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Sundance Preview: Mark Ruffalo's Very Personal 'Infinitely Polar Bear'

Mark Ruffalo in Infinitely Polar Bear - H 2014

First time writer-director Maya Forbes tells THR about making the transition from comedy writer to indie filmmaker on the film, which sees the star playing a bipolar dad trying to win back his family.

If the hallmark of Sundance is personal filmmaking, then Infinitely Polar Bear very well may be this year’s festival poster child.  When writer/director Maya Forbes was six years old, her father had a series of manic breakdowns, which led to her parents' separation and move from a country house to a cramped apartment in Cambridge, Mass.  Four years later, her mother, unable to find a good job and unhappy with the conditions in which her two daughters were being raised, enrolled in an MBA program at Columbia University, leaving the girls in the care of their manic-despressive father.  Polar Bear is based on Forbes’ memories of those 18 months, and her father’s struggle to care for her and her sister, as well as himself, and his attempt to regain his family. 

In anticipation of Infinitely Polar Bear’s premiere next Saturday at the Eccles Theatre, THR talked to Forbes about how J.J. Abrams got involved, having Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play her parents, and why after 15 years as one of Hollywood’s top comedy writers she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a director of smaller dramatic films. 

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Background: 
While an undergraduate at Harvard Forbes wrote for The Lampoon, so it’s not surprising she followed the humor magazine’s long list of alumni (Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, BJ Novak, and many more) to write for Hollywood after graduation. “I don't think I would have considered coming out to Hollywood to write comedy if I hadn't been on the Lampoon,”  Forbes tells THR.  “it just seemed possible.”

Her first gig was writing for The Larry Sanders Show.  “I was so young I didn't even realize what an amazing break it was,” she recalls.  “Besides being a big break it was an incredible learning experience. I worked with amazing actors and learned so much from Gary Shandling.”

Forbes has written both broad comedies (The Rocker) and movies her kids will love (Monsters vs. Aliens and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days), but while she was at Harvard her first love was creative writing, especially plays, and she was always drawn to drama and smaller, idiosyncratic movies.   Which is why in 2007, she resolved to finish the personal script about her childhood.

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Getting the Film Off the Ground: 
I became friendly with JJ [Abrams] because our children played together at the park,” Forbes explains.  “We chatted about work and I told him I was working on something very personal and he said he'd like to read it.”  Abrams reacted strongly to the script and, much to Forbes’ surprise, said he wanted to help get it made. 

Having Abrams attached, “was huge because it's so not what he normally does,” explains Forbes,  “but he's very smart and seemed to understand it on its terms, so having him behind it was very exciting.”

Abrams' involvement also meant the project had a better chance of attracting big-name talent, but Forbes' pregnancy threw the movie into an 18 month delay.  “Then once my son was a year old I thought it was time to start it up again,” recalls Forbes.  She met Mark Ruffalo, instantly knew he’d be ideal for the role, and the project quickly regained momentum.

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When it all seemed to click:
Forbes always wanted to direct, but was scared of the commitment and the potential of failure.  “When I wrote this script I could see it clearly and I felt like I couldn't hand it over,” remembers Forbes.  “It was sort of like 'well I'm too scared not to do it because I've always wanted to do it.'" More than anything though Forbes was reluctant to hand the script over because she feared another director might fail to give the film the warmth she knew the story needed.  Because of the personal nature of the story, both the tone and sense of family were vital to Forbes.

One day while they were rehearsing, Forbes watched as Ruffalo and Saldana played with the two kids.  “They’re really good actors, but they were also so warm with them, it felt like a family,” explains Forbes. It was at that moment that Forbes said she realized, “I was going to get these really special performances, it’s going to feel real.”

Forbes’ Mission for Infinitely Polar Bear:
“So many people have these unconventional family lives,” explains Forbes.  “I remember as a kid feeling how unconventional our life seemed.  It didn't seem like we were like everybody else.   And as I got older I've met so many people that felt that same way.”  She hopes that in writing about a specific part of her childhood she can tap into something more universal:

“My biggest hope is that when people see the movie they relive their childhood in some way.  I would love for them to connect with it viscerally and remember the highs and lows of their own childhood.”