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Sarah Polley Takes On a New Role: Filmmaker

by Jenny Halper

Sarah Polley
Title: Writer/Director/Producer/Actress
Industry: Entertainment
Website: Sarah Polley on IMDB

Sarah Polley looks college student-young on this cool April day, shaking off a winter jacket that screams "Canada!" and plopping down at a table laden with cookies. But that's not what surprises me when I meet the twenty-eight-year-old star of The Sweet Hereafter, Go, and countless other films. It's her Hollywood-proof attitude, open and matter-of-fact. She greets me with a friendly smile and a down-to-earth air.

The Ontario native is in New York to talk about Away from Her, a film adaptation of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" that marks Polley's feature debut as writer-director. It's about an aging woman with Alzheimer's disease-not a subject likely to lure summer audiences to the Cineplex, and not the first topic you'd imagine a writer/director who hasn't even hit her thirtieth birthday tackling. But Polley, who was acting by the age of four, advocating peace at eleven, and writing and directing short films by the time she was twenty, has never been one to accept age limitations or follow conventions-Hollywood, Canadian, or otherwise.

"I had an idea for a short film," Polley says, "and I was hooked."

The daughter of two actors, Polley started acting at age four and got her first professional credit at six. She began her career with roles in TV shows like Road to Avonlea, Ramona, and Lantern Hill, for which she won a Gemini award (the Canadian version of an Emmy). In her teens she turned her attention away from show business and toward politics, advocating for the Canadian left; it wasn't until Atom Egoyan cast her in The Sweet Hereafter that she returned to acting. She credits him, and directors including Wim Wenders, Isabel Coixet, and Hal Hartley, as inspirations, and becoming a filmmaker seemed like a natural progression.

"I had an idea for a short film," Polley says, "and I was hooked."

Relaxing in a midtown apartment, she calls Munro one of her favorite authors. But she wasn't reading in search of movie material. "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" fell into her lap via The New Yorker, on a flight home from filming Hartley's No Such Thing with Julie Christie.

"I immediately thought about her (Christie) when I first read the short story," Polley says. "I couldn't stop seeing her face whenever I pictured this role. She was a big motivating factor in adapting it in the first place."

It took eight months for Polley to convince Christie to sign on to the film. But persistence paid off, both in casting (Olympia Dukakis and Gordon Pinsent joined Christie) and in making Away from Her, which was backed financially by Telefilm Canada ("they had dealt with family members with Alzheimer's disease and had a personal urgent need to see this film made.") It was a relief after the struggle Polley faced three years ago while trying to make her first full-length feature, an original script about a twelve-year-old actress.

"There is an advantage of being in the public eye," she adds, but "being an actress and trying to get a film is a tough thing. It takes a lot for people to take you seriously."

"I didn't get anywhere with it," Polley says. "And I did feel at the time that my career [as an actress] was not an asset."

"There is an advantage of being in the public eye," she adds, but "being an actress and trying to get a film is a tough thing. It takes a lot for people to take you seriously."

Luckily, Polley had backers in the prestigious form of film royalty. Egoyan served as producer, while Wenders and Hartley provided support and read drafts of the script.

Directing Mentors

Polley might be best known for delicate, sensitive screen portrayals of young girls, but in person she is undeniably tough - a requisite for the film business in general and directing in particular. Though Polley worked her way up to a full-length feature by helming four short films and producing one, she was still surprised when duty called on the Away from Her set.

"I think the overwhelming amount of responsibility is nothing I could have prepared for."

"I think the overwhelming amount of responsibility is nothing I could have prepared for," Polley says. "It took a lot of endurance and stamina; you have to be incredibly tough to get it done. I had to toughen up quite a bit."

Polley's success behind the camera doesn't surprise Hartley, who calls her "smart and ambitious," and describes her first short as "the best short film I'd ever seen." Atom Egoyan remembers her carefully watching the crew while filming The Sweet Hereafter.

"He's been a mentor to me for seven or eight years," Polley says. "Atom is someone who faces humanity in the filmmaking process, which I think is actually really difficult to do. He creates a very safe environment for people."

Having recently wrapped a starring role in Wim Wender's Don't Come Knocking when pre-production on Away from Her commenced, Polley took an organizational tip from the German auteur.

"I'd become a real organizational freak when I was making my shorts. I'd shot list everything and be obsessed about knowing where everything was going to go; I felt like it was something I was doing because I didn't have experience," Polley says. "I remembered working with Wim, seeing his shot list and seeing how carefully ordered everything was. It was so good for me to see that and know that you can't get lazy. This is part of the process and it's not going to stop being difficult. Just to see the amount of diligence he had after making that number of films was really good for me."

From Page to Screen

Polley admits that though "most of (Munro's) stories don't seem very adaptable to film, this one felt incredibly cinematic"-so cinematic that a few hours after she finished reading Munro's story she knew how the screenplay would unfurl. The film was given its visually unique look-dreamlike and whirling, not unlike a Munro story-by Luc Montpellier.

"I knew what I needed," Polley says, describing the "blinding" winter sunlight that seeped into the retirement home. "Luc is someone I worked with on all my shorts, and we start working together very, very early. I go through everything on my own and then we go through every single second together. He's an incredibly important partner for me."

She was in the process of helping her grandmother move into a retirement home while writing, and the "research" that Polley did wholeheartedly and fastidiously made its way into the script.

"In Canada we have more publicly funded places than there are here, but they aren't perfect. That's part of why I set the film in one of these places," Polley says. "I spent so much time in them, I thought 'we're not talking enough about this,' because there are really good things about these facilities, and really hard working incredible people."

One of those people, Kristy (Kristen Thomsen), is lifted from the Munro story but used by Polley as Grant's confidant-a sympathetic nurse who buffers tense encounters with an administrator, Madeleine (Wendy Crewson).

"I made Kristy two characters, because Kristy in the story was empathetic and lovely and salt of the earth but she would be incredibly insensitive at times. Onscreen it would be hard for us to accept something empathetic and lovely and callous. So Madeline became that part of Kristy," Polley says.

When I ask if her age made it difficult for her to tap into the mindset of the elderly, Polley shakes her head.

"To me the story was ultimately about love and marriage, in the context of having been with someone for such a long time. I was at the beginning of a relationship and interested in a love story."

"This was my first feature, and I feel incredibly lucky. Whether people like it or not, I made the film I wanted to make."

The critically lauded Away from Her recently won an "Excellence in Filmmaking" award at the Sedona Film Festival and was honored by the Writers Guild of Canada. Following the film's release, Polley will return to acting, though she recently started writing another script she hopes to direct eventually.

If the last few years of independent filmmaking are any indication, actresses are following her lead: Mary Stuart Masterson, Julia Stiles, Rosie Perez, Rosario Dawson, and Salma Hayek are just a few film stars who have produced and/or directed shorts or features.

"We need a lot more female filmmakers," Polley says. "This was my first feature, and I feel incredibly lucky. Whether people like it or not, I made the film I wanted to make."
Away from Her
Away from Her
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