Some of the funniest moments I’ve experienced have been in the midst of tragic situations. SARAH POLLEY
To call Sarah Polley’s new documentary, Stories We Tell, a “personal” film would be the grossest of understatements—and a little misleading—because the fact is that films in general don’t get much more personal than Polley’s. But beyond that, it’s a piece of work about the fundamentally personal aspect of storytelling itself and the subjectivity—for better and for worse—of truth. Following Polley’s first two narrative features as a director—2006’s Away From Her, which earned Oscar nominations for both Polley (for screenwriting) and leading lady Julie Christie (for best actress), and 2011’s Take This Waltz—Stories We Tell ostensibly explores the nature of family and the way that certain narratives that exist within close-knit groups of people get retold and refracted by the individual perspectives of those involved (or, in some cases, uninvolved). But it’s the story that Polley uses to mine these subjects that makes the film particularly intimate: In a series of extensive interviews with her family, members of her extended brood, and her parents’ friends and acquaintances, she burrows deeply into a secret that she herself only recently discovered—that her father, Michael Polley, is not her biological father, and that she is the product of an affair that her mother, Diane, had around the time that she was conceived, a relationship which, despite various suspicions, Sarah and her family didn’t fully confirm until six years ago.
Michael and Diane, who were both actors, first met in the late 1960s while working together on a play in Toronto. They married, and Michael later moved into the insurance business, while Diane became a casting director. Sarah, the youngest of five children, was born in 1979 and began acting as a kid, appearing in such films as Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and in the Canadian TV series Road to Avonlea. Diane, though, died of cancer in 1990, when Sarah was just 11, and the void left by her death is very much at the center of Stories We Tell as her children, her husband, her friends, her relatives, and others attempt to triangulate the complicated forces that shaped her and drove her. Through a mix of these recollections, home movies, and recreated sequences (which, remarkably, are difficult to distinguish from the real Super 8 footage), Sarah Polley works to construct a portrait of her parents’ marriage and the events that precipitated Diane’s affair—as well as why and how her mother kept it from her father. The British-born Michael, with a great gift for elocution, provides a kind of ongoing narration, reading from a long letter that he wrote Sarah after learning of her paternity. Her older brothers and sisters also offer insight into not only her parents’ marriage, but also the very particular and endearing mix of humor and empathy that their family deploys in propping one another up at vulnerable moments and in dealing with even the most tragic of circumstances. Surprisingly, Polley’s birth father, who she eventually meets and verifies via a DNA test, plays a large role in the film, as does her decision to make the documentary itself. But it’s the way that these different versions of the story of Polley’s parents, their marriage, and the life of their family accumulate, occasionally contradict one another, and intertwine that remains at the center of Stories We Tell.
Katie Holmes, who worked with Polley more than a decade ago when they co-starred in Doug Liman’s Go (1999), recently spoke with the 34-year-old actress, filmmaker, and new mother (Polley and her husband, David Sandomierski, had their own daughter last year), who was at home in Toronto.
KATIE HOLMES: There’s a quote from Margaret Atwood: “Reality simply consists of different points of view.” When you first sat down and began envisioning this piece, was it important to you to tell the story from different perspectives in order to achieve a sense of reality? Or did this idea evolve throughout the process?
SARAH POLLEY: The original impetus for making the film was the multiple points of view. I think that’s what really excited me about the idea of making it. When the story itself happened to me and my family, we certainly had a lot of people saying, “Oh, this would make a great film.” But it’s a film that I thought that I had seen or read before, you know? Finding out that somebody had a different biological father than they thought . . . And while it’s really impactful to the people who are directly living that experience, I think that, in terms of subject matter for a story, it can be a little bit tired somehow. But what made me originally think, “Wow, this actually would make an interesting subject for a film,” was watching how we were all telling the story to the people in our lives. I started to notice embellishments on some peoples’ parts—or things that got omitted that were crucial [laughs]—as we all do in families when we’re hearing people talking about the past. It’s often not the past that we remember. So it was really interesting to see how the story was kind of mutating and how everybody was very committed to their version of what had happened. Another thing that was really fascinating to me was that as my dad started writing the story, and then my biological father started writing his version of the story, and then I was thinking about making a film about it—the telling of the story changed the story itself. The relationships among all of us changed as a result of us telling the stories of those relationships. I thought that that was such an interesting comment on the power of storytelling and how transformative it can be—for better or for worse.
HOLMES: It sounds like you could have many movies in this. I also really loved your mother’s friends and their versions of things and how much they were willing to share—and then also keep quiet.
POLLEY: For me, that was the great privilege of making the film that I didn’t anticipate—getting to talk to your parents’ contemporaries in such detail and hear their perspective on your parents. If you’re lucky, then you might get snippets of that if you have connections with our parents’ friends, but you rarely get many hours to ask every question you’ve ever wanted to ask. I learned more about life and relationships from talking to them than I had learned from anything in my life.
HOLMES: Did you look at any other films for inspiration for the look and feel of the recreated footage?
I’ve always felt like I occupy this place in this very bizarre, eccentric, funny, odd group of people, and that’s so much part of my identity. SARAH POLLEY
POLLEY: You know, oddly, our director of photography, Iris Ng, made a 26-minute short film about five years ago about her family called Point of Departure. It was about her family immigrating from Hong Kong, and she used a lot of Super 8 footage in it. So that was one of the inspirations for the feeling of this film. There’s something about the kind of nostalgia and the visceral response that you have with Super 8 footage if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. It just triggers so much in me. So it made me really excited about all the canisters that I knew we had in my family of Super 8 footage. I worked really closely with Iris on that look, and she was a huge part of designing it with me. But I think in terms of films I watch for inspiration, it was not so much about the aesthetic, but more the tone of the film. I was looking less at personal essay documentaries than I was at films like The Five Obstructions  by Lars von Trier, where he has Jørgen Leth, one of his favorite filmmakers, remake his film five different times with different sets of rules. He’s also talking to Leth and getting him to record voiceover as they’re doing it, and it’s really showing the relationship between Lars von Trier and his subjects and the filmmaking process. I remember being so inspired by how outside of the box that film was. It made me ask so many questions about the thematic subject matter because of the way it was being made. So I thought it would be interesting to make a film where your actual approach to the filmmaking could raise some of the same questions that the subject matter itself was raising.
HOLMES: Well, I think you achieved that.
POLLEY: Oh, good. [laughs]
HOLMES: It’s a personal story, but you’re able to have an experience outside of it and really explore your own family story and relationships in a different way. I have to say, I didn’t realize that some of the footage in your movie was recreated until the end. I was like, “How did she have all of this footage?” That might have been a problem of mine. [laughs]
POLLEY: No, it’s not. It’s always interesting at what point different people notice it. Some people don’t notice it till the credits, and some people notice it partway through. I find it so fascinating how long people suspend their disbelief, because it really varies wildly.
HOLMES: I was one of those who didn’t notice until the credits. [laughs] But although this film centers on one particular family history, it poses the question of all family legacy on how the way we recall the past does shape the future. Is this a theme that you want to continue to explore in future projects?
POLLEY: I’m fascinated by the subject of relationships, and I think that will probably never go away. All of my short films are about marriages, and I think that this probably comes from some kind of unconscious fascination with my parents’ story and what they went through. I’ve had a really colorful family, and that has also been so formative for me. I’ve always felt like I occupy this place in this very bizarre, eccentric, funny, odd group of people, and that’s so much part of my identity. So I like the idea of family, and the notion of family is something that is really strong for me. It’s obviously unconventional—my sense of the word family. It doesn’t look like a typical nuclear family. But I think that the idea of family is a very powerful and influential and disjointed thing that will always captivate me. It’s funny that you bring up that Margaret Atwood quote because the next thing I’m working on actually has nothing really to do with the subject of family, but it’s Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I’m adapting her novel.
HOLMES: Oh, wonderful.
POLLEY: But Alias Grace does have a lot to do with the ephemeral nature of the truth and the past and memory and different versions of the same truth. That’s a theme that seems to really preoccupy me to a certain extent as well. But, yeah, I do feel like so many of the ideas I have end up being about notions of family and what family even means.
HOLMES: One of the things that I enjoy about your work is the humor that you invoke in difficult times. In Stories We Tell, there’s a scene where you are on a park bench in full costume crying and annoyed that everyone in Montreal is looking at you. When you are writing, do you look for moments of levity? Or do they evolve during the process of filmmaking?
POLLEY: Before I started making short films, I came across this poem by W.H. Auden that was hugely influential for me in terms of how I wanted to approach telling a story. I think, generally, I’m attracted to more serious subject matter, but it really gave me pause in terms of how to approach that and how much gravity to approach it with. I’m going to read you a couple of lines from it, because it’s really beautiful. He starts the poem: “About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” I remember being so taken with that: the idea that we can get really claustrophobic and sort of inward-looking when we make films about serious subject matter where we need to paint it as though it’s the only suffering in the world—like, our suffering, our particular struggle is the only thing happening. But, in fact, there’s an entire universe out there that’s pretty much indifferent to struggles that big, no matter how serious they’ve been in your life. And I feel like there’s always more that’s actually going on in real life than there is in a film about a grave situation. So it’s been really important to me to create moments where there’s a breath or moments where there’s a laugh or moments where there’s real life that’s allowed to seep in through the cracks of whatever melodrama is happening, because that’s what does happen in life. Some of the funniest moments I’ve ever experienced have been in the midst of tragic situations in my life. So I felt like it was really important to not leave that out of anything I did.
HOLMES: Well, I was laughing out loud because I felt like that happens all the time to all of us. We want to stay in that shell and we want everybody to know that we’re suffering, and then, you know, they don’t care. People are moving on! It’s so annoying. Why isn’t the world stopping?
POLLEY: [laughs] Exactly. It’s amazing how the world does actually go on in the middle of things that should stop it for us.
HOLMES: Let’s work on that. [Polley laughs] So who are the directors that you look to for inspiration?
POLLEY: I feel like every name I mention is going to be so obvious, but they’re probably every actor’s favorite directors. I love Terrence Malick, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Ingmar Bergman for sure. I love Woody Allen and Ken Loach. So I guess it’s a bit of a mixed bag . . . I don’t know if I’ll end up making films that resemble any of theirs. Certainly, the films I make won’t compare to theirs. But it’s funny who influences you even in an indirect way. Like, I definitely feel like I can see the impact that those filmmakers have had on me, even if it wouldn’t be that obvious to someone else. What about you? Who are your favorite filmmakers?
HOLMES: Everyone on your list . . . My favorite is Woody Allen. Particularly Hannah and Her Sisters —I kind of can’t live without.
POLLEY: It’s so great. It’s what I go to when I need a fix. It’s funny because that film has always spoken to me, too, because it reminds me in some kind of way of my own family—like everyone is sort of eccentric and dramatic and a little bit caught up in their own world. [both laugh] But they’re all also very fun and smart. So that movie reminds me of my crazy-ass family.
HOLMES: Did you always know that you wanted to both act and direct?
POLLEY: No. I think it’s a total accident that I ended up making films of my own. I mean, acting is something that I’ve done since I was so young. I always felt—certainly as a teenager—really cynical about acting. I definitely didn’t feel like it was something I wanted to do, and so I really took it for granted. I remember when we worked together when we were 19 [on the film Go]. I remember being so envious of the way that you were so joyful in your work. You were so invested in what you were doing and treated it like a privilege. I was always amazed that you could do that because you’d also done it for so long at that point, but I feel like it kind of jaded me a little bit more. When I was, like, 18, 19, I thought, “This is a trivial way to spend my life. I shouldn’t be doing this.” It took a long time for me to realize what a contribution it could be and how lucky we are to get to do to creative things with our lives—how unbelievably privileged that is and how few people get that opportunity. I’ve always known that I’ve wanted to write, but I always saw myself doing that in the context of something other than film, so it was a really beautiful and kind of perfect moment in my life when I realized that I could combine this idea of wanting to write and tell my own stories with the environment I had grown up in and knew well—that I could make film as opposed to writing being a departure from what I knew. I came to it very, very slowly, and it took me a long time to be appreciative of being in film and to really fall in love with film. I knew very little about film until I had already made a few short films of my own and finally started watching them for the first time. [both laugh]
HOLMES: It’s funny, because as a young actor, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was just happy that nobody was noticing for a while.
POLLEY: I think that all the time.
HOLMES: I was holding my breath, just clinging on to whoever was saying, “You’re good.” But it’s amazing to me to hear you say that you had a difficult time with acting, because when we were working together, I thought you were just so wise and so gifted and sure of exactly what you were doing. I felt like I was just kind of watching and learning.
POLLEY: Well, I think that cynicism can often be mistaken for wisdom. [both laugh] I think I was just kind of dark and jaded and sarcastic. But I was always looking at you and going, “She’s having a good time and bringing light to set and making everybody feel good and doing a really amazing job.” It’s not like you’d had some sheltered life; you had been in the public eye for so long already at that point. So it was bewildering to me how you retained a sense of yourself and of enjoying where you were—and of being grateful for where you were. It was a kind of a good lesson for me. I did kind of take a check on my attitude after that.
HOLMES: With acting and directing, does one feed the other? Or is it something where you have that part of you that is alive when you’re acting, then the part of you that’s alive when you’re directing? Do you miss one when you’re doing the other? Does one teach you something about the other?
POLLEY: I’ve learned a lot about directing from how to be helpful as an actor on a set. I’ve been so lucky to work with people like Julie Christie. When I worked with her on my first film, I had no experience, and yet she was willing to try anything—anything could be part of a conversation. She never held on really tightly to her version of things, so we could really explore together, and she really let the director into her process, and that’s something I had not done up until that point. Now, I’ve obviously been more focused on filmmaking. I haven’t acted in a while. But when I have acted since then, I’ve become so much more collaborative and interested in helping to serve the filmmaker as opposed to sort of doing my own thing. I just feel like it’s so amazing every few years when I’m not making a film to act and basically go back to film school and just watch other filmmakers work and try to be a part of somebody else’s vision. So I feel like you do use two very different parts of your brain, and it’s great to be able to jump back and forth. The only disadvantage to directing if you’ve been an actor is how self-conscious you are. When I’m directing, I’m always so aware when I’m speaking to an actor of how easily I could throw them off by saying something careless or not being clear or concise. So it does make you watch your words in a way that sometimes is unhelpful.
HOLMES: But I’m sure it also helps because of everything you said—that you don’t want to throw an actor off or make them feel unsure.
POLLEY: But you can also anticipate too much because the things that might throw you off might not throw another actor off at all. For instance, I’m really conscious of not trying to get into anyone’s character with them, to let them have that space and that autonomy where I tell them what I need for a scene but leave the head space to them. But what I’ve discovered is that a lot of actors really want you in there. They really want you inside the character with them, and I think I’m sort of inhibited in doing that because of my own preferences as an actor. Do you like it when people are inside your character with you, or do you like being directed more from the outside?
HOLMES: I like to talk about the character beforehand, and when we’re shooting, I like the director to give hints for every take but just let it go and not get inside. I’d rather do 10 takes completely differently, and then in the editing room they can just go with whatever they need. I feel like, “Just let me get it all out and then you can have it, whatever you want to do with it.”
POLLEY: I sort of feel the same, because by the time you’re shooting, if you don’t know more about the character than the director, it’s kind of problematic.
HOLMES: Right. I used to get so worried that if a scene didn’t go a certain way, then it was horrible. But then I realized that it was better to give the director options in the editing room than just being locked into how it’s supposed to be. I don’t know . . . Maybe that’s just my thirties talking.
POLLEY: [laughs] Well, it’s hard to give up that amount of control. It’s scary to make yourself that vulnerable. Because you might do all kinds of things that are unplanned or are unexpected that maybe don’t work, and you have to trust the director to see that and work around those things. I find it really scary.
HOLMES: That’s why you take off during editing.
POLLEY: Good idea.
HOLMES: So what kinds of stories do you want to tell next?
POLLEY: Since I was 18 years old, I’ve been chasing the rights to that Margaret Atwood story. And then I’ve been thinking about a couple of really small films that I’d like to make on a sort of a micro budget that are very character-driven. But tons of artists are interested in making films about romantic relationships, so I feel like now that I’ve made this film about my family—which is maybe the origin of this obsession for me with what happens after many years of marriage, and my mother and father and their whole story—I feel like, in a strange way, I’ve discovered my other films were echoes of this film. So maybe now I’m free of that particular theme for a while. Maybe I got it out of my system and can kind of move into territory I don’t know as much about. I’m excited about opening the door on all kinds of films that I haven’t even had a glimpse of before.
HOLMES: Last question: as you have grown and evolved as a friend, wife, mother, daughter, sister, how do you think it has shaped the way you view things as an artist?
POLLEY: Well, especially with being a mother, I feel like you choose how you spend your time so much more carefully—which is a good thing. I’m sure you’ve found this, but you just don’t take your chances spending a lot of time on things that you don’t feel are really important. So you are more sure of your choices in terms of how you work and what you choose to work on. Even the decision to work is a big decision—to decide to be away from your child. So it’s got to be something that you really believe in and feel passionately about. And if you’re lucky enough to be an artist and to have the luxury to make those choices, then I think you have to not take that for granted. So I’m sure it will just make me a lot more specific about what I work on and how I spend my time.
HOLMES: I understand that. In some ways, it makes you über-focused.
POLLEY: Does that focus last? Or is it just a baby thing?
HOLMES: No, it lasts.
POLLEY: Awesome. Good to know.
KATIE HOLMES IS A NEW YORK-BASED ACTRESS WHOSE FILMS INCLUDE GO (1999), THE WONDER BOYS (2000), BATMAN BEGINS (2005), AND THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005).