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Filmmaker Sarah Polley Talks "Stories We Tell"

Actor and Oscar-nominated director Sarah Polley talks about her innovative new documentary about family, appropriately titled, "Stories We Tell."
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Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions

Sarah Polley may be recognized for her many roles in popcorn-friendly movies such as Go, Dawn of the Dead, and Splice. But as of late, she's been getting attention for her ability to make films that critics could sink their teeth into. She wrote and directed Take This Waltz starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen which received critical acclaim. Before that she was praised for her movie Away From Her, which was so riveting that she snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Now, Polley continues to prove herself as one of the best female auteurs of our time with Stories We Tell, a very personal film that flips the ordinary documentary on its head. Through home videos and candid interviews with her family members, Polley does two things: She tells a riveting story about her late mother and her family through unanswered questions that we can all relate to, and she shows us that different versions of a story can eventually lead to the truth. We had the chance to sit down with Polley and talk to her about how it was like to make a film that dissects her family life.


DivineCaroline: Why did you decide to share such a personal story?


SP: I think that the story itself wasn't what made me want to make a film. I think it was all the stories that came out of this story. The fact that so many people were telling different versions of the same story and the fact that we all seem to need to create a story out of these events to make sense of them, I think that was what drew me to make a film about it.


DC: With all the interviews you did, it seems like a labor intensive process. How long did the process take from initial idea to completion? And how did your family react when you said, "Hey guys, I want to do this?"


SP: I think it was about five years from the idea until the film was finished. It was a very long process with a lot of stops and starts. My family was strangely supportive from the very beginning. I'm sure people had reservations, which they told me about afterwards, but at the time everybody just kind of agreed to get on board, which was great.


DC: In terms of your filmmaking process, how do you know when to stop editing yourself?


SP: I think with this film it was just exhaustion. There’s just a moment where it's like, "We cannot edit anymore. I'm dying." I think there were a few times where I hit a wall, where I just had to walk away from the film. It happened during the edit [process] a few times. I think that once I was finished with this film I just wanted it to be done. It was a very hard film to make and it was kind of claustrophobic.


DC: Yeah, I would imagine.


SP: To even finish it was very difficult. I had no problem walking away from it when I felt we had gone as far as we could.


DC: When was the first time you watched the movie with an audience? Was your family there?


SP: Before we locked picture, I showed it to each of my family members alone, so that they could tell me honestly what they felt and they would have the opportunity to make any changes. Nobody asked for any specific changes, which was great. I showed it to groups of friends, but the first real audience I saw it with was at the Venice Film Festival and then at Toronto [International Film Festival].


DC: When you do see your own films or even just your own work, are you nervous?


SP: Yeah. It’s terrifying.


DC: Can you concentrate on what’s going on on the screen?


SP: It depends. As an actor I never care. I’m never worried about it. As a filmmaker, I think it's a terrifying experience and a really thrilling one to finally get to share something you've worked on in isolation for long. To see how it's actually playing to people who don't know anything about it.


DC: What time in your life did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker? Or an actor for that matter?


SP: When I was 20 I was attached to being in Almost Famous and I ended up dropping out and I didn't really know why, except that I thought I shouldn't be doing it. I think after that I just sat with things for a long time and realized what I want to do was make a short film. I didn't know about making films, but I knew that I wanted to make a short film. The process of doing that was really interesting because the film itself was really terrible, but I loved every second of the process. I feel this is a way of taking what I know, which is the environment of a film set, and using it as a way of writing my own stories.


DC: You have screened the movie in Italy, Canada, and America. Has the reaction to the movie been different in every country?


SP: It's been really interesting. I think the only really negative response was in Canada. There's just one critic in Canada, who unfortunately is a very important critic, who just hated it and wrote a deeply personal attack on it. It was really painful because he's one of my favorite critics. Other than that it's been really positive so I've been happy that hasn't really seemed to happen here or anywhere else. The Toronto critics were really supportive of it. I feel like it's had a much better response than I thought it was going to have. I sort of had written all the horrible reviews for it myself in my head. It was really grateful not to read them.


DC: How do you deal with that criticism? Do you just let negativity roll off your back?


SP: I think that you’re not human if that stuff doesn't penetrate a little bit and probably it's a good sign if it does. I think the truth is you can learn a lot from criticism and bad reviews. I think the important thing is to be able separate what's just kind of unproductive and hurtful from what’s actually useful and needs to be taken in. Not get too thick of skin that you can’t take in the stuff that cannot make you a better filmmaker, but have a thick enough skin that you’re not destroyed by every piece of criticism that comes your way.


DC: I like it when it’s constructive, but when someone just calls you names for the sake of names that's a different story—especially on the Internet.


SP: The Internet has made things so much grosser.


DC: Especially YouTube.


SP: Like the way people drive. Perfectly decent people will behave like complete megalomaniac lunatics in cars because they can hide and they can criticize [the drivers of the cars while] doing it. I think the Internet is the same way.


DC: What are you really into now? What was the last movie you watched or television show? Do you even have time to watch TV?


SP: I have a 15-month-old daughter right now. I haven't been to the theater in a really long time. The last one I think I saw was Searching For Sugar Man, which I loved.


DC: So you’re pretty exhausted.


SP: Yeah. It’s pretty hard to get time to watch movies.


DC: What do you think is the general state of movies and original storytelling? Many people out there are saying today's movies could be better. There are even more people saying TV is eclipsing movies because the storytelling is better. Do you think original storytelling is really difficult to come by in film?


SP: I don't know. I think it's hard to make original interesting films independently, without the formulas of Hollywood studios. I think that’s always a challenge. I don’t feel like films are getting worse. I do feel television's getting better and better to the point where much of the time I will choose to watch television instead of films, which I would never have said 10 years ago. I just think television’s getting so good. There’s room for films to be made that are not just centered towards the 18- to 25-year-old boys. You can actually make things for a mature audience and people looking for a different thing. Certainly in terms of female characters, there's much more room for interesting films to be made.


Stories We Tell opens in theaters May 17, 2013. Visit the official site for more about the movie and to watch the trailer.

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