Sarah Polley has a knack for catching people off-guard.
After becoming a child TV star in her native Canada, she captured the attention of the rest of the world with her quietly powerful performance as a paralyzed girl in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Since then, she has gravitated toward directors with strong visions, including Michael Winterbottom (The Claim), Hal Hartley (No Such Thing) and Wim Wenders (Don’t Come Knocking). She has eschewed Hollywood in favor of Canada’s government-supported film industry, even backing out of the role of “Penny Lane” in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (the role later went to Kate Hudson, who earned an Oscar nomination) in order to star in a small Canadian project, John Greyson’s The Law of Enclosures.
Now, Polley has made her feature film debut as a writer-director and, true to form, her choice of subject matter is against the grain. Adapted from a short by Alice Munro (a fellow Canadian and one of Polley’s literary heroes) called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away from Her deals with a marriage in its fifth decade that is torn asunder by the cruel realities of Alzheimer’s. Grant (Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie, whom Polley befriended on the set of No Such Thing) have weathered the storm of his past infidelities and have slipped into a loving intimacy—until her disease starts to take over. Fiona insists on moving to an institution, where she forms a spousal bond with mute, wheelchair-bound resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy), breaking Grant’s heart. But when Aubrey’s departure from the facility sends Fiona into a deep depression, Grant embarks on a mission of devotion and self-sacrifice to convince Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), to reunite their spouses. It’s hardly standard fare for a 28-year-old first-timer, but Polley coaxes wonderfully nuanced performances from her cast and offers evocative images, like the couple cross-country skiing across a field of snow, creating a powerful film about the enduring bonds of love, even in the face of tragedy.
Shortly after the film’s U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Polley spoke to MM about the trials and joys of directing her first feature, what it was like editing a movie about marriage with her real-life husband, David Wharnsby, and the vitality of the Canadian film industry.
Daniel Nemet-Nejat (MM): The characters in this film are so much older than you. What was your connection to the story?
Sarah Polley (SP): I guess I was first and foremost really attracted to the love story. It felt like a kind of love and a moment in love that doesn’t get dealt with very often and seemed so much more profound to me than the beginning of love. But I guess I was just really drawn to this notion of memory and how it plays into a really long relationship.
MM: Alice Munro is sort of a hero of yours. Were you skittish about making changes to her story?
SP: I wasn’t skittish. Originally when I read the story, it was so obviously a film to me that it wasn’t a huge process to adapt it. There are certainly things that are added or subtracted, but for me I felt like it was actually a case where it made sense to be very faithful to the story.
MM: What about the story was so obviously cinematic to you?
SP: Everything. The characters were so finely nuanced and so beautifully drawn out. It’s also a very visual story. Her descriptions of them skiing as the sun goes down and then the winter light—there were so many vivid descriptions in there. One of the joys of making the film was taking these images that you’ve had in solitude as a reader of fiction and making them appear in front of you.
MM: Why did you decide to preserve the nonlinear structure of the story?
SP: The story did need a sense that it was going someplace. By continually flashing forward to Marian, I think it gives you the sense that something dramatic happens. In fact, fairly early on, you know that Grant is trying to bring Aubrey back to Meadow Lake. I felt like it would be interesting to make the tension of the film be: How can he get there emotionally?
He’s so far away from it when we first learn that information. How does it happen, as opposed to what happens, so that the tension of the film became about the emotional journey of how he got from A to B, as opposed to where B was.
I also felt like, for me, I really wanted the film to feel fractured, in the same way that her memory is. In a way, you’re sort of flashing back and forth in time in this sort of similar fractured sense that she is.
MM: Despite the tragic subject matter, there is an optimism to the film, in that it seems to be about devotion and marriage.
SP: I felt like it was interesting to make a film about devotion that is not the traditional family values way that we think about devotion. What does devotion actually look like after it’s been through a real marriage and a real life that’s full of failure and disappointment? There’s some intangible thread that remains and what does that look like?
When I first read the story, I was just at the beginning of the relationship that I’m still in with the man I ended up marrying. I think that story actually had a really big impact on me and the way that I viewed love. It really entered my subconscious and toyed around with it. I think it changed my idea of love from something that was about that initial obsession to being something that should kind of grow with your knowledge of a person and be there like a real self-awareness of really knowing somebody else’s faults and somehow living with them. Grant finally gets to be the husband that he didn’t get to be; it’s almost not important that she’s not aware of it. He finally gets to do that for himself, be that person and that devoted husband that he never really was.
MM: Given the subject matter, the film could easily have gone into soupy melodrama. How did you guard against that?
SP: I’m always really worried when I work with filmmakers as an actor and they start talking about the audience—like what the audience is going to do at this point and what the audience is going to feel at this point. I guess for me it was really important to not try to anticipate or control the audience. Just to make something as honest as possible in each moment and let the audience make of it what they’re going to and leave them alone. I felt like that tended to steer me away from trying to produce tears or get at people emotionally. With the premise of this film, it’s in danger of being mawkish in some way, so I felt like it was important not to be too manipulative.
MM: Were you intimidated directing actors like Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent?
SP: They were friends, so that helped a lot, and they were both really supportive and nurturing of me. But yeah, it was absolutely terrifying to direct them, because they’re people I’ve really looked up to and want to learn from and they’re icons and who am I to be directing them? It was intimidating, but they really welcomed me into their process in a very generous way.
MM: Did your experience as an actor make it easier to direct actors?
SP: It’s good in the sense that I’m really comfortable on a set and that’s an environment I know really well. But, being an actor, you don’t necessarily know anything about directing actors. I felt like I had to start from square one. Of course you’re kind of neurotic too as an actor, because you know what a tightrope directors walk when they’re talking to you. So I felt it was both an advantage and a disadvantage.
MM: Did you find each actor had a different process to which you had to adapt?
SP: Absolutely! I felt like that was part of my job, to learn each of their languages as best as I could in that short amount of time. They’re all totally different performers and they have completely different processes, so it was a matter of figuring out the best common language for all of them.
MM: How was Julie different from Gordon?
SP: Julie loves direction and wants a lot of it, which seemed so strange to me because she’s Julie Christie—and I felt so out of my depth directing her. She really wants you to be involved in her process and she’s really obsessed with finding out what the filmmaker wants for a scene or a moment or the entire thing, so that she can serve that. It’s kind of amazing as a first-time filmmaker to have somebody like that.
Gordon is a lot more instinctual in many ways. He’s an incredibly intelligent actor, but I think he lives much more in the moment and, in fact, he likes quite a bit less interference and operates better that way.
MM: Casting Michael Murphy as Aubrey was an interesting choice. He brings the history of all those charming rakes he played for Robert Altman to the part.
SP: I felt like that character needed to have a certain amount of gravity and charisma. In my mind it was almost the most challenging role in the film because he’s a central character, yet he doesn’t say a word.
I felt like it needed a really strong actor and someone who did have a kind of charm and real appeal to him.
MM: Atom Egoyan was an executive producer on the film. How involved was he?
SP: He was available whenever I needed him, but he didn’t impose himself in any way. If I was stuck, I would just call him and he would give me a really great anecdote that shed some light on the situation I was in. He read every draft of the script and saw every cut. He was so generous with his insight and yet gave the process enough space, which was great.
MM: How has he influenced you as a moviemaker?
SP: I didn’t think film was a very useful thing to do with your life until I worked with Atom. He was my original experience of really watching a filmmaker and respecting what they did.
MM: It must have been fascinating to edit a film about marriage with your husband.
SP: It was amazing, actually. I feel like we learned so much about each other. It felt like some kind of crash therapy course, where you edit this movie together about two fictional people in a marriage and have to work it out. (laughs)
MM: How much did the film change in the editing room?
SP: I worked so closely with David: He read every draft and we were kind of editing while I was writing. We walked through every shot in the film—he was so involved. There weren’t many huge changes in the editing room [because] he was sort of editing throughout. The only thing that really changed was some of the structural stuff—when the Marian scenes came in sort of shifted.
MM: Do you know what your next directing project is going to be?
SP: I’m just in the middle of writing my first draft, so I do know what it is, but I don’t really have a way of talking about it yet.
MM: Do you think having directed a feature film will change you as an actor?
SP: I think I learned a lot from these actors about how to commit and how to give of yourself in a way that I don’t think I understood before. They were so generous with me and my film and I feel like I would like to take that lesson and use it on somebody else’s project.
MM: Why have you been so committed to working in the Canadian film industry as opposed to Hollywood?
SP: I think there is more creative freedom for filmmakers [in Canada]. That affects me as an actor, too. When I sign on to a film, I’m signing on to a filmmaker’s vision of the film, not the studio’s vision or anybody else’s. I just want to know that it’s going to be the filmmaker’s film that I’m making. Of course, as a filmmaker, I feel like, in Canada, it’s a given that a first-time filmmaker always has final cut. Why would I choose to work anywhere else? MM