Polley mines family secrets for genre-blurring doc 'Stories We Tell'
TORONTO - Actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley spent years guarding a family secret she feared would upend her personal and professional life, only to eventually reveal it in movie theatres across the country.
The normally private Polley chuckles over the situation she now finds herself in: facing promotional interview-after-interview about the tumult she felt when she learned the man she believed to be her father is not her biological parent at all.
The earth-shattering discovery is traced in detail and recounted from multiple points of view in her genre-blurring documentary, "Stories We Tell," a moving examination of her parents' troubled marriage and the indiscretion that led to the surprise arrival of a ginger-haired baby named Sarah.
"I made this film thinking it would have a very, very small life within Canada and hopefully wouldn't be a total embarrassment," the 33-year-old Polley says in a recent interview at a west-end boutique hotel.
"I kept saying to my siblings when they would be worried about things they had said in the interviews... 'You really don't have to worry, no one will ever see this... no one's going to care.' "
To the contrary, "Stories We Tell" is proving to be one of Canada's most celebrated releases of the year, earning rave reviews on the international festival circuit, nabbing worldwide distribution deals and even spurring plans for an Oscar campaign that will be tied to its release in the United States next year.
Polley says she's bewildered by the reaction but grateful that her first attempt at non-fiction has resonated so deeply with audiences.
The decision to make a movie about her late mother's double life was not an easy one, she adds, but grew organically as she struggled to make sense of what it all meant and how she felt about it.
The blow came in 2006, the year Polley released her Oscar-nominated directorial debut, "Away From Her." Nagged by years of family jokes about her true parentage, Polley began investigating rumours that her mother Diane — who died of cancer when Polley was 11 — had had an affair with a man in Montreal in 1978.
This is where the genre-crossing documentary turns into a bit of a whodunit, with Polley playing detective as she interrogates her mother's friends and supposed lovers about what they knew. It all leads to an unexpected meeting with a man who says he had a passionate affair with Diane.
Later, a DNA test reveals a 99.997 per cent probability that he and Polley, then 28, are father and daughter.
"The whole thing was kind of shocking and kind of surprising and it took some time to process," Polley says.
So much so that she kept the information to herself for a year, only revealing it to the dad she grew up with when a journalist caught wind of the story and threatened to go public. Polley tearfully begged the reporter to keep her secret and it stayed within the family.
But of course, among the Polleys, no one could stop talking about it.
Michael Polley began writing about how he met his vivacious wife and how the affair affected their marriage. Meanwhile, Polley's biological father jotted down his thoughts as he worked on his memoir.
"So many people within my family and so many people affected by this story were obsessed with telling the story," says Polley, who grew up with an older brother and sister and has another half-brother and half-sister from Diane's previous marriage.
"We were all quite attached to that storytelling and needed it in some way ... to try to make sense of what had happened."
Fascinated by the sometimes contradictory takes on family lore, Polley began preserving each version as a record for herself. It slowly evolved into a movie, but only after she had finally come to terms with her own feelings.
"I think that it would have been a mistake to make this film in the middle of all those crazy emotions and I didn't really want to use the film as a form of therapy," she says.
"The film was difficult to make anyway because you're revisiting things that are really difficult and talking about your mum and revisiting the moment of her death and all these things are really, really hard to revisit. But I tried to make sure that I at least weeded through a little bit of the confusion around finding out that my dad was not biologically related to me. Which, to be honest, as the years go by, matters less and less. Your family is your family."
Figuring out the structure took years. Her first idea was to make it "Rashomon"-style, with her version, her dad's version and her biological father's version presented as three separate pieces dealing with the same events but in totally different ways.
But she wanted to incorporate the stories of her siblings and her mother's friends, too, so she began to weave all of their accounts together. What results is a complicated collage that includes constant references to Polley's role as writer-director.
"I'm not a tortured artist generally, I really love making films ... but this film was different," Polley says of wrestling with such personal material.
"It was really hard to sit in an editing room for eight hours a day and watch your family talk about some of the most difficult moments in your family's life. And basically just sit in a room with your family for five days a week in a dark room — nobody wants to do that."
Knowing what we know now, it's hard not to view Polley's last film, "Take This Waltz," as heavily shaped by the discovery of her mother's affair.
Written after the DNA test confirmed Polley's true parentage, the romantic drama centred on a young wife with a wandering eye. Looking back, Polley admits subconscious anxieties likely fuelled that tale, and everything that came before it.
"But I would never have guessed that that's what I was dealing with. The story (for 'Take This Waltz') sort of came out of nowhere, I didn't know why I was writing it, and then I think it was halfway through making this film that I kind of got it and I went, 'I think this is the film I've been making over and over again,'" says Polley.
"And not just 'Take This Waltz' but every short film I've made and 'Away from Her' — it's always about a long-term relationship, an infidelity and in many ways how the man kind of absorbs that.... I think a lot of filmmakers make the same film over and over again without knowing it. It's just that now I've gone into the cave and made a film about the actual figures in the cave that were casting these shadows.
"Now what happens? Do I stop making films about long-term relationships? I guess so. My next film is going to be 'Alias Grace,' which isn't about that at all so maybe there's a moment where I'm sort of free of telling that story over and over again in totally different ways. Or maybe I return to it with more insight, I'm not sure."
"Stories We Tell" opens in Toronto on Friday before heading to Vancouver and Montreal on Oct. 19. It's slated to hit other Canadian cities throughout the fall.