We have all come to love Sarah Polley as an actress in films such as The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, but in the past few years she has proven to be as big a talent behind the camera as she is in front of it. While many actors can have an awkward time going from acting in a movie to directing one, Polley made one of the most confident and assured feature-length directorial debuts with Away From Her, which earned its star Julie Christie an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Polley then went on to direct last year’s Take This Waltz which starred Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a married couple that wonders if they’re truly satisfied with the state of their relationship.
Polley’s latest film as a director is Stories We Tell, and it also marks the first documentary she has ever made. In the film she explores the life of her mother Diane who died from cancer several years ago, and she talks to various family members about their memories of her. As the documentary goes on, Polley ends up making some startling discoveries about her mother, her own family and even about her own existence.
We got to sit down and have a nice chat with Polley at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills recently. While there, she spoke about tackling a new genre as a director and of how Stories We Tell deals with the same themes her previous films dealt with.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: When you set out to make this documentary, what sort of value did you see in this project to get this narrative out there?
Sarah Polley: The story itself wasn’t enough for me to want to make a film about it. I remember thinking these events that happened in my own life were really impactful for me and the people in my life, but as a story or a film I felt like I had seen it many times. I think what was exciting for me to explore and maybe want to make a film about this was the fact that we were all telling stories about it.
We were all writing about it or talking about it, and the story was changing as it got told more and more. It was coming back to me third and fourth hand from friends of friends as a totally different story with sometimes inaccuracies but sometimes it was the same story, just a totally different emphasis placed on various parts of it based on what really resonated for people. So that became fascinating to me; why we tell stories, why we want to create a narrative arc out of these messy events in our lives and how that is sort of a basic human need.
We Got This Covered: What was most important for you to get right when it came to this story?
Sarah Polley: I wanted to make sure that nobody who participated in the film would feel really misrepresented. So even though nobody has their entire version in the film and nobody else has a film that they would’ve made, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t taking things too out of context in ways that were intentional. I mostly wanted to feel like everybody was heard to a certain extent.
We Got This Covered: It seems like it was one of Harry Gulkin’s big concerns in this documentary as well. When we see him onscreen, he says that this is his story and it’s going to be tough to write about Stories We Tell without giving too much away. Has Harry seen the movie and what were his thoughts on it?
Sarah Polley: Yeah and he’s been really supportive. It obviously isn’t the film he would’ve made and he’s pretty clear about that in the film, but I think his point is valid when he says “the part of the story that has to do with my relationship with your mother is really only mine to tell because she’s not allowed to tell it, and we’re the only two people there for it.”
In the film he actually is the only person who tells that part of the story and I think that his arguments for that are quite eloquent and helped me develop this whole other part of the film that’s kind of a critique of the film itself. I think he certainly has some reservations and some comments about the film, but he’s been very supportive and has come to premiere. Ultimately he gave us four days to be interviewed for a film he didn’t agree with, so I think that’s a pretty generous act in itself.
We Got This Covered: How did you feel about this film once it was completed? What did it do for you?
Sarah Polley: It was a really hard process to make it. I never felt completely at peace that I was making in the first place, and yet I felt compelled to keep going. It was an amazing collaboration especially with my director of photography Iris Ng and my editor Michael Munn and my producer Anita Lee. I had amazing people in all departments, but it was a really incredible thing to collaborate so closely with people and let people so far into the process of figuring out the film together. It’s a very interesting experience to get feedback from other people and see what completely different films they were seeing. There’s a few reveals in the film and people seem to get those reveals at totally different points, so it’s really interesting to watch how subjective the watching of the film is because it’s what I tried to make a film about; how we perceive the same story and how it means something different to each person.
For me, a really important part of the process was to include multiple perspectives and to not just make it one version or another. Whether everything in the film is fact, I don’t know. Nothing in the film is intentionally taken out of context, and I think that everybody that’s interviewed in the film is being truthful about their memories of events. Whether they are truthful memories of events or are actually fact, I have no idea. I don’t think anybody can know that about their own life.
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We Got This Covered: Movies that are categorized as documentaries kind of run the gamut of being matter of fact, education films on one hand and biased agenda type films on the other. As a filmmaker, did you want to have your opinions or theories or thoughts readily apparent, or did you want to be as impartial and transparent as you could be?
Sarah Polley: I saw my role in the film as the investigator and to be kind of with the audience discovering this and trying to capture it and to construct it out of everybody else’s versions.
We Got This Covered: You had said you weren’t really sure what you were going to do with this movie or if it would just be for you and your family. At what point did you realize that people needed to see this?
Sarah Polley: I definitely never had that moment and I still haven’t (laughs). I still have enormous ambiguity about it being out in the world. It’s a very, very strange process. What was hardest about making the film is it felt a bit like I was grappling in the dark. I didn’t feel like I had a model for what I was trying to do, and I think that’s also the thing that kept me going because I felt like I might never have the experience again of making something where I’m really trying to figure out how to do this and I don’t have something to look to.
It’s not that I wasn’t inspired by other films. There are a lot of films that inspired me and I don’t think I invented anything here, but I did feel like it was more original than what I had done before and I think that kept me going even though I felt the risks of exposing myself and exposing my family, which were terrifying to me. I think the fact that they were so supportive kept me going as well.
We Got This Covered: If you had told this story about someone else or another family, do you think audiences will still identify this as a Sarah Polley movie?
Sarah Polley: I’m not sure. I think it’s really hard for you to see your own voice as a filmmaker unless you’ve really consciously decided to construct a voice for yourself. I’m not trying to know what my voice is. I’ve only made three films, but they do deal with a lot of similar subject matter like issues of memory and truth and use of long relationships and marriages, and certainly I seem to be mining the same territory without knowing it over and over again.
We Got This Covered: It was said that you had shot the movie for several months and then you would edit it for several months and then you would shoot some more footage after that. Have you ever been on a project as an actor or as a director where that happened, and how did that help you on this film?
Sarah Polley: I haven’t been on a project like that before, and it was hugely helpful here. I think there’s so much more space for rigorous thought and to really make intelligent decisions based on what is happening as opposed to what you decided was going to happen. It is definitely the way I would make a documentary in the future because especially when you’re dealing with real people’s lives, I think it’s really important to have that space and time to think about what you’re doing before you go back at it.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Sarah for talking with us. Be sure to check out Stories We Tell, in theatres this Friday.Previous