Sarah Polley
Photo by Christina House/LA Times

Sarah Polley: “It felt so revolutionary”

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Short Profile

Name: Sarah Ellen Polley
DOB: 8 January 1979
Place of birth: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Ms. Polley, do you think going to the cinema might be falling out of fashion?

Well, it was interesting in the fall to see that no one was going to see anything! I mean, unless it was Top Gun, for sure, or Avatar. But people also weren't going to see the other films that I think everyone expected to do well, like The Fabelmans or Tár, these movies where it felt they were going to have big audiences, but they just didn't. I think it's to do with abandoning the idea of a collective experience in a theater, which is so sad. I think it's a completely different human experience to absorb something in a room of people than it is to do so on your own and stop 800 times to check your phone.

Do you still have time to go to the cinema yourself these days?

Not as much! And as much as I bemoan that, I also don't judge it because I have three little kids. You're trying to juggle a life and there's other options, you know, it's not the only way to see a movie anymore. It's hard to carve out the time. But I'm always thrilled when I do.

“There’s really a pure joy in adaptation, because I think the thing I love most in the world is getting to live inside a book you love. It's so amazing.”

How is it also trying to juggle your home life, plus your creative pursuits of filmmaking and screenwriting?

Oh, I don’t know how people juggle all these different creative things at the same time. I mean, I'm not great at juggling lots of creative things, but I've had lots of plane rides and that’s helpful because no one can disturb me! If you have kids, planes are the best workspace ever. I’m actually writing a novel right now.

Do you prefer writing original content over adaptations?

Of course, I love writing original things. But there's something about adaptation that I love: you never fall out of love with what you're doing, because it's not yours. I think there's way more self-loathing that can seep into the equation when it's an original idea, whereas if you're walking around inside a book you love, it might be that you're getting it wrong and you have work to do, but the thing itself never takes on this pall of your own failure! There's really a pure joy in adaptation, because I think the thing I love most in the world is getting to live inside a book you love. It's so amazing. So I think I'll always do both.

Is that what drew you in to making your recent film adaptation, Women Talking?

For this film, I was really compelled by the idea of this group of women in an isolated religious colony, coming together — even though they disagreed on fundamental things — and having to find a way forward after learning that they’ve been abused by the men in their community. They’re facing this question of: do they leave the community? Do they stay and fight? Do they stay and do nothing? I was interested in how amazing it would be to see this group of great actors have this debate, that was really exciting to me. The idea that these women had to vote and debate on what they were going to do as a community, it just felt so revolutionary to me, and sounded so radical.

Did you immediately see it as a film when you read the book? At first glance it doesn’t seem like the most cinematic narrative.

Yeah, I guess I did. To your point, there was the challenge of how could we turn this film into an epic? How could we make it not just a bunch of people sitting around a lot, but how do we capture the way their faith feels to them and shoot ultra wide screen and have these incredible landscapes? And then I got really excited about what it would mean to get the best actors in the world together in a room and have this debate.

The casting seems like it would have been very crucial.

Yeah, it was interesting, because I would find these amazing actors, and then I had to wait and figure out; who else is there? What are they playing with? I couldn't really cast anyone until I cast everyone. Casting can be a really complicated thing because you're terrified of losing people. So it was kind of moving people around and discovering how they might work together, but then also what they were personally drawn to and what challenges they wanted to take on.

“There’s nothing better in life than being able to go into an environment that caused you harm and make it better.”

How was it to watch iconic actors like Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, and Rooney Mara work together? Did it ever make you miss your own days as an actor?

I think those days are long gone. I've really pulled myself back out of that mindset completely. I mean, once in a blue moon I might miss it and wonder if I want to act again. And then the feeling generally passes. I’m not in some desperate hurry to go back to that.

Was there any experience in particular that made you want to retire from acting to pursue filmmaking instead?

It is an interesting thing! Partly it was that I fell in love with filmmaking. From the very first time I made a short film, the experience of doing it was so intoxicating and incredible. But another big part of it was that I had horrible experiences, especially in that last year of acting in films, I had two experiences right on top of each other that were really damaging. In one case, it felt like a very unsafe situation, with sort of narcissistic out of control directors where I just thought, “Okay, I'm done here, I can't put myself at the mercy of people where I could actually get hurt physically and emotionally anymore. I'm just done with this.” But I sort of look back on that now, and my only temptation to go back to acting would be just to have something nice and positive to overwrite that experience with.

We can only hope that times really are changing. Is that something you’re actively working towards as a director?

In many ways, it's really changed. I'm thinking about the things that happened to me in those last couple of projects, and I don't think they'd happen today. And if they did, I think someone would stand up and say something about it. But yes, there's nothing actually better in life than being able to go into an environment that caused you harm and make it better. That is really the only thing that can make something completely go away in terms of the pain of it. And I do feel that just ensuring there was a presence of care in all aspects of the film was such a privilege, to get to have that experience. I made sure we were working shorter hours, that people were able to see their families at night, we had a therapist on set in case anything goes wrong. We took a break anytime anyone needed to. And that felt great.