Filmmaker Sarah Polley Goes Back to School

Yvonne Palkowski
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Sarah Polley

Actor-turned-director Sarah Polley has come a long way since her turn as the child star of CBC’s Road to Avonlea. She has appeared in films by some of the most respected directors in the business—Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg (BA 1967 UC), and Wim Wenders, among others. A director and screenwriter in her own right, she has earned acclaim with the Oscar-nominated Away From Her (2006) and this summer’s Take This Waltz.  As this year’s Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies, Polley is available to UC students for advice on all forms of writing. She spoke with UC Magazine editor Yvonne Palkowski.


What is it like to have worked with some of the greatest directors in film? How has the experience informed your work as a director?

I feel I’ve been really privileged to have such an amazing ad hoc film school. Most filmmakers don’t get the opportunity to watch other filmmakers work. As I began making short films in my early twenties, I was able to watch many different directors work in completely different genres and styles. It was a great way of figuring out what worked for me and what didn’t in my own work. Atom Egoyan and Wim Wenders were huge influences on me. They are both incredibly rigorous, organized, and prepared. It leads to an incredibly calm, focused environment which I’ve tried to emulate on my own sets. Atom has also been a constant mentor to me, advising me on drafts of scripts and various cuts of my films.


How do you choose your roles as an actor?

I think I used to choose roles based almost exclusively on the screenplay. Now that I understand more about the process, I make the decision almost entirely on who the director is. It’s been interesting to learn over the years that a great script means nothing if it’s not in the hands of a great director. On the other hand, I’ve occasionally seen directors take mediocre scripts and turn them into great films. It’s interesting how important the director’s hand is.


How does screenwriting compare to acting and directing? What was your experience screenwriting Take This Waltz?

Screenwriting allows for so much more reflection and solitude. I think it’s my favourite part of the process because everything is still possible and not mitigated by the exigencies of production. I find it to be a joyful process as well as agonizingly lonely.  It is so magical, later, to have dozens of extremely talented people make those ideas you’ve had alone in a quiet room become tangible and real. Take This Waltz was written very instinctually and quickly. I then spent a long time figuring out what it was that I had written and trying to make sense and a structure out of it.


There is a strong Canadian element to the films you make: Away From Her is based on a short story by Alice Munro, Take This Waltz is set in Toronto, and your next project is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.  Why is it important for you to tell Canadian stories?

I think I identify strongly with where I’m from. I also think art is most interesting when it is specific. I get a lot of questions about why I make my films “so Canadian” but those questions only come from other Canadians. When filmmakers from other countries set their films clearly in the places they are from it seems natural to them and they don’t question it. I think Canadians have become so used to trying to disguise themselves as Americans in films that it seems like a real statement to not do that. It’s a political statement just to be ourselves! I think when a story is set clearly in a specific place, it allows people in other places to relate to it more as opposed to less—which is the assumption behind trying to pretend we are not specifically Canadian. Everyone in the world lives in a specific place, so it feels closer to home to see a story set in a specific place rather than a generic one. I think it allows the universality of the human themes to come to the surface more easily than when we try to make ourselves seem generically North American.


What advice do you give students as artist-in-residence at University College?

I’m not sure how much advice I have. I’m excited to have conversations and learn about what they are doing. I never had a university education and I’m so thrilled to be spending time here.  I did the academic bridging program last summer, which was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and made me certain that I wanted to go back to school. I was hoping to return this year in some capacity, so I was elated to get the offer to spend time at University College. I guess my only advice is to get everything you can from your years in University and enjoy it. From the outside, as someone who didn’t go to University, it seems like the most extravagantly lucky thing in the world to get to spend years reading and learning.


What would be your career if you weren’t in film?

I know I’d like to write. I’d like to think I could write something outside the medium of film. Time will tell I guess. I’d love to major in Canadian history and be an academic. I’d also like to be a lot more politically active than I have been of late.  And I’d love to teach drama in an elementary school. These are my long-term pipe dreams.