When asked in interviews about the confessional nature of her previous film, the 2011 relationship drama Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley has been quick to set the record straight: Despite a few obvious personal parallels—the Toronto setting, a heroine who gets married and then divorced young—Waltz is not autobiographical. For a true glimpse into the life of this Canadian actress-turned-director, look instead to Stories We Tell, her first feature-length documentary. Through interviews with relatives, narrated passages from a memoir, and fake Super 8 footage of her deceased mother (actress and casting director Diane Polley, played here by Rebecca Jenkins), Polley investigates the complicated relationship between her parents. Part intimate family portrait, part mystery, the movie eventually reveals a shocking secret from the filmmaker’s past. It also interrogates its own methods, negating the TMI factor by asking tough questions about the value of personal documentaries. While her 11-month-old daughter slumbered a few feet away, Polley, 34, sat down to talk with The A.V. Club at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The A.V. Club: At one point in the film, you mention that you wanted to give everyone involved in this story—your parents, your brothers and sisters, everyone—the opportunity to tell their side. But do we ever hear your side of the story?
Sarah Polley: Not really! It’s interesting, no one has asked me that. And no, I left my version out of it. I’m in this very strange position where the film tells all these stories about my life and my family, but I disagree with a whole bunch of things, and the way they’re told. Originally, I imagined making the film with a sort of Rashomon structure: I tell my version, my dad tells his version, Harry [Gulkin] tells his version, my siblings tell their version. And then I realized it’s a totally unfair thing to set up. I’m the filmmaker, I’m editing it; I can’t have my version, with this narration that will inevitably become the voice of God and obliterate everybody else’s version, in terms of what we’re supposed to be listening to and believing as the audience. So I really did leave my version out of it to a certain degree, and just tried to represent as accurately as possible the versions I was being told by other people.
AVC: Are there nuances of the story that got lost?
SP: There’s a ton of things that I would have liked to have included. We have hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, and some of my favorite sequences are not in the film. Whole interviews that I did with people—like, full-day interviews with friends of my mother, or Harry’s ex-wife—didn’t make the cut. I had to lose things I really love. There’s a lot about my mom, just outside of who she was as a mother. She was this really dynamic person who did a lot of amazing things. She discovered The Kids In The Hall and did a lot of amazing work in the film industry. I just didn’t have the space to fully flesh her out as a person. And that kind of hurts, because this is sort of a record of her, and it’s actually a very narrow portrait of who she is.
AVC: How much time did you pour into this movie?
SP: Five years. It was arduous.
AVC: When during that time did you decide to shoot the re-creations, the artificial home movies of your mother?
SP: We stumbled onto the re-creation idea. We were doing interviews, and Iris [Ng], our cinematographer, had this great idea that we should do B-roll of the interviews on Super 8, so we could show that the filmmaking process is subject to the same nostalgia and mutating of the facts as what we’re making the film about—that all of this, as soon as it’s in the past, is up for grabs. So I think while we were doing that, we sort of happened on the idea of the re-creations.
AVC: Did you shoot those scenes in your actual family home?
SP: No, the family home was re-created by our production designer, which was super weird. But she did an amazing job; it looked identical. It was really weird walking around in a set of my family home, with people dressed up as my family. [Laughs.] It was so messed up, like a really bad novel.
AVC: That’s a movie right there!
SP: I know! In fact, I actually wrote a script with a scenario just like that, many years ago, and then just found myself in it somehow. It’s very weird.
AVC: There’s a lot of hyper self-awareness in Stories We Tell, as though you’re beating viewers to questions or misgivings they might have. There are times where it feels like you’re providing your own film criticism.
SP: Oh, awesome! [Laughs.] I think it really helps to be totally mortified that you’re making this film in the first place. You’re constantly looking at it, wondering what you’d say if you were reviewing it. “It’s the most narcissistic, self-indulgent piece of crap.” Strangely, I think it was a healthy way to check in on how stupid I thought the film was. And still, I have questions about why I made it, and what it means that it’s out there. It’s odd, every time something great happens to the film—and it’s been an amazing ride—I realize it’s going to have a bigger audience. There’s a moment of catching my breath and wondering if I would have ever made it in the first place if I thought this many people were going to see it.
AVC: Reporters in Canada uncovered a big part of the story, the big reveal, and sat on it for years at your request. I can’t imagine any journalist in this country doing that.
SP: Isn’t that amazing? It really gave me more faith in people. It’s their job! That’s what they do; they find information. It wasn’t just respected film critics who kept this to themselves. It was people who get paid to write gossip about actors and directors. So I was really grateful. It was very, very decent.
AVC: There are echoes of other movies, and other unconventional approaches to documentary filmmaking, in Stories We Tell. Did you study the work of other directors?
SP: I’m a huge fan of Allan King. But really, I just tried to watch every personal documentary you could possibly imagine. Anything that was about a person’s life. I probably watched a hundred documentaries in a year. The ones that spoke to me, in terms of having some kind of parallel with this film, were The Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier and F For Fake by Orson Welles. Those were the ones that really had an influence on this film.
AVC: Is it difficult doing the festival circuit with a baby in tow?
SP: No, it’s been very easy. I don’t know why that is. I think it just puts everything in perspective, because what we’re doing here and now is not really that stressful or hard. It’s been really nice. And she’s been having a ball!