I'm madly in love with the Sarah Polley's talent; there's now getting around it. The last two films she has written and directed, AWAY FROM HER and TAKE THIS WALTZ, as well as the dozens of films and television shows (mostly Canadian) in which she's acted, and you get the sense of a complete, full-realized artist at her prime. And I thought that before I saw her latest film, the documentary STORIES WE TELL. The themes of memory and storytelling and truth that are contained in this modest work could fill volumes, but essentially Polley has taken a "truth" in her family's history that has never been fully looked into, and she looks into it by interviewing every living member of her family, some family friends, and a few folks whom she has never met but play an integral part in this specific mystery.
This is a tough film to write about only because it's constructed as something of a mystery, but it's involves the true identity of Polley's father. Was it the man who raised her her entire life, or was it one of a couple possible men that her actress mother (who died when Polley was quite young) may have had an affair with when she was away from the family doing a play. The resulting film isn't just about this central question, but it's about the fascinating ways that families and all of us remember things about our past both accurately and completely wrong depending on the importance of events to our lives. Everyone Polley interviews has a different, sometimes radically different version of the same events, and it's incredible how she pieces together something close to the truth…maybe.
This is the third time I've interviewed Polley, and all three times it has been as a director--never as the accomplished actor that she has been since childhood, in everything from THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and THE SWEET HEREAFTER to GO, the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, EXISTENZ, THE CLAIM, and SPLICE. She's also an outspoken political advocate and a really personable interview subject. STORIES WE TELL is absolutely one of my favorite films of the year so far, and I can't wait for you to see it. It's out in limited release now, and is opening up into other major markets this weekend. Please enjoy my chat with Sarah Polley…
Sarah Polley: Hi, how are you doing? It’s nice to see you. Have we met before? Your name is familiar…
Capone: We’ve never met before, but we’ve talked a couple of times before, always as a director though, never as an actor.
SP: Oh, cool. Are you from Chicago originally?
Capone: I’m not from here, but I’ve lived here for about 25 years.
SP: Where were you from originally?
Capone: Around Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
SP: That’s so cool.
Capone: Obviously, every family has secrets, and even you are sort of protective of some secrets through part of this process. And you've been going and taking this to a few festivals, and journalists love nothing more than to just have that opening, like “Oh, now we're allowed to ask about your personal life.” Has that been kind of weird, exposing yourself and your family in that way?
SP: Yeah, and it’s a delicate balance, because there are things that I don’t necessarily want to talk about, and that’s why I chose not to put them in the film, but at the same time when you make a film about your life, you do open yourself up, and you can’t get too grumpy about it if people want to go further than what you’ve offered in the film. So I find it a delicate balance between having boundaries about what I want to talk about and not want to talk about, and also you can’t really make a decision to be precious at this point when you’ve opened yourself up so much. So, deciding what that line is that’s fair to me and the person interviewing me is kind of a moving target I find.
Capone: One of the funniest scenes is when one of your female siblings says something about the one strange upshot of this search that you're on was that all three of the women [Polley and her two sisters] got divorced. But for people who don’t know you that well, they're going to go, “Wait, she was married during part of this?” But that’s what I mean, it’s little details like that that are fun to discover, but at the same time you can say, “She left that out for a reason,” and you have to think about that. But it talks to the bigger theme of the film, which is that in the search for the truth you only have what people tell you, that once it’s happened, it’s gone; and the closest you can get is what people remember, which is not always accurate. Where did that structure come from? When did you realize you had a story that was so dependent on other people that you decided not just to tell the story, but make it about storytelling and memory and bad memory?
SP: I think that was the original genesis of the film. To be honest, I think when the events actually happened themselves, I wasn’t interested in making a film about it. Like of course you have people going, “This would make a great film. You should write this into a screenplay” or “You should make a documentary about it.” I was like “I’ve seen this movie a thousand times and I’ve read this book a thousand times, and I love this book and this movie, but it’s been made many times.” And this story, while it’s huge in your own life, it’s not actually the most original story in the world.
I think that it was like a year later that I started to think about it as a film, and it was precisely because everybody was telling the story to everybody, and it was mutating and changing. Because we were telling the story, the relationships within the story were actually changing, so the story was changing as a result of its being told. I got fascinated by how many versions there were of the same story and also how clearly there were huge diversions between those, but everyone was so committed to their version, including me.
So we would have these arguments about what really happened, and some of it was about what happened three weeks ago and I was like, “If the family can’t even agree on what happened three weeks ago, how do you go back in the past and decide what your parents were like, who they were, what happened?” These things, you realize, are totally ephemeral. So I think the reason I structured it in the way that I did, and the reason I made it about storytelling is that’s actually what made me think this would make an interesting film as opposed to, “Oh, this is just an interesting as it’s my own life.” I didn’t feel like that was enough to make a film about, and I didn’t particularly want to make a film about that. So I think I was really interested in that and then I think also in the year following this discovery, my dad just did so much writing about it, and I got really into his writing and I wanted to do something with it.
Capone: The film would not be what it is without his very personal narration, although it’s very clear to me that he’s detached from these events to a certain degree; he is so in love with the story itself that it’s like we almost forget that he's part of it. We just think, “He’s a great narrator. Wait, he’s talking about himself.”
SP:Yeah, and it’s partly the way my dad perceives the world, and I don’t know if it’s also a coping mechanism, or if it’s more complicated than that. I think that anything that’s ever happened to my dad that isn’t great, I think for him has just been an opportunity to tell a great story. It’s easy to see the world in a really optimistic light if everything that happens to you is just fodder for an interesting story later.
Capone: One of the funniest things about watching him record the narration is seeing and hearing your reactions, which I assume are the actual reactions. There are a few moments in his storytelling, either about him or about something he discovered, that for most people would probably be very painful. But the way you’ve edited it, we get your reaction to his reading what he's written. It’s one of the only times we see you in the movie, when we actually get your reaction, and we're having the same emotions that are clearly on your face. It did kind of break my heart a little bit that the people in the home-movie-looking footage were actors. I totally bought them as the real people.
SP: If it’s any consolation, 40 percent of it is real. They are really there, it’s just sometimes it’s not really them. [Laughs]
Capone: It certainly helps to fill in some of the gaps where you don’t have visuals. One of the things that I loved also is that you take an extraordinary and necessary amount of time giving voice to the one character in the film who doesn’t have her own voice, and that’s your mother. You really build up a profile of her using interviews. Tell me how you approached that, because she has to be a part of this story and not just other people talking about her. It has to be a really complete picture of her to get what her mindset was at the time, and I’m still not sure I understand it completely. What was your approach to finding out about her? What did you want to learn about her as you as an adult?
SP: I think that if you lose a parent young, you’re inevitably fascinated by who that person was, because you have a very strong sense of who they were and a feeling about who they were, but you don’t have the details. So I think since I was teenager, I’ve constantly been, whenever I ran into anyone who knew her, asking about her and wanting to know more about her. So, it was a great byproduct of making this film that I do feel like I have a much more complete picture of her than I did before. Of course, I’ll never have a complete picture of her, because she’s not here, and she’s not here to speak for herself either and everything I’m learning about her is filtered through her relationship with whoever I’m talking to, and it is totally subjective. But I did get more than I expected to, in terms of what kind of person she was.
Capone: The love affair that Harry [one of the men Polley's mother had an affair with] portrays, I almost got a sense that maybe that wasn’t as intense in both directions, that he might have glorified it over the years in his head, because you also make a very clear point of saying how when your father came to visit her when she was doing that play that it was more passionate than ever. Was that the vibe that you’re getting about Harry?
SP: I don’t know. To be honest with you, I feel very good about letting the film speak for itself, because people go away with totally different impressions of this. The truth is, and this is something I think I’ve only realized recently coming out of the fog of having made the film, when I watch the film, there are a lot of things about what I actually think happened that are not in the film [laughs].
My version, having talked to everybody, is different from what the film presents, but I want people to make up their own minds. I feel to impose what I think the truth was would really overshadow all of the other voices in the film simply because I’m the one who has made the film. I feel like there’s a real injustice in that, like if I was the one editing it and making it and deciding who to interview and how to construct it, then in a way, I didn’t get to also tell my version, otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of what I was trying to say in a strange way.
Capone: Do you regret not getting to tell what you believe is the true story, or do you think that’s the way it needs to be?
SP: No, I feel okay with it oddly. So I don’t. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut sometimes, like at Q&As. Do you know what I mean? Like certain Q&As where everybody speaks, and I’ve had Q&A’s where my whole family comes up with me, and they answer the questions, and I’m dying to correct people. But I think that’s part of the deal of making this film. That’s what I signed up for, basically I’m telling my story without my version of my story, and that’s a complicated thing to come to terms with. But I think I did that in the editing room, and now I’m weirdly oaky with it. Originally, the structure of the film was going to be this RASHOMAN version, where I was telling my version, Harry was telling his version, my dad was telling his version…
Capone: There’s still some of that there.
SP: It’s still there, but it’s all mixed up, and I left it mostly as other people speaking.
Capone: Minus your version, sure. But I think you’re still getting a lot of different versions, but it’s weird how a lot of them intersect and that helps grow the picture and the story a little bit. I love Harry’s little lecture that he gives you toward the end--when you’re trying to convince him not to publish something on his own and that you want to make this documentary--and he gives you this lecture that ends up being the thesis of the film: “All you’re going to get are these different stories.” I think it’s at that point that a lot of audience members are going to be made aware that that’s exactly what you’re doing.
SP: That’s really interesting.
Capone: His concern about what you're portraying is exactly what you’ve done.
SP: That's so interesting. I think that’s right.
Capone: "Truth doesn’t exist in this realm,” an actual pure truth.
Capone: How long ago did this actually happen?
SP: I was 27, so it’s seven years ago now, but I’ve been making the film for five years. So I was making it when it was fresher, and now it's out in the world.
Capone: Most of the interviews with the family, how old are they?
SP: God, they’re probably like four or five years old, yeah.
Capone: It’s funny, you say that your version of these events aren’t all in the finished film, but in a way, making this film makes it easier to own this story.
SP: I don’t even know what I think anymore. It’s so weird, I was watching the film the other day and I had some vague recollection that a way that something’s presented in the film isn’t what I think happened, and it isn’t correct, but I couldn’t actually remember what the real version was anymore [laughs]. I think it’s like “Who frickin' knows?” I think now my sense of what happened is really informed by the film; I’ve lost touch with the original version myself in a strange way. Maybe that’s the point: it doesn’t really matter. The details somehow aren’t what’s important; it’s what you have going forward, how it makes you see the world, how you feel generally about life. Maybe the details or accuracy of who actually said what or did what isn’t totally important.
Capone: Do you think that this discovery and what followed changed you in a noticeable way? Did you become happier or more cynical? Or are you still processing?
SP: That’s a really good question. I feel like, certainly in terms of my family, there’s a estlessness that’s gone in me that probably used to be there. I feel like we all struggle with and rail against a little bit our families, even if you have a close family like mine, and they're basically really good relationships. You can struggle a lot and resist a lot things that are there, and I think that this really made me very grateful and happy and accepting of the family I had, including its faults.
I feel there’s a yearning or longing for things to be different all the time in life, and certainly in terms of my family that went away. I just feel very happy and grateful to have been raised by the people I was, and I saw my dad in a different light and I saw my siblings in a different light. I think just the whole experience was ultimately a really solidifying one for the family I was raised in.
Capone: It does seem that by the end that you and Michael are much closer, that this is something you were able to bond over, this secret.
SP: Well, we collaborated on something and that was amazing, right? Beyond just being astounded by the elegance of his response to this, which really took me by surprise, it gave us something to work on together, and I think for me too there’s that distance between--I don’t know if you feel this as a writer--what you love as a reader or as an audience and what you make or write yourself. At some point, you resign yourself to, “Okay, this is the kind of thing I make and this is the kind of thing I love, and there’s this huge gap between, and that’s just life.”
I feel like working with my dad helped me bridge that gap. I feel like his voice is the kind of voice I love in writing and in films, and I don’t have that voice myself, and so to be able to make a film where somebody else’s voice bridges that gap for me just once. Not that I think it’s a great film or a perfect film or even the kind of film I would love, but it allowed me to make a different kind of film than I could ever make on my own, and that was really thrilling, to make a film that was essentially mine, but in his voice. It was really exciting.
Capone: And technically, you got to put your mom in your movie too, so you got to work with both of them.
SP: That’s true, yeah, exactly.
Capone: I feel like if she were still alive, you would have probably worked with her at some point.
SP: I think so. My brother Johnny, who was her assistant, is my casting director, and so I assume I would have worked with my mom if she were still alive, and that’s certainly been a huge influence on me too.
Capone: One of the sweetest things about the movie is that these events inspired your father to write, which your mother had always wanted him to do. It took a while, but he finally sat down and wrote something so beautiful.
SP: There’s a weird irony to it all.
Capone: Do you know what you are going to do next? Are you still planning on making this Wim Wenders film [EVERY THING WILL BE FINE?
SP: Yeah, it’s still in the cards I think for the late summer, and I’m adapting ALIAS GRACE by Margaret Atwood.
Capone: To direct?
SP: To write and direct, yeah.
Capone: This just occurred to me: one interesting thing that Roger Ebert said about your work on AWAY FROM HER, about your directing was, “She bathes the film in the mercy of simple truth.” Based on our conversation, I think we know that such things don't often exist. When people were telling these stories, did you ever confront one of them and say, “Wow, you had it so wrong. Everybody else remembered it differently."?
SP: I didn’t. The great joy of making this film and interviewing people was like the necessity to keep my mouth shut, and you never get to do that in real life.
Capone: Was it hard?
SP: It was hard, but the best thing that ever happened to me. If you actually got the opportunity to sit with your family and ask them their version of things that happened to you in your childhood and couldn’t correct them, it would test every molecule in your being, but you would learn stuff. If you actually let them keep talking, you'd get their whole picture, and it’s totally nuts and crazy and amazing to have an entire story from someone else’s point of view that involves you, and you’d never get that in real life, because you’re too busy with your own version. So it was an amazing training exercise in being a human being to just listen and it's your job to listen and you'll ruin your own film if you talk. [Laughs] It was a really great experience.
Capone: It’s a great exercise in restraint, that’s for sure.
SP: It was. It was really hard.
Capone: All right, it was great to finally meet you.