“She feels like prey. She lives in a completely predatory world. Her job is to not respond to endless amounts of harassment and violence.”
This is how writer and producer Sarah Polley describes the central character of the Netflix/CBC miniseries “Alias Grace.” This is also a statement that makes the based-on-real-events story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a 19th-century Canadian woman who spent years in prison after being convicted of murder, infinitely relatable to many women yesterday and today, but hopefully less so tomorrow.
“I think a lot of what [‘Alias Grace’] explores is what it meant to be a woman and how much it meant to be a young woman at that time, but also what it means to be a young woman at any time, when especially it’s exaggerated in Grace Marks’ case,” Polley told IndieWire. “I think a lot of women can relate to that, right now and at every period in history. I think that women have been in this position, no matter what field they’re in.”
Directed by Mary Harron, the six-part miniseries is a dense, fascinating, and smart adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel, which doesn’t flinch from the harshest aspects of the time period it depicts. Below, Polley, Harron, and Gadon tell IndieWire what went into the making of one of the year’s most feminist (and Canadian) dramas.
“A Call Out of the Blue”
Harron and Polley had known each other for years prior to teaming up for “Alias Grace,” but while they had talked about working together over the course of that time, Harron had no idea that Polley wanted her to direct the series until their mutual manager called her to say “‘Sarah Polley has six scripts she wants you to read.'”
Polley was pregnant at the time, which Harron had thought was the reason she didn’t want to direct the show herself. But according to Harron, Polley told her that she had decided, in the middle of writing the adaptation, that she wanted to find another director for it — specifically, Harron.
While Harron hadn’t read the book yet, she did find that the story resonated with her. “It seemed very up my alley, actually, even though I had nothing to do with the writing or development of the project,” she said. “It did actually feel like something I could’ve chosen for myself if I had read the novel. There were a lot of things that resonated with me. Women in a historical setting and the class struggle of it and the madness and the possible madness and the ambiguity of who’s telling the truth, these are all things I’m interested in.”
There are two things that the principal talent of “Alias Grace” has in common — one is that they’re by and large Canadian, from the source material to the majority of the cast. (Even Anna Paquin, who plays one of the victims at the center of the story, has both Canadian and New Zealand roots.)
Defining what it means to be a Canadian TV show, though, isn’t exactly easy. “I mean, obviously it deals with a very specific historical moment in Canadian history, so that makes it pretty Canadian,” Polley said.
However, Gadon felt that the fact that it was location-and-period-adjacent to one of Polley’s earliest and most iconic roles added a new dimension to the project. As a young actress, from 1990 to 1996 Polley starred in “Road to Avonlea,” a CBC drama that Gadon grew up watching and, in her words, “depicted a very idyllic version of what it was like to be a Victorian woman in Canada.”
Added Gadon, “Now she’s an adult, and she’s come full circle and made a show that is in direct contrast to that image of what it was like to be a Victorian woman. She talks about things that ‘Road to Avonlea’ would never have addressed, like the British Colonial class system, abortion, the marriage problem, all of these things. She was able to kind of put it on the same broadcaster, and that is like a real moment of growth and pride.”
That said, on a stylistic level, should it be considered Canadian? Polley wasn’t sure: “A lot of the people involved in it have been working in the States a lot as well. Someone like Mary, I don’t know if she would identify herself as solely a Canadian filmmaker.”
Nevertheless, Harron did connect with the material on a level relevant to her heritage as not just a Canadian, but a Canadian with Irish roots. “My dad’s family did come from Ireland on those terrible boats and all that… It was a real revelation to me about Canadian history, that it was such a harsh society,” she said.
Added Polley, “I think that we can sometimes be a bit colonized as a country, in terms of we’ve gone through periods in our history where we’ve desperately tried to make our film and our television look and feel like American television, as opposed to just finding our own voice.”
However, the hope is that the show’s deeply ingrained Canadian roots won’t keep it from reaching a universal audience. “I think when people see it in Canada, it will have a lot of resonance in that way, but I don’t think that will matter to anyone outside of Canada. They will simply see it as a story,” Harron said.
The “American Psycho” Connection
Polley said that “one of the things that drew me to Mary Harron as a filmmaker was that she is making films from a female point of view.”
But that doesn’t mean that Harron’s films are exclusively about women — take, for example, 2000’s “American Psycho,” her gloriously violent and sexual satire of 1980s New York. The two projects in some ways feel diametrically opposed, but many of the lessons that Harron learned directing the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation proved handy here.
For example, the show’s complicated approach to depicting Grace, an unreliable narrator who, as played by Gadon, is seen in many different lights (Gadon and Harron developed a shorthand on set, referring to different versions of the character as “Good Grace” and “Bad Grace”). Capturing that ambiguity, Harron said, meant shooting a number of different takes, and then playing with different versions in post-production.
“I learned a lot of this from ‘American Psycho,’ [specifically] the scenes between Christian Bale and Willem Dafoe, where I got Willem Dafoe to do the scenes three different ways: Do it as if you think he’s innocent, do it as if you think he’s guilty, do it as if you think you’re not sure,” Harron said. “And what I learned from doing that was that allows you in the editing room to take a very specific take and sometimes you mix the versions in the scene. I think with Willem I would take one bit where it seemed like he was suspicious and then one where he seems like trusting, all varying them so that it gives the scene this unstable quality. You’re not sure what’s happening or where he’s coming from.”
When working with Gadon in “Alias Grace” scenes where Grace is telling her story to Dr. Simon Jordon (Edward Holcroft), Harron said that “it was Grace who had to keep Edward off balance. So I wouldn’t tell Edward to play it a different way, I would just say, ‘Just react to her,’ whatever she’s doing. So it was Grace who was kind of driving it in that way.”
The Secret to Shooting a Quality Murder
“Alias Grace” only features a few violent acts, but they are so deeply integrated into the narrative that those two deaths prove unforgettable. When asked about her approach to crafting those scenes, Harron kept it relatively simple.
“A lot of it is build-up and a few clean graphic images,” she said. “I think of the murder in ‘American Psycho,’ the murder of Jared Leto. When you divide it up, there’s a lot of build-up. That’s one of the things that always works, like in that opening of ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ That’s kind of a masterpiece of build-up, where it’s so terrifying and you know that something bad is happening and he’s hiding something. And so if you know one thing, that something bad is coming, the conversation may be very everyday, but that makes it very tense. So you’re waiting and waiting.”
Working with Harron on those sequences, Gadon said, “was such an epic task for me. To play this character, there was so many layers and so much preparation that I had to do, and Mary was just completely unruffled by it. She was so pragmatic in her approach to her work — she was calm, and relentless, and demanding, but methodical. That’s who she is as a director, and when it comes to the portrayal of violence, I would say it’s the same thing.”
When it came to the actual filming, Harron said with a laugh that “Anna Paquin had to be strangled like 30 times. We had one day where we just had to do take after take of different versions.”
Fortunately, after seven seasons of shooting “True Blood,” Paquin is “a real trouper, because she’s used to being dragged along the floor,” Harron said. “She wanted to be thrown down the stairs, and we were like, ‘We are not throwing you down the stairs.’ But she was fantastic, actually.”
Added Harron, “In the kind of things I do, you don’t need a lot of violence, or rather you have none for a long time and suddenly a lot. Like in the axe murder, there’s blood spattering his face, or whatever. Less, and then let it rip. If you overuse your arsenal, you haven’t created tension.”
“She was just the perfect person to do this show,” said Gadon, “because she is somebody who could handle the violence and the poetry in the same breath.”
“The Anti-‘Downton Abbey'”
There have been plenty of period dramas set in the 1800s and early 1900s, but “Alias Grace” stands out as a project unafraid of darker subject matter. “I always felt like ‘Alias Grace’ was kind of a Victorian novel with all the censored bits put back in,” Harron said. “So you show someone having an abortion, you show somebody dying after an abortion, you show the effects of someone actually getting pregnant. In a real 19th century novel it would just be, ‘Oh and then she went away,’ or, ‘then she ran away,’ or, ‘then she drowned herself in the river.’ Why, you know?”
Thus, “Alias Grace” doesn’t flinch away from those elements. “Sarah Gadon always imitates me saying, ‘more blood, more blood!'” Harron laughed. “I said we were going to make this very graphic. Kind of rub people’s noses in it, because you don’t see that.”
One example Harron cited came from a show set several decades later, but still working under restrictive social conditions. “I like ‘Downton Abbey’ but it’s not realistic,” she said. “There’s one plotline where a servant girl gets pregnant and everyone’s very understanding about it. It’s like, ‘No!’ She’d be out the next day, on the street, and she’d die in a ditch, you know. Or, whatever, become a prostitute. Who knows what would happen to her, but nothing good would happen to her.”
So, Harron’s approach, beginning in pre-production, was to make “the anti-‘Downton Abbey,'” made possible by the depth of the material they were working with. “Margaret Atwood does such fantastic period research and she’s so authentic and she’s not at all sentimental,” she said.
“I think it’s really funny because our cinematographer’s saying was, ‘Everything sucked about 1840,'” Harron added. “Apart from the beautiful, unspoiled landscapes, just look at their lives. I hate housework — and just look at the amount of housework you had to do just to stay alive. Especially for the servant girls. That was one thing that the novel was great on that we did want to try and reflect, was just the dawn to dusk, nonstop labor. Just to keep your house running.”
A Story About Women, Made by Women
Beyond its deeply ingrained Canadian-ness, the cast and crew who made “Alias Grace” were also largely women. As Gadon said, “The way that it was made, how it was made, who was in charge, who had the decision-making power — I’ve never been a part of a project where at every point of collaboration there was a woman making the decision. From Margaret, the source material; Sarah, who wrote and produced it; Mary, who directed it…”
Gadon trailed off at that point. “I think that we have to hold on to these examples of female power and female expression in the most beautiful capacity. Especially when the news cycle is surrounding some of the darkest and hardest aspects of this industry,” she said. “But, it’s a spectrum, and this example does exist. And I feel very proud that I was able to be a part of this show because of that, or, if you will, in light of that.”
Polley noted that this wasn’t something she did deliberately in developing the project. “I didn’t make a decision that everybody in a leadership position on this show was going to be a woman,” she said. “It did work out that way and I’m glad it did, but it wasn’t a really conscious decision. It was more just like this is clearly the right filmmaker for this piece. And Noreen Helbourne, she just was so clearly the right producer. I’m sure their being female is what contributed to what made them right for this, but it wasn’t like a conscious decision. Although it was great to have that experience. I’ve never had that experience before.”
What does an all-female creative team make possible? Gadon mentioned the opening sequence of Episode 1, in which Grace stares at herself in the mirror. “Instead of it being this emblem of beauty or this moment of female vanity, Grace looks in the mirror, she acknowledges that motif, and then she takes on all the projections that people have projected on to her. And she sits comfortably in them, and it’s unsettling. And you don’t know who she is, and in that moment, I feel like Sarah and Mary invite you into what female subjectivity can really be,” she said.
“It’s directly subverting this very patriarchal image of a woman looking in a mirror, and so, those kinds of moments really excite me as just like a film fan, and a lover of images,” Gadon said. “I don’t think that it can be achieved any other way than with a female writer and a female director.”
In addition, Polley noted that based on her experiences on set, “especially when scenes are more sexualized, are handled more delicately by female filmmakers, and I’m sure there’s exceptions to this rule, but I think that you can kind of count on a certain amount of sensitivity as soon as you’re dealing with something that would be putting a woman in a vulnerable position or sexualized.”
As powerful and meaningful as it is for the creators of “Alias Grace” to all be women, Gadon wanted to make it clear that they shouldn’t “just be reduced to their gender.”
In her words, “Mary, and Sarah, and Noreen are some of the smartest, most talented people I’ve worked with period. I feel really excited by them, and their ability and their capacity for discourse.”
“Alias Grace” is streaming now on Netflix.