Sarah Polley talks about the artistic freedom that led to her brilliant new 'Stories We Tell'
An interview with one of the most exciting young filmmakers working
I tried to tread lightly in invoking "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen." Based on things I've read, I suspect it was not the greatest moment of Polley's life, and not something she likes revisiting in any great detail. Still, I would guess that being on a set that it so far out of control and so far over budget, where everyone is constantly battling for control, would leave an impact on who she eventually became as a filmmaker. "I think that's right, and I think I also saw the pitfalls of making films for too much money, and disastrous that can be and how out of control it can get. I think also having early experiences of seeing things that were made by committee and how bad they turned out, I learned early that I wanted to make sure to always work in an environment where I have total creative control and final cut and creative freedom."
As she spoke, she got more animated, passionate about this and confused by the system here and why anyone would put up with it. "I know it made me really sad to see that Zach Braff video on Kickstarter where he's like, 'If you crowdfund this, you will be able to see the film that I have final cut on, and I will have creative control.' And I just thought, 'For someone who has made a successful film, for that not to be a reality for him… like on their next film, they should obviously have creative control.' It's so horrifying, but I know that's the norm. Me, coming from Canada, I know this is like a utopian universe of filmmaking where the filmmaker always has creative control and final cut except in very few circumstances. You know, on my very first film, I had final cut. I would never work without it. And I was looking at that video and was just like, 'Oh, god, I just wouldn't make films if I didn't know I would have creative control. There's just no way I would take that risk of putting my heart and soul into something only to find that a financier has more say than I did. I do feel like I come from a really privileged world where I make films for, you know, not huge budgets, but we do have control over what the final product is."
I told her that my experience at the Toronto Film Festival has taught me there's a very real sense of community in Canadian film, and particularly in Toronto. "Yeah, I think that's a huge testament to the role that is played by the National Film Board. It is amazing not to have to worry about the business side of it. Once they've decided to make the film, they also fully finance it, and while I had creative control, I got a lot of input from them. And it was all feedback to be less formulaic and be more innovative and it was never pressure to be, you know, more obvious or more accessible or more box-office friendly. It was always, 'Okay, what are we doing here that is different from other films?' It's almost funny to have the pressure come from so the opposite direction."
I told her that the BFI recently instituted a more comprehensive program for film education in the UK, designed to show films, teach people how to watch them, and then also encourage them to make their own. It's being done because they're genuine worried that if they don't do it, there won't be any definitive English voice on the word cinema stage in the very near future. I told her how I feel like Toronto is one of those places that has a real sense of voice, and I asked if she'd been on the road with the movie, seeing it outside of Toronto. "Yeah, I think particularly with this film, we made a conscious choice to show it outside of Toronto first. We showed it at Venice and Telluride first. Part of that is because it's such a personal film and I know so many people in Toronto that I really just wanted it to be judged on its own merits so I could get a real sense of what people thought out in the world."
Taking a chance and mentioning it one last time, I told her that I'd shown "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" to my boys and they had both been very fond of it, and particularly Sally, because as Toshi described her, "She looks like she'd punch you and she's really funny." I know it was a tough film for her to make, with some tough memories, but there's a lot of magic in it, and she's a big part of why. When she believes in the Baron, so did my sons. Her work in that film is very special. "Thank you very much," she said, "and thank you for your support on both films. I read everything, and I was looking forward to this. You've written such lovely things about both of them."
As I told her, I see a lot of films every year, and the things that I feel strongly about, I make as much noise as I can. When Polley says that she felt like guys in particular didn't react well to "Take This Waltz," and that's why my review meant something to her, I'm glad she was able to read a piece that told her, "No, it communicates. It's in there. And it spoke to me." I think she has an amazing voice, and I wish her a dozen more movies to explore her ideas about love and life and family. Or two dozen. Or ten. As long as she makes them, I'm interested.
See "Stories We Tell," which is open now in limited release. It makes one hell of a double-feature with "Take This Waltz," which is still available on NetFlix Instant.