The lovely dramedy Poms stars Diane Keaton as a woman who moves to a retirement community and decides to finally fulfill her dream of being a cheerleader by forming a team with a few of her fellow female retirees, including Jacki Weaver, Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman and more.

ScreenPicks spoke with director Zara Hayes, a documentary filmmaker (Battle of the Sexes, Dian Fossey: Secrets in the Mist), who took a story about a group of 70-something women forming a cheer squad and turning it into her first feature film. Plus, what it was like having someone like Diane Keaton in your corner.

Being that you’ve mostly made documentaries up to this point, what inspired you to turn this story into a feature film?

Zara Hayes: I was surprised by it too because I consider myself a feminist. I’ve made documentaries about feminism in tennis and all these things. But I was always fascinated with cheerleading because we didn’t have it in England and I grew up seeing it on TV and movies. Something very American. But also problematic, sexist and a throwback. So I was in my flat one day, reading the Sunday paper, and there were these pictures of women in their 70s at a retirement community in Arizona who has actually set up a cheerleading team for older women. I was really taken aback by the pictures and felt like these women really looked empowered and having so much fun. It was like who are we to judge? If they want to do this then they should be able to do it. It made me think a lot about how images can unlock those things in you, and I wanted to find out more. Then the documentarian in me wanted to find out more and I started doing research. But as I got more into it, I thought it was more movie worthy. That a narrative would encompass a lot of things I cared about and turn into a really fun and heartfelt movie. So I set about trying to do that from my living room in England.

What was the process like writing a fictional screenplay?

Hayes: Well, as a documentary filmmaker you still write to a degree. You have to have a script before you start making a documentary. You have to be willing to change the script, obviously, but still, have one. I don’t make the sort of slice of life type documentaries and in telling the stories I’ve done, the editing, it is from a script. But with this, I knew the characters and the story but I just didn’t have the technical know-how. How to format and such. So I consulted with an American I knew, Shane Atkinson. There are some jokes in there that came in the collaboration with Shane but it was really knowing the story that I wanted to tell, being the center of it all. Being able to communicate that. So in a sense, it felt like it happened naturally.

Then you got Diane Keaton on board pretty early on, so that must have helped!

Hayes: Yep! She read it and she was in. That was game-changing which was unbelievable to me. Sometimes the system does work. You send the script to the agent and the agent sends to their client who reads it and wants to do it. Once [Keaton] connected to it and me, it was amazing.

This role seemed like such a natural fit for her sensibilities.

Hayes: She’s so cool and a style icon and a classic. And you’re right, it makes perfect sense for her to do this and I’m down for that! I think she saw something different in it that some of her other roles. She really allowed herself to be committed to this character, this woman who is in a pretty dark place when it starts. It’s expected to be a comedy because of its premise but there’s a lot of pathos and drama. And I think Diane is the thing that kind of carries that. It was a tricky balance to play and she does it so well.

Tell me about this cheerleading boot camp the women went through.

Hayes: Oh my goodness. It was hilarious and brilliant and I think they would say it was the most fun they had throughout the whole process. There were no cameras, just all of us in a room, sweating, with a choreographer. It was just a great time to play and learn, like a school for a week and a half. These haven’t had to dance and move like that on camera – it was a very brave thing for them to do at this point. But they did it! They all come from different places and have had long and varied careers, and they wouldn’t necessarily have had access to work together. But they formed this group and it was a very close-knit group by the end of the shoot.

Check out the delightful Poms in theaters now!