost feels like a loss of currency because you’re getting older and you’re getting less attractive by the day. And women live in a world where they’re judged on their appearances.”
Tully completes a trilogy that began with Juno and Young Adult.
Each features a female protagonist with a very specific personality and point of view, who goes about her life as she sees fit. “Diablo from the beginning has fearlessly written unapologetic women as leads in her scripts,” observes Reitman. “Over Juno and Young Adult and now Tully, she’s written characters in three different age groups and at three different stages in life. And each film explores how complicated it is to find happiness.”
“Juno, Young Adult and Tully are all about transformation in a way,” Cody reflects. “Juno is going through a physical transformation, a pregnancy, which forces her into adulthood very quickly. Young Adult is about resisting the aging process and trying desperately to cling to the past. And Tully is about realizing that you are responsible for all these other human beings and being able to become that responsible person even if deep, deep down in your heart you still feel like a train wreck. It’s about figuring out how to reconcile the person you are at your core with the job that you have to do.”