Five Favorite Films with Sarah Polley

The director of Stories We Tell also chats about her new movie, and the mysteries of storytelling.

RT: Stories We Tell was a difficult film for you to make, and I understand there were several points when you almost gave up. What kept you going?

Sarah Polley: I don't really know, to be honest. I think, probably a sense of obligation because I'd already spent a lot of money on the film, and probably should keep going because the National Film Board (NFB) was counting on me. [laughs] And the collaborators I was working with were so inspiring and amazing and challenging, and I felt like they were pushing me further than I'd ever gone artistically. I felt like I wanted to keep working with them, so while the subject matter and the process of making the film was at times really claustrophobic and difficult, I did feel like it was worth it to keep collaborating with them -- The NFB, and my cinematographer Iris [Ng], and my editor Mike [Munn]. It just made it feel worthwhile even if it was kind of a painful process.

RT: This is a documentary that starts out feeling like a memorial or tribute to your late mother, but eventually becomes an exploration of memory and mythmaking and storytelling. It's kind of a heady topic couched within a fascinating personal story. In a blog post on the NFB's website, you mentioned that personal documentaries tend to make you "squeamish." What steps did you take to try and avoid that with Stories We Tell?

SP: I think the truth is that I wasn't interested in making the film about the story itself. It was about a year and a half after the events that I even began to think about making this into a film. I think that, for me, the way I was able to make a film about my own life was that I was really interested in making a film about storytelling and about memory, and in a way, I had to use my family story to illustrate something that I thought was more universal about why we tell stories, and why we so desperately need to create narrative out of the kind of mess of our lives. That was what made me interested in making the film.

There are some personal docs that I really love. I wasn't interested in making a traditional personal doc, with, you know, voiceovers stating all my feelings, but it obviously needed to use this sort of personal story to talk about the larger issues I was interested in, which were really about why we tell stories.

RT: Is that part of the reason why we only get small snippets of your voice here?

SP: I think that is why, and I also felt like, for me, it was... In a way, my own version was not interesting to me, and in a strange way, I thought it wouldn't be that interesting to other people either, because I think what was interesting was the cacophony of all the voices, and trying to find what could be accurate -- what could be true -- and what could be false in the middle of all that. I also felt like there would be a real injustice to both being the person who is constructing the film and editing the film and making all of those kinds of decisions, and also including my version alongside everybody else's as though it was going to be equally viewed. I think it would have automatically kind of superseded the other versions, which felt kind of tyrannical or something. [laughs]

RT: You do a great job of parceling out little bits of information that slowly reveal the bigger picture. As a storyteller here yourself, how do you go about deciding effectively what to reveal and when?

SP: I think that was a long process of making decisions. The original structure for the film was very, sort of, Rashomon-esque, where it was going to be me telling my version, my dad telling his version, Harry [Gulkin] telling his version. We weren't going to keep any secrets; you would know the story off the bat. It was just about the different ways it was being told. It was sort of a later decision in the editing room to see how it would work if we intertwined them all, and then my dad's narration became the spine of the film through that process.

But there were certainly moments in the editing room where... You know, we had index cards for all of the moments on a bulletin board, and there was this moment where, you know, the story of my mother's divorce from her first husband and her losing her two kids was obviously at the very beginning of the film to set things up. And there was this moment where I sort of moved that index card to three quarters of the way through the film and just saw what that looked like. And it seemed like kind of a crazy experiment, but at that moment we realized we can be structuring this in such a way that it speaks to what the film's about, which is that, you think you're seeing one thing in your life, and then you get a new piece of information about the past that completely changes the context around that thing you thought you understood.

RT: Going back to your father, it turns out he is a pretty great writer after all. Did you get to see much evidence of this, growing up with him?

SP: Yeah, every now and then he would write something small, and I was always astonished by how great a writer he was. It was something my mom really believed in. Even if you read their letters to each other when they were first together, they're just so beautiful. And so I think it was a real frustration in her life that he didn't pursue that, and the strange irony is that this information about her coming out is what sort of led him to do that a lot more, and for him, ultimately, through this film, to kind of be recognized as a good writer.

RT: There's a lot of commentary offered in this film about how storytelling is often selective memory, and it leads the audience to consider the fact that you, as the storyteller here, are doing the same thing, dictating the vision of this story by actively picking and choosing which bits of narrative to include.

SP: I think that was really important to me to not hide behind some guise of, "Oh, I'm making a documentary that is going to be absolute fact and absolute truth," because the truth is that's not attainable. No documentary tells the absolute truth as anybody else would tell it. So I think it was really important for me to include the construction of this version in the film, so that it didn't seem like I'm, in a black and white way, presenting all of these versions in a totally impartial way. That's just not possible, no matter how hard you try. I didn't want to pretend that the filmmaking process on any film is anything but very subjective, even if we feel we're trying to be objective.

RT: I did come away from the film with a specific impression of how things happened, but your interviews do reveal some conflicting elements, which is part of the message you're trying to convey. When you collected all of your material, did you feel like you had a clearer portrait of your mother, or was that beside the point? Did that even matter?

SP: I did, actually. It wasn't, maybe, a conscious intention of making the film, but it was an amazing byproduct of the whole experience, to realize I do have so much a fuller picture of her than I did before I started this. Hearing so many people speak about her -- sometimes in similar ways, sometimes in contradictory ways -- you do start to put together a person in the middle of that mess of thoughts and impressions.

RT: Have your family members had a chance to see it, and if so, what were their reactions?

SP: Everyone's been really supportive. I think I was expecting a lot more controversy around it, and everybody has come out to the premiere and really supported the film. I don?t think it's the film anybody else would have made, necessarily, of the same events, and I'm sure people would have emphasized different things or omitted other things, but everyone's been incredibly supportive of the way I chose to tell this story, which I've really appreciated.

RT: Can you see yourself doing another documentary, and if so, is there a dream topic you'd want to cover?

SP: I would love to make another documentary. I have a bunch of ideas, but not anything that is articulate enough to talk about yet. But yeah, for me, I think I'm a bigger fan of documentaries, generally, than I am of narrative fiction films, so I would absolutely love to continue working in this medium. But I have higher standards for documentaries than I do for other kinds of films, so it's hard for me to get up the nerve to make another one, I think. [laughs]


Stories We Tell opens in limited release this week.


Comments

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Very Sanguine. And I agree, these films are all terrific, a rich collection. Malick also tends to cure my blues (yes, even "To the Wonder"). This girl knows fine film, and makes some as well.

May 10 - 01:27 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

There Will Be Blood is one of my favorites as well. Funny, I think this is the first time I've seen it on a favorite film list on RT.

I need to see Red. I saw Blue, and liked it. There is also White I need to check out.

May 10 - 02:08 PM

Shannon Skanes

Shannon Skanes

Red was the best of the trilogy, great choice.

May 10 - 02:41 PM

Dave J

Dave J

I thought "Red" was the best one out of the trilogy too even though I barely remember it!

May 10 - 02:59 PM

Dave J

Dave J

I thought "Red" was the best one out of the trilogy too even though I barely remember it!

May 10 - 02:59 PM

Dan Calhoun

Dan Calhoun

Very nice to see a Red shout out!

May 10 - 04:39 PM

creox

Creox X

Battle of Algiers is a great movie and experience. Captures the look and feel of a documentary so well. Wonderful choices all.

May 10 - 07:20 PM

billfaces

h h

Very nice list!

May 10 - 08:47 PM

Bradley Timm

Bradley Timm

I still haven't seen Thin Red Line which is crazy. There Will Be Blood is so good that it unnerves me even thinking about watching it, but in a good way.

May 10 - 09:34 PM

Jerad Donley

Jerad Donley

The thin red line is one of the best war movies ever made, I was in udder shock to see that Saving Private Ryan is more acclaimed. Especially during the award season.

May 10 - 10:22 PM

Joey Hirsch

Joey Hirsch

If you were in udder shock, you might need to be milked more often.

May 12 - 03:43 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

10/10.

May 12 - 04:43 PM

Reza T.

Reza Trikurnia

lovely list
red and The Battle of Algiers was my favorite
loved her movies...
The Sweet Hereafter (actress)and take this waltz (director)
i need to see away from her and Stories We Tell.
and Love and Death too.

May 10 - 11:46 PM

Ken Kaplan

Ken Kaplan

An amazingly talented human being of incredible sensitivity. Red and the Battle of Algiers? Awesome.

May 11 - 05:22 AM

Richard Crawford

Richard Crawford

I love Sarah's movies. Battle of Algiers yes, love and death yes, the others NO.

May 11 - 10:52 AM

David Moore

David Moore

Im in love.

May 11 - 12:37 PM

Dan Delago

Dan Delago

Interesting choices. I'd like to see Sarah Polley tackle a war epic with a tragic love story. Loved, 'Take This Waltz' Sarah. You rock as a director.

May 11 - 02:44 PM

Todd Beaton

Todd Beaton

Wow people do watch that crap and enjoy it.

May 11 - 03:06 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

Well, what's your favorite movie? Big Booty Bitches Volume 1?

May 11 - 03:24 PM

Patrick Bateman

Patrick Bateman

I just want to say that that was one of the best comments I have ever seen.

May 11 - 06:25 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

A pleasure to see I have amused Patrick Bateman!

May 11 - 11:41 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

Well, what's your favorite movie? Big Booty Bitches Volume 1?

May 11 - 03:24 PM

Patrick Bateman

Patrick Bateman

I just want to say that that was one of the best comments I have ever seen.

May 11 - 06:25 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

A pleasure to see I have amused Patrick Bateman!

May 11 - 11:41 PM

Patrick Bateman

Patrick Bateman

Beautiful list. I have yet to see any of the Three Colours films, but I look forward to seeing them. There Will Be blood is my favorite off of this list and is my third favorite film ever.

May 11 - 06:24 PM

Tory Lee

Tory Lee

I love every Paul Thomas Anderson film, and There Will Be Blood is likely his greatest, but for some reason my personal favorite is Magnolia, and Magnolia happens to be my number 3 as well.

May 12 - 07:57 AM

Patrick Bateman

Patrick Bateman

I just want to say that that was one of the best comments I have ever seen.

May 11 - 06:25 PM

Bazooka Jew

Bazooka Jew

A pleasure to see I have amused Patrick Bateman!

May 11 - 11:41 PM

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