Sarah Polley: A Long Look At What We Feel Is Missing
Sarah Polley started acting when she was 4, in her native Canada. She earned critical acclaim for her performance as a teenage girl injured in a school bus crash in Atom Egoyan's film The Sweet Hereafter.
Polley made her debut as a director with the subtle and devastating film Away from Her — a portrait of a marriage later in life, as the wife (Julie Christie) is pulled away by Alzheimer's disease.
Now, at 33, she's made a second feature film, called Take This Waltz. It's about a young couple (Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen) in a relationship that's settled into flat routine; when a handsome artist and rickshaw driver moves into the neighborhood, the marriage is threatened.
Polley spoke to Melissa Block of All Things Considered.
On portraying a marriage in crisis
"The original idea for the film was wanting to talk about that general feeling of emptiness that all of us have at some point in our lives, if not most of our lives — that feeling that something is missing. And I feel like we live in a culture where we interpret the feeling of something missing to be that something is actually wrong, and needs to be fixed, or can be fixed. So I thought it was an interesting thing to talk about what happens in a long-term relationship when maybe the conversations have died down, the passion has certainly died down — maybe there's a certain amount of contentment, but a feeling that there could maybe be more if someone was to look outside of it."
On a couple's private language, overheard
"I didn't want to make a film about a marriage that was terrible and toxic. I wanted to make a film about a marriage that was playful and content, and had the inhibition about it that I think you can only have with someone who you've really gotten to know, with all of their good qualities and all of their faults. I feel like people — when they've been together for a very long time and have gotten perhaps too comfortable — are capable of behavior that they would just be astonishingly embarrassed about if anybody in the outside world could see them. So I wanted to sort of be a fly on the wall for that weird language that develops between married couples that no one in the outside world should be expected to understand."
On the cafe seduction scene in 'Take This Waltz'
"We had an exhaustive rehearsal process before shooting the film, but this was the one scene we actually didn't rehearse. So Michelle [Williams] had never heard those words and Luke [Kirby] had never had to say those words in front of Michelle before. ...
"I was trying to play with the idea of how much sexier the idea of somebody can be than they are in actuality. So the main passion and main erotic part of the relationship between Daniel and Margot really happens in words and looks and in silences. Once there's actual physical contact, [the eroticism between them] becomes quite diminished."
On the perspective of a female director
"I'm not sure that a man might not have taken the same perspective as I did, but that's not to say that I don't think there should be more female directors out there. ... The answer I want to be able to give is, 'Yes, absolutely, the fact that I'm female is the only reason I could have this perspective!' But I'm forced to admit that — as awful as it's been that men have been the only people making films — they have done a pretty good job of capturing women. Or at least, the great filmmakers have. I think Hollywood has done a terrible job of capturing women, but the filmmakers that I grew up with and admire and respect have generally been really great at it, in the same way that women would be great at giving us a better perspective on men. Maybe in a strange way it's the opposite; maybe what we have to offer is a really interesting perspective on the other gender that can only be offered because we have some distance and are watching."
On the portrayal of female bodies in film
"I feel like with young women, their bodies are constantly objectified and used in a sexual context. With older women, [their bodies are] constantly the butt of a joke. For me, the seminal scene that illustrates that is, in About Schmidt, when Kathy Bates gets into the hot tub and Jack Nicholson is horrified and the audience is supposed to scream.
"I remember being so deeply offended by that scene. One of the first times you're dealing with an older woman being naked in a movie — it doesn't happen very often — and it's the butt of a joke, or it's supposed to horrifying. [In a shower-room scene in Take This Waltz] I wanted to show women's bodies of all ages, kind of without comment, and the only conversation around it is about time passing and what it means, and about sexuality and relationships. That it not be something contrived to produce an effect, necessarily."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. A few things to know about the actor and director Sarah Polley: She started acting when she was 4 in her native Canada, got critical acclaim for her role as a teenage girl injured in a school bus crash in the movie "The Sweet Hereafter." Sarah Polley made her debut as a director with the subtle and devastating film "Away from Her," a portrait of a marriage later in life, as the wife, played by Julie Christie, is pulled away by Alzheimer's disease. And now, at age 33, Polley is out with a new film called "Take This Waltz." It's about a young couple in a comfortable marriage that's settled into flat routine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TAKE THIS WALTZ")
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Margot) Don't you think it's a bit weird that we've just been sitting here without talking?
SETH ROGEN: (as Lou ) What are we going to talk about? We live together. We know everything already.
WILLIAMS: (as Margot) Then what is the point of going out to dinner?
ROGEN: (as Lou) To eat good food, to be someplace nice. It's not to catch up.
BLOCK: That's Michelle Williams as Margot, Seth Rogen as her husband Lou. And the writer and director Sarah Polley joins me now from Toronto. Sarah, welcome to the program.
SARAH POLLEY: Thanks so much.
BLOCK: And let's talk about this couple. They've only been married for five years, but they've fallen out of rhythm, and Margot is very disenchanted. What interested you about this phase of a marriage?
POLLEY: I think the original idea for the film was wanting to talk about that kind of general feeling of emptiness that all of us have at some point in our lives, if not most of our lives, that feeling that something is missing. And I feel like we live in a culture where we interpret the feeling of something missing to feel that - to be that something is actually wrong and needs to be fixed or can be fixed. So I thought it was an interesting thing to talk about what happens in a long-term relationship when maybe the conversations have died down, the passion has certainly died down, maybe there's a certain amount of contentment, but a feeling that there could maybe be more if someone was to look outside of it.
BLOCK: Yeah. It's interesting because Margot and Lou are - they're not miserable, right? They're very jokey together. They have this very strange routine where they make up awful things that they say they're going to do to each other. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TAKE THIS WALTZ")
ROGEN: (as Lou) I love you so much, I'm going to put your spleen through a meat grinder, and it's going to be a freaking rusty meat grinder.
POLLEY: (as Margot) I love you so much, I'm going to inject your face with a curious combination of swine flu and Ebola.
BLOCK: Sarah Polley, tell me about that scene.
POLLEY: Yeah. I mean, the thing is I didn't want to make a film about a marriage that was kind of terrible and toxic. I wanted to make a film about a marriage that was playful and content, and had the kind of inhibition about it that I think you can only have with, you know, someone who you've really gotten to know with, you know, all of their good qualities and all of their faults. And I feel like, you know, people when they've been together for a really long time and have gotten perhaps too comfortable are capable of behavior that, you know, they'd just be astonishingly embarrassed if anybody...
POLLEY: ...in the outside world could see them. So I wanted to sort of be a fly on the wall for that weird language that develops between married couples that no one in the outside world should be expected to understand.
BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And there are moments when you see them, you know, talking baby talk to each other. You do cringe, right? I mean, you know that they're at that phase, but as a viewer, you do kind of recoil a little bit.
POLLEY: Yeah. Because I think we'd cringe and recoil to see ourselves. You know, if we actually saw what we look like to other people, you know, inside the confines of our long-term relationships. I mean, I think that's what's wonderful about long-term relationships is we can let our guard down and be our most embarrassing self. But it's like kind of ugly when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a way.
BLOCK: Well, the seismic shift from Margot comes when she meets a young artist and rickshaw driver, Daniel - he's played by Luke Kirby - who happens to live right across the street. And their attraction is immediate, it's powerful, but for quite a long time, it's not acted upon. And I want to play you a scene. They're sitting in a cafe, and this is a purely verbal seduction by Daniel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TAKE THIS WALTZ")
LUKE KIRBY: (as Daniel) I just kissed the top of your head ever so gently. And then I kissed your eyelids, and they fluttered underneath my lips, just a little.
WILLIAMS: (as Margot) A little.
BLOCK: And, Sarah, it goes on for quite some time after that. The expressions as you watch Margot - Michelle Williams, the actress - digest this and take it in are really quite something to behold. And it does seem like if you were to shoot that scene many times, you wouldn't get that element of surprise. You sort of feel like she's hearing this all for the very first time.
POLLEY: Yeah. And that's true. I mean, we had an exhaustive rehearsal process before shooting the film, but this was the one scene we actually didn't rehearse. So amazingly, you know, Michelle is probably one of the only actresses in the world who can blush on cue, so...
POLLEY: ...we did get great stuff to work with, you know, in the fifth and sixth takes, but there's some from the first take there that I just love and could never be repeated no matter what, so...
BLOCK: And this was scripted. This wasn't ad-libbed.
POLLEY: Yes. It was scripted.
BLOCK: How much fun was that to write?
POLLEY: It was pretty hilarious. I have to say before showing this script to anybody, I paused for about 10 days and just kept deleting that scene and then putting back in and deleting it and putting it back in because it's just like it's somehow kind of embarrassing to have written it and to have people read it, let alone see it in a film. So finally, I just pressed send and sent it to a few friends, and it turned out to be most people's favorite scene, so...
BLOCK: Did you feel like you were channeling a different character as you wrote that scene, or did that - did it come naturally?
POLLEY: I think - I mean, I was trying to play with the idea of how much sexier the idea of somebody can be than they are in actuality. So, you know, the main passion and main sort of erotic part of the relationship between Daniel and Margot really happens in words and looks and in silences. Once there's actual physical contact, I think it becomes, like, quite diminished, the eroticism between them.
BLOCK: You know, part of what's complicated here is that Margot's husband, Lou, is such a - he's a nice guy. He's Seth Rogen. He's this big kind of lovable teddy bear. And you sort of - as a viewer, your sympathies are really torn between these two characters, both of whom are very likable.
POLLEY: Yeah. I mean, I think that I wanted to let the audience feel as conflicted as Margot does, if not more. I mean, I feel like I didn't want to make a film with any heroes and villains. I wanted to make a film with deeply good but deeply flawed characters. I mean, I think that most, you know, breakups happen between two fairly good people, not between, you know, someone who's in the right and someone who's in the wrong. So people are really bringing their last relationship to the film, and they feel very passionately about, you know, who she should stay with and whether she should go.
BLOCK: Sarah Polley, do you think - having made this movie, did you learn something about relationships that you didn't know before?
POLLEY: First of all, I love that you say both my names when you ask me a question.
POLLEY: It's awesome. Well, Melissa Block, let me think about it. I don't think so, but maybe my questions got more articulate. I feel like I didn't really make this film to say a specific thing, but I made the film with a lot of questions. And I think maybe the wondering became a little bit more eloquent than it was before. But I think these things are unanswerable. I think, you know, the questions I went in with, you know, were: Can you live with a gap in life? Do you constantly need to fill it? Is familiarity compatible with passion? Or is romantic love the only thing that can make us feel whole? Can anything make us feel whole? I mean, I don't think there's any answers to those questions, but I feel like it was a great thing to just walk around inside those questions for a couple of years.
BLOCK: Well, Sarah, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.
POLLEY: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Sarah Polley wrote and directed the new film "Take This Waltz."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THIS WALTZ")
LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Ay, ay, ay, ay. Take this waltz. Take this waltz. Take its broken waist in your hand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.