Halfway into Sarah Polley‘s genre-swapping documentary, “Stories We Tell,” the actor/director takes a break from shooting “Mr. Nobody” with Jared Leto to take a phone call. Still dressed in Neanderthal costume and make-up from the scene, she walks outside, sits on a bench, and reads an email on her Blackberry. Its contents are the makings of a news story — one that Polley had just intimately lived herself and one that comprises the focus of her stunning, humanistic look at family and memory.
The film begins as a tribute of sorts to Polley’s mother Diane, as Sarah interviews many of her family members, including her father Michael Polley (who provides narration) and other tertiary characters, about their remembrances of her. But as the storytellers’ accounts grow more candid yet contradictory, a greater question of narrative and subjective truth is revealed. It’s an astonishing piece of work, an exploration of family, fiction and curious binds that tie together siblings, parents and their children. (Read our review of the film right here).
We recently sat down with Polley to chat about assembling “Stories We Tell,” as well as her upcoming adaptation of Margaret Atwood‘s “Alias Grace,” while we tried to steer clear of heavy spoilers, the basic arc of the documentary is discussed.
From making the film and now doing the press rounds, do you feel like you’ve mastered the ins and outs of storytelling and narrative?
Oh, no, definitely not. I think if anything, I’m more confused than when I started. I guess what I’ve learned is, I feel a real story is lies somewhere between all the many different versions of it.
That’s a sentiment echoed in the Margaret Atwood quote from her book, “Alias Grace” that opens the film, saying it’s “only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.” That book carries a similar, “Rashomon”-type structure to “Stories We Tell.” Did one influence the other?
It’s funny — I actually hadn’t gotten the rights to the book when I put that quote in the film, but I had been thinking about wanting to adapt “Alias Grace” into a film for a very long time, since I was 18. I’ve been trying to get the rights for about 15 years, and I was no closer when I put that quote in the film to getting them. You don’t always consciously see the parallels in things you work on, and I think it’s only just recently that I’ve realized some. Obviously [‘Stories’] deals with the themes of going back over a series of events from different perspectives and trying to figure out what happened in the past, and wondering if that’s even possible to ascertain.
Are you keeping the same structure of Atwood’s novel [which flits from its main character to the detective Simon Jordan]?
It’s hard to say at this point, cause I’m in early stages of actually doing it. I’m not really sure. Who do you imagine as Simon, by the way? I’m curious.
Someone like Benedict Cumberbatch, personally.
[Laughs] That’s what a lot of people have said to me actually. That’s so funny.
Of course, if the question was reversed, that’s basically an offer.
I’m just trying to be open-minded. There’s somebody in my mind that I’m curious about, but I’m keeping it to myself right now.
You’ve expressed some hesitance over the term “documentary” because of the ethical judgment calls in how people are portrayed. Do you feel the same way about adaptation, if not about the characters then just the author’s intent?
Yeah, it’s hard, especially when you love a novel that much. The feeling of being unfaithful to it is a very difficult one, and just to adapt it into a screenplay does require some translations. It’s hard to know where your ethical lines are, in the same way that I think making a true story or one about people you know — just by telling a story, there has to some kind of construct around it. It’s not going to be completely objective — no matter what — and there’s a lot of ethical responsibility in terms of how you’re presenting people to the outside world. Because for a lot of people, that’s the only context in which they’ll know these people.
In “Stories We Tell,” you kind of leave out your point of view, putting everyone else’s account of this family event forward – at least until the end, when you reveal your contribution. If this story had happened to one of your siblings and they asked you to make the film, would you have still made it, or was a combination of both the story and your viewpoint?
I think the story in itself wasn’t the impetus to make the film — it didn’t feel like enough. It’s a good story for the people involved, but I didn’t think it would make a good film. The impetus was the storytelling around it: the fact that after it happened, in the year following these revelations coming out, we were all telling stories about it, to our friends, to each other.
Some of us were trying to do something creative with it — to write it, like Dad or Harry — and it was so interesting to see how the stories were beginning to diverge from each other, and how the story would get told back to me like a third, fourth-hand version of it. Someone would come up at a party and say, “Hey, I heard this story about you,” and then they would tell a story that would bear very little resemblance to what had happened to me, or was emphasizing totally different details. I became really interested in these bizarre, human urges to make a narrative out of a very confusing mess of details, and how deep that goes — like our need to create a narrative in order to make some sort of sense of life.
In the film, your father, Michael Polley, is a complex mix of contrasts — on one hand, he’s this convivial actor, but off-stage he’s a very shy, reserved individual. Did your involvement with him depend on which side of him showed up that day?
Both. We interviewed him over three or four days, so I think there were all aspects of my dad in various points of that interview. I think he came in with a certain story to tell, and a very clear idea of what he was going to say, and then the interview began to go a different way, and he started to say things he didn’t expect. There’s a moment in the film where I say, “I have to break you down more” and that came out of — I was getting a really interesting interview out of him, but it was very prepared in some way, and then he began to tell me this story — apropos of nothing — about when he used to interview people for the company he worked for, and that he had to find a way to completely throw them off to get to know who they really were.
It reminds me of Werner Herzog’s death row documentary, “Into The Abyss” where he interviewed a priest who gives last rites to the prisoners. Herzog changes the subject and begins talking to him simply about a squirrel, and somewhere in there, he hits a nerve that changes everything. Did you begin to spot those kinds of opportunities?
Well, I began to throw my dad curve-balls, because I asked him, “Are you telling me to do that with you in this interview,” and he said, “Yeah, in case I’m forgetting anything I want to tell you.” So I began to throw him questions again, and sure enough, a more emotional part of him began to appear. I felt sort of conflicted about doing it, but I felt like he not only gave me permission, but he also sort of requested that.
There’s a point in the documentary where you throw a final curve-ball [SPOILERS], with the “archival footage” towards the end. How did you approach the act of hoodwinking the audience a little bit?
It really wasn’t the intention to trick anybody — that’s what’s sort of bizarre about it. We worked our asses off to match our recreations as closely as we could to archival footage, and we hoped that every now and then people would have a question about whether it was archival or recreation. But I never thought that it would actually fool anybody for very long.
I was so surprised at the first few screenings; it took me a very long time to clue in what was going on, because people were asking me questions about when we decided to reveal recreations, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought it was obvious, but I think that we did work incredibly hard to make it match and seamless.
“The Five Obstructions” and “F is for Fake” were really big inspirations for me in terms of including the construction of the film — and the whole artifice and process of that — as part of a way to saying what the themes of the film were. [END SPOILERS]
You’ve let people in on this part of your family’s history, and also your own history. How do you feel about people then going back to your other films and looking at, for example, Michelle Williams’ character in “Take This Waltz,” and comparing it to your mother?
I think probably subconsciously there is some of my mother in there. It’s funny, at the time [of “Take This Waltz”], everyone was sure it was autobiographical, and it wasn’t and I was really emphatic about that. I wanted so badly to say, “Listen, if I do something autobiographical, you’re going to fucking know about it, it’s coming out in a few months, just hold your horses.” [laughs] I think subconsciously I must’ve been mining the territory of my mother, in ways that I didn’t really understand with that film, but it wasn’t a conscious thing.
It’s interesting too, because in both films you have a way of taking massive story beats and scenes, like Seth Rogen’s silent break-up in ‘Waltz,’ and rendering them as almost “anti-choices” — passing over them to get to the greater point.
I think so. Certainly with “Take This Waltz,” I felt like what was important and what was interesting was the aftermath of the big event, in the same way that in ‘Stories,’ the fact of my mother having an affair and the fact of me being someone else’s biological child isn’t the story — the story is the aftermath of what happened. And I think that’s generally what I’m more interested in as a human being: not what happens to people but how they react to it afterwards.
Has your perspective on film-making shifted greatly from these last two films, then?
I’m still so at the beginning of film-making, so I’m constantly learning. One of the things I’m really learning is to trust collaborators more — in each project it’s been letting other peoples’ voices come through in the film, and not just my own.
Do you see yourself in front of the camera in the future, or more in a directorial role?
I’m adapting “Alias Grace” but I’m also with my daughter now, so in a way until she’s older I’m probably not going to be in many films.
Speaking of acting though, “Mr. Nobody” is the backdrop of really the turning point of the film. I haven’t seen it — was the scene from “Stories We Tell” a recreation of the event as well?
No, that’s real, and actually, that photograph of me on the bench looking at my Blackberry is real too. That was a real moment, because the stills photographer found it so funny that I looked so serious on a Blackberry in that costume. So it was a picture of the actual moment, which is hilarious. It’s amazing to have it.
“Stories We Tell” opens in New York May 10th, before expanding to select cities on May 17th.