You shouldn’t be too put off by the fact that Sarah Polley’s debut feature film as a director, Away From Her, is essentially a love story set amidst the painful realities of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, it’s a beautiful and moving film that might force even the youngest of lovers to question the mortality of their relationship with its poignancy.
Based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Polley’s movie stars Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago) and Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as elderly couple Fiona and Grant, who after 45 years of marriage are separated when Grant is forced to put Fiona in a retirement home after she starts showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. What happens next is both shocking and heartbreaking, but also very real, and it’s an amazing achievement for a young woman who hasn’t even turned 30 to be able to convey such complex emotions in her first feature.
ComingSoon.net had been wanting to chat with Polley about for a while, but we finally had our chance when she stopped through New York City before the theatrical release of her movie after successful runs at the three major film festivals in Toronto, Sundance and Berlin
ComingSoon.net: What interested you in the subject matter of this short story?
Sarah Polley: I read the short story by Alice Munro in the New Yorker when it first came out, and I was just unbelievably moved by it. I guess I was just drawn to this really profound and complex examination of love.
CS: How long was the short story?
Polley: Probably around 40 or 50, it’s quite a long short story, and she’s a very dense and complex writer, so a lot really did have to be subtracted from the short story to make it into a two-hour feature.
CS: It’s surprising that you’d have to remove things, since that’s not usually the case with short story adaptations. Are all of the characters from the movie in the short story?
Polley: There are some that have been added and taken away, but basically, yeah, it’s very true to the story actually. There’s things that definitely had to be adapted, but I think at its core, it’s incredibly true to the story.
CS: Why did this subject matter interest you, especially since most of the characters are significantly older than yourself? Did you have any relatives who suffered from Alzheimer’s?
Polley: No, but I did a lot of research into Alzheimer’s disease, and I spent a lot of time in a retirement home for three and a half years with my grandmother, so I knew that environment quite well, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience with Alzheimer’s disease.
CS: Did it ever seem odd that a woman in her late 20s might be interested in telling this story?
Polley: What’s weird is that it didn’t even really occur to me as weird at all when I first read the story, I was just so drawn to it. I never considered this is odd that I’m drawn to something about people in their 70s that I just wanted to make. It’s only since the film’s been made that it seemed like such a strange choice.
CS: Maybe it seems strange to us since so many filmmakers your age are making movies about how difficult it is to be in your late 20s. Can you talk about the casting for the movie? I thought it was interesting to have Julie Christie play Fiona. She’s obviously had a long career and is very well known, while Gordon has done a lot of stuff in Canada but not so well known here.
Polley: There were several motivating factors in wanting to adapt this story in the first place. When I first read the story, I couldn’t stop seeing these faces in these roles, and Olivia in the role of Marian, so I really wrote these characters thinking of them.
CS: Was it easier to get Julie to take the part by telling her that you wrote it with her in mind?
Polley: No, and she’s hard to convince to get her on a set. I knew that it would take some convincing to get her involved, and it did, but I also knew that if I was persistent enough, I’d eventually guess her.
CS: Are those flashback scenes also really her?
Polley: No, but I’m so glad you’re asking me that. I’m glad it looked enough like her that you thought that. That’s another actress.
CS: Were you able to bring a lot of the crew from your short films onto this and what was the biggest difference with this experience besides the longer shoot?
Polley: I did, yeah. There’s a DoP, Luc Montpellier, who I’ve worked with on most of my shorts, so I did bring a few people along. I think the endurance it took and the stamina it took, but also, you get so much more help on a feature with these incredibly talented people who are there with you full-time making the film, so that was kind of a great thing.
CS: When you spent time with your grandmother, did you have any experiences of the retirement home staff being somewhat insensitive, like we see with the Madeline character?
Polley: Absolutely, yeah. I think like any place, these retirement homes are filled with really great people who are extremely hardworking like Christie, and some really callous people who are really overworked and a lot of pressure and can’t be empathetic to everyone.
CS: I wanted to ask more about the character of Christi. I haven’t read the short story, but I was curious what you felt she brought to the story.
Polley: For me, I think it was important that Grant had some kind of confidante. I don’t think we would have had enough of a sense of his emotional life or inner thoughts if he hadn’t had at some point somebody to talk to. I also felt like it was important to not paint a one-sided picture of what these institutions are like and show there are staff there that do make an effort and are very empathetic.
CS: As far as this case of Alzheimer’s, are these situations where someone can completely forget someone they’ve been married to for 45 years in just 30 days something that can really happen?
Polley: I mean, it can. The thing about Alzheimer’s these days is that it manifests so differently with each person, so this is very accurate to some people’s experiences and not at all to other people. The 30-day rule in retirement homes is very rare, and doesn’t happen very often at all. It used to happen more often, but it certainly doesn’t happen in any public institutions in Canada anymore. In terms of forgetting someone after 30 days? Absolutely possible. These people wake up in the morning and completely forget their spouses, so it’s realistic but not in every case. Even Olympia, whose mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, had this experience where her mother didn’t recognize her for months and months and then all of a sudden, she came in one day and knew exactly who she was. Those moments do happen and they’re very confusing.
CS: Did you have a chance to talk with Olympia about how that experience affected her? When did she share that with you?
Polley: When she first read the script. It was weird, ’cause I wrote it with her in mind but I didn’t know she had a personal experience, so it was valuable to have her input and her insight.
CS: How did you go about getting the Neil Young song for the movie?
Polley: I spent the entire time I was writing the film listening to Neil Young and listening to K.D. Lang’s covers of Neil Young songs, so it was extremely important for me to have those songs in the film. They were not easy to get, we’ll leave it at that, but that was probably the most stressful part of making the film is trying to get the rights to those songs.
CS: I like the fact that Jonathan Goldsmith’s score blended some of the themes from those songs into the ambient soundtrack.
Polley: What he did was so genius. We sort of had this idea of these box songs that represented the order of the mind, this very structured world, and then these Neil Young songs, and there was no correlation between the two, and he somehow managed to marry those two sounds. That for me was one of the most magical parts of making the film was having somebody create something so strange and unexpected.
CS: You’ve had so many experiences with great directors like Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and of course Atom Egoyan. What were you able to take from them in terms of working with them as director?
Polley: I think what I learned the most from working with all those totally different directors is that you have to reinvent the process every single time, so that there’s no one way to direct anything that you have to carve out your own path and approach and do it from square one. You can’t really imitate anybody, and I think that was a very valuable lesson to learn. I really think the way you direct has to reflect who you are and how you communicate specifically.
CS: What was Atom’s involvement with this as executive producer? Someone to bounce ideas off or someone to help get the money together?
Polley: He was just available whenever I needed him, so he was pretty hands-off, but if I ever had a moment where I wanted advice on something, he was always the person I would call. He didn’t impose himself in any way creatively. He was just somebody that I would talk about ideas with.
CS: As a director, do you prefer to let your actors do their thing and work from there or do you prefer to give a lot of direction to them?
Polley: I think I give quite a bit of direction. Maybe that’s inexperience, I’m not sure, but at this point, I still like to exert a bit of control.
CS: Even with an actress like Julie Christie?
Polley: Yeah, yeah I mean, they were very generous and patient with me, but I was definitely very involved.
CS: Have you been able to learn anything as an actress from working with someone like Julie?
Polley: I think so, yeah, especially an actress of that caliber. It’s just an amazing thing to be able to witness somebody else’s process that close-up. I don’t think you get to see the machinations in the same way as you do when you’re an actor.
CS: When I first saw this movie, as much as I loved it, I got this impression that it’s going to be a very hard, if not impossible, movie to market. Maybe it might interest older audiences, but they might not want to be reminded of their mortality and what’s to come. What is your take on who might enjoy your movie?
Polley: To me, it’s a love story first and foremost, and I think the fact that I was so drawn to this story. I’m 28 years old, so to me, the range of people that can be interested in it is quite a bit wider than just older people. I think because it’s a love story, I think there’s a lot of people who are in the situation that I was in, being at the beginning of a relationship, at the beginning of love and wondering what marriage looks like after 44 years. No, I don’t think about these things very much, to be honest with you. To me, it’s very much the process of making the film and what happens after that is so out of your control anyway. I sort of trust them to know. To me, it feels like people will sense that it’s a love story more than anything else, and that’s not totally unmarketable.
CS: What has the reaction been to the movie at the various festivals it’s been playing at and what kind of questions and feedback do you get at the end?
Polley: Yeah, that’s what’s been really interesting. I’ve gotten to hear so many people’s personal stories about their personal experiences with the disease, and that’s been a really amazing part of making the film.
CS: Do you know what you’ll be doing next as a filmmaker?
Polley: I’m in the middle of writing something which is too confusing really to talk about at this point, so I’m writing something and I’m also acting for the summer. I’m doing an HBO series on “John Adams” with Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti. We’re just starting. Like the day after the film gets released, I start on it. They’ve been shooting for three months and they’re shooting until the end of time basically. I play his daughter Maggie.
CS: Now that you’ve made this one feature, do you think you’d want to make a movie in which you’re both directing and acting?
Polley: I don’t think so. I like the feeling of keeping them separate. I find that really gratifying. I can’t imagine combining those. For me, I love the feeling of using different parts of my brain separately.
Away From Her opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 4.