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Sundance Interview: Director Sarah Polley of 'Stories We Tell'

Actress. Writer. Director. Activist. Zombie-Slayer.

By James Rocchi Jan 28, 2013 3:51PM

In her documentary "Stories We Tell," actress-turned-director Sarah Polley moves away from fictional entertainments like her award-winning "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz" to tell the true story of her family's strangest secret. Specifically, "Stories We Tell" is the tale of how Polley learned her actual father was not her biological father -- and how Polley had to decide how to break that news to her father when the Canadian news media were ready to break the story. Combining images and film of the past with present-day interviews, "Stories We Tell" has already received raves on the film festival circuit; it'll be released in America by Roadside Pictures later this year. We spoke with Polley in Park City about fact, fiction, family and her past as a slayer of the undead.  

MSN Movies:  It's interesting, because a lot of the documentaries that one sees at Sundance about incredibly personal issues ... they can be dour, they can be sour, they can dark, they can be explorations of crisis. And while this deals with heavy material, it's not that all. And I'm wondering if that was never an option because that wasn't the movie you want to make, or I wondering if was never an option because that's just not you?


Sarah Polley: I'm really glad to hear that. It's funny, 'cause I always feel like when I'm making a film that there are lots moments that are really funny, but no one ever agrees with me ... except this film. And it's really funny 'cause it felt like in "Away From Her" and "Take This Waltz" there were a lot of funny moments, but nobody laughed. So it was just like me alone thinking things were funny. And I feel like with this film, it's really nice to hear audiences laugh, and it just took me making a film about my own life and my family to finally realize people found there was some humor in it, which was a real relief.


But in "Take This Waltz" there's Seth Rogen's perpetual chicken obsession, and in "Away From Her" there's that brief moment where Miss Christie is messing with Mr. Pinsent ...


Oh, that's good.


But did you feel like if you didn't have some light at the end of this tunnel you'd never get through it in a way?


BING: 'Take This Waltz' l 'Away from Her' 

Absolutely. And also I think my family has a very dark sense of humor, and there are no sacred cows, and we laugh at everything you shouldn’t laugh at, and the more painful the more laughter there is. And I think that's a way of coping, and it's also a a way of being in the world. So I think if I was going to make a film about my family it had to include moments of levity and of laughing at the predicaments, really.


I’m also really curious about the degree of ramp-up you have for something like this. Where do you go from talking to your family about "I want to make a film about our story" to then putting people on camera?


First of all, I was really astonished how easily everybody agreed to be in the film. I thought there'd be a lot more trepidation.  I certainly didn't think everybody would agree, and they did. And then you find yourself in this strange position of interviewing your family about these deeply personal and sometimes very painful things. And my job was to be the filmmaker in that sort of experience, not their sister. So that was a sort of strange moment to sit and not interject. And that also went for the moments where I'm asking (them) to describe a history -- sometimes it's shared history, moments we've shared together, and they're telling their version of it which maybe isn’t actually my version at all. Maybe I don’t agree with it. Maybe they're saying details and facts that I don’t. And it's actually your job to keep your mouth shut and just listen and keep investigating and keep asking bound questions. And that was a really interesting experience. It's sort of the opposite of most experiences you have in life where we do come forward with what our versions are of someone's experiences and I felt like it was kind of a healthy thing to just shut up and listen to people who are closest to you for five and sometimes ten hours or three days at a time.


I mean, but you were saying that you're sitting with her saying, "I'm a filmmaker. I'm not a family member." I can tell my sister to treat me like a grown up; she'd still scuff my hair and call me Jamie. I mean, did you have to sort of work through that with the family members?


Yeah, I mean I think that it was more just exciting to not play whatever role you've always played in your family. I mean we all play these bizarre roles in our families that we can't seem to get free of even if we're someone totally different in the outside world. And I just felt like it was kind of an opportunity to not be the person who is like, "No, no, no that's not what happened" or sort of interject with my own stuff. That was kind of great to just be an observer amongst the people I'm closest to.


The film revolves around the fact that at a certain point in your life you'd found out that you were not your father's biological daughter.  Is it better to even try to control stuff like that when it gets out? First of all, any interest in an actor's private life is too vulgar. But is it in your best interest to try and control stuff like that when it comes out? I mean, you endeavored to do that.


Yeah, I did. I think the thing was there were so many stories in this story and so many versions, and in fact there's so many people, and it just felt so wrong to me that this story would be only one person's, whether that be mine or Harry's or my dad's or my siblings. It felt like the only story that felt ethically okay to me to put out to the world is one that included all of us and included the mess of it. So I was just disturbed by the idea that one version of this story would be told exclusively, and I think that was a lot of the motivation for me to make this film. But what was amazing about it was the generosity and decency of the press in Canada, right? So many people played a part in keeping this story secret. Like, so many people knew it and decided not to print it so that I could tell it myself or keep it to myself. That was an amazing experience too because it was a lot of people I didn’t necessarily, I don't know, I wouldn’t have expected that I could have that kind of faith in people. So it kind of made me less cynical.


I mean, I don't know who Cary Grant was married to, and I kind of don’t need to to enjoy "The Philadelphia Story." Is that the fact that we're now up in everybody's business ... is it a democratization of privilege or is it just a sort of broad, wideband broadcast of banality now?


Yeah. I mean I think things kind of lose their impact in a way, and I do think that yeah ... I don’t care what's going on in everybody's personal lives at all, and I don’t care about what's going on in politicians' personal lives either. I sort of feel like it's besides the point. We can even really understand even what those things mean or what the impact of those things are anyway from hearing about them on the surface. It doesn’t actually tell us anything about the person to hear the facts.


And also, I mean George Clooney doesn’t express a concern in my dating life and I extend him the same courtesy.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughs)


Is directing a great way to find material you'd most like to be involved with? I mean as an actress you're subject very much so more so to the invisible hand whims of the intellectual marketplace in filmmaking. Note my air quotes around "intellectual."




Is it the best way to make sure you can have a project you'll be proud of at the end of the day writing and directing it?


I don’t know about proud of, but at least you can own the failures a little more, right? Like, it's kind of nice to know that if you fail or if you succeed with something as a filmmaker, you know whatever you make, especially ... I feel like in the environment making of film in Canada where you do have creative control and you're working with public money it's your film. It's like it's your disaster; it's your triumph. It's nobody else's. You can't spend your life blaming other people, and there's something nice about that. But I also really love as a actor being a part of another director's vision. Like, I love that sense of being a tool for somebody to say something or create something. And just that sense of just surrendering yourself to somebody else's vision, like I really love that experience, too.


Is the lack of acting jobs lately just a function of what's been going on in your life or is it just...


It's just the time making films takes, and I think writing-directing is always going to be a priority. And I just end up having absolutely no time to think about acting. So I can see doing it maybe at some point again, but it's just because it's not very strongly on my radar I think it will be awhile. I'm going to do a part in a Wim Wenders film this year. But generally yeah, I'm always thinking about what my next film will be, and I want to write stuff that's not film-related as well. I'm trying to break into some fiction.


Not to wax your car, but you're great in "Dawn of the Dead."


Oh,  thank you!


Is that your biggest, unsolicited, public moment of recognition?


(Laughs) That's amazing. That's so funny.


Is that the number one thing people say to you? Is it that, or is it "Road to Avonlea."  


That's a good question. I'm still more famous for running around in like a frilly dress than I am shooting zombies, much to my regret ...


Then shooting Ty Burrell in the head.


That was awesome. That was really fun.


Do you ever stumble across that on TV? Can you even watch it, or do you just feel winded all of a sudden?


I haven’t in a really long time, but my nephew who's five the other day was like, "Auntie Sarah, you can kill zombies." And all of a sudden I realized he really looked up to me in a way he hadn't before because I know how to kill zombies.


You also realized that maybe his parents weren't reading the DVD back?


Can you believe they let him watch it? He was like, "It was scary," and I was like, "Yeah. I know it's scary. Why were you watching it?"


I'm ten times that kid's age, and it terrifies me.


I know. Isn't that ridiculous?


But I mean, is that the kind of thing that you would like to do is more intelligent, good, solid mainstream stuff? Or does that just not exist anymore.


I don’t really have like a criteria. I'm certainly not like a film snob.  I will see a lot of independent films and dark films and small films. And I will sometimes just absolutely not be in the mood for that and want something that's really entertaining and really easy. And I don’t even necessarily like care if it's good or not. Like I'm absolutely like I'm a very happy moviegoer. I'm a very easy audience in a way so yeah. I mean I sort of just feel like I want to work on stuff I would want to go and see, and that really varies.


'Cause there are good, great, big movies, right?


Yeah, absolutely.


There's a difference between "Aliens" and "Transformers 2."


Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And also it's so fun working on movies like that. Nobody cares about anything 'cause like no one ever runs out of money. They just get more. It's just hilarious. Like everyone's in a good mood all the time. (Laughs)


Just hurl cash at the problems. Just bury it under Ben Frankins. "Take This Waltz," there was a great essay about a year or two years ago from Carina Chocano in the New York Times magazine about how people always say we need strong female characters. And the writer's thesis was that the best way to write strong female characters is to write real female characters. Fallible, flawed, people of mistakes.


But people weren't ready for that yet.


Did you feel like "Take This Waltz" got beaten up a little bit specifically because of that, because people couldn't distinguish their dislike of Miss William's character from their dislike of the film?


That's really interesting. I do think they have a much harder time with flawed female characters than we do male characters. And the example I use is in "Take This Waltz"  ... Michelle William's character, while she does a lot of things and has a lot of attractions with Luke Kirby's character that would absolutely be hurtful to Seth Rogen's character, doesn't actually sleep with him until she's left him. Don Draper,  in "Mad Men" was sleeping with somebody every week other than his wife. Everybody loves Don Draper, you know. Don Draper is the best, but Michelle Williams was like to some people, not all, but some people really thought she was like satanic for having sexual feelings for another man, which I found fascinating.


To be fair though, Don Draper does look good in a suit while chain-smoking.


He does. And that I think is the difference.


Yeah. If you could just get Michelle Williams in a suit, chain-smoking...


Maybe that was the problem with the movie. A few problems with that movie, I realized that was the main one.


(Laughs). The idea that Michelle Williams running around like Madonna in the "Vogue" video would have changed everything.


The weird thing about that movie was I felt like people were as irrationally defensive of her as they were antagonistic towards her. Like that's what I found weird, is that people sort of approached defending what that character did with the same kind of crazy certainty as they did sort of going after her in this moralistic way of what she should and shouldn't do in a marriage. When I wrote the character I actually wrote quite judgmentally, and then I think I kind of eased off a little bit on her and saw things I liked in her. I think Michelle brought a lot to the character, but it was interesting how people felt like they either had to love her or hate her as opposed to just kind of go maybe she's kind of a mess and there's things that are nice about her and things that are sort of messed up about her like a person.


You mean like an actual person, God forbid?


Yeah let's not go that far, but closely.


How great does it feel to have the film out there? I mean it's played extraordinarily well in Canada, and you're sort of waiting for the U.S. release. Do you feel like it won't just be home town pride that explains how well it's done in Canada? Like it's more a response to the nature and character and warmth of humanity in the film? Do you have any hopes for the U.S. release?


(Laughs). What's been really awesome about the world of film is we went to Venice first and then Telluride then Toronto. That was very, very specific about choice because we wanted to make sure that the film was being judged on its own merit and not just because people were really nice to me in Toronto.


Canada's favorite daughter.


(Laughs) So that was kind of good to get a gauge of whether the film was actually resonating elsewhere and Roadside picked it up for distribution ... So yeah, it's exciting. It's really fun playing it for an American audience. I always find it so interesting the way the films play culturally, like "Take This Waltz" as an example, a film like it couldn’t have been more different (in terms of) the reception in Canada and the reception in the States. And it's like I don’t think of us as being that far apart culturally in terms of how we respond to movies, but it was like amazing to me that in Canada the reviews were much harder on "Take This Waltz" than they were in the States. It was like really fascinating.


What? Because you didn't represent (Toronto neighborhood) Parkdale well enough?




No one's going to get that.


The only thing Americans took issue with was like, "They could never afford that place in downtown Toronto." Like, I bought it five years ago. I totally could.


Clearly William Shatner is the greatest living Canadian, but who is your entry for number two?


Who's doing great stuff right now? Okay, you know who I'm going to say? I'm going to say Michael Stadtlander, who's the chef that led the fight against the MegaQuarry and won.


The Mega...


Mega Quarry. They were going to take this giant, giant, thousands and thousands of acres of land in Ontario to make the biggest MegaQuarry, and it was just going to destroy basically the water table and all of the farmland. It was like an environmental disaster. Michael Stadtlander, like the greatest chef in Canada, had this dream that sounded totally nuts that was getting together all of the chefs in Canada to fight the MegaQuarry. It worked.


And he assembled this kind of Justice League of Cooks.


Totally nuts. He won. The MegaQuarry's dead. It was like this huge grassroots movement, and it was like spearheaded by these cooks, brilliant chefs. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen. He is like a visionary. He's like an artist in terms of what he does. He organized the most incredible movement I've ever seen.  ...

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