TORONTO—The expectations are running so high, you wonder if Sarah Polley can possibly meet them. She has returned to the Toronto International Film Festival with her second film, Take This Waltz, four years after her debut film, Away From Her, did something that few Canadian films not made by Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg manage to accomplish: it snatched the spotlight away from the pretty Americans.
Like her first film, this one has a female lead with some star power. Julie Christie won an Oscar nomination for Away From Her, and Michelle Williams, who plays Margot in Take This Waltz, has earned three Academy Award nominations (with her latest this year for My Week With Marilyn). The film also has something most Canadian films don’t have: a Canadian-born movie star. Seth Rogen plays Margot’s husband, Lou, a lovable cookbook writer who can tell you everything about cooking chicken but appears to be a failure in the bedroom. Searching for some excitement, Margot finds a neighbour (Luke Kirby) and eventually realizes that she has to make a choice between sex and sensibility. The movie opens Friday (June 29) in Vancouver.
In a Toronto hotel room, Polley admits she was keenly aware that the movie depends on whether or not audiences can relate to Margot, who knows she is missing something in her life and blames her relationship.
“I wanted to talk about that gap that we have, and in this case it is about someone trying to fill that gap with another relationship and trying to change what she sees as a drastic situation. I think we all do it in our lives in various ways, whether professionally or personally. There is always a sense that there is something missing or there is something wrong and we have to fix it. I think of the image of having a hole and digging up the earth but you just create a new hole. I think that gap and that hole is something that is fundamental to the human condition. I think that culturally we are not trained to be okay with that. I think it’s about her experimenting and discovering that even that gets boring. Ultimately, it is not going to fill whatever void exists.”
Relationships have been the subject of both Polley’s features and her short films. She says that talking about the vagaries of commitment has become a style point with her movies, and she also notes the diversity therein, given that this film is about the options younger people have when they are starting out in a relationship, while Away From Her was about literal interpretations of “for better or for worse” when one partner is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I made five short films in my early 20s, and they were all about long-term relationships and they were about love. My first feature film was about a long-term relationship and about love, and this was too, in its own way. I think all directors like to mine away at the same material, and I think relationships are what I am interested in, for some reason. I wanted to look at a relationship where people are still in their 20s and you still have this feeling that if things aren’t perfect, they are probably wrong and you should fix them.
“I think, too, that I don’t know the right angle. I do think it is a bad idea to stay in a long-term relationship that is very unhappy, but at the same time, I do think we should allow for the long-term relationships that do work but have periods of unhappiness. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a new relationship is going to fill the fundamental emptiness that we feel in life generally.”
Polley, of course, was well known to Canadians as a child actor through the series Road to Avonlea and has continued with her acting career despite her success directing. She says it’s not particularly easy to balance the two, a fact that was at least partially responsible for the four-year lag between the release of her first and second features.
“When you are juggling two careers, it’s very tough to get a film made. After Away From Her, I took two years off from the business and then I acted for a while. I am not someone who wants to have a million projects in development and just keep making movies. I want to make sure that every project that I work on has real significance for me. I don’t want to be a director who just keeps on working all the time, so I really waited until there was a film I wanted to make.”
Like Ron Howard, who has never directed himself in a film, she decided to keep herself out of the frame. “I can’t imagine juggling acting and directing in the same film. I feel like it would take the joy away from both processes. I love, as an actor, to allow myself to be subjective and forget about the big picture, and it’s necessary to my process. I can’t imagine, as a filmmaker, allowing myself to be completely reeled into the point of view of one character. I am really in awe of people who manage to do both well, but I don’t think it’s for me.”
She says that unlike Howard, who spent his childhood on sets watching the crew and then parlayed that into a directing career, she only started thinking about the technical aspects of the business when she was making her short films. And she says that unlike some female directors who have felt uncomfortable with male crews, she has always felt the support of those with whom she works.
“I spent a lot of time hanging out with the crew, so I was involved with the culture of filmmaking, but I didn’t spend a lot of time paying attention to how the film was being made until I started making my own shorts in my 20s. I was really quite oblivious to the whole process. I am getting more confident, technically. I feel like I have been surrounded by crews who have been incredibly supportive and not at all dismissive of my experience. A lot of them are men, but I never felt judged for what I did or didn’t know.”
Watch the trailer for Take This Waltz.