6 Filmmaking Tips From Sarah Polley

By  · Published on January 30th, 2014

Even if you don’t buy into the game and you prefer not to live in a world in which the term “Oscar snub” is used with a straight face, sometimes a lack of recognition for worthy nominees can still sting a little. Such was the case with the conspicuous absence of Sarah Polley’s name when the Best Documentary Feature nominees were announced two weeks ago. After two strong narrative explorations of romantic relationships in the bitter winter of old age and the summer splendor of late youth (Away From Her and Take This Waltz, respectively), Polley redirected her interest in the world of human coupling by turning the camera on herself ‐ or, more accurately, her family, or, even more accurately, who she thinks may be her family, or… Well, just see it if you haven’t already, because Stories We Tell is one of the more passionate, involving, and incisively intelligent mainstream documentaries to be released in quite some time.

AMPAS has had a history of recognizing more conservative, journalistic notions of “documentary” and shown favor for the crowd-pleasers (like this year’s Sugar Man-esque hit 20 Feet From Stardom). But that only speaks more in Polley’s film’s favor, as it potentially joins the ranks of other productively unconventional yet contemporaneously unrecognized documentaries that we continue to regard as seminal well after their release, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.

Regardless of the reputation and recognitions of Stories We Tell, now or in the future, Sarah Polley is certainly a filmmaker whose consistently interesting output via only three feature titles behind the camera makes her one to follow. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director who convinced us to treat Seth Rogen seriously as an actor.

Be an Actor, Filmmaker. Not an Actor/Filmmaker

“I like the feeling of keeping them separate. I find that really gratifying. I can’t imagine combining those. For me, I love the feeling of using different parts of my brain separately.”

Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Zach Braff has shown a love for the whole off-screen/onscreen thing, but Polley (who has been acting professionally since age 8 and was touted throughout childhood as a national treasure by the Canadian press) has preferred to keep her acting and directing duties separate.

Polley’s extensive acting experience no doubt informs and enriches her directing skills ‐ notably her masterful handling of gifted actresses like Julie Christie and Michelle Williams ‐ but her self-designation as a director strictly sitting behind the camera (with the qualified exception of the intensely personal Stories We Tell, a film that is in multiple ways pointedly about her role behind the camera) contributes to her ability to construct a rich experience for her audience. She sees what we ultimately see. And there’s also something admirable and classically anti-fourth-wall-breaking about a filmmaker and consummate performer who makes such intimate work that she’s not on the screen for.

Limitations Are Opportunities

In this 2006 interview on the Canadian Broadcast Channel, Polley attests in detail to the ways in which the economic limitations of Canadian filmmaking have allowed her to realize the films she wants to make with notable creative freedom ‐ “freedom” not referring to the endless resources available to studio films, but the ability to realize the film one seeks to craft to completion. In the years since this interview, Polley has been openly critical and skeptical of the Canadian film industry’s recent emphasis on more commercial fare, which pains the star who still calls Canada home and who mines her life in the great northern neighbor for the stories she tells.

But whatever changes may portend the Canadian film industry, at least Polley began her career knowing what can come of a strict standard for creative freedom, which will no doubt embolden her continued seeking of that standard in her future work.

Draw Your Boundaries and Stick to Them

“In December 2009, I made a film to be aired during the Academy Awards that I believed was to promote the Heart and Stroke Foundation. When I agreed to make this film [The Heart], I was thrilled, as I was proud to be associated with the work of this incredible organization. However, I have since learned that my film is also being used to promote a product. Regretfully, I am forced to remove my name from the film and disassociate myself from it. I have never actively promoted any corporate brand, and cannot do so now.”

Polley has been well known in her home country for her political activism, and she used her childhood renown as a platform for expressing political consciousness and publicly addressing underacknowledged issues. While Polley’s activism has drawn less media attention during her adulthood, she maintains her political convictions in her work and in her life.

The above quote comes from Polley’s decision not to collaborate on a charitable film that turned out to carry pointed yet shrouded commercial motives. As North American filmmaking itself requires some significant capital in order to even complete a film, and as the public functions of the Canadian film industry seem to be showing a decreasing interest in serious work by Canadian filmmakers in favor of commercial competition with Hollywood, Polley must understand that her desire to continue producing adult dramas (a genre virtually unknown to today’s multiplexes) could easily be co-opted with private interests that do not align with her own. In media industries, it’s no doubt tempting to become a corporate tool in order to either pursue your dreams or even contribute to something charitable; so it’s better to know and be convicted in your boundaries well in advance.

Know What Your Lines Are and Don’t Cross Them

This may sound on its face like a piece of advice identical to the one explained above, but this received wisdom (as the 2012 Studio Q interview above shows) is articulated in regards to Polley’s personal life. Polley was a movie and television star before she was a filmmaker, so even when she doesn’t appear on camera in her own films, she is often received as the “star” of these films. With Stories We Tell, she’s put something out in the world that was deeply personal, pointedly introspective, and nakedly transparent. For fans and journalists, the temptation is greater with Polley than perhaps other filmmakers to read Polley’s films through Polley’s own public identity. So she offers these words in order to allow her film to speak for itself rather than permit her public image outside of the film to overwhelm it.

Understand the Human Function of Storytelling

“I was more concerned the film should include everybody’s version and not be one-dimensional . . . Telling stories is our way of coping, a way of creating shape out of a mess. It binds everyone together.”

In a medium prone to narrative, whether you’re making fiction or non-fiction films, “truth” can be a sticky and ultimately irrelevant concept.

Know Relationships, in Work and in Life

“[Away From Her features] the opposite kind of love than we usually celebrate in films, which is new love without knowledge and without hardship. It’s the whole idea of love after life has had its way with you, and after you have kind of failed each other and things have gone off the rails. Yet love still somehow exists between them.”

Polley has been open about her own personal relationships ‐ not as a subject of celebrity gossip, but as an account of personal experiences she’s had while making her films. From the get-go with Away From Her, the 35-year-old Polley has shown a remarkable insight into the complicated shifts that relationships endure. The “infidelities” portrayed in Away From Her and Take This Waltz don’t have a good guy or a bad guy, and are far more complicated than any narrative framing through rule-breaking and forgiveness would allow.

Stories We Tell shows how time allows us to rethink our relationships, explores the ways in which we do and don’t share subjectivities, and exhibits the means by which we map our present experiences onto the past. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would be so insightful on the subject of the emotional life of others if she didn’t have a thorough understanding of her own.

Final Thoughts

It’s difficult to say how applicable any of the above advice is to aspiring filmmakers, as not many people live lives that resemble Sarah Polley’s. This is only a practical guidebook if you’re a child star who grew up in a country with a state-run film industry. But what’s unique about Polley’s work (in method and outcome) is how unconcerned with the practical it is. She isn’t preoccupied with the utilitarian logics of most film industries ‐ e.g., relaying her fame into creative or monetary capital, paying attention to what types of films draw audiences, branding herself as a filmmaker or performer.

Instead, Polley’s films investigate the emotional lives of humans, take seriously the underexplored possibilities of adult drama, and use memory as a palette with which to understand precisely how we understand our lives. Her films, to put it mildly, do not seek an audience, and in so doing prove that there’s always an audience hungry for surprising, insightful, and sincere filmmaking.

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