Sarah Polley has two babies.
One is the tiny, gurgling human one the Canadian actress-writer-director gave birth to almost a year ago, who she only takes quick breaks from. The other one is her debut documentary Stories We Tell, which she directed about a soul-baring family secret: that she’s the result of an affair her mother, actress Diane Polley, who passed away when she was 11, had during her marriage.
The emotional movie, filled with interviews with family members and bright, charming archival footage of her lookalike mom, premiered to brilliant reviews at film festivals last year in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, and makes its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 17-27. It hits theaters this coming May, distributed by Roadside Attractions, already gaining Oscar buzz for 2014.
Polley herself has already proven to be a talented and nuanced writer-director with feature films Take This Waltz and Away From Her, an adaption of an Alice Munro story starring Julie Christie, which snagged Polley a screenwriting Oscar nod in 2008. Ahead of Sundance, during a break from writing and being with her baby daughter, Polley chatted with EW about the movie’s impact and it being, according to her, “the most important film personally I’ll ever make.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Stories We Tell is now coming to Sundance, and it’s really had an amazing ride so far at other festivals. It must hit audiences very very hard, with people coming to you with their own stories?
It premiered at Venice, then Telluride, then Toronto. That’s been the big joy of rolling out the film, the snowballing of stories. I think when people see the film they’re thinking more about their own families than about mine. It’s been great hearing people talk about their families. It can be incredibly useful to know where our parents come from.
How was it directing this particular film, given how totally personal, emotional the subject? Were you completely overwhelmed?
It was overwhelming for a long time. By the time I started making the film, it wasn’t anymore. I was aware I didn’t want the process of the film to be therapy. I don’t really want to work this out in front of a lot of people. As much as it had a lot of gravity for me, the story had been told quite well before. In my family, when we would talk about what happened, they would gloss over certain events. They were different from the details I had. I realized we all have different stories and mythologies, whether it small, today, or 30 years ago, or big seismic shifts. They make us crazy because we’re so tied to our version being the truth. It was fascinating to see my own version of the truth distorted as well. We’re all right and we’re all wrong.
You include such entertaining archival footage of your mom in the film. Do you feel you know her better, though you didn’t know her as an adult, doing Stories We Tell, trying to understand her story and your own? There’s the fact that you can never ask her what happened.
It’s funny. Having talked in a concentrated way to everyone that was close to her, I feel I can now intuite what her answers would be even though she died when I was 11. I think it was always there in me. I think knowing that outside information made me trust something that’s deep in me, and already knew her. I think you do know your parents when they die, whether you’re 6 or 7 years old, whether you trust it. I wonder when people know their parents longer, if it doesn’t muddle your instincts.
How has being a new mom yourself affected your concept of motherhood, set against you doing this movie about your own mom?
The first year having a baby is such a daze. My daughter is not a year old, and I see she knows me better than anyone has ever known me. I think it’s strange how much I’ve exposed my mom in a way, and I feel uncomfortable with that. But the crazy joyful dynamic mess she was is celebrated in the film. It shows all of her, including her secrets. I’ll always want to know what she would think of the film.
How do you view Stories We Tell compared to the other movies you’ve directed or will direct in the future?
With Stories We Tell, I think it’s the film that’s been behind the other two films I’ve made. I think it’s the most important film personally I’ll ever make.
Tell me about your next directing project, and what else is on your plate.
I have the rights to Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, which I’m adapting right now. I’m taking the year off to spend with my baby, and I write during her naps. It’s a period piece about a 16-year-old woman in the 1800s who was the most famous murderess at that time.
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