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Sarah Polley hasn't stopped making films since her child acting days (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Avonlea), and her dedication has carried over to her work behind the lens. She's now a superior writer/director who was Oscar-nominated for her 2006 screenplay for Away from Her. The accolades shouldn't cease anytime soon. Not with the release of her latest film, Stories We Tell, which will surely be in the hunt next year for the Best Documentary Academy Award.
We were excited to sit down with Polley and discuss Stories We Tell, but we were also a bit intimidated. After all, the film is the story of her life. It's her passion project, a movie that took her five years to construct and complete. The result is astounding. Through interviews, found footage, and re-enactments, Polley and her family members tell the mystery of how they all discovered Sarah might not be a part of the family after all. Polley proves a master at building suspense and the film is riveting. We asked her about her techniques and inspirations, as well as the struggles she faced while making the movie.
The film reminded me of Rashomon and I wondered if you referred to film history when you were preparing to make the movie?
Rashomon was definitely in my mind when I set out to make the film. In fact, the original structure of the film was much more Rashomon-esque. It was going to be my dad's version, my version, and my biological father's version. It was going to be in three separate pieces and it was through the editing process we decided we were going to combine and intertwine it more. I also thought about films like F is for Fake by Orson Welles and certainly a huge influence was The Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier which is one of my all-time favorite films/documentaries. I loved the way Lars Von Trier was a character in that film without it seeming narcissistic.
I found the film played out like a thriller and I wondered if you could talk about the tone of the film and how you set yourself back to be objective.
I watched a ton of documentaries about people's families leading up to this and I saw some great ones, but what became clear to me was I didn't want to make a traditional personal documentary. It wasn't interesting to me to just tell the story of what happened in my life... What became really interesting was this idea of truth and the past and if we can ever know that. If we can ever get a grasp on what it was, how ephemeral memory is especially when you're looking at a family history and versions of the same truth are so subjective.
Did you think about crafting it like it was fiction?
I didn't consciously think of that, but because my
background is making fiction some of those structural elements were more naturally coming from fiction for me in terms of crafting this. I think playing with the idea of revelations was a big moment for us in editing. We had these index cards on a bulletin board, like a million of them, each moment in the film. I just remember one day putting something that should have happened before the beginning of the film—in terms of something that happened in my mother's past—and plunking it halfway or three quarters of the way through the film so that, all of a sudden, we would kind of think we knew who these people were in the context in which all these events were happening and then we would have something to totally shift our perspective on what we had just seen.
Can you also talk about the decision to have Michael narrate a lot of the film and also the decision to have him repeat the film's most powerful lines?
I think my dad's (Michael's) writing—what he wrote in the wake of finding out he wasn't my biological father— this amazing artistic stuff that was coming out of him. I think that was one of the major impetuses for wanting to make the film and how to put that writing out into the world. So we sort of took some of his writing and crafted it into a narration.
And in terms of making him repeat lines, there was a camera on me when he was recording this which I kind of forgot about because i thought there was no way in hell we were ever going to use any of the footage... we were just recording it to have it. It really was just me being a really ruthless director (laughs). It's embarrassing to say but I do make him repeat lines that must have been so hard for him to say in the first place, it's just totally inhuman. I think you just get into this bizarre director mode. I think this is the reason so many filmmakers are monsters. You just get into this mode where you're just so single-focused and wanting your film to be the best it can be that you lose sight of your humanity and I certainly had moments like that... And, of course, the temptation is to take that out because it doesn't make me look particularly like a nice person. Then I thought, "Well, that is the truth of the construction of this film." And the film is about storytelling so it should include the uglier parts of how somebody constructs a story.
Stories We Tell starts off with a quote from Alias Grace. Will that be your next project?
Yeah that's what i'm writing right now is the screenplay for Alias Grace and it's taking some time because I also have a young daughter so I'm not writing as much as I want to be or should be, but that will hopefully be the next film I make, yeah.
(See our full interview with Sarah below)