Sarah Polley

I’ve conducted nearly fifty interviews over the last two years (my first one was with Jean-Marc Vallée for C.R.A.Z.Y. – though I’d also done one with the lovely Abeille Gélinas for the school paper prior to that), but it’s still somewhat surreal to have Sarah Polley give you a call to chat about her latest film. And what a film it is: Away From Her, the Canadian actress’ first feature as a writer-director, is a mature, masterfully calibrated picture any filmmaker would be proud of.

I saw the film for a second time this week and, again, it made me cry so much! What was the mood on set, was it as heartbreaking shooting the film as it is to watch it?
“We had a really great time making the film, and there was a lot of joy in making the film. I think because, in the end, it is a love story, there’s a lot that kept us going.”

It’s true that there’s a lot of beauty and grace but…
“It’s still sad, yeah!”

You were 27 when you made the film, which is the age I am right now, and I couldn’t imagine making such a mature, wise film.
“Well, you’re doing something with your life, obviously. (laughing) I couldn’t imagine being a journalist at 27…”

Still, it feels like it’s a film made from someone who’s 60 or 70, looking back on life.
“I don’t know. I think that in a way, if you’ve had any kind of relationship that’s lasted a few years and been through some trials and difficulties, it’s easy to imagine the inevitability of getting older and what love might look like in 44 years. I don’t have an actual sense of it cause I haven’t lived it, but I feel like I have enough experience thinking about love that I made a connection to it.”

Is this what attracted you to the Alice Munro short story?
“Yes, I think it is. I was really interested in this idea of what unconditional love could mean at the end of a very complicated, full life, at the end of a real marriage that wasn’t this idyllic, romantic life, that there were struggle involved, and betrayals and failures.

Love stories are usually just about the beginning, they end when the couple gets together but that’s not the end – for all we know, they break up six months later! Your film shows that true love is long term, wouldn’t you say?
“Mmm… It’s strange, because whenever we talk about love in the context of oh, these people have been together forever and ever, we want to imagine that life has been easy or that all that was difficult was the decision to be together. But I don’t know anybody like that, I think that the only sort of true romantic ideals are ones that something really tested.”

The film is often described as an “Alzheimer movie”, but it’s so much more than that. It’s not a disease-of-the-week movie, it’s about the nature of memory, the toll of time… Was that in the original story or was this something you pushed towards?
“That was very much in the story, in a way the film concentrates more on the disease than the film even did. But to me, the film was never about Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, I felt that it’s really about memory, about love and about guilt. It’s not really about the idea of what Alzheimer’s disease is. It’s an important metaphor in the film, but I don’t think it’s its heart.”

The structure of the film is very interesting, the way it plays with chronology.
“I wanted the structure of the film to kind of mirror the fragmentation of memory that Fiona is experiencing. But also I thought that, knowing that we were going somewhere so strange with Grant, it would give the film a kind of momentum and forward movement that it needed.”

Another thing that makes the film work so well is the long history we have as moviegoers with Julie Christie. We’ve seen her young, we’ve seen her through her life, so it’s all the more affecting to see her aging and ailing like that. Did you want to build on that history?
“To a certain extent I was aware of it. I was really determined not to play half the film in flashbacks, and it helped to have an actor that we’re so aware of when they were young that we already have this kind of subconscious feeling of her when she was young, so we didn’t need to see that over and over again to describe it.”

It’s kind of the same thing as if you would be in a film like that in 50 years…
“(laughing) Maybe not to the same extent!”

With Grant (Gordon Pinsent), it’s almost the most difficult character, because he’s aware of all that’s going away.
“Exactly. I think that when Alzheimer’s disease happens, it’s probably harder the longest for the people who love the person who’s slipping away, who are still aware of every moment of it.”

So in making the film, we’re you going through the point of view of the husband character?
“For me, it was definitely through his eyes, I was definitely interested in telling the story through his eyes. It’s something also that struck me about the original story, it was so interesting that she took on the male point of view, it was very precise and quite honest but also very apathetic to have.”

The visual approach is sober, yet with some poetic touches. What did you want to achieve with the look of the film?
“I wanted it to be quite simple and elegant, but I felt that the light was very important and I wanted every frame to be infused with very very strong winter sunlight. I worked very closely with my cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, in terms of defining the look of the film. ”

It’s a very Canadian movie in the way it shows winter, it seems like an endless winter, both in the beauty of it and the coldness, which works with the themes.
“She alludes to it a few times in the short story, and I remember thinking ‘God, I would so love to capture this on film.’ You know, cause it’s a landscape I’m so in love with. But it was really cold, it was about minus 35 some days!”

I also loved the music in the film, especially the Neil Young songs. Was that to make it even more Canadian?
“It wasn’t consciously to make it more Canadian, but I was writing the script while I listened to Neil Young and to K.D. Lang’s album where she covers his songs, so it became really important to use those in the film. It really set the tone for me.”

I think for a lot of people, after watching the film, the first thing they’ll wanna do is go listen to old Neil Young albums and cry some more.
(laughing)

There’s a line Fiona says at some point that I thought was interesting, about “multiplexes showing American garbage.” It doesn’t seem like a random reference!
“(laughing) No, it’s not random at all! I think this is a constant struggle to get small independent films seen when American blockbusters are constantly crowding them out. I’m a little bit surprised actually by how great a shot we’re getting, I’m really thrilled and amazed that this film is being given a chance to be seen. I feel very lucky about that.”

Atom Egoyan is an executive producer on the film – was he an influence in your work?
“I think he has been, because doing his films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter was really pivotal in my life, so yeah, he’s been a huge influence. He’s also been very supportive of me since I started to make my own films. But I was surprised how much I had to relearn the process from scratch, because I think that every filmmaker has to kind of reinvent the process for themselves. I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out who I was as a filmmaker.”

On the flipside, when you act in another film, do you think you’ll have a different view of the process?
“I think I will, I learned a lot from these actors, they were so unbelievably devoted and so helpful to me. I think I know a bit more about how to serve the process a little bit better.”

You’re going to be on the jury at the next Cannes Film Festival, what are your feelings about that?
“I couldn’t be more excited about it. I think it’s such a dream job to watch great films and talk to really interesting people about them, so I’m absolutely thrilled”

Well, that about does her. It is kind of a dream job, watching a great film like Away From Her then talking about it. The film opens today May 4th in limited release, then it goes wider on the 11th, including here in Montreal. Don’t miss it!