Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Scott Macaulay interviewed Away From Her director Sarah Polley for the Spring ’07 issue. Away From Her is nominated for Best Lead Actress (Julie Christie) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sarah Polley).
Whether it is as the paralyzed survivor in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter or the zombie apocalypse heroine in Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Sarah Polley brings something fascinating yet almost indescribable to all of her roles. A strange gravity, perhaps, or a keen sense of questioning — or maybe just the sense that something is going on inside. We could just call it old-fashioned mystery, that element of screen glamour that binds a performer and her audience, a transmission of barely perceptible signals sharing ideas and emotions only hinted at by the words in a screenplay. This ability to meaningfully “just be” is, of course, the stock in trade of any great actor, but Polley’s uniqueness is the way she so effortlessly inflects her performances with an extra quality that seems completely modern: an instinctive wariness of a world that doesn’t always behave as it should.
The sophisticated sensibility Polley brings to her work as an actress is every bit on display in her astonishing directorial debut, Away From Her. The film, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” is sagacious about human relationships, and, in its cool, precise execution, seems free of the compromises and anxieties that simmer beneath the surface in so many first features. At the same time, it’s not afraid to be emotional, and it reaches its feelings with honesty and without manipulation.
Away From Her stars screen goddess Julie Christie and the Canadian star Gordon Pinsent as Fiona and Grant, a long-married couple whose settled life is torn apart when she identifies within herself the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Realizing that it will soon be impossible for Grant to take care of her, she checks herself into a long-term care facility that requires family members to refrain from visiting for one month so as to allow its residents time to settle into their new lives. When Grant returns to see Fiona, 30 days later, the disease has progressed. She no longer remembers him and has instead transferred her affections towards another patient, also married and lost in the fog of memory. Through the course of his daily visits, Grant struggles to hold on to his love for Fiona, and the lengths to which he goes transforms Away From Her from what initially seems like a methodical disease-of-the-week movie into a full-blown and deeply heartbreaking romance.
I spoke to Polley at New York’s Mercer Hotel about adapting Munro’s story, her own knowledge of Alzheimer’s, and, of course, working with the great Julie Christie.
Filmmaker: How did you come to make this particular movie? Was it an interest in the subject matter first and then the story, or did you read the story first?
Polley: It was a combination of things. I first read the story about five or six years ago, and it keyed into things that I had been thinking about a lot. I had just begun a really close relationship with my grandmother, and I was dealing with her going into a retirement home. I had also just met the guy who I ended up marrying, and my idea of what love is and what I thought was “romantic” really shifted. And so I think those two things combined. The idea of memory and how it plays into the trajectory of a relationship really fascinated me, and, I’d also just worked with Julie Christie as an actor in Hal Hartley’s film No Such Thing. I couldn’t stop seeing her face when I read the story, and as many reasons as there were for me to want to make this film, I think probably the main one was to see her play that role. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that side of her, how many interesting places there would be for her to go with that character and how much I would like to see it in a film.
Filmmaker: How did you come across Alice Munro’s short story?
Polley: I was sitting on a plane on my way home from working with [Christie] in Iceland. I was reading The New Yorker, and it was in that week’s issue. The story had all these echoes of Iceland, so it seemed sort of strange and fated. I didn’t immediately set out to adapt it because I felt like it wouldn’t be a great first feature to make. To adapt an Alice Munro short story — it felt really daunting. But it just kept growing in my head and it kept forming itself as a film until it sort of felt inevitable.
Filmmaker: How faithful were you to the story in your adaptation?
Polley: The structure is definitely different. The [film’s] sort of nonlinear fragmented structure — I kind of wanted to introduce that as an echo out of memory and also as a way to build tension throughout the film. And there are things that I added. In the story there would be sentences that would imply years and years — I would sort of flesh those out and make them more literal. But in tone and in spirit it’s really similar. I think it’s more faithful generally than a lot of adaptations are.
Filmmaker: How about the ending? Did you always intend to end the movie where you end it?
Polley: Yeah, because as a reader, when I read the short story, I didn’t know what would happen the moment after, and in a strange way I didn’t care. It was like that moment was all there was and what was important. What happened after that, no matter what it could be, would almost seem banal compared to this [final] moment of recognition, acknowledgment and realization. And I also really liked that, as a reader, [Munro’s ending] gave me permission to not imagine what happened afterwards if I didn’t want to. I could end with [the characters] existing in this one perfect moment as opposed to having to fall into the realization, which you do have in the back of your mind, that actually it’s momentary and she probably will forget him in the next scene.
Filmmaker: How much did you try to research and incorporate the medical realities of Alzheimer’s disease when making this film?
Polley: In a weird way, in terms of making the film and changing the story, I think that it’s almost equally a film based on research I did and books I read on Alzheimer’s. There are amazing books like The Forgetting by David Schenk written about the disease that ended up informing a lot of characters and scenes and trajectories in the film that didn’t exist in the story. It was important to me to be authentic, but at the same time, what is so strange about Alzheimer’s as a disease is that it’s so individualized. It’s so specific to the person who is afflicted. So in fact, this [film] could seem completely wrong to someone who is going through Alzheimer’s with somebody right now, and yet it would seem completely right to somebody else. It’s almost impossible to nail [this disease] down because it’s so much a reflection of the unraveling of the inner workings of an individual’s brain.
Filmmaker: In your film, it is Julie Christie’s character who recognizes her symptoms and decides to check in to a facility. It’s kind of an inversion of what people expect.
Polley: It’s rare. I know of one or two people whose family members have done that, have wanted to go in before [the disease progressed]. But it’s absolutely the minority. I think in almost 95 percent of the cases that I know about, it’s very, very hard to move [a family member] into a retirement home. It’s a difficult decision.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest adjustment you had to make in transitioning from actor to director?
Polley: It was so hard on so many levels it’s impossible to say.
Filmmaker: The film doesn’t make you think that. It felt like the perfect first film in terms of its scope and the decisions you made on it.
Polley: Oh, that’s good. Well, I’ve been an actor my whole life, and to all of a sudden have this much responsibility was a really huge transition. It was one that I loved and was really rewarded by, but it was giant. I don’t really understand, after making this film, how anyone can possibly sleep for even one hour while making a film! It’s just so overwhelming and you’re responsible for so much. But I had an amazing experience in that I felt like I had the right people to collaborate with. I worked with the right crew and the right team, and the producers were unbelievably supportive and helpful. I felt like everyone was making the same film. I didn’t have any of the nightmarish creative battles that I hear about people having on their first film. To have had the room and the freedom to begin to find my voice and not have to deal with a ton of stupid politics was amazing.
Filmmaker: What did you learn about directing from working with the different directors you’ve worked with?
Polley: Certainly Atom Egoyan has been a huge influence on me — I learned from him that making films could be important. He has been such a mentor. He has a great way of being on a set — his sets feel like incredibly happy places, and it was really important to me to try to create that environment. Michael Winterbottom was really influential for me too. He is somebody who doesn’t believe in projecting a kind of morality into his films. [He believes] that people in situations should speak for themselves and be interpreted through the moral compass of whoever is watching, as opposed to the filmmakers. I think that’s a really interesting way of approaching things. And I worked with Wim Wenders a couple of years ago, and that was a really formative experience for me as well. He has a really amazing sense of organization and structure and yet seems to be totally free within that. That was something that I tried to keep in mind a lot.
Filmmaker: What qualities do you think your style of acting and performance shares with your style of directing?
Polley: I feel like for me the most interesting thing to watch in a film is somebody’s face in stillness. So there’s a lot of attention to that in the film — what is said without words. And I guess that’s sort of what I get the most joy out of as an actor too, those moments when you are just experiencing or thinking through something and you can kind of be alone with that. It’s being recorded, but you can actually kind of forget that and just go through your own strange thought process or trajectory. I think that that is probably a bit of a bridge between what I love about acting and what I loved about making the film.
Filmmaker: I’m always interested in how actors who become directors decide to direct other actors. Did you have one approach, or did you tailor the types of direction you gave to the performers?
Polley: I definitely approached everyone individually. I’ve always found that idea of there being a way to talk to actors odd because, in a way, I feel it should be as individual and as varied as communication with human beings in general. The dynamics shift from person to person. I did my best to learn what each actor needed, and they needed totally different things. Or didn’t need them. The dynamic was really interesting because I’m making a film mostly about older people and I have not lived those years — I don’t have the experience of being in my 60s and 70s, so there was a lot for me to get from them in terms of forming that. It was a really nice kind of collaboration actually.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about working with Julie Christie to develop the part.
Polley: It was really quite a long process. I never could imagine anybody else playing the part, and it took a long time to get her to do it. She has a really complicated relationship with acting generally — she doesn’t really want to do it — and it took a lot of convincing. It was so great to have her face in front of me when I was writing it, so it was also so impossible to imagine anybody else bringing what she brought to it, that kind of ethereal, magical, ironic quality that she has. It was terrifying for a while when I felt like she wasn’t going to do the film. I wondered if there was a point to making it.
Filmmaker: What were her own issues in trying to figure out whether to take the part?
Polley: I think it was complicated. In so many ways she is so much younger than this character. She looks a lot younger than she does in the film, and so we were aging her. It’s a bit of an odd thing to play somebody at a retirement home who is dying when you yourself are so vital and so young. And I think that acting in general for her is just not what she would almost ever choose to do with her time. So it just took a lot of convincing.
Filmmaker: What were some of the specific qualities, unique to her, she brought to the movie?
PolleyShe has this quality, and I don’t know any other actor who also has it — as a person, she’s so ephemeral, in a way. You fall in love with her instantly, she’s so engaging and engaged and curious and kind of wondrous. But she’s sort of with you one minute completely and then absolutely gone the next. So in a way, on a one-on-one personal level, you’re always chasing her. You’re always trailing her around like some broken lover. I think everyone has that experience of her whether they’re an audience member or a friend, and I felt like that’s sort of what this character needed, this sense of, is she with you now or gone? Is this a charade or is this real? And I think that’s absolutely Grant’s relationship with Fiona. I wanted to be with him through the film, to see it through his eyes, and I felt like if we could as an audience feel the same way about her that he does that would really help.
Filmmaker: How did you cast the actor who played Grant, the husband of Julie Christie’s character?
Polley: Gordon Pinsent is kind of like a Canadian icon. People don’t necessarily know him here [in America], but he’s someone I’ve known as an actor my whole life. I thought he’d be great because he is so sensitive, lovely and warm, and at the same time you kind of know he was a bit of a rogue just by looking at him. You know he’s not without flaws. There was never anybody else I could imagine in that part. I also feel like he is so Canadian, and that sense of place was really important to the film.
Filmmaker: Talk about that fascinating scene in the middle of the movie where Grant is sharply challenged about his relationship with his wife by the caregiver character, who up until that scene has been a very warm, comforting presence.
Polley: It was important to me not to judge Grant for how he may or may not have betrayed Fiona in their relationship, but I didn’t want to let him off too easily either. I felt like it would be hard for him to rise from the ashes if his [previous] behavior [in his marriage] hadn’t been acknowledged in a less than sympathetic light.
Filmmaker: Hers is a fascinating character because we’re used to seeing, both in films and in real life, these people as such giving, altruistic figures. But they must have their own anger and resentments, which erupt here so unexpectedly.
Polley: I think it’s a strange thing when Grant says [to her], “You go through life without too much going wrong, and now that we’re old we have to suffer.” There actually is so much grief and tragedy in ordinary life, even if you are middle class and have it easy. We’re always trying to contextualize that or dismiss it by saying, “Well, we’re really lucky.” There’s a kind of narcissism in that actually — there’s something that he’s doing in that scene that I agree with her being pissed off about. I don’t know how to describe it.
Filmmaker: The facility you shot in — was that a real facility?
Polley: It’s a rehabilitation hospital, so it’s used by some geriatrics, but it’s not a retirement home per se.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the process of casting the patients. Were they all actors, or did you use real people?
Polley: They were almost all actors. Some of them weren’t; some of them were actually patients in the hospital. The retirement home was based on my grandmother’s retirement home, and a lot of the minor characters were [based on] people that I met there.
Filmmaker: Like the sports announcer character?
Polley: The announcer is actually an homage to my uncle, who is the voice of the Buffalo Sabers. His name was Todd Darling, and he died of Pick’s disease, which is sort of a form of Alzheimer’s. [This character] was my little shout-out to him.
Filmmaker: Did you retain a medical adviser for the film or have doctors vet the script before shooting?
Polley: I had two or three doctors who read the script. And there are things in it that are odd, like that 30-day rule, which is something that used to happen very rarely in rural areas in Ontario, but it’s not a policy that anyone uses anymore. It was an odd thing to choose to keep in, but it was such an important device in the film. But basically yeah, I made sure that we had a lot of eyes on it, because I didn’t want it to ring really false or anything.
Filmmaker: What kind of contact did you have with Alice Munro?
Polley: Not a lot. She read the script and gave us her blessing. I’ve had two really long, very nice voice-mail messages from her, but I’ve never actually spoken to her. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Is the story as romantic as your film? Your film is interesting because it starts off with a coolness and stillness to it and a precision, and it really becomes quite a romance.
Polley: I’m so glad. That was the intention. I mean, I found the story unbearably romantic — I don’t know if others do. For me, after I finished reading it, I thought, This might actually be the only love story I’ve ever read. The only true love story.
Filmmaker: Which seems to be the point of view of the beautiful teenage girl who talks to Grant at the hospital.
Polley Oh yeah, Monica. That scene was something that I invented, and a lot of people told me to take it out in the script stage, but for me it was my explanation of why I was making the film. At her age, looking and seeing what devotion might look like at the end [of life] is the most moving thing in the world. So in a weird way, I sort of was writing a younger version of myself talking to Grant. An affirmation.