Sarah Polley talks about the artistic freedom that led to her brilliant new ‘Stories We Tell’

05.14.13 5 years ago 2 Comments

Roadside Attractions

These days, a number of my interviews are done by phone because I am juggling some complicated scheduling around the lives of my kids. It’s just a fact of parenthood… you make space for all of their stuff because you have to. You do it no matter how hard it is, because it means something to them and you only get one shot at that.

At least, that’s how I feel right now. I know people who have made that sort of effort and still managed to fumble things, and no matter how hard we want everything to work out for our lives and the lives of our kids, that’s not always the case and we know that. And sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves or that we tell our kids are used to help paper over some sort of hurt, and we justify it by saying we’re trying to avoid hurting them any more than is necessary.

What happens when you get away with a story for so long that you forget you told it, until someone else starts peeling away at the edges of it? What happens when you discover that something you’ve accepted as part of your daily life, one of the fundamental truths of your world, is simply not true?

All of this is dealt with in Sarah Polley’s remarkable new film “Stories We Tell,” which I gave a fairly breathless review earlier this year. The film is available now for you in a number of different ways, and I want to urge you to give it a try. It is as exciting in its own way as any of the summer blockbusters, and smarter than all of them rolled up into one.

On one of those afternoons where I was at my house to accommodate the boys, the phone rang, and I picked up to find Sarah Polley waiting on the other end of the line. Knowing time was short, I dove right in and brought up the way seeing “Stories We Tell” changed the way I felt about “Take This Waltz,” a film which actually made my Top Ten Of The Year list in 2011. It made me see it as an act of biography, an attempt to work out feelings about someone and their choices through fiction, a narrative reaction to the events portrayed in “Stories We Tell.” I told her about how dumbstruck I felt when I realized halfway through the film that it was more than it initially seemed to be, and far more accomplished than I understood at first glance. I asked her if she designed the film to deliver that sucker punch initially.

“No, because I think the same thing happened to me. I think it really took reading what people were writing about these films to make the connection. I don’t think I was consciously at all… you know, ‘Take This Waltz’ wasn’t intended as a portrait of my mom or her marriage or that whole theme. I just thought I was writing a story. It actually took hearing other people’s responses to realize there was that connection. And I think that’s right. I think subconsciously I must have been treading over this territory without knowing it.”

That’s fascinating to me. The idea that she was grappling with the ideas but not on a conscious level is amazing considering how far out of her way she goes as a filmmaker to avoid judging any of the characters in “Take This Waltz.” Most films about marital infidelity pick a side early on, and you’re either rooting for the character to do it or punishing them for considering it. ‘Take This Waltz’ never really makes a judgment about Michelle Williams, and I told her how strange it is to realize just how much moralizing really does go on in films.

“Yeah,” she said, “and I think there’s enormous pressure to do it, too. We still really want this idea of good and bad and good and evil and it’s really, I think, hard to let go of that. Ambiguity gets interpreted and misinterpreted and people have to feel like there’s someone in a movie to either side with or despise, and my favorite documentary filmmaker, Allan King, used to say ‘It’s not just bad for movies to pick a hero and a villain or try to paint a portrait of good or evil; you’re actually doing active harm in the world by perpetrating that notion. Just indulging the idea that there is such a thing as good or bad people as opposed to a whole spectrum of ambiguity.’ So I feel very conscious about that when I make a film, that nobody’s a hero and nobody’s a villain. My experience of human beings is that… that we’re complicated people.”

I asked her if she works at creating supporting characters who feel rich enough to carry their own films, and she replied, “I’m really glad you feel that way. So much of that is casting. These are really great actors, and they bring a whole life to a part, whether it’s the lead character or not.” That led me to ask her what made her consider Seth Rogen for his role in “Take This Waltz.” I think he’s great in the film, but not the guy I would have automatically at the top of the list for that role.

“He was actually the first person I had in my head,” she replied. “Actually, he was the only person I had in my head when I was writing the role. The other characters were really blank slates, but Seth for me really grounded the film. He’s a comedian I’ve always loved, and I felt like as a fan of his, I really wanted to see him do something dramatic. So in a way, for me, it was really selfish to write that character and base it so closely on him. I also wanted… when I started writing the script, his character was the one I related to the most. I wanted it to be somebody that we can really love.” I know when I mentioned Polley on Twitter recently, Seth was one of the people who both favorited and retweeted the comment. It makes me happy to see that there’s still fondness between them after working together. That’s not always the case, but it seems like that was a really good experience for both of them, and I love the end result.

Now, in discussing “Stories We Tell,” there are some elements of the film that you don’t want spoiled for yourself. If you’re super spoiler-sensitive, you should bail out here until you go see the film, and then come back. Basically, I wanted to discuss with her how this new movie, which is a documentary about something she learned about her own life, plays a long-con game on the audience that blew my mind, and I asked her how she came around to that as the approach to telling this story. Basically, the film pulls the rug out from under the viewer at a certain point and you realize you’re not watching what you think you’re watching. I asked how she even began to work out her approach to the storytelling and what she shot for the film, what archival footage she used, and how she decided how to intercut the interviews.

“I think my main idea was to give the audience some sort of parallel experience to the one I had when I was unearthing more and more details, some of which conflicted with each other, and hearing more and more information that threw everything that came before it into a different context, revealing very different meanings.” I love that even though she’s talking about some fairly major and cataclysmic events in her own life, she always felt very matter of fact about it, never trying to elicit cheap sympathy. “I never felt when I was trying to investigate the story in my own life that I was ever on solid ground, and that I never really knew if what I was hearing was fact or was it a memory imbued with nostalgia. What was it that I was experiencing? And so I was trying to find as many ways as possible in the construction of the film to give the audience a parallel experience. I wanted there to be questions about what they were seeing. And I felt like if it was all linear and straight-forward, then I wanted to give them another piece of information later that would make them question pretty much everything they were seeing.”

I told her that the first time I saw it, I had to back the movie up because of the way she almost casually shattered my understanding of what was “real” in her movie, and she started laughing. “What moment was it for you?”

I told her that it was when she suddenly stepped into a frame with somebody that she couldn’t possibly be in a frame with, shattering the notion that a certain strata of the archival footage we were being shown was real. She laughed even harder at that. “I’m so glad.”

She’s been screening the film, so I asked if she’s able to hear people react as they start to get what’s going on, and if it’s something that is noticeable in the theater. “Yeah, there is,” she said, “and it’s really been fascinating for me because we did do everything we could to match as closely as possible to the archival footage that we had, and we had an amazing hair and make-up department and an amazing wardrobe department to help us do that, and of course the actors, but we were pushing really hard.”

She laughed at the thought of it. “The ambition was to make people sometimes wonder if what they saw was real or if it was fake, but I don’t think we ever thought that it would work well enough that it was a big twist in the film when people found out. So that was amazing at those first screenings, and to hear people respond like it was a big revelation was a big revelation to me that it could be a revelation. So that was a really exciting moment for me, to realize that the film was doing more than you even thought it could. It was really kind of cool.”

I commended her for the way she’s carved such a personal career out as a filmmaker. Her acting has been in much broader-appeal films at times, like “Dawn Of The Dead,” but as a filmmaker, she’s made very personal films. Her next film is supposed to be an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” which is no easy task for any screenwriter. “Well, if I’m going to spend several years working on something, it’s got to be something that I really love. I have ideas for films all the time that I don’t end up making because I guess they don’t matter to me enough. ‘Alias Grace,’ for example, is a book that I read when I was seventeen, and I’ve been trying to get the rights to it ever since. I’ve been imagining that film for so many years. I just can’t imagine writing and directing and going through all the grueling hours that go into any film if I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing.”

I tried to tread lightly in invoking “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.” Based on things I’ve read, I suspect it was not the greatest moment of Polley’s life, and not something she likes revisiting in any great detail. Still, I would guess that being on a set that it so far out of control and so far over budget, where everyone is constantly battling for control, would leave an impact on who she eventually became as a filmmaker. “I think that’s right, and I think I also saw the pitfalls of making films for too much money, and disastrous that can be and how out of control it can get. I think also having early experiences of seeing things that were made by committee and how bad they turned out, I learned early that I wanted to make sure to always work in an environment where I have total creative control and final cut and creative freedom.”

As she spoke, she got more animated, passionate about this and confused by the system here and why anyone would put up with it. “I know it made me really sad to see that Zach Braff video on Kickstarter where he’s like, ‘If you crowdfund this, you will be able to see the film that I have final cut on, and I will have creative control.’ And I just thought, ‘For someone who has made a successful film, for that not to be a reality for him… like on their next film, they should obviously have creative control.’ It’s so horrifying, but I know that’s the norm. Me, coming from Canada, I know this is like a utopian universe of filmmaking where the filmmaker always has creative control and final cut except in very few circumstances. You know, on my very first film, I had final cut. I would never work without it. And I was looking at that video and was just like, ‘Oh, god, I just wouldn’t make films if I didn’t know I would have creative control. There’s just no way I would take that risk of putting my heart and soul into something only to find that a financier has more say than I did. I do feel like I come from a really privileged world where I make films for, you know, not huge budgets, but we do have control over what the final product is.”

I told her that my experience at the Toronto Film Festival has taught me there’s a very real sense of community in Canadian film, and particularly in Toronto. “Yeah, I think that’s a huge testament to the role that is played by the National Film Board. It is amazing not to have to worry about the business side of it. Once they’ve decided to make the film, they also fully finance it, and while I had creative control, I got a lot of input from them. And it was all feedback to be less formulaic and be more innovative and it was never pressure to be, you know, more obvious or more accessible or more box-office friendly. It was always, ‘Okay, what are we doing here that is different from other films?’ It’s almost funny to have the pressure come from so the opposite direction.”

I told her that the BFI recently instituted a more comprehensive program for film education in the UK, designed to show films, teach people how to watch them, and then also encourage them to make their own. It’s being done because they’re genuine worried that if they don’t do it, there won’t be any definitive English voice on the word cinema stage in the very near future. I told her how I feel like Toronto is one of those places that has a real sense of voice, and I asked if she’d been on the road with the movie, seeing it outside of Toronto. “Yeah, I think particularly with this film, we made a conscious choice to show it outside of Toronto first. We showed it at Venice and Telluride first. Part of that is because it’s such a personal film and I know so many people in Toronto that I really just wanted it to be judged on its own merits so I could get a real sense of what people thought out in the world.”

Taking a chance and mentioning it one last time, I told her that I’d shown “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” to my boys and they had both been very fond of it, and particularly Sally, because as Toshi described her, “She looks like she’d punch you and she’s really funny.” I know it was a tough film for her to make, with some tough memories, but there’s a lot of magic in it, and she’s a big part of why. When she believes in the Baron, so did my sons. Her work in that film is very special. “Thank you very much,” she said, “and thank you for your support on both films. I read everything, and I was looking forward to this. You’ve written such lovely things about both of them.”

As I told her, I see a lot of films every year, and the things that I feel strongly about, I make as much noise as I can. When Polley says that she felt like guys in particular didn’t react well to “Take This Waltz,” and that’s why my review meant something to her, I’m glad she was able to read a piece that told her, “No, it communicates. It’s in there. And it spoke to me.” I think she has an amazing voice, and I wish her a dozen more movies to explore her ideas about love and life and family. Or two dozen. Or ten. As long as she makes them, I’m interested.

See “Stories We Tell,” which is open now in limited release. It makes one hell of a double-feature with “Take This Waltz,” which is still available on NetFlix Instant.

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