It used to be considered remarkable when a child actor successfully made the transition to an adult acting career, rather than self-destructing, disappearing, or both. But while actors from Christian Bale to Dakota Fanning to Kirsten Dunst to Joseph Gordon-Levitt have made that leap without significant interruptions in their careers, it’s much less common to see child actors following Sarah Polley’s arc, and making the leap from child actor to adult actor to filmmaker. Polley started acting when she was 5, most notably starring in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 epic The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen at age 9, and in the Disney Channel series Road To Avonlea from 1990 to 1996. As an adult, she’s tended to focus on independent and small-budget fare (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, No Such Thing, The Weight Of Water), with occasional dips into larger-scale, more action-oriented projects (Dawn Of The Dead, Splice) and TV series (Slings & Arrows, John Adams).
In 2006, Polley scripted and directed her first film, the critically acclaimed Away From Her, starring Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s-stricken woman calmly severing ties from her mourning husband. Six years later, Polley has returned to writing and directing with Take This Waltz, a complicated, messy romance in which three characters—Margot (Michelle Williams), Lou (Seth Rogen), and Daniel (Luke Kirby)—form an uncomfortable love triangle as Margot attempts to decide who she is and what she wants. Polley recently spoke to The A.V. Club about knowing what to expect from Take This Waltz’s reviews, the purpose behind the film’s group nude scene, and why you can’t be too subtle in making a film about the emptiness of life.
The A.V. Club: The last time we spoke, you said Away From Her specifically came out of reading an Alice Munro story and wanting to see Julie Christie play the main character, since you had just worked with her. Was there a similar specific inspiration for Take This Waltz?
Sarah Polley: It’s funny, I can actually trace the very beginning of the idea of this film back to Julie Christie again. When we were shooting Away From Her, just afterward, she gave me a couple of books on Buddhism that talked a lot about the concept of emptiness and about life having a gap in it, and what we do with that. And I think it was reading those books and starting to really be interested in that philosophy that made me want to make a film about that, about what we do with that gap we walk around with, and our need to fill it and to change up our life constantly to feel complete, and our constant failure to be able to achieve that.
AVC: You wrote Away From Her with her in mind, and with other specific actors in mind for the main roles. Did that happen here as well?
SP: Not in the same way. I had the idea for Seth [Rogen] very early on, because I’ve always wanted to see him play a dramatic role and he has such a goodness about him, and an authenticity I really wanted to anchor the whole film around. I really wanted the whole film to feel as real and dynamic and full-blooded as he does. So he was the only person I really had in my mind. Sarah Silverman [who plays Lou’s sister], I thought of after the first draft. My costume director had the brilliant idea of casting her, and I’d always been a huge fan of hers. For me, Daniel and Margot were much more mysterious. It really required me meeting Michelle [Williams] and Luke [Kirby] to really understand who those characters were.
AVC: There have been so many movies over the past 10 years about frustrated man-children, and Seth Rogen has played several of those roles. He has a bit of that characterization here as well, but it’s a more rounded and non-comedic role. Did you have that character archetype in mind when you were scripting?
SP: I don’t think I did consciously, but I can see what you mean when you talk about those parallels. But I don’t think I had that specifically in mind.
AVC: Coming out of Away From Her, were you facing any specific expectations about the kind of movies or the subject matter of the movies you make that affected this film?
SP: I definitely felt that pressure for a couple of years, and I was developing a few different projects that I think would have been much more along the lines of what people would have expected me to make after that film. Like, things that were much more classical and traditional and restrained. And I actually ran into a film critic a year or two after Away From Her came out, and he said, “What are you working on next?” and I said, “Oh, I have a few things,” and he said, “Just so you know, the reviews for your next film have already been written. It’s going to say, ‘Disappointing sophomore attempt by Sarah Polley.’ And we’re just going to, like, insert the name of whatever the film is. So just make sure you make whatever you want, because it won’t matter. People will be disappointed.” So I was like, “Okay.” It was kind of a great thing to have someone say to me, because it really freed me up to make exactly what I wanted to make. And this was an idea I had that was really joyful to work on, and a lot of fun. I felt like I could be bold visually, and try things and experiment, and be very playful in the process, so I decided this was the time to do it. You know, if the deck was stacked against me anyway, I might as well do something I really loved.
AVC: Are you going to check in with him and see whether the reviews for your movie after this have already been written, and what they say?
SP: [Laughs.] Yeah, I probably should.
AVC: There have certainly been some “disappointing sophomore effort” reviews already. Do you pay attention to your reviews? And if you see that specific review, do you laugh because you feel you know where it’s coming from?
SP: I generally find the reviews for this film to be smart, whether they’re positive or negative, so I haven’t been really disappointed. The positive ones make me feel like people are really getting what I intended, and that’s really thrilling. And the few that have been negative—maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I feel like they’ve all had criticisms or complaints I can relate to. And I’m unsure if, as an audience member, I wouldn’t share those criticisms. Like, I think the things people are bringing up that they have problems with are all things that have crossed my mind at one stage or another, whether it be during the screenplay, during the shoot, or during the edit.
So if the criticism was coming out of nowhere, and I felt blindsided and it felt unfair, it would be difficult. But because some of the issues that have come up are things I wondered about in the screenplay stage, and I chose to just keep going anyway, there’s a lot for me to learn from it, and a lot to be gleaned. I’m not trying to be Pollyanna-ish about it, I actually really feel like I’ve learned a great deal as a filmmaker from what people’s issues have been. And at the same time, I feel like most of the reviews have been really great and make me feel like people are getting what I intended anyway. So the whole process has been pretty fantastic, especially because… People didn’t come out of Away From Her debating anything. Like, they didn’t come out violently disagreeing about what they thought about the characters. It was a really great, positive experience, but it was a bit one-dimensional, and I feel like with this film—I’ve heard married couples break into a fight as the credits roll. I’ve heard friends go bananas on each other about who they loved and who they hated, because they’ve completely aligned themselves with opposite characters. People love or hate [Margot], or they think her decision is fantastic or terrible, and I feel like it’s a much more interesting, dynamic experience to make a film that’s actually provoking dialogue and provoking passionate response one way or the other. So I feel like if every film I make could be this contentious, I’d be thrilled, because I didn’t really know I was making anything controversial at all.
AVC: Did you know you were making something ambiguous? Did you set out to make the characters complicated enough that there would be some debate there, where it wouldn’t just be: “Here’s the obvious hero, here’s the obvious villain”?
SP: I definitely wanted to make a film without heroes or villains, and I definitely wanted to make a film where the characters were as likeable as they were unlikeable, and that we could go back and forth on how we felt about them. So it was intentional for it to be ambiguous, it was intentional for it to leave us with more questions than answers, but I’ve been surprised how many people see it from one character’s point of view or another’s. I feel that people are really bringing their own relationships and past relationships to the film, and that’s why they’re so heavily invested in who they think is right and who they think is wrong.
AVC: Do you have specific opinions about who’s right and wrong yourself? Have some of those opinions or fights surprised you, because they come from such different interpretations of the characters than yours?
SP: I guess what I find surprising are the assumptions people are making about what I intended as a filmmaker. So I feel like when people are really critical of Margot, there’s an underlying assumption that I thought this was a really great, flawless character, and they actually think she’s very selfish. When in fact I felt like she was selfish, too. I wrote her to be selfish and human and lovely and vulnerable and a total mess and really self-indulgent. Like, she’s supposed to be all of those things. We’re so used to, in film, having a protagonist that is essentially sympathetic, and we try not to rock the boat too much around our sympathies for our protagonists, so I think people have become very simplistic in the way they interpret a filmmaker’s intentions. I think in the days of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck characters, people accepted that you could have a protagonist that was a bit of a mess and a piece of work. And now if there’s anything flawed or unlikeable about your lead character, it’s assumed that you could not possibly have intended that, because it’s forbidden in mainstream film now.
AVC: Margot’s relationship with Daniel sometimes seems very antagonistic. There’s a lot of “Shut up, asshole” dialogue between them, and the scene where she keeps calling him “gaylord” and he gets offended. What does that say to you about their relationship, or their suitability for each other?
SP: I think it’s more about their chemistry. There’s something really thrilling and exciting about being able to embark on hardcore teasing with someone. I think there’s something incredibly sexy about that, and it feels very close to the edge of the boundaries already, when you’re sort of making fun of and letting yourself be made fun of by someone you don’t know very well. I think it was a way of creating that kind of chemistry between them.
AVC: There are several moments in the movie where the characters directly spell out the subtext: her speech about not liking to be between things, and the shower scene where the conversation is about how everyone and everything gets old. Were these points where you were concerned about audiences missing the point if it wasn’t stated in explicit terms?
SP: I think not really worried that they wouldn’t get it, but if you’re going to make a film that’s at its root about emptiness and about life having a gap in it, I think it’s a mistake to be too oblique. I mean, I think you’re already making a film about something that can be essentially uncinematic. So I didn’t have a problem with people talking about what the film is about, because I felt like it’s not actually that Western a concept, the idea that we may just age, time may just pass, new things get old, we may need to live with emptiness. I don’t think these were concepts we’re all that comfortable with, or even familiar with, in terms of the films we make or the things we talk about and write, so I had no problem being somewhat heavy-handed with that. Some people don’t get that stuff anyway, no matter how many times people say it in the film.
AVC: A lot of attention has been put on the shower scene, which happens whenever a film shows famous people naked. Was it difficult shooting that scene, or putting it out there knowing some people would only take it in a prurient way?
SP: I wasn’t worried about that at all, and I don’t think people really have. I mean, I was definitely aware that I was asking those women to put themselves out there in a way I’m not sure I’d have the courage to. Especially in the Internet age, when those images don’t get limited to the context of the film, which I think is a really respectful context in terms of how their bodies are being used. They end up on Mr. Skin, and in this world where they’re just being analyzed and broken down. So I was pretty nervous about it, and I know they were, too. But I felt it was important to me to make a film that neither objectified nor made fun of women’s bodies, and for those bodies to be of all ages. And also for there to be something unexceptional about the nudity, that it was kind of everyday and in the middle of conversation, as opposed to a big event. I think the film ultimately is a lot about sexuality, and so to shy away from the human body felt strange to me. But I also didn’t just want the human body to be used in this sort of sexualized context all the time.
AVC: What’s up for you next? Is your adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace the current project?
SP: It is, yeah. Alias Grace will be the next film I’ll make, but right now I’m just taking time at home with my baby, so it’ll be a little while.
AVC: What’s proven most challenging about that project?
SP: What’s most challenging with Alias Grace is how to retain the genius ambiguity of the novel in terms of what actually happened with the character. I’m curious to see how I’m going to be able to protect that ambiguity through the financing process. [Laughs.] But it’s really important that I do.