An Interview with Sarah Polley

An Affair to Remember: An Interview with Sarah Polley
By Michael Koresky

When discussing Sarah Polley’s film debut, Away from Her, writers can’t help but note her young age. Yet the 28-year-old Canadian actress has been in the film business so long, and has made so many admirable career choices along the way, that her wisdom and professionalism can’t help but seem a given at this point. From her big-screen debut as a sad-eyed tyke who yearns for a bike in the holiday creep-out One Magic Christmas (1985), which Disney imported from Canada, through her title-role stint on the PBS Ramona series, adapted from the popular children’s books by Beverly Cleary, and to her adorable sidekick work in Terry Gilliam’s underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), Polley proved herself a skilled comic child performer—which is why her late-teens turn-around into mature young actor was such a refreshing, and uncommon, surprise.

Joining forces with Atom Egoyan, Polley stunned in Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), two roles that would come to define her second career. Now mysterious and dour, with pensive eyes that conveyed the pain of knowing too much too young, she brushed off the pixie dust of childhood acting to plumb darker material. Now, after a string of work with directors such as David Cronenberg, Hal Hartley, Wim Wenders, and Isabel Coixet, Polley proves herself as adept as those she admires with Away from Her, an elegant, emotionally inquisitive look at marriage, fidelity, time, and memory. With Julie Christie in the lead role, Away from Her will not beg for attention, yet it’s Polley’s empathy and curiosity that drives the film. Detailing how the long-married Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Christie) cope when it’s discovered that she has Alzheimer’s, the film, based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” is less interested in sickness than in notions of memory, personal and collective, and the almost metaphysical transference of love in the years when the body betrays the spirit.

REVERSE SHOT: I’d like to talk a bit about your approach to filmmaking, specifically in adapting this story to the screen. It seems to be about the spaces as much as the people.

SARAH POLLEY: When I first read Alice Munro’s story, I was really inspired by her description of the winter landscape. There was this great line in the story that I went back to again and again: “…the sun went down and left the sky pink over a countryside that seemed to be bound by waves of blue-edged ice.” And that image never left me. So for me the main visual component had to be what light looked like in the winter, what winter sunlight looked like reflected off of snow. And the retirement home was much like a place I had spent a lot of time with my grandmother in her last few years. I had toured a lot of these facilities in preparation for this film. And it was really strange because these places are made to seem cheery or bright, but it’s always just a little bit too much. There’s always that moment when you get a little too much natural light, and it becomes a bit oppressive. And then finding their home was really difficult. Originally I wanted a farm, as in the original story, but nothing seemed right. Eventually we found this cottage where this couple lived up north on a lake. This couple had this connection that Grant and Fiona do, in a way—they had been married for 44 years and really knew each other. The place resonated with the emotional story line of the film.

RS: There’s a sense of real familiarity with the lodge where they live, as opposed to the retirement home. On the second floor of the retirement home, there’s that room, which provides the climax of the film. It seemed very familiar, very warm.

SP: The second floor is the first time there’s warmth in the light; we were really conscious of making the light cool in every single shot until that moment. All of a sudden there’s a feeling of spring. And some kind of thaw. It’s their final reunion. I’m so glad you noticed that; it’s such a small detail that I forgot about since we made the film. That’s so funny, it was so important to us but we thought it wouldn’t be noticed. In these places, they go to a great effort to not be depressing. And whether that’s successful or not I don’t know. For me it was important to not be passing judgment on these places.

RS: Memory has many layers in your film. Not just personal but collective, almost like Resnais, yet domesticated. In adapting it, how much did you add about memory?

SP: The story is incredibly nuanced and layered, and in many ways it’s extremely faithful to the Alice Munro story. I did add a bit to broaden it and take it out of the context of just being personal, such as her relationship with the war and her remembering Vietnam. It was important for me to interject that, because I think these stories are only relevant if they have a broader connection to what’s going on in the world. Often films exist in a political vacuum.

RS: Julie Christie, of course, is iconic. She’s a smart casting choice, because as her character is slipping away, you feel like a family member or close friend is slipping away—we’ve grown so accustomed to her. It’s a powerful feeling. What was your working relationship like with her?

SP: Well, I met her about eight years ago on a Hal Hartley film called No Such Thing. And I was so completely captivated by her. She’s the most alive, vibrant, curious, engaged person. She’s one of those people who, no matter who she’s talking to, even if she knows ten times more about the subject, will always be asking the most questions. And really genuine. So she’s just a wonder to be around, especially at that time in my life. When I read the short story, I felt she was the only person who could play that ephemeral, witty, engaged, and then suddenly not-at-all-engaged person. It was hard to get her to do it; she doesn’t want to act much these days. But once she agreed, she was the most committed and hard-working person on the set. It was an amazing thing to make your first film with somebody like that, and to have them so open to you, wanting to be involved in your process. Any sort of intimidation I had going in she just wiped away. It was kind of fantastic.

RS: You utilized her mystery very well. As she’s descending into sickness, you never quite know if she’s playing: How much does she recognize? How much does she remember? The whole plot is predicated somehow on her sarcasm and irony.

SP: Yes, she’s genuinely mischievous. And that is almost dangerous sometimes. In the case of Julie’s character there’s this really interesting thing with Alzheimer’s in that you can have these extremely vivid, potent, emotional memories that aren’t necessarily connected to articulated facts or events. So she has these moments where she instinctually remembers how she feels about her husband, but doesn’t remember who he is. That’s a really confusing thing for dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer’s. Because they think they’ve come back to them, but they haven’t. That scene specifically where he first comes back to the retirement home, for me, was so cinematic in the short story, and I filmed it exactly as I read it—everything from the description of the light to the guy playing the piano note over and over.

RS: I really admired how you stayed so much outside of her character. So many films about mental deterioration or sickness, like A Beautiful Mind, try to use clichéd cinematic technique to get inside the mind of the character. It’s smart you stay with him instead.

SP: The story was from his point of view, and I feel that’s what really moved me about it. Alice Munro was so truthful about him but so compassionate as well. It was interesting for me to enter from a male perspective. I was most fascinated by seeing it through his eyes, this person who’s not perfect, not a perfect husband, and deeply flawed.

RS: Gordon Pinsent is wonderful, but American audiences aren’t familiar with him at all.

SP: No. He’s like an icon in Canada, though. But he hasn’t done much outside of Canada, other than The Shipping News. I grew up really admiring and loving him, and it was important to me that he play this part.

RS: He reminds me of Erland Josephson.

SP: What’s really, really hilarious is that Erland Josephson is basically my favorite actor and Scenes from a Marriage is my favorite film, and I had no sense that he looked anything like him or that the film was anything like Bergman’s film the entire time I was making it. It’s so interesting to me—the power of the unconscious. Even the decision for him to grow the beard…where do these things come from? I had no sense of it. And people are saying that. It’s great, but also creepy that I can act so blindly. Like you don’t know how or when you’re being influenced by things you’ve loved.

RS: Speaking of influences, you’ve worked with a number of great directors. Did you feel at all influenced by them, or were you more guided by your spiritual idols?

SP: I think I was influenced by people I worked with, but I’m not sure how, since it’s such an unconscious process. But of course Atom Egoyan is someone who’s been an influence on me and the reason I wanted to be actor, let alone make films. And my favorite filmmakers are Terrence Malick and Krzysztof Kieslowski and Ingmar Bergman; I don’t know how they influence, or if they’re anywhere in the work, but it must have influenced me somehow.

RS: I feel like you have a reputation of being very resolutely outside of Hollywood. And you’ve had experiences acting in Hollywood films, such as Dawn of the Dead But you’ve chosen to largely work outside of the system, both as an actress and in making this film. Is this an ethos you will continue to practice? Do you feel Hollywood’s not the place for you to express yourself artistically?

SP: I kind of go by how I go to see films. I see maybe one or two Hollywood films a year. And the majority of what I see are independent and foreign films. In terms of the films I work on, I want it to mirror that, the proportion that mainstream stuff has in my taste. So I’m not saying “never.” But it’s not very often either. I’m not against it, but I would rather not spend the majority of my time doing big-budget studio films. Away from Her is such a Canadian film, and I don’t think I could have possibly known how lucky I was making it to have had the kind of creative freedom I did. I had a lot of support, and no creative battles. I don’t think I know a single American filmmaker who’s had that when making their first film. I had final cut on my first film. It would be crazy to have made it any other way. Especially when you’re trying to find your own voice. You can’t do that when a film’s made by committee and you have people breathing down your neck. So it was an extremely idealized and also very sheltered way to make my first film. I’m not against making films outside of the Canadian system, but I’m going to have to learn a lot about working within it, because right now I don’t know anything about working in the “real world” [laughs]. It was so coddled and idyllic making the film in the Canadian system. I think it’s going to be a huge culture shock to make a film outside of it.

RS: Do you feel that’s indicative of the entire Canadian filmmaking system?

SP: I do, yeah. As much as they like to flirt with the idea of making commercial films, it’s like a cultural mandate, it’s about the artists, and it’s not yet totally driven by profit. And because nobody’s losing a lot of private money, you’re dealing with bureaucrats— they get creatively involved for sure, but there’s nothing prescriptive. You have to deal with them, but you don’t ever feel like you’re going to get kicked out of the editing room. It’s just never going to happen. At the same time, I like the idea of having different kinds of experiences, and learning who I am and grappling with that. I don’t want it to be all rosy all the time. But it’s certainly how I want to make the majority of my films.

RS: Have you thought about a follow-up yet?

SP: Yeah. I’m writing something now. It’s really early. It’s a love story also, but it’s the opposite of Away from Her in every possible way. It’s about people at the beginning of something; it’s not quite as composed or structured. It’s dealing with the same idea from the opposite viewpoint. It’s like the line at the end of Away from Her, “I think people are too demanding; they want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” This story is about someone who feels the opposite—that we should be in love every single day. It traces that argument, of constantly giving things up that have grown stale for something new and what that means. I’m trying to explore that side of the argument.