Interview: Sarah Polley Finds Reasons Behind ‘Stories We Tell’

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CHICAGO – Sarah Polley’s brilliant “Stories We Tell” was the opening night film of the 2013 Chicago Critics Film Festival and the writer/director/actress sat down with to discuss the very personal documentary about her family history. It opens next Friday, May 17, 2013. Come back next week for a full review of the best film of the year to date.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How important are film festivals to a smaller movie like this one looking to get exposure and build buzz?

SARAH POLLEY: They’re everything to a movie like this. Without film festivals, a movie like this doesn’t ever find an audience. Hugely important not just as to getting a movie to an audience but the motivation to make films like this one. To be able to go to places where there’s communities of people that actually care about and talk about smaller films — it’s motivating. I don’t make films so they get released in theaters. I make films to have conversations at places like film festivals.

Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell
Photo credit: Joe Arce/Starstruck Foto

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: We just lost an inspiration in Roger Ebert, to whom the festival is dedicated. Did he have any direct influence on you?

POLLEY: Yeah. The first time that I ever even knew there was such a thing as a film critic is because he reviewed “Baron Munchausen” when I was eight. I remember my dad making this really big deal about Roger Ebert thinking I was good in a movie. That was my first sense of even there being such a thing as a film critic. Obviously, that was always the first person I would look for as an actor or for my own films — check in and see what he thought. Especially in the last five to ten years, I think he became one of the great writers. It went so far beyond film criticism and into something so sublime and otherworldly. And my dad became obsessed with him. He’s been a huge part of my creative life for sure. And I’m sure I’m not the only filmmaker who said that.

Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: One of the things I love about the movie is how it strips away the process of what it’s doing — the multiple takes of your dad reading his story as opposed to pure narration, for example. Why was that important to you? Why was revealing the process an important part of this film?

POLLEY: Because the film was so focused on storytelling and why we tell stories and how we construct stories, it was really important to me to be very transparent about the way that I was constructing the story. It felt like it would be very false to present anything as anything other than a really subjective construction of a version, which is what the whole film is.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you think the conversations in the film with your father and family are at least somewhat instantly different once there’s a camera in the room? Are things heightened, such as when your brother asks how he looks? Do you think we can ever fully capture what these exchanges would be like in real life in a movie?

POLLEY: I feel like generally not. With my family, after the number of hours we shot, we got pretty close. With Harry and my dad, we shot for four days. Four days straight. My siblings were all interviewed for seven to ten hours each. Yeah, hour one and two there’s an awareness and the camera is changing everything, but after a certain amount of time…It’s not like the camera stops influencing what’s happening but I think you get really close. It also helps that there’s a lack of inhibition in my family. (Laughs).

Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Seven to ten hours. Were you exploring new ideas all seven to ten hours or were you directing/writing? “No, that doesn’t work, let’s approach the issue from this angle”?

POLLEY: What I started with my dad’s interview. It took me weeks to watch it and I would stop and start it. Every time that there was a thread that I thought might be an interesting thread to pull at, I would create a question that would then go to everyone else. Plus, ideas of every possible sequence that I might want to have in the film. So I was sort of writing a rough script. I did a lot of writing for this process, which maybe was my crutch. I had hundred-page, single-space treatments for this which were totally nuts. I had novels that bear some resemblance to the film but they’re not really what they are. So, the questions I was asking would come from that. Some of what I was interested in the film would end up being very boring and some of what I was personally interested in ended up helping craft the film.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Your story is certainly unique but would you or have you suggested to others similar familial exploration? Should we all interview our parents?

POLLEY: I do. I think it’s actually rare for people to not have a family history that’s dramatic. Coming out of screenings what people tell me makes my family history seem pretty boring. Pretty June Cleaver. We all have these crazy, riveting family histories if we dig deep enough. It’s such an asset to know what those secrets and twists and turns are. I think it has at least subconsciously impacted who you’ve become. It’s tied in with identity.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Oh yeah and that’s a theme of the movie that I found interesting. I’m a very nurture over nature guy. I think…

POLLEY: Me too.

Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Yeah but your dad’s not. The movie, at a few points, even in the opening scene, argues the opposite as your dad says “I was born this way. This is who I am.” But you believe in nurture more than nature?

POLLEY: I do. I didn’t always. But especially now that I’ve had a kid. A lot of people say they come out who they are but I feel like every day with my daughter I see that her experiences have shaped a little bit more of who she is. It’s directly related to her experience. I feel like there’s a trend now to nature but that’s not my first-hand experience. I feel totally shaped by the family I grew up with. I would have been a totally different person if I grew up with a different family.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How does being an actress inform your work as a filmmaker and vice versa?

POLLEY: I think that maybe as a filmmaker I have real gratitude to be telling a story that I want to tell with the help of really talented people. I know what a huge privilege that is. I didn’t always do it. I guess that when I’ve gone back to acting, I feel much more that I’m there to serve the process. Before you make your own films, you think of yourself as much more autonomous as an actress. You have to give up control and trust. Working with great actors like Julie Christie [on “Away From Her”] and Michelle Williams [on “Take This Waltz”], they give up that trust. It doesn’t matter how many brilliant filmmakers they worked with. It really told me how I could grow as an actor.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you ever see yourself directing someone else’s script? Your works so far have been so personal, even more so in light of this one.

POLLEY: Oddly, I feel the opposite. I’d love to write for other filmmakers. I’d love to write and watch what another filmmaker could do with it. What I love is the writing process.

“Stories We Tell” is now playing in some markets and opens in Chicago on May 17, 2013. content director Brian Tallerico

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