Polley gets 'Away' from acting to start directing

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About "Away:" First-time feature directors usually aren't well known names, but that's not the case with Lionsgate's "Away From Her," which marks actress Sarah Polley's directorial debut.

While Polley's well-known and well-regarded for her acting -- in films like Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter," David Cronenberg's "Existenz" and Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking" -- her directing credits prior to "Away" included only a few short films. With "Away," which she adapted to the screen from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," she's now successfully transitioned to writer-director status. Of course, Polley can resume acting whenever she wants to and plans to do that from time to time. With "Away," however, she had more than enough to keep her busy writing and directing and chose not to appear in it. The film, opening Friday via Lionsgate, stars Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis and Gordon Pinsent.

"Away" is a Film Farm and Foundry Films production in association with Capri Releasing, HanWay Films and Echo Lake Prods. Produced by Daniel Iron, Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss, it was executive produced by Atom Egoyan and Doug Mankoff. Also starring are Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson and Alberta Watson. A love story about memory and the loss of memory through Alzheimer's disease late in a marriage of nearly 50 years, "Away" premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival to audience and critical acclaim and was picked up by Lionsgate.

When I caught up with Polley Monday afternoon I asked how "Away" came about. "Well, I fell in love with the short story by Alice Munro and immediately wanted to make it into a film and immediately wanted to make that film with Julie Christie," she told me. "It was first published in the New Yorker and I had just actually met Julie when I read it so she was fresh in my mind and I couldn't stop imagining her face when I read this story. I really wanted to see her play this role.

"I let it linger for a little while because I was definitely daunted by the idea of adapting Alice Munro as a first feature, but I just couldn't get it out of my head. So after a couple of years I went about trying to get the rights sort of on a whim, thinking there was no way I would get them. And then I actually got them pretty easily. I ended up adapting it and making it and luckily ending up with all of the actors that I wrote the parts for. We started shooting a year ago February and I guess I got the rights about a year and a half or two years before that."

Asked what made her want to direct, Polley replied, "When I was 20 I had an idea kind of on a whim for a short film. It wasn't something that I was thinking about long term or leading to anything else. I just wanted to make this one little experiment and I did. And in the course of that I realized two things. I realized, one, that I knew absolutely nothing about filmmaking and would have to sort of learn the entire process over again. And, two, that it was the most rewarding and exhilarating thing I'd ever done and that I wanted to keep doing it.

"So I made about five shorts over the course of about six years and I went to film school (at) the Canadian Film Center, the Norman Jewison place (Jewison is the founder and Chair Emeritus of the CFC, Canada's leading institution for film, television and new media education). And then I ended up acting as well as making my short films and I think that's how I'd like to keep it and sort of equally juggle both careers if it's at all possible."

As an actress, Polley, who is Canadian, had worked with Canadian director Atom Egoyan on "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter." Was Egoyan, who's one of "Away's" executive producers, instrumental in steering her into directing? "He was in the sense that when I worked with Atom as an actor I think it was the first time I realized that making films could be a really interesting and important thing to do with your life," she explained. "So I think he sort of gave me appreciation for them and he's certainly been really supportive and very available to me as I've made my own films."

How did she feel about having responsibility for every aspect of making her movies after years of being able as an actress to focus exclusively on her own performance? "Well, it's definitely a shock to the system," she said. "I mean, there's no comparison between the responsibilities you have as a filmmaker and the responsibilities you have as an actor. Acting comes with its own share of anxieties and fears, absolutely, but directing is (different in that) all of a sudden nobody's looking after you any more. You realize that part of your job as a director and part of everyone's job on set is to really protect and nurture and take care of the actors. It's something I don't think you realize that much when you're on the other side of it. But I also loved it. I loved that feeling of not being protected from information and of having responsibility for so much."

When I asked Polley why she hadn't given herself a role to play in "Away," she pointed out, "It was never really interesting to me to be in it. I really love writing and directing and in a way I feel like acting, as well, in the project would have sort of spoiled that for me. I love using that other part of my brain. I don't know -- I love the feeling of falling in love with the actors you're working with and I don't really want to spend four months with myself in an editing room (editing footage of herself). I was really wanting to spend time with these actors and to be constantly surprised by what they were doing in a way that I don't think you can be by yourself."

Does the fact that she's an actor, herself, make her work differently with actors when she's directing and does she do anything with her actors that she wishes her directors had done with her? "Just to an extent, I guess so," she replied. "I mean, I'm aware of it and conscious of things that I like and don't like as an actor. But I think that you sort of learn as an actor that the best kind of director has a unique language for each actor and a kind of common language that's very individualized and unique for that relationship. So in a way, more than anything what I've learned is just to have that approach. It's being open and listening to what that particular actor needs and not having any kind of dogmatic style or approach."

In her approach to directing, rehearsing was important: "We table read for a week and then we blocked out basically everything before we started shooting, which was really helpful."

Focusing on other aspects of directing, I asked if she storyboarded. "Some of my short films I storyboarded and some I just shot listed," she told me. "On this film, I mostly just shot listed. We shot listed very specifically and carefully, but we didn't get into story boards because we wanted to make sure that we weren't too tied to any particular frames given the actors we were working with."

In working with her actors, does she encourage them to try things or do things differently or is she looking for them to do it as she's already envisioned them doing it? "In the rehearsal process, definitely," she said. "I definitely encourage them to sort of like play with stuff. And then once we were shooting it was pretty much what we had sort of decided upon."

With "Away" Polley not only directed the film, but also adapted it to the screen. "It was great because I knew the actors I was writing for and so that was a really delightful experience," she noted. "I absolutely loved that. It's hard for me to imagine directing something that I haven't written. It feels to me like a really intrinsic part of imagining a film."

Of course, for the most part writers never really do know who's going to be playing the parts they're writing. How did Polley get Christie on board so early and apparently so easily? "I wrote the part for Julie having known her as a friend," she recalled. "We worked together on a film (the 2001 fantasy drama "No Such Thing," written and directed by Hal Hartley). I knew that it would actually be a bit quite difficult to get her involved in it. She is reluctant to take on large roles, I think, generally. So I knew that I would get a few no's before I got a yes. And that's exactly what happened. She took a few months with the script and really liked it and then decided that she didn't want to commit that much time to acting and so I did come back to her several times with it before she said yes."

So as Polley was writing her screenplay Christie wasn't on board yet. "I didn't bring it to her until it was finished," she said. "It was very difficult for me to imagine making the film without her. She was one of the main reasons I wanted to option the story in the first place."

When it comes to writing, she added, "I write extremely early in the morning, like between 6 and 8, on my computer in my bedroom. It's very difficult for me to write at any other time of day. I do a lot of drafts."

During filming, I asked, did Sarah the director ever want to wring the neck of Sarah the writer when she had to deal with something that was easy to write but not so easy to shoot? "No, I think that I was really conscious as I was writing of the exigencies of production," she replied. "I think my strong point certainly in making my short films has been that I've always kept things as simple as I possibly could being aware of time and budget constraints. So I didn't limit myself, but I was also really aware of those factors while I was writing."

Most of the film's budget, she said, came "through Telefilm Canada. There was also some money from Echo Lake here in L.A. And there were tax credits from the Government of Canada, the Ontario Media Development Corp. and broadcast licenses. It's all Canadian money except for the Echo Lake money."

Shooting took place throughout southern Ontario: "It went great, actually. It was kind of idyllic, a perfect experience. We were shooting a year ago February. You know, this is an intimate small sort of love story and yet we were shooting in minus-35 weather on a frozen lake. It was cold and humid so people's eyelashes were actually crystallizing so the whole crew had these white eyelashes and beards with icicles coming off. So it was quite extreme, the weather we were dealing with."

On the other hand, while it was cold it wasn't sufficiently snowy. "It happened to be a winter when there was very little snow in Canada," she pointed out, "so we kept having to move our locations further and further north to find snow, which is a little scary. It was like global warming kind of got in our way."

Looking back on all aspects of directing, Polley told me, "I love writing and I absolutely love being on set. I think being on set is probably my favorite part of it. I know most people like editing the best, but for me being on set is the most exhilarating thing in the world."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From June 5, 1989's column: "Although it seems as though all of this summer's films have sequel numbers after their names, there actually are a few originals competing. One of these, Buena Vista/Touchstone's 'Dead Poets Society,' directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams, began a limited run last weekend and goes wide Friday opposite Paramount's opening of 'Star Trek V.'

"Talking recently to Steven Haft, who produced 'Poets' with Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, I asked him the theory behind opening a relatively small, adult-oriented film amidst the early summer blockbuster sequels. 'The strategy is the strategy of counter-programming, which is the science of taking illogic and making it a form of logic,' observes Haft.

"'You say, let's find a film that has everything we normally don't identify with summer movies and on that basis be certain there'll be nothing else like it out during the summer. Therefore, it will stand alone and, therefore, if it's a film of quality, people will find it and be able to separate it from all the other choices out there. That's (Disney studio chairman) Jeff Katzenberg's thinking on this -- and when all is said and done, Jeffrey is right a heck of a lot more often than he's wrong.'

"After starting last weekend on eight screens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, 'Poets' opens Friday at nearly 650 screens in the United States and Canada. That it's going head-to-head with 'Star Trek V' doesn't trouble Haft: 'In truth, I think 'Dead Poets Society' is a very original piece of work and I'm not sure that the first audience for this film is an audience that would see the fifth version of anything. Peter Weir is somebody whose films, I think, are each different and original and intriguing pieces of work.'

"Unlike the readily definable summer sequels, 'Poets' can't be explained in three or four words. 'The parallel to the film is 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' says Haft. 'That may not seem like an obvious comparison to make, but it's about the effect that one person can have whose mind is still free in an institution whose values are rigid and enforced on everybody else. What starts out as one dissident voice grows to be a chorus.'"

Update: "Poets" turned out to be a big hit for Disney and Haft was right about Katzenberg being "right a heck of a lot more often than he's wrong." "Poets" went wide June 9, 1989 with $7.5 million at 687 theaters ($10,975 per theater) and wound up grossing $95.9 million domestically, making it 1989's 10th biggest film. It did about $140 million more in international theaters.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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