Sarah Polley and the ‘Stories’ she tells

May 13, 2013

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“It was fascinating and illuminating and exhausting,” Sarah Polley says, sipping iced tea in a Manhattan restaurant. “I wanted to focus on all these voices telling the story in different ways. To me, what was interesting was not the story, but the way you tell it.”

She’s talking about “Stories We Tell,” the personal (and yet universal) tale of Polley’s family, which opened in limited release May 10. The film – Polley’s third as a director – looks at Polley’s family history, focusing on the story of her mother, Diane, who died when Polley was 11.

But, instead of merely remembering her mother’s dynamic life as a vivid, vivacious woman with a love of show business, Polley uses the film to explore the central mystery of her own life: her real parentage. Constructed almost as a detective story at times, the film first paints a loving portrait of Diane Polley’s too-short life, then gets into family secrets.

Specifically: In her teens, Polley became the focus of a running family joke that she looked nothing like her father, Michael, and that, perhaps, he wasn’t her biological father. As she got older, she learned more about her mother’s life – specifically, a six-week stint as an actress working in Montreal (the Polleys lived in Toronto) that preceded her pregnancy with Sarah. Though Michael visited Diane in Montreal and rekindled their marriage, Sarah’s paternity remained a subject of jokey speculation.

To look more deeply into the issue, Polley decided to make a film about it, sitting each of her four siblings and half-siblings down to tell the family’s story. She gathered more than 200 hours of footage, including reenactments of key scenes involving actors to play her parents and their children.

“There were a lot of pitfalls to the idea, not least of which was self-indulgence,” says Polley, whose previous films were the award-winning “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz.” “That’s why it was so essential to create a narrative of our lives, to possibly find the truth in the past.

“Which is, of course, impossible. The closest I could get was a cacophony of voices. I wanted to be inclusive, to let everybody speak. And that felt close to the truth.”

She had no trouble convincing her family to participate, though her mother’s sister “had reservations about this stuff coming out. But she was supportive despite her reservations,” Polley says. “But everybody had reservations. I interviewed them each for about 10 hours and I don’t think anyone was elated about that. It was a tough process. But I expected a lot more resistance than I got.”

The form the film took shifted in Polley’s mind – and in the editing room – as she worked on it: “I thought I was making an experimental film that was a hybrid between fictional and documentary,” she says. “I thought it would be more theatrical. In fact, one idea I had was to have everyone in a theater, taking turns on stage telling their story. I wanted a question in people’s minds what was real and what wasn’t.”

The film, she says, “could have been 40 hours long. There was so much we cut out, including a lot about my mother and the facts of life in relation to men. I mean, she produced the first ‘Kids in the Hall’ pilot and did a lot of amazing things. I had a lot of pain and regret at not being able to show the whole person. But I hope I captured her spirit.”

The mother of a 1-year-old, Polley feels torn between the various careers that pull her away from full-time parenting.

“Writing is my favorite part,” says Polley, 29, who has been acting since she was 6. “I’d like to focus on that mostly, directing now and then. It’s not practical to juggle making films, acting and having a baby.”

Any thoughts to directing herself in a film?

“I’m pretty happy directing other people,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I think directing myself would be a kind of hell.”

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