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Capone Sits Down With The Lovely Sarah Polley To Talk About Her Directorial Debut, BARON MUNCHAUSEN, DAWN OF THE DEAD & More!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I think the headline says it all. This is a really nice piece by Capone, and Sarah Polley is one of those developing talents who I think is going to be around and worthy of discussion for as long as I’m watching movies. Seeing how far she’s come already since her time as a child actor, it’s hard not to respect her. Read this interview, and you’ll see what I mean:

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here with, bar none, one of the nicest people I've ever had the chance to converse with in my nine or so years with AICN. I'll admit, I went into talking to Sarah Polley a little nervous, for a couple of reasons. For those of you who follow her career, she often chooses roles of a very serious nature, and she has done so since she was fairly young. But I can't think of anyone who could have handled such roles with such maturity and skill. Think of her in THE SWEET HEREAFTER. Is there anything more heartbreaking than her performance in Atom Egoyan's masterpiece? Or Polley's work in THE CLAIM or THE WEIGHT OF WATER? More recent efforts include the devastating MY LIFE WITHOUT ME or the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepherd collaboration DON'T COME KNOCKING. She's also featured in a harrowing work opposite Tim Robbins called THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, which has been tooling around the festival circuit for a while, and I pray it finds a distributor. All of these films would lead you to believe Polley is an extremely serious, perhaps even intimidating, person. She's had great personal tragedy in her life (which we discuss) and her almost second career as a political activist has gotten her a great deal of attention, particularly in her native Canada. Now, at the ripe old age of 28, Polley has just written and directed her first feature, AWAY FROM HER, a film about an elderly couple who must come to grips with the realization that the wife (played by the still-stunning Julie Christie) has Alzheimer's disease, and the husband has to learn to let go and put her in a special care facility for people with her affliction. I know, it sounds like a real party. But the truth is, you will not see a more life-affirming piece of cinema any time this year. When I spoke with Polley, I had two sets of questions for her: one about her more serious works, including AWAY FROM HER; and one that I'd go to after the serious questions if I felt she was open to going back into some of the more seemingly out-of-character roles she's taken over the years, things like GO, Hal Hartley's NO SUCH THING, Cronenberg's eXistenZ, and, of course, the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. It took me about three seconds to see that I'd be pulling questions from both lists. She was one of the sweetest and most personable people I've ever talked to, and all those years of scrounging film festivals and video stores to see her in even the smallest, most obscure films suddenly seemed worth it. I apologize in advance for any traces of gushing. Here's the future Mrs. Capone herself, Sarah… Capone: I'm guessing a lot of the press surrounding AWAY FROM HER is focusing on one particular aspect of the film, which is your age versus the average age of the characters in the film. Sarah Polley: [laughing] Right. C: Why was the this the time in your life where you had to tell this story? SP: I read it [the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain"] when it first came out in the New Yorker about six or seven years ago, and it just had such a profound affect on me emotionally. I'd never been that emotionally moved by a short story or that intrigued. I just couldn't stop thinking about it, and it felt so oddly cinematic to me. I felt like it was such an examination of unconditional love, and maybe that's what I was interested in at that moment because I was at the beginning of a marriage and this was looking forward to the end of a marriage. C: There have certainly been other films make about the perils--medical and otherwise--of growing older. But I can't remember another that I've seen recently that handled it with such grace and dignity… SP: Thank you. C: …without in any way sugarcoating the subject matter. In fact there's even a line in the film that Julie Christie says about "grace." What is the line? SP: "I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace." C: Is that your writing or was that in the original story? SP: I think that's my line. C: That's a great line. If anything sums up this film, it's that line. And anyone who has seen someone go through the stages of Alzheimer's there comes a time when you have to let go. I've heard it described as mourning for someone who isn't dead yet. SP: I've heard that too. C: Were there things in your life that you drew from to capture that letting go process? SP: A lot of that comes from the story; I really tried to be as faithful to it as I could. I think one of the reasons I was drawn to this story, as well, was that my mother died when I was 11 and watching my father over two-and-a-half years losing the love of his life. That was a really central emotional image for me in my life. C: I wondered about that connection. Nothing about the way the husband reacts to these circumstances seems forced or disingenuous at all. Did you meet Julie Christie when you made THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS? SP: I actually met her quite a bit before that on Hal Hartley's film NO SUCH THING. C: Of course. I'd completely spaced out that she was in that movie with you. So when exactly did you propose the idea of AWAY FROM HER? SP: I actually waited until I actually had the script written before I approached her with it. So we worked together in Iceland [on NO SUCH THING] and then I read the story, and thought about it all those year and optioned it and didn't mention it to her. I just waited for about five years before I approached her with it. C: She's never looked more beautiful and elegant as she does here. I actually saw SECRETE LIFE OF WORDS just a couple weeks before AWAY FROM HER at a film festival here in Chicago, so the connection between the two films seemed appropriate in such close proximity. SP: That's funny. C: SECRET LIFE is a pretty remarkable film in its own right. SP: I really love that film. C: I hope that people get a chance to see it because it's a very easy film to take into your heart and become passionate about. And you worked with your MY LIFE WITHOUT ME director Isabel Coixet on that film as well. You've worked with many great directors in your career. Are there and whose style and mood influenced they way you work as a director? SP: I think Atom Egoyan has always been a really big influence on me. Obvious as an actor, he was the first person who made me feel that that was a useful thing to do with my life, to be involved in films like his. He's also been incredibly generous to me and a real mentor to me as I made my short films. He executive produced this film. He's been a huge influence on me. I think also Isabel Coixet, as well as Wim Wenders. C: I noticed Atom's name as executive producer on AWAY FROM HER. How much did he have to do with the actual making of this film? Or was it more general guidance? SP: He was not directly hands-on involved, but he was always available if I needed advice on anything, and if we had a moment in the editing room where we got stuck, we'd invite him in. He would always have one very precise thing to say that would change everything. It was graceful in the way he gave that advice. C: THE SWEET HEREAFTER wasn't the first thing I ever saw you in, but it was probably the first one where you registered with me that you were probably an actor that would be around for a while, hopefully making films of that caliber. I wanted to talk to you about two of the actor in AWAY FROM HER, neither of which I have seen before, at least not that I remember, who just blew me away in this movie. Kristen Thomson [who plays a nurse at the care center] is such a treasure, and adds such a plainspoken quality to the film. Where did you find her? SP: She's probably my favorite actors in the world. She's mostly done theatre in Toronto, and she's somebody whose work I see again and again when she's on stage. And one of my first short films, I SHOUT LOVE, I based around her, and I think that was her first film role. Since then, I think she's been in one other film that she wrote. And this is her first larger film. To me, I would never make a film without her. She's so amazing. C: I have to admit, she came across as so authentic that wasn't even sure she was an actress. SP: [laughs] That's so cool. C: And her character's name, Kristy, is so similar to her name that I thought maybe she's a nurse. Then we have your co-lead Gordon Pinsent as Grant. I looked up his film credits, and I've definitely seen some of the films he's been in, but I felt like I was seeing him for the first time. He was great in this, so stoic and yet when he shows cracks, it's so tough to watch. Where did you first see him? SP: Gordon is someone who's not that well known outside of Canada, but within Canada, he's an icon. I grew up with him as one of my favorite actors, and again, when adapting the short story, I really did write that part for Julie but equally, I wrote that part for Gordon. C: It's funny you mentioned that Gordon is popular in Canada, because I've always been intrigued by the fact that Canadian filmmakers and actors all seem work together and cross-pollinate each others films. I'll admit, I get some, but not a lot of, exposure to Canadian films, which you'd think would be an easy thing, but it isn't always. For years, I was obsessed with finding any film or TV that Don McKeller did. You were in his film LAST NIGHT; you were both in David Cronenberg's film eXistenZ; you've both worked with Atom Egoyan. Is that real? Is that still happening? Or is that just me imagining that based on my limited exposure to the Canadian film industry? SP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It is kind of real. It is a really nice, close-knit kind of supportive community, and that's a great thing to be a part of. C: And you and Don are both on the television show "Slings and Arrows," which I believe plays on the Sundance Channel here in America. It's actually kind of fun to watch. SP: Because there they all are. [laughs] C: I think the thing that hooked me into McKeller was this show he was in called "Twitch City," which was such a bizarre and funny show. SP: [laughs] Oh, yes. That's a great show. Where do you live? How do you know about that show? C: I live in Chicago. I'm actually in Charleston, South Carolina right now for a sort of working vacation. These shows will just pop up on cable, and I don't know what inspired me to watch them initially, but I get hooked. McKeller is a guy I'd love to talk to one day. We talked earlier about how you handled this subject matter of growing old and how I liked that you put a fresh spin on the way these stories are often told. Was that something you did specifically? Were there specific things you did not want to see in your film because you'd seen it so many other times? SP: One thing I really wanted to avoid was an overuse of flashbacks. I feel that whenever we make a film about people over a certain age, we really rely on seeing them for half the film as their younger selves. I felt like because this film is about memory that what factually happened in the past was actually not that important, compared to how they remembered it subjectively. I also find the idea that we have to justify making a film about older people by showing them when they were young a little bit off. I wanted to make sure we stayed focused on them when they are older. C: You do have brief uses of flashbacks here, but they are more impressionistic, idealized maybe, no dialog. And it's tough when you've got an actress like Julie Christie, and everybody knows exactly what she looked like when she was that age. SP: She's an icon, I know. That's really hard. C: I've noticed that in just about every article I've read about you, the writers inevitably bring up and sometimes focus on your politics. It's almost frustrating in a way because it always feels like an oversimplification of your beliefs and the issues you choose to promote and your given rights as a free and concerned citizen of the world. SP: Right, right. C: Do the worlds that you co-inhabit, as both an activist and an actor exist together peacefully, or is that a tough balance? SP: It's a tough balance, and I think that's because I'm not interested or good about being a spokesperson. I think my involvement in politics stems from me being interested in being behind the scenes and organizing. That's what I'm good at. I'm not actually that good at the public part of it. And yet, there's a constant pressure to be public from the organizations themselves. So I find this celebrity/activist thing really complicated ethically, and when I'm working alongside people I know can speak so much more eloquently to the topic. And I find it weird to get to comfortable with the idea with, well that's the way the world works. So, yeah, I find it tricky to find that balance and figure it out. C: I was amused that you were going to be in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, because here's this big studio films and first of all its seemed so unlike anything you'd done before. But I wasn't surprised at the choice because it may be your most overtly political film to date. SP: Exactly! [laughs] C: What elements of that story drew you to be in a zombie movie? SP: I love the original Romero movies. This is a film I would actually go and see in the theater. And it's sort of like that's my only criteria for whether I would do a film at this point: would I actually go and see this? Generally I see more independent, smaller films, but I also do occasionally go see films like this, because something that is based on a Romero film would be something I'd go and see. C: And the whole criticism of consumerism, which is more or less left intact for the remake had to appeal to you. SP: Right. C: And the blood, guts, and flesh eating is just a bonus. Every message needs a vessel, right? SP: [laughs] Exactly. C: I think a lot of Americans first saw you in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHHAUSEN, when you were all of nine years old. Do you a defining Terry Gilliam memory? SP: [laughs] Actually, my defining Terry Gilliam memory is quite recent. I actually had a long e-mail exchange with him recently that got published in the "Toronto Star" about my experiences on that film, which were far from ideal and quite traumatic for me. And I loved talking to him about it because he's kind of…he is a mad man and he is crazy and he does want the film to work above all else, but he's also extremely human and I thought he was very open to my criticism of that time. Since that exchange, I've read interviews with him where I fell like, okay he didn't get it as much as I thought he did, where he's say, "In the end, Sarah decided it was just her parents…" And I'm thinking, well no actually it was about the fact that as a child, you do seem completely happy and completely adaptable because that's the way you're supposed to be as opposed to the way you're really feeling sometimes. So making that movie was not a good experience in my life, and it definitely left me with a few scars. C: When you say it was traumatic, was that because of him specifically or the whole experience? SP: No, not him. It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it's dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe. C: We talked before about some of the very cool directors you've worked with in the past, in addition to Gilliam and Egoyan and Cronenberg and Don McKeller. You've also worked with Doug Limon on GO, Michael Winterbottom on THE CLAIM, Hal Hartley you mentioned before, Kathryn Bigelow on THE WEIGHT OF WATER. But DON'T COME KNOCKING put you squarely between two of my heroes, director Wim Wenders and writer/co-star Sam Shepard. You're obviously a well-read person, so that must have been bliss for you. SP: It was really great. I felt like I'd died and gone to Heaven actually. C: Were you able to sit around and talk to Shepard a lot? SP: A lot, yeah. And it was a great time to do that actually, because I has this original screenplay I'd been working on rejected a million times and I was trying to get this film made. And to be able to sit and talk to him about writing and have those conversations was really thrilling. C: Is that rejected screenplay you mentioned the one about the young girl on the TV show that on the surface seems remarkably autobiographical [Sarah had great success in Canada as a child being on the series "Road to Avonlea"]? SP: That's the one. It's actually a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old girl discovering her sexuality, but it's within the really bizarre environment of being on a kids show. It's actually really no autobiographical, even though sounds like it is. I think it's like if someone wrote a film about their hometown and that environment but the characters aren't necessarily real. C: I always imagined Wim Wenders as being a fairly loose director, very casual. SP: He is and, at the same time, he's very clear about what he wants. He's a great combination of being open to what happens and knowing exactly what he wants. C: Do you have any other filmmaker heroes of the past or present whose tone and atmosphere you aspired to with your first feature? SP: I don't think so with AWAY FROM HER. I was trying desperately not to be too derivative of anybody. There are filmmakers who I obviously adore and I'm sure impacted me in many ways, but I'm not sure I was trying to imitate any of them. I love Kieslowski, I love Terrence Malick, and I love Bergman. I don't know if they influenced me, but they are certainly people that I admire. C: Strangely enough, I have the name Bergman in my notes about your film, if only for the deep-voiced bearded man at the center of the story. SP: Exactly [laughs]. C: What other films do you have coming up either as an actor or director? SP: I am starting on HBO's JOHN ADAMS miniseries with Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti, and then I'm doing a movie with Jaco van Dormael. Have you ever seen TOTO THE HERO? C: Years ago, yes. SP: That's the director. [I'm going to assume Sarah is talking about the announced film MR. NOBODY, although I don't think it's been announced officially that she's in it.] C: Who are you playing in JOHN ADAMS? SP: I'm playing John Adams' daughter Nabbie. [Again, I don't think this has actually been announced yet.] C: I'm really looking forward to that. David McCullough's book is a fascinating read. And good luck with AWAY FROM HER. It's the kind of film I can't imagine won't connect with people that find it. SP: Thank you so much. This was actually a nice, refreshing interview in the middle of a really grueling day, so I really appreciate it. C: I strive to make the process as painless as possible. SP: No, it was really lovely. Thank you very much. Take care. Capone
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