INTERVIEW: Director Sarah Polley Talks Stories We Tell

By nicolas genin from Paris, France (Sarah Polley 66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Polley has been working consistently in film and television since she was a child, and what's most astounding about the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, who spends her days smoothly segueing back-and-forth between actor, writer, and director, is how much enthusiasm she continues to have for the industry as she seeks out new, innovative ways of telling stories.

That enthusiasm is ably reflected in her latest directorial endeavor, the appropriately-titled documentary Stories We Tell, in which she offers a peek into revelations from her own life, using those revelations to make some very piquant observations about human nature. The doc is built on a series of surprises that I won't dare to spoil here, but I will say you owe it to yourself to see it knowing as little ahead of time as possible.

I had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Polley recently, and we discussed the story behind Stories, what moves her to choose the projects she does, and more. Check out the full text of our chat below:

I wanted to talk a little bit about the arc of your career, because I see a lot of eclectic choices, both as an actor and a director, that reflect a certain maturity. I'm curious about what moves you in those particular directions. What moves you to choose the projects that you choose to act in, and what moves you as a director to choose the stories you want to tell?

Well, I’m not a hugely ambitious person so it means that I can make choices really according to what the project is. I don’t  generally have a kind of overall plan or overall strategy for a career. And it also means that – unless I can help it -- I like to not really work unless it's something that I really believe in, or am excited about, or I think will teach me something or  be a departure from something I've done before, so I guess as an actor, probably before I made films myself I’d mostly choose things according to the script and then I think as I started to make my own short films I realized the most important thing for me was to work with filmmakers I was interested in and excited about.

I don’t really have a lot of preciousness  about what genre I work in   I think generally I gravitate toward more  independent films because that’s probably what I go to see the most. But every now and then I'm really interested in seeing what the world of genre looks like and how people are working in such a different way, on a film like Dawn of the Dead or Splice, just to sort of see what that world looks like out of curiosity. And then, as a filmmaker I think that it’s a lot more obvious.

I have a lot of ideas all the time. The ones that you actually find yourself going through with, you're going through with because you can’t stop thinking about it and you get too excited and it gives you butterflies in your stomach. I think it's as instinctual as that but certainly with the films I’ve written and directed I think there are some common themes around issues of memory and storytelling and finding the truth in the past.

With Stories We Tell, my immediate emotional reaction was...I felt like I was being allowed behind the curtain, in a way. And it strikes me that for a lot of performers there’s this dichotomy between the private self and the public self.  The public self is what we project, whereas the private self we tend to keep hidden. I thought it was interesting that you as a filmmaker chose to take us behind that curtain. I was wondering if you could walk us through that a little bit. What led you to that point where you said this is story that I want to share, that I want people to know?   

I think when the events the film is based on happened in my life, I don’t think I was particularly interested in making a film about it. In fact, I know I wasn’t. I think what made me really excited about the idea of making a film was watching how we were all telling the story. Watching how I was telling the story, my father was telling the story, my biological father was telling the story, my siblings, I think that became a source of real fascination to me that we were all needing to create a narrative out of this mess and that our narratives were different from each other's, that there were different versions of the same events almost within minutes of somebody learning about the story they had slightly changed the story to suit their own purposes, and I got really interested in how we do that as human beings but also specifically within families. How so many of us will have completely different versions of our past and be so committed to those versions.

I would assume when you make the leap from being an actor to a director there is a new skill set that you have to internalize, and I would assume that going from narrative filmmaker to documentarian there's a whole new set of skills there. So what was the leap from first becoming a director to becoming a documentarian? What was that learning curve like?

I think they were similar in the sense that both transitions involved a terrible sinking realization that nothing I had done in the past was preparing me for what I was doing now. So I think when I first made my first short film, I assumed since I had been on set my entire life that I would know a lot or I would have just naturally, by osmosis, figured out how to make a film, and in fact I knew nothing  about the way a scene was covered. I knew nothing about  the way a film was cut. I think most of a filmmaker's job is basically invisible to actors if they're doing their job well, you kind of have your image of it ahead of time time, and you don’t bother them with those details. You're just sort of concentrating on them and their performances in front of them.

So, I feel like I had learned very little and I really had to start from scratch, and learned from a very, very basic point of view how to make a film. And then again moving into documentaries, I think it's so funny that it's so much easier for narrative filmmakers to get funding for documentaries and harder for documentary filmmakers to make the transition because I think it is so much harder to make a documentary than it is to make a fictional film. So, to have to learn that over again and kind of get accustomed to the idea of not being able to control everything. Things not going exactly the way that you imagined. Being able to follow stories or tangents that may not seem essential at first but then become more focal to the piece.

Going back to what we were talking about earlier: the decision to make this as a documentary. It feels to me like it robs you of that "cover" a little bit, so that was a choice that you made. You could have gone in the narrative route, but you chose this to be a documentary. What was the thinking behind that?

I never really considered it as a narrative feature because I felt like it would invariably be less complex, and what I loved about it was the kind of mess of it, and the complexity of all of these multiple perspectives and wondering what was real and wondering what wasn’t real. So I think that from the beginning I never conceived it as anything...there were moments when I had an even more complex idea where it was going to be like, “It's going to be a fictional film about making a documentary about my life.” (laughs) That’s getting too much. (laughs) But It was always in my head that this would be an experimental documentary.

Have you learned anything in terms of making documentaries that you can pay forward for your next narrative film?

I think that I got a lot better at admitting what I didn’t know, and also at kind of being present and discovering things in the moment, and trusting my collaborators in this documentary in a way that  I hadn’t before. I feel like that can only be a help when I make my next narrative, fictional film, to just let things happen a little bit more.

You’ve been directing for a little while now. Has that impacted the roles that you pick as an actor? Or do you just put them in separate boxes, like, this is my “actor” side, and this is my “director” side. Is there an overlap? Do you want to direct yourself? 

I don’t think so. I mean, I wouldn't rule it out in the future, but It’s something that in the past I've ruled out, and I'm not in a hurry to do. I really love making the film and being behind the camera and not having to think about being on camera and when I am in a film I like being able to just be a part of somebody else’s vision and find out what they want. So, I think it's hard, the idea of combining them, but I wouldn’t rule it out at some point.

And what do you have coming up, both as a filmmaker and  an actor?

I’m adapting Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, so I’m writing that. And as an actor I’m gonna be in a Wim Wenders film this summer.

What do you see next for the film? Where do you want to see it go next, Stories We Tell

I don’t know. I’m just excited that it’s kind of out in the world and getting some discussion about it, and people are responding to it.

The reaction has been really great. I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of days reading other peoples reactions, their interpretations. 

They're very different from each other. That’s what I'm finding most fascinating. People come out having seen totally different films. That’s kind of exciting to see what people saw, and they’re all, once again, everyone's so committed to what they think their version of what the film was or what we were trying to say.

It’s a great metaphor for, kind of, the Rashomon effect

Yeah.

*****

Stories We Tell is now playing in theaters, and was one of the most pleasant surprises I've had at the movies all year. Be sure to check it out.



                                                                Zaki Hasan
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Born and raised in Chicago -- with a decade-long detour in Saudi Arabia -- before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies, and co-founder of Mr. Boy Productions, an LA-based independent film and video company. A lifelong pop culture buff, Zaki has been a media scholar and critic for more than fifteen years. He is co-host of the MovieFilm Podcast, co-author of Quirk Books' Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture. Since 2004, his blog Zaki's Corner has been his one-stop forum for musings on news, media, politics, and pop culture. He was included in 2010's Top 35 Political Blogs by BestBloggers.org, and has been nominated for "Best Blog" and "Best Writer" in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by the Brass Crescent Awards, receiving an Honorable Mention for "Best Blog" in 2011.