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Interview: Sarah Polley Talks The Ethics Of 'Stories We Tell,' Adapting 'Alias Grace' & Revisiting 'Take This Waltz'

The Playlist By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist May 6, 2013 at 12:16PM

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.
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Polley Take This Waltz
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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell, Alias Grace, Sarah Polley


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