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Further Illuminating the 'Stories We Tell': An Interview with Sarah Polley

From child actress, to award-winning director, Sarah Polley has had one of the most fascinating careers paths in recent history.

Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Studio: Roadside Attractions
US Release Date: 2012

Children watching reruns of Ramona and Road to Avonlea probably have no idea that the wide eyed girl they’re seeing, would turn into one of the most fascinating contemporary actresses. Shying away from Hollywood productions - granted, she’s the greatest thing in the Dawn of the Dead remake - she is known partly as the woman who said no to being Penny Lane in Almost Famous (a part which eventually got Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination) to work on a small production in Canada.

In 2007 she adapted Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain and turned it into Away From Her, a wonderfully intimate drama about a woman’s battle with Alzheimers. The movie earned a bevy of awards for Julie Christie and scored Polley her first Oscar nomination for her layered screenplay. She would then direct Take This Waltz, a complex, tough romance starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. Besides her film work, Polley is also known for her activism and political awareness. However she has also managed to maintain a low key profile and her personal life remains just that: absolutely private. Perhaps this is why her newest movie feels like an even bolder move?

Stories We Tell is a highly personal documentary in which she examines her mother’s legacy as seen through her siblings, her father and other members of her family. Done in a way reminiscent of a thriller, the film truly challenges the notions of what nonfiction movies have been doing recently and turns into something akin to a structural deconstruction of storytelling. The film is a joy to watch, but it’s also very profound and challenging. Quoting Pablo Neruda’s “love is so short, forgetting so long” adage, she achieves the greatest accomplishment art can aspire to which is to touch both the mind and heart.

The film is full of wonderful moments that show a completely new side of Polley. Even if she is barely in the movie, we feel her presence - and hear her voice - as we see her struggle between seeing her relatives as subjects and as family. “You see what vicious director you are” one of them tells her. I sat with Sarah a few weeks ago to talk about her take on her many roles as an artist and her opinion of why “the truth” is so important in art.

* * *

PopMatters: They say most filmmakers think of their films as their babies. So in the case of Stories We Tell, because of the subject matter, was it even a more special baby?

Sarah Polley: I strangely feel a lot less attached to this in terms of how I come out of it. I’m a lot more interested in how people respond to it, as opposed to one way that I’d want them to feel. I think because I’m so close to the subject matter it’s always a surprise and interesting for me how people perceived it and what questions they come out of the film with.

PopMatters: So, you weren’t trying to aim to the intellect or the heart of the audience specifically?

Sarah Polley: I feel like I definitely didn’t want it to be an emotional, sentimental documentary that was a kind of therapy. I wanted to talk about ideas around storytelling and memory and finding the truth in the past. So that was important to me, not to get too into the sentimental.

PopMatters: I felt like Stories We Tell also brings up questions about the essence of filmmaking. In a way, you can say that most movies are documentaries, because they are documenting the truth that the camera captures, and at the same time we can say that “documentaries” are fiction, because they’re manipulating all the elements. Why do you think that the concept of “the truth” is so important when it comes to movies, especially nonfiction?

Sarah Polley: For me, with this film specifically I wanted to give a sense of a cacophony of many voices telling the same story, so that the truth is somewhere in between all of those versions, that we’ll never actually know the real truth or what happened, or what was said...in part because my mother isn’t here to talk about it, but also because we all remember things differently. I really wanted this film to honor the truht that exists in between all the different versions that people have of the same story.

PopMatters: Making the movie, did you have any unexpected memories about your mom?

Sarah Polley: I can’t think of anything specific, but I think I learned a lot about her from getting to talk for so many hours to everyone she was close to was a huge privilege I don’t think many people who lose a parent young get to have, where you get to ask every question you always wanted to ask and you get to talk to all of her friends and family in a very concentrated way.

PopMatters: All of your movies as a director have centered around strong female characters with dark sides. Based on how harshly some people reacted to Michelle Williams’ character in Take This Waltz, were you worried at any point that your mom might come off looking as an unsympathetic character?

Sarah Polley: I don’t think so cause my mom was a really joyful, vibrant person who was able to show so much love and warmth to her children given very difficult circumstances at times. So because I didn’t see her with any judgment, I didn’t feel the audience would, but certainly not being able to get her approval on the film was difficult to know what she would’ve thought or felt about the film and I think that will always be a question that I’ll have.

PopMatters: At any point did you think of not releasing the film?

Sarah Polley: Yeah. There were many times when I wanted to give up on the film altogether, it was 50/50 for me many times along the way.

PopMatters: Your movies have also been about marriages in crisis, besides your own experience growing up, is there anything else drawing you to these stories?

Sarah Polley: I do think it’s probably because of my parents, and it’s always been subconscious I think, but clearly I’ve constantly been fixated on the same subject over and over and there must be a reason for that. Sometimes I feel like now that I’ve made this film which is actually about my parents, I wonder if I’ll need to mine that same territory again or that was me sort of poking around this story in several ways.

PopMatters: One of the my favorite things about the movie was that, unlike most documentaries, it had some remarkable twists. How did you structure this film in such a way that you were able to hold suspense and turn it into a thriller of sorts?

Sarah Polley: I think there was a moment in the editing room where we had cards on the wall with every moment we wanted to hit and every idea we wanted to convey and it was in a very linear order. Actually first it was Harry’s version, my dad’s version and my version and they were almost separate films and then we began to to intersperse them in a linear way. And then I remember there was just this one day, when I took the card about my mom’s divorce from her first marriage, which was near the beginning, and I moved it to the middle and I remember that was a big key for us to realize “what if we’re revealing information that is from before this story starts and reveal it halfway through this story, so that it gives a whole new meaning to what we’ve seen and for me it felt like it would give the audience a sense that was similar to mine. You know you hit bottom and a trap door opens, then you hit bottom again and another trap door opens and you never really got solid ground under your feet, because the amount that you can learn about something and its context is infinite.

PopMatters: Which of the directors you’ve worked with do you use as your mentors when you’re making a movie?

Sarah Polley: Certainly Wim Wenders and Atom Egoyan are people that I turn to again and again for advice and guidance on everything I do.

PopMatters: You’ve won awards as a writer, as an actress and as a director, which of these mean the most to you?

Sarah Polley: (Silence)

I guess I find writing for me is the thing I love the most and directing is the thing I find the most challenging. I think it’s always thrilling to have some recognition for the things you’ve instigated.

PopMatters: How difficult was it to cast actors that looked like your family for the reenactments in Stories We Tell?

Sarah Polley: it was a very, very strange process and very surreal. It felt like I’d gone crazy to be honest...

PopMatters: ...when I was watching these reenactments I kept having flashbacks of these great British dramas with Glenda Jackson...

Sarah Polley: ...that’s funny!

PopMatters: Did you ever think of skipping the whole documentary part and making this a fiction film?

Sarah Polley: I didn’t because what was interesting for me was letting it be a mess and if we fictionalized it it would’ve had to be a much cleaner story with answers and I didn’t want us to have to have answers to arrive at, cause it would’ve felt false.

PopMatters: You’re now working on an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace”. What inspires you to adapt stories?

Sarah Polley: This one was the first film I wanted to make when I was eighteen years old and I was chasing the rights for many years and I just got them a few years ago.

PopMatters: This reminds me, your movies always seem to deal with memory as well. In the case of Stories We Tell it’s obvious, as it is in Away From Her. But then I was watching Take This Waltz and it has a very retro feeling, in a way it felt as if the whole movie was someone remembering this love story...

Sarah Polley: ...that’s interesting and yeah I definitely wanted there to be a feeling of nostalgia and a surreal quality, like the vibrance when you first fall in love, the world becomes alive and filled with color...

PopMatters: What movies did you use as inspiration for Stories We Tell?

Sarah Polley: I watched every personal documentary I could possibly get my hands on and then I think two of the ones I found truly inspiring, not directly but in terms of looking at something in a more indirect way were The Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier and F is for Fake by Orson Welles, just as a way of looking at something real and being playful with it and theatrical.

PopMatters: Do you have any plans to going back to any big Hollywood productions?

Sarah Polley: I don’t think so, it’s not on my agenda right now, for now I’m just very happy writing.

PopMatters: How do you feel about the way in which smaller, independent movies are distributed?

Sarah Polley: It’s hard to compete with hundred million dollar market budgets, it’s inevitable I think, if everything’s going to be at the whim of the market, a lot of great films just won’t get seen and I think that is the sad story. I don’t think the free market allows for people to have much choices at all, I think that’s ironic because it’s supposed to be about choices and in fact we get very little to choose from. The biggest and the mightiest usually win and that’s not the best, so yeah I there will always be a struggle.

PopMatters: The release of Stories We Tell was pushed in the States so it could be in contention for awards next year, what are your feelings about that?

Sarah Polley: (Laughs) I don’t have any expectations at all, because I think that whenever you have expectations for those kinds of things they’re generally thwarted, so I’m just excited the film’s getting released, I mean I wasn’t sure anyone would want to see this film at all. I genuinely thought maybe it would play a few festivals and nobody would see it or write about it. So it’s amazing to actually be having a conversation with someone who’s seen the movie too...

* * *

Stories We Tell is now playing in theaters.

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