Sarah Polley had a secret. She had kept it for years, at one point calling a Canadian journalist and begging them, through tears, not to run a story about it. But even years later, when she directed a documentary film and conducted dozens of interviews with her family and friends about this very secret… she kept it to herself. As Stories We Tell prepared to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, only handfuls of people knew anything beyond the anodyne description of a documentary described in the festival guide as "a personal essay on the intractable subjects of truth and memory."
Now that the film is fully out there, having traveled the festival circuit for months and now arriving in theaters on a wave of critical acclaim (see theater listings here), Polley is free to talk about its central secret. The actress who doesn't do a lot of interviews, and who freely admits to usually hating them, has found herself as a kind of secret keeper all over again, as journalists and audience members moved by the film tell her their own family secrets-- as she told me when we met at a Manhattan hotel in April, "It turns out that film journalists have the most fucked up families in the world."
There's definitely something about Polley's movies that burrows under the skin, whether it's the restrained and elegant and devastating Away From Her-- her directorial debut, made when she was 28 years old-- or the brash and emotional Take This Waltz, which blew away some of us and infuriated others. The emotions of Stories We Tell aren't quite as intense as those in Take This Waltz, though the stakes are even higher, but preparing to talk to Polley about it requires fine-tuning your emotional antennas a bit, thinking not just about what you want to know from her, but how to speak to someone who is so consistently generous and insightful in the questions she's asked of her characters thus far. When I saw Stories We Tell at Sundance I tweeted "How I wish I could see humans, our foibles and our beauty the way Sarah Polley does."
And then, of course, I sat down with her, a woman not much older than me, who says "I think" often before making a declarative statement, and who still seems amazed that her extraordinary movie has affected anybody at all. It doesn't read like false modesty, though Polley also has a courage of conviction that not many of us do, following through with a wild idea about telling an old family story and making one of the year's best films in the process. It's still best not to know much about the story, or the secret at its center-- suffice it to say that Polley is investigating one of the most frequently re-told stories in her family's history, one that has her at the center and one that has many, many conflicting versions of the truth. If you haven't seen the film yet I'd recommend avoiding this interview, not only because it gets into some reveals that are best hearing yourself, but because it's way more satisfying to hear about the creation of something after you've experienced it on your own first.
When asked recently to list my top 10 directors who had started their careers since 2000, I chose Polley as my #1. As you can imagine, I had a hard time looking through this interview and cutting out many of her responses-- but if you've seen Stories We Tell, I'm betting you're in the same position I was, simply wanting more from the deft, compassionate mind that had created it.
An online review of this suggested you used the word "interrogation" to describe the film because it implies that something is supposed to fall apart. Was that in your mind?
No, I think that actual full line, which I cut half of it, was like I was just joking with my dad and I said, “Dad, this isn’t actually a film. It’s an interrogation. It’s like the Canadian Guantanamo." And we just took out the Guantanamo part because it wasn’t really that funny.” But, I mean, I think it is what it became. I was so desperate to sort of find some kind of truth, to kind of look through all the different lenses I could at this story to find some kind of essence to hang onto or something tangible, and that was such an impossibility. So, I think that in the end, it started to feel like that, like I was interrogating people.
Did you feel bad about that? Interrogation implies kind of negative thing to people that you love.
No, I mean I think I was always full of self-doubt throughout the making of it. I think that it’s a crazy thing to embark on to be asking your family to sort of open up and talk about things that have been buried for so long publicly, so I don’t think I ever was fully comfortable with the project I’d set out to do.