Posted on Friday, May 17th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
When I first saw Stories We Tell I was stunned. When I saw it again, I knew that reaction was warranted. And when I talked to the film’s director, everything was further illuminated. That director is Sarah Polley, who is probably best known for roles in films like Go and Dawn of the Dead. Polley is undeniably great in those movies, but after seeing her third feature film Stories We Tell, there’s no doubt she’s an even better director.
Polley approaches Stories We Tell with brilliantly layered execution. On the surface, it’s a personal documentary about her family history, featuring accounts from her brothers, sisters, parents, and friends. The basic story follows how her mother and father met, and started a family. From there, Polley questions the construction of story and truth. She breaks down the structure, turning the camera on herself. Finally, Polley uses this pleasant, thought-provoking documentary to pose surprising questions regarding the essence of cinema. Stories We Tell is now playing in select cities nationwide, so you can finally see what I mean for yourself.
Which brings us to a warm May morning poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel. I was lucky enough to sit down with Polley to discuss her wonderful film and ask all the burning questions I had after seeing it. You can read the conversation below.
Note: While this is the full transcript of the conversation, at certain points we discuss reveals that should be considered major spoilers. I will make a nice big, bold, declaration when that happens. But really, the interview is best once you’ve seen the movie. (Here’s a link to the theater list)
/Film: What made you want to make a movie that explores the function of storytelling?
Sarah Polley: I think what kind of captivated me about what was happening in the aftermath of this story in my own life was the way we were all telling the stories about it, and the way those stories were different from each other. There are these huge gaps between these stories we were telling, both in terms of the fact of them, but also in terms of the perspective and what we decided were the most important elements of it. I got really transfixed by this idea that it was so necessary for us to be able to tell this story to make sense of some kind of basic confusion we had in our life. I just started thinking of storytelling as a really basic human need and wanted to make a film about that, I think.
In doing that, did you have to un-learn anything? You are used to directing narratives with pre-determined characters and arcs, and this is so different.
Yeah, I think what I found really difficult was I felt like I didn’t have a model for it, so I felt like there were a lot of films that really inspired me. It’s not like I was breaking new ground. Films like The Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier or F for Fake by Orson Welles… people have been experimenting with this form for a really long time, but I did feel like I didn’t have… Usually when you make a film, you don’t have films in your mind that you’re emulating hopefully, but you know that you have something to think about in terms of what you’re aspiring to and this really felt like grappling in the dark. Like I really felt like I had no idea what this was going to be and what it was going to look like. I had a basic sense of the feel of it and the ideas I wanted to explore and a tone, but it was very hard to imagine it before it was completely done.
You open yourself up in this. Were you ever self-conscious about that, or a little nervous about the idea of everyone seeing your journey, and meeting your family?
Yeah, I mean I was really nervous about exposing myself, but I think more so nervous about exposing my family. I was just worried too, like if you haven’t been in the public eye and you put yourself out there and you say things and they are interpreted in another way that you mean or you don’t say things as clearly as you’d like or they are misinterpreted. I got really worried about putting people in that position who weren’t used to it. So that was a really terrifying aspect of the film.
Are you fine with it now? Are you happy with people asking you these sorts of questions?
Totally. Actually this is my favorite part of the whole filmmaking process. Usually it’s not like that. I feel like the filmmaking process itself was really, really hard and full of uncertainty and terrifying and kind of claustrophobic and I feel like this part of it, showing the film and getting to talk to people about it, feels like an extension of what the project of the film was in the first place. It’s about impressions and storytelling and different perspectives and so this feels like a natural progression and definitely the most joyful part of the process for me.
I know you shot the movie over the span of five years. Can you talk to me a little bit about the structure of how you put it together? For example, what interviews did you do first? When did you decide to turn the camera on yourself?
[POTENTIAL SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT]
So we started with the interview with my dad, and that was about four days, and then I spent weeks just watching that material and pulling threads out of it that lead me to figure out what stories I wanted to focus on in the film. Then I interviewed my biological father and then from there sort of decided what the rest of the interviews were going to be and I don’t know if I ever actually decided to turn the camera on myself. I think it just sort of happened. We were recording my dad in the recording studio reading his writing and we decided just last minute to film it as well and then we decided more or less to put a camera on me at the same time. I didn’t think I was ever going to use that footage, so the fact that I included myself, I think what happened was I decided that I did need to be in the film in some way. I wasn’t comfortable with doing a “voice of god” from my perspective. I actually thought that that was besides the point, but I did want to include myself as the character of the filmmaker, the investigator, the person who was trying to get to the bottom of things.
Once you shot the two interviews with your dad and your biological father, did you go away from it for a while?
I took a lot of long breaks, so I don’t know the exact time line, but it was probably like at least seven or eight months before I filmed anything else.
You said the film came about while discovering about your biological father, which is one of the main stories, but it’s also about questioning “story” itself. So as you were making the movie, did your memory of how this actually happened intersect with how you were going to tell it in this movie?
Totally. So now when I watch it, I find that my own memories of what happened from my point of view become murky and murkier all the time. So many things I will think back on and I’ll remember the version in the film, that’s somebody else’s version, not necessarily mine and it becomes really hard to pick that apart to a certain point.
[NOW COME THE REALLY BIG SPOILERS]
I’d like to talk to you about a couple of things that are a little bit more spoilery and I’ll make sure people know. First, how many authentic home movies are there in the film? Percentage-wise, how much of what we see is real?
It’s about forty or fifty percent real. So there’s a lot of real footage in it.
When you’re casting people to play your family, do you cast for looks? They don’t really have to talk, but they have to blend with this footage.
Well Rebecca Jenkins is probably my favorite actor in Canada and one of my favorite actors in the world and she was who we, in our pipe dream, wanted to cast. We didn’t think she’d do it though, because she does leading roles and the idea of doing this silent on camera role where you’re blending in and pretending to be someone else and you might not ever really get acknowledged seemed unlikely to us that she would do it and she did, which was great. So it was kind of a combination, like it wouldn’t have worked if they hadn’t been great actors and Peter Evans and Alex Hatz also, they’re really… All the people who play the family are really, really strong actors and all of those scenes were improvised and that scene just wouldn’t have worked if it was just a bunch of people who look like my family, but couldn’t act. Obviously physicality was important, but we also had amazing makeup, wardrobe, and hair to actually make that work.
That’s the big ‘Oh wow, what we have been watching hasn’t been real’ moment. How did you come up with the idea in your process of making this film?
I think I was always aware from the beginning that I wanted to include the construction of the film in the film, because that was an important part of what we were talking about. This idea of wanting to tell stories and how we are telling the stories. I thought to leave my own process of making this story out of it would have been dishonest in some ways, so I think in its inception it was really important to include that and for that to take the form of recreations and then showing the mechanics and those recreations.
You could have been very up front about it, but now it comes in as a reveal at the beginning of the third act. How did you come to the decision when to reveal that and how exactly to reveal it?
Well it’s strange, because it’s so subjective when people know that they are recreations. To be honest, I didn’t have the specific idea about when I wanted it to be revealed, because I actually thought that there was no way we would get away with it. Throughout, I hoped, if we did a good job people would at times wonder if what they were seeing was real or not. At no point did I think people wouldn’t know until we revealed it. So that was a shock to me in the first few screenings when people were like, “It was so amazing when we saw you in the same frame as your mother” and I was like “Why?” Like I literally didn’t know what they were talking about and it took me a few screenings before I realized like “Oh, people think this footage is real.”
Certainly we worked our asses off to match it as much as possible, but I could have never believed people were actually going to believe it. So that was an amazing surprise for us, that it worked. We were like “Whoa.” Like we couldn’t believe that it had that twist, so in a way I mean I think there are millions of reveals along the way, but people don’t catch them. Seeing Harry at the funeral… I always assume people will know at that moment. Some people do, but most people don’t… Like a lot of people don’t know until the credits and I keep going “But you see me directing it! What do you think those shots in there are like?” “I don’t remember those shots.” I’m like “There’s ten of them!”
But it’s quick and if you’re just running with it… seeing the first one you just start removing yourself from the movie, not in a bad way, but in a good way. And I remember at the Sundance screening some lady asked “So were those recreations?” and I was like “Oh my god…”
But that question comes up a lot and I think it’s not unusual. That took me a long time to figure out what was going on. I remember in a rough cut screening this really brilliant novelist who is a friend of mine, really one of the smartest people I have ever known and has written books about film. I remember at the end of the first screening everybody was talking about Rebecca Jenkins and how great she was and he went “Why is everybody talking about Rebecca Jenkins?” Like, “Oh, because she played my mom.” “What do you mean, she played your mom?” Because we didn’t have credits at that point, he never… So that’s been the thrill of putting the film up. It has this twist. It’s not like we didn’t work really hard to make that happen, but we never would suspect in a million years that that could possibly work. One or two people have said to me they felt really deceived and mislead and bad and I really relate to that feeling, because I feel that often in documentaries or in any kind of film. When I feel actively manipulated, I really don’t like it. I feel quite resentful of it, but it’s a strange thing to have kind of done that without intending it. Do you know what I mean?
Are there any other little things in there? Secrets that the movie holds that people haven’t really thought about yet? It is your real family, right?
It is my real family, but I’ve heard that a couple of times and I really love it. Like I love people think that maybe the whole thing is fake. (Laughs) It’s strange, because what I intended was, I guess it’s the same result. My intention was I wanted people to constantly question what they were seeing and if it was real or if it wasn’t, because that was my experience. My experience going through the story was “Is what I’m hearing fact? Is it nostalgia? Is it subjective? Is it objective?” So I wanted the audience to have a paralleled experience to that and that’s why we worked so hard to make the recreations as accurate as we possibly could. I just think that I under estimated my makeup, hair, wardrobe, actors and art department, because we were working on like no budget. The wig budget was like a hundred bucks and she had to do like five wigs, so obviously it’s not going to be okay, right? But these people are really an amazing group of people, so they ended up taking the film in a different direction, which is really cool to see when your collaborators are at the top of their game and how they could completely change the direction of the film and what it does.
Has the question of this being eligible for a Best Documentary Oscar come up?
I haven’t thought about that and I don’t know anything about how those rules or anything work. I’m blissfully naive having no idea, but my gut is so many documentaries I’ve seen have recreations that I can’t imagine how that would be… It’s real people telling the real story of their lives. We tip our hand. We show that they are recreations. We are not trying to pretend they aren’t. Errol Morris uses recreations all of the time, so I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be, but I don’t know how the rules work and I’m doing my absolute best to not think about that.
We are months and months from that, but honestly it deserves it and is so fantastic.
Thank you. I really appreciate it. That’s awesome. Thanks so much.
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is now playing in select cities. Click here for the full theater listing.
[NOTE: After the interview was over, I asked Polley if Robert Duvall was actually at her mother's funeral. She was confused and then laughed very hard. No, the man in the film who looks just like Robert Duvall is not Robert Duvall. Just a funny coincidence.]