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Sarah Polley Talks The Complicated Characters Of 'Take This Waltz,' Magical Creatures & Memories Of "Video Killed The Radio Star"

by Katie Walsh
July 9, 2012 11:56 AM
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Sarah Polley

Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s sophomore directorial effort, “Take This Waltz” has captivated the Playlist staff-- whether we love it or find it frustrating, it's a unique film that stirs many reactions and it's that quality, in addition to some stunning cinematography and great performances that landed it on our Best Films of 2012... So Far list. It's a complicated piece that explores the consequences that come from the choices a person makes in life, and it’s a film that sticks with you in its humanistic realism and beauty. Polley has become a formidable filmmaker since breaking out as an actress, and her debut feature “Away From Her” garnered universal acclaim for its portrayal of losing love in the twilight of life. “Take This Waltz” transplants similar issues to the heady, hotheaded world of 20-somethings, and features bravura performances from the always great Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

We recently caught up with Polley on the phone to talk about “Take This Waltz” and “Away From Her.” Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Take This Waltz Seth Rogen
“Take This Waltz” and “Away From Her” are very much in relationship to each other, despite their aesthetic differences.
Both films feature strong-willed women caught between two men and attempting to find and assert their authentic selves, while their romantic relationships are drastically transitioning. Polley said about the two films that “even though they are so different in terms of tone, and in terms of the time of life they are dealing with, everything from the look to the season is diametrically opposed, I do feel like they are companion pieces to a certain extent, I do feel like they’re both talking about long-term relationships and loyalty and betrayal and what happens to love over time.”  

In fact, Polley found working with Julie Christie and Michelle Williams to be eerily similar.
Polley mentioned that Christie and Williams are both “magical creatures” and “were so similar in their processes, in being willing to go places and sometimes surprising themselves.” During the writing process, Polley often relied on understanding her actors to help shape the piece, and said that, “it wasn’t until I met Michelle that I really understood and liked the character. I was writing this as more of a morality tale, I was judging her as I was writing it.” Truthfully, Williams’ character Margot is often vexing in the film, but she brings a warmth and vulnerability to the character that makes her magnetic onscreen.

Take This Waltz Michelle Williams
Polley welcomes any reaction to the characters and the film, even if audiences do find it frustrating or complicated.
When asked about the reaction to the film, Polley feels “grateful” and also “understood as a filmmaker by both the praise and the criticism.” She said the characters in “Take This Waltz” are not heroes or villains, but “just very, very messy human beings kind of muddling their way through the most complicated thing you can muddle through, which is romantic love. I think it’s a bit of a disaster zone for all of us. I think we’re all at our best, and at our worst when we’re dealing with being in love or being in a long term relationship. We’re at our most embarrassing and ugly and interesting and dynamic. So I feel like any response to the film is really legitimate.”

Polley was working with cinematographer Luc Montpellier on the look of the film and the visual design even while she was still writing the script.
Polley started working on the cinematography with DP Luc Montpellier from the very beginning stages, saying “when I first had the idea for the film, I started to talk to him about it. The visual language was being discussed and created at the same time I was beginning to put words on the page.” Longtime collaborators Polley and Montpellier took "long walks in Toronto and taking photos and sending images back and forth... I wasn’t even close to being done with the script, so for me, feeling Toronto in the summer and feeling the heat and claustrophobia and that intense vivid color that the world has when you first fall in love, was really integral to the entire film.” Having one feature under her belt, Polley felt more confident in her skills as a visual director and combining the visual process (with the aid of Montpellier, designer Jessica Reed and production designer Matthew Davies) with the writing process was a big leap for her, as she said “for the first time, I was seeing images at the same time that I was writing the words and sometimes the images were coming before the words. That was my real handicap before with my short films and with ‘Away From Her,’ I was very cautious visually, I was very nervous coming into making films as an actor, moving the camera wasn’t what I felt most comfortable with and so I really wanted to challenge myself with this film and be bold and try and tell a story through images as much as through words.”

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  • Leovilch | July 10, 2012 5:51 PMReply

    oops - Margot not Maggie.

  • leovilch | July 10, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    The film is great and I loved it for all the reasons critics pick, but it also has a possible subplot that is a really interesting commentary on women and empowerment. The story could be read as a woman's struggle to learn how to make decisions. In a very old-school way, Michelle's character, Maggie, fits a 1950s profile of a philandering wife - enticed by the neighbour, she is drawn by pleasure toward betraying her husband, etc. What a femme noir! And, as in a 1950s film, she gets her due. The husband seems to be blameless in this tragedy, and we never really know the inner life of the man who plays bait. In that regard, this film stands among the truly great quality films of the femme noir genre, and Michelle Williams' play of Maggie is outstanding. But her journey can also be read in a more contemporary way as the challenges faced by a woman who has never really made her own decisions. Cut to the early scenes, post-airport, when she describes the anxiety she has about the space in between, and then follow her a she slowly enters that space and is drawn toward decision. She both triumphs in being able to arrive at a decision, and then stumbles over her choice. Would she/would we, wish she had never made a choice? Did she choose well the first time? All sorts of deeper questions are raised by focusing on the space between and the role it plays in her. What is the dizzying ride, for example, except a journey into and an escape from that space between? It is an excellent movie, and I am betting it will age well as we get to know it better. Congratulations to Sarah Polley.

  • Katie Walsh | July 11, 2012 12:54 AM

    Great points, Leovilch. I like to think of this as a kind of feminist film, as Margot begins to find her true self without using the men in her life to define her. I think this is particularly highlighted in how she ends up at the end of the film. Of course, it's not so straightfoward in it's message, and that's what makes it great, but I definitely think those are the main guiding issues behind it, about Margot being her own self and making her own decisions, consequences and all. I

  • The Playlist | July 10, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    Love this film, great piece.

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