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Maya Forbes on How She Turned Childhood Memories into a Fictional Sundance Film

Maya Forbes on How She Turned Childhood Memories into a Fictional Sundance Film

It seems that I wrote the script for “Infinitely Polar Bear” over the course of 20 years. I started writing about my family when I was a daughter; I finished when I was a mother.

When I was ten years old, my mother moved to New York to get her MBA, in the hopes of creating more opportunities for herself and her daughters. She is from an educated middle-class family and always expected to have a career of her own. She left me and my sister in the care of our manic-depressive father and came back to Cambridge, where we lived, on the weekends. My parents were separated, but we still functioned as a family in many ways, spending holidays and vacations together.

My mother is black, but I look white. My father came from a wealthy New England family, but the money hadn’t trickled down and we were struggling. It was all pretty confusing. I tried to capture all these elements in a script over the years, but it was so complicated and I had to explain so much. The script was sluggish with explanations and justifications. The complicated emotional landscape was just not coming through.

My father died in 1998 and my own daughters never met him. I started telling them bedtime stories about him. Then I started telling them the bedtime stories that he had told me when I was little girl. These stories were very vivid. And I realized that the way into a semi-autobiographical tale is letting it live. Because it happened. Don’t justify endlessly: drop into it and go. Most importantly, tell the truth — about the anger, the ambivalence and the love.

The first version of the script that I was happy with, that felt like a movie, was finished back in April 2008. As soon as I was done, I realized that I could not hand it off to someone else. What if it wasn’t funny? What if it wasn’t warm? What if it was maudlin? The idea of directing it myself scared me. I had brought a lot of emotion to the writing and I wanted to translate that visually.

A few weeks later, I found myself alone in London for a reading of a TV pilot I had written. I hadn’t traveled by myself since the birth of my first daughter in 1999. Being away from the family was a big deal. I was a long way from California. I had one free day, and I ended up at the Tate Modern in a small theater watching the films of Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker. I don’t remember the name of the film I watched that day.

But they were domestic scenes shot on 16 mm: his children walking through the snow, morning light falling upon the uncleared kitchen table, a collapsing structure in the woods. I missed my family — those that were living and those that were dead — and I sat there in the dark, sobbing my eyes out at the beautiful everydayness of it. That conflation of his images with my own memories had a powerful effect on me.  I left that small theater understanding that what I wanted to capture was the beautiful everydayness of family life. I wanted to make something handmade and alive. I wanted to make a film full of feeling, that felt like a memory. I continued to wander through the museum, and I came upon a quotation by an artist named Asger Jorn who said: “Tension in a work of art is negative-positive; repulsive-attractive, ugly-beautiful. If one of these poles is removed, only boredom is left.”

My father was manic-depressive. A difficult person. He taught me a million things. My mother went away when I was 10. I was sad and I missed her. I’m very grateful for what she did. Negative-positive. I love them both very much. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

Maya Forbes was born and raised in Cambridge, MA. She attended Harvard University where she spent four years writing for The Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to write for film and television. She began her career on the HBO comedy, “The Larry Sanders Show,” and spent four years as a writer/producer on that groundbreaking show. She has since written numerous television episodes and feature films, Including “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Seeing Other People,” both of which she wrote with her husband, Wally Wolodarsky. Forbes also writes songs with her sister, China Forbes, who is the lead singer of the band Pink Martini. “Infinitely Polar Bear” is Forbes’ first film as writer and director. She was honored to be selected as one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2013. Sony Pictures Classics will release 
“Infinitely Polar Bear” on June 19, 2015.

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