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