At just 27, Sarah Polley has appeared in over 30 films since she started acting in 1985. She's gone from turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island farm girl Sara Stanley, in the 1990-1996 TV series Road to Avonlea, to a nurse trapped in a shopping mall battling zombies in 2004's Dawn of the Dead. (She's also lost a couple of teeth in real-life government protests.) Her latest role is behind the camera, directing her first feature film, Away From Her. Based on an Alice Munro short story, the movie examines an elderly couple whose relationship hits the rocks when the wife (Julie Christie) is stricken with Alzheimer's, forgets her marriage to her husband (Gordon Pinsent) and falls for another man. Away From Her debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Canadian Business: What interested you about this particular story?
Sarah Polley: It was immediately a film in my imagination. I felt like I knew what the film would be, and I wanted to make it. What's been great about adapting a story I loved so much is that I never fell out of love with it. I'm just at the beginning of a marriage–and looking ahead to what happens after a history of being in love was really interesting to me.
CB: You've directed shorts before, but what was directing a feature like?
SP: It was the biggest challenge I've ever faced. I've never had that much responsibility or worked that hard. But it was also the most rewarding thing I've ever done. The most important thing was to surround myself with great collaborators [cinematographer Luc Montpellier and first assistant director Daniel Murphy] to whom I could admit what I didn't know. There were certainly times where I was amazed I hadn't collapsed, just from stress and fatigue…but the sense of adrenalin gets you through anything.
CB: You've worked with a lot of directors. What have you picked up?
SP: That the ability to communicate clearly is really the only skill directing requires, in a way. Of course, there's a lot more you have to learn, but that's the basic thing. Also, to not love the sound of your own voice and not fall into the trap of “playing” the director. I've seen directors who are acting more than the actors.
CB: Have you always wanted to direct?
SP: Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer. I never thought [of doing that] in the context of film, but it all of a sudden feels like this natural place to combine my need to express something personal with the world that I know. With my first short [1999's Don't Think Twice, in which a man is forced to choose between a lover and his family], I had an idea and just went and did it. At the time, I really understood nothing technically. I don't even know how many films I'd seen. It's always what I'd done, but it was only through the process of making a short that directing became something I wanted to do.
CB: So what more do you know about directing now?
SP: I'm generally terrified of confrontation or any kind of conflict. But when you're making a film, you don't have a choice but to be clear and honest. It was a huge lesson for me to enter into those kinds of dynamics with other people. In the end, you're responsible for far too much to beat around the bush.
CB: You've always been a big proponent of independent film. What do you think of the job Telefilm has been doing since Wayne Clarkson took over?
SP: I think changing that place is like turning the biggest ship in the world around. And it's a big, sinking ship they're trying to turn around. What I feel strongest about is, if Telefilm weren't there, I would not be making a movie. Neither would anyone else. It's very important not to lose sight of that as we criticize Telefilm. And we're infinitely better off this year than we were a few years ago. If you look at the movies that were being made, they tried to be very commercial and in doing so were so basic and uninteresting that they didn't go anywhere, and nobody saw them. The problem is you don't have public funding for film so that you can compete with huge Hollywood movies. We don't have the marketing budgets for it.
CB: Speaking of Hollywood, you've been outspoken in the past about your distaste for it. Has that changed?
SP: I've relaxed quite a bit. I'm not really part of that world, and I'm happy not to be a part of that world. But I don't feel the need to loathe it in the way I used to. If I actually got into a situation where it was difficult for me to walk down the street, I'd be absolutely miserable. But for being in the public eye, Toronto is the perfect place to live. Nobody is all that impressed.
CB: Wouldn't avoiding fame hurt your career?
SP: It's a strange thing to be balancing: a desire to not be famous and a desire to be in film. But so far it's working out pretty well.