Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley

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

Filmmaker Sarah Polley talks with PopMatters about marriages and memories and The Stories We Tell.

Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley
Mongrel Media
12 October 2012 (CA)

Children watching reruns of Ramona (1988-89) and Road to Avonlea (1990-96) probably have no idea that the wide-eyed girl they’re watching would turn into one of the most fascinating contemporary actresses. Shying away from Hollywood productions – granted, she’s the best 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 that eventually got Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination) to instead work on a small production in Canada.

In 2007 she adapted Alice Munro’s story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, and turned it into Away From Her (2006), a wonderfully intimate drama about a woman’s battle with Alzheimer’s. The film earned many awards for Julie Christie and scored Polley her first Oscar nomination for her layered screenplay. She would then direct Take This Waltz (2011) a complex, tough romance starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. In addition to her film work, Polley is known for her activism and political awareness. She has also managed to maintain a low-key profile, and her personal life remains just that: private. Perhaps this is why her newest film feels like an even bolder move.

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

Stories We Tell is full of wonderful moments that show an entirely new side of Polley’s work. Even if she is barely in the documentary, we feel her presence and hear her voice as we sense her struggle between seeing her relatives as subjects and family. “You see what vicious director you are,” one of them tells her. Polley talks with PopMatters about her take on her many roles as an artist and her opinion of why “the truth” is so important in art.

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 a more special” baby for you?

I strangely feel a lot less attached to Stories We Tell 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 I’d want them to feel. Because I’m so close to the subject matter, it’s always a surprise and interesting for me to see how people perceived it and what questions they come out of the film with.

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

I definitely didn’t want Stories We Tell 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.

Stories We Tell 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 the concept of “the truth” is so important in films, especially nonfiction films?

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. 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 wanted Stories We Tell to honor the truth that exists in between all the different versions that people have of the same story.

While making Stories We tell, did any unexpected memories about your mom arise?

I can’t think of anything specific, but I learned a lot about her from getting to talk for so many hours to everyone she was close to. That was a huge privilege I don’t think many people who lose a parent young get to have those kinds of conversations, 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.

All the films you direct are centered around strong female characters with dark sides to them. 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?

I don’t think so, because 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, either. But certainly not being able to get her approval on the film was challenging to know what she would’ve thought or felt about it. That will always be a question that I’ll have.

At any point did you think of not releasing Stories We Tell?

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.

Your films are also about marriages in crisis. Besides your own experience growing up, is there anything else drawing you to these stories?

I do think that’s probably because of my parents, and that’s always been subconscious. Clearly, I’ve 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 if that was me poking around this story in several ways.

One of my favorite things about Stories We Tell is 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?

I think there was a moment in the editing room when 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 intersperse the cards in a linear way. And then I remember there was 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.

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. Then it felt like this flow of the storytelling would give the audience a sense that was similar to mine. You know that feeling when you hit bottom, and a trap door opens, then you hit bottom again, and another trap door opens? You never really got solid ground under your feet, because the amount that you can learn about something and its context is infinite.

Which of the directors you’ve worked with are your mentors?
Certainly Wim Wenders and Atom Egoyan are people that I turn to again and again for advice and guidance on everything I do.

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

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

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

When I watched these reenactments, great British dramas starring Glenda Jackson came to mind.

That’s funny!

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

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. I didn’t want us to have answers to arrive at, because that would’ve felt false.

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

Alias Grace was the first film I wanted to make when I was eighteen years old. I was chasing the rights for many years, and I just got them a few years ago.

Your films 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. Take This Waltz has a very retro feeling. In a way, it feels as if the whole story is about someone remembering the love story in Take This Waltz.

That’s interesting, and yeah, I definitely wanted there to be a feeling of nostalgia and surreal quality. Like the vibrance when you first fall in love – the world becomes more alive and filled with color.

What other films helped inspire Stories We Tell?

I watched every personal documentary I could get my hands on. 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. They show a way of looking at something real and being playful with it and theatrical.

Do you have any plans to go back to any big Hollywood productions?

I don’t think so. It’s not on my agenda. For now, I’m very happy writing.

How do you feel about how small, independent films are distributed?

It’s hard to compete with hundred million dollar market budgets. It’s inevitable if everything’s going to be at the whim of the market, that 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 people to have many choices. That’s ironic because filmmaking and film watching are supposed to be about choices. The biggest and the mightiest usually win, and that’s not the best scenario. There will always be a struggle.

The release of Stories We Tell was pushed to release quickly in the States so that it could be in contention for awards next year. What are your feelings about that?

(Laughs) I don’t have any expectations because whenever you have expectations for those kinds of things, they’re generally thwarted. I’m just excited the film’s getting released. I wasn’t sure anyone would want to see Stories We Tell. 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 film, too.