Director Sarah Polley takes her personal exploration as a filmmaker inward to her family tree with Stories We Tell, a thoroughly delightful documentary about a secret buried by time. Using her own family members as subjects, Polley uses the contradicting stories of her relatives to uncover a bigger truth about storytelling, and the unbreakable bond of family despite life's many surprises. This is Polley's first documentary, as she has previously directed narrative features the extremely good Take This Waltz last year with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Luke Kirby, and also Away From Her, with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. She has more credits in front of the camera, with an acting filmography that includes Splice, Dawn of the Dead, Go, eXistenZ, and The Sweet Hereafter.
I sat down with Polley to talk about her film, in an exclusive interview that she described as "a whole bunch of weird-ass questions, and one that took me by surprise," and "not a promising beginning, but then it got really good." Read below for a conversation that discusses an artist's responsibility to be personal, Polley's love of Scramblers, where she would take Werner Herzog on a date, and more.
Stories We Tell opens in Chicago on May 17.
Is it weird to have the word "genius" on a poster for a movie you've made?
Oh, I didn't notice that. Good to know, though [laughs].
Do you think artists have a responsibility to be personal with their audience? Do you feel that responsibility yourself?
I don't think there is a responsibility. I think that's what drives some artists, and I certainly don't think that anyone should feel like they can't do that, or feel inhibited by that. I think there is some really great art that comes out that's personal, but I think there are also great artists who don't do anything personal, like Regina Spektor, whom I love. She doesn't write personal music, but it feels personal when you listen to it. I think that's an interesting approach as well.
There are some directors, like Herzog, who intentionally don't tell the truth. They are using non-truths to try to get to a bigger truth. In a sense, with the different contradicting accounts in Stories We Tell, you're doing a bit of the same. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it's complicated. I think certainly my film walks the line sometime of wanting people to question what is real and isn't real, and to look at the subjectivity of memory and the ephemeral nature of the truth, and it sort of edges on tricking people at times. That's not totally intentional, but I didn't shy away from it either. At the same time I feel the same time in documentaries when there's ... or even in narrative features, Michael Haneke does this, when you are intentionally tricking the audience. I can sometimes have a very visceral, angry reaction to that, like I can feel like ... I am a very trusting audience member, I really like to put my trust in a filmmaker, and make myself vulnerable and open myself up. When I feel like that has been toyed with, I can take offense to it. I think it can be a really interesting tool, and I think it can teach us a lot. I don't think we should reject it out of hand, but I have questions about it.
Does Michael Haneke rub you the wrong way?
He's kind of my favorite filmmaker actually, he's in my top five favorite filmmakers of all time. He just can make me furious, like in Funny Games when you see the original version, and you see the knife on the boat and there is foreshadowing, and then the knife just gets thrown over. I remember feeling so betrayed, and so angry, and yet I think he is a genius.
Is that where your admiration for him comes from? That he gets you involved in his films?
Maybe, yeah. My brain doesn't shut off at all when I am watching his work. Cache I think is the best movie ever.
What did you think of his latest film, 'Amour'?
It was not my favorite film. I thought it was fantastic, I loved it. But for me, Cache, The White Ribbon, and The Piano Teacher are so incredible that I feel like. I like when he deals with more sadistic subject matter. Amour is real, which is why I think people found it very hard. But it is not hard to love those characters, and it is not hard to sympathize with what they are going through, and I love when he takes things that are more difficult, in a way.
Like your mother as shown in 'Stories We Tell,' have you ever sung "Ain't Misbehavin'"?
No. I haven't.
Do you find that because you're open in your films about your personal life, that people could easily ask too much in a Q&A? Are you too open of a book?
I think that when you make a film that is this personal, you are opening yourself up to questions that you might not want to answer, but it's kind of your own fault. But i take it on myself to negotiate that.
Do you think you have more invasive Q&A's than other filmmakers?
That being said, 'Take This Waltz' prominently features Scrambler carnival rides. Do you like Scramblers?
I really do. A lot.
Where is your favorite?
On Centre Island, off of Toronto. Do you ever go to the Toronto Film Festival? Get over there for fifteen minutes and you'll be on the best Scrambler of your life.
I have been trying to find one in Illinois with my girlfriend, but the only Scrambler we can seem to find is at the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Have you ever been on one that's in the dark?
I have, yes. In Salem, New Hampshire.
That pisses me off for some reason, I don't know why. I kind of was excited that I had something to offer that you hadn't done. I can't believe there is another one, I thought there was only one.
It's at Canobie Lake Park, and they play "Video Killed the Radio Star" on repeat.
No. Could you imagine making this documentary if it was about another family?
Not really, no. I think that it's also, just to get the candidness from my family, it was only possible to do that as their sister.
In 'Take This Waltz' there's a scene in which Williams and Kirby discuss the word 'gaylord.' Is that a word you use?
No, and I have an issue with the use of that word in my film. I was upset that more people were not upset by it. Because I feel like it took me months before I realized, "What the hell am I doing, obviously the character when they say it is immediately torn apart for it, and it is a stupid word." But what I was thinking afterward was that film didn't have huge legs, it didn't just play to progressive downtown people who were in on how bad it is to use that word. It also played to people who watch television shows that use that word. So I actually it was really old person-y of me to use that word. It's like when I asked my niece recently, "What's the male to female ratio in your class?" And she was like, "I don't really look at things in terms of gender, and I am not sure what the ratio of male, female, and transgendered is." And I was like, "Oh my god, I am an old person now! Who doesn't think of these things?" Even though it was used in a context of the character who is aware of it, I don't think that we should toy with these things.
Where would you take Werner Herzog on a date?
Telluride, because apparently he loves the Telluride Film Festival. It's kind of the best film festival ever. I would say if you love movies, and could do one thing in your life that is a vacation, that is what I'd recommend. It is astonishingly great. It's like the best film experience. Telluride is really special, it's not like any other film festival. None of the dodgy people get there for some reason, it's like the mountains scare them or something. There's no one there except filmmakers, critics, and people who love movies. So you're just seeing some of the best movies of the year, with the most intelligent audiences. Even just standing in the line at Telluride is a joy, because you're having the most incredible conversations with people about the films they have seen. It is just a really amazing place.
Where would you take Herzog on an outside date?
I am not the hugest fan of Herzog ...
I'd be a bit freaked out. I'd just make sure it was broad daylight, and there were a lot of people around.
I heard this story from 'Simon Killer' director Antonio Campos; he had dinner with Michael Haneke, and Haneke was like an old grandfather. His wife even said, "No, Michael, not another one of your dark stories."
In 'Stories We Tell,' you present yourself first and foremost as actor, not as a director.
I just think I tried to include as little of my professional life in it as possible. I think that there's naturally or organically a story that will reference my acting, but I don't think the film needed or wanted some bio of me, and the work I had done, so I left that out.
Has this documentary at all changed the dynamics of your family gatherings? When you get together, do people joke, "Sarah, are you going to record this?"
Yeah, that's there. But I feel like it has been a very solidifying experience for my family. Everyone had a really good experience, and it has been very interesting to talk to people about our family history.
You had a big pow wow, or an intervention, that some families never have.
Exactly. Have you had an intervention in your family?
No; my family documentary would be about a Bernese Mountain Dog.
Yeah, except you just haven't found out what the crazy shit in your family is. You just have to dig a little deeper. I think every family has a crazy twist in it, that you are either aware of it or not aware of. But I think there are very few family histories that are simple.
Quick Questions with Sarah Polley
What did you have for breakfast this morning? French toast
Favorite fruit? Pineapple
Favorite pop song growing up? "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles
If you could be someone else for 24 hours? Sally Potter, just to be able to think like that visually for 24 hours would be awesome.
Age of first kiss? I don't know.