Actors rarely make the transition to hyphenate gracefully, but actor-writer-director Sarah Polley’s doing just fine so far. After a long simmering acting career — you may remember her as the kid star of the Ramona and Road to Avonlea series, or maybe more recently from Go, Dawn of the Dead, or the beloved Canadian series Slings & Arrows — Polley was Oscar-nominated for her first feature, Away From Her, which she both wrote and directed. Her follow-up, which again finds her both writing and directing, is Take This Waltz, a sad, sensual exploration of what happens when the excitement leaves a relationship, with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen playing dissatisfied young marrieds and Luke Kirby the neighbor who threatens to break them up for good. Polley, who will next adapt Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, sat down with Vulture to discuss her long fascination with fragile romances, her allegiance to Canada, and why it’s never a good idea to leave the bathroom door open.
I recommended this movie the other day to a friend who’s engaged, and then I thought, Um, actually, maybe you should wait a while …
Yeah, wait till you’re really bored!
You seem to be fascinated by the various ways a marriage can fracture after some time. Where did that come from?
I can think of all kinds of superficial reasons why, but I feel like if you return to something over and over again there’s probably some kind of ancient childhood reason for it that usurps any kind of adult life experience you’ve had. But I don’t know — I think it’s really interesting the way we negotiate being with another human being for a certain period of time, how we deal with or don’t deal with their flaws. Also this general feeling we have of there being some kind of emptiness or lack in our lives, and how much we look to romantic relationships or blame our lack of romantic relationships on that feeling. I wanted to make a film about that gap in life, and what you do to fill it.
This film deals with characters who are your contemporaries. Did you see this kind of relationship ennui happening with your friends?
I think I’ve probably been every character in this film at some point in my life. I feel like while the story itself isn’t autobiographical, we’ve all been versions of these characters at various points. I’ve definitely seen a lot of people trading in one situation for another, whether it’s a job, or a relationship, or where they live, in the hopes that that was going to resolve some kind of basic existential melancholy. Over time, it almost never works. We live in this really aspirational culture where we think the right move will resolve something really big and deep that we’re destined to live with forever.
The movie takes place in Canada, and Canada is such a present part of your movies, from the actors you use to the music and the setting. Do you consider yourself a Canadian filmmaker, first and foremost?
I’d be excited to make a film anywhere, but I definitely consider myself a Canadian filmmaker; I definitely come out of that lineage. All of my mentors were Toronto filmmakers, and when I look at my films I do feel they come out of a Canadian tradition of indie films. I’ll probably always feel quite rooted in Canada, and I think my films will generally have a sense of place there.
Vancouver has become such a go-to anonymous, could-be-anywhere film spot, but the Canadian locales you use are quite the opposite — very individualistic. In this movie you use Toronto, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia …
I haven’t made a conscious effort to make my films feel overly Canadian, but they feel that way because I haven’t disguised what they are. We’re so used to seeing where we live disguised and meant to look like the States, that the second you don’t do that it seems like you’re being overly nationalistic and really laying on the Canadianness [laughs]. I had one agent in L.A. say to me, when he read the script, “This story could just be so much bigger if you based it in New York.” And I thought it was so funny; like, you can’t have a film set anywhere else and have it be universal? The more a film is specific about where it is, the more the universality of the story resonates, I think. I really wanted to capture Toronto as I see it, which is a slightly utopian version of Toronto.
Lou, Seth Rogen’s character, writes cookbooks only about chicken. How did you come up with that?
I guess the general idea [was to reflect] there being something comforting and constant and slightly bland to the relationship. What was really weird was that the food stylist who worked with us revealed, like, a few weeks in, that he actually was writing a book that was just chicken recipes. It turns out it wasn’t zany enough to not be true!
Margot, Michelle Williams’s character, can be quite off-putting at times — she’s not a particularly strong female character.
I don’t relate to characters who aren’t flawed in some way, and I wanted this film to be based around someone who was fundamentally flawed, who didn’t have it all worked out and was kind of muddling through. It’s fascinating to me how people see all three characters. I know people who are wildly defensive of Margot, and people who think she’s the most selfish character in the world; there are people who think Lou is the greatest guy and people who feel like she should have left him two years ago. I tried to write it from each of their points of view yet remain slightly critical of all of them.
She has trouble with boundaries, for one thing, which we see when she happily uses the toilet in front of Lou …
Oh man, not a good idea. I read this thing from a sex therapist once that her best advice for a relationship was, “Always keep the bathroom door closed.” I was like, I’m putting that in a movie, it’s so true. And then you have kids and there’s no way to close the bathroom door anymore. But I actually kind of subscribe to that a little bit.
I’m surprised there’s been such buzz about Sarah Silverman’s full-frontal moment. In the context of the scene — she’s showering at the gym with a bunch of other women — it’s not all that shocking …
I really wanted to show women’s bodies, old and young and different shapes and sizes without judgment or objectification. Whenever I go to the gym, I have these long conversations in the shower and nobody cares that everyone’s naked. I’ve thought for years, I’d never see this in a movie — it’s just too ordinary. I felt it was a good metaphor for certain themes of the film — novelty wearing off, aging being a part of life.
We must discuss “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which is somehow used super poetically in a pivotal scene, when Margot and Daniel ride the Scrambler at an amusement park. How did you ever think to use it?
It’s awesome! I’ve always loved it — it’s my brother’s favorite song. My best memories are driving with him in his little secondhand hatchback Honda Accord blaring it. That’s actually the song they play on that ride, all the time, and I always thought the lyrics were so beautiful, and people don’t think of it that way. Not only are they beautiful, but they really capture what the film’s about: something new taking place of the old. There’s also something quite dark in the lyrics; there’s a weird line, “I met your children / what did you tell them?” What the hell is that?
Where is the Scrambler?
It’s on Center Island, like a fifteen-minute ferry ride from Toronto. It’s pretty sweet. The guy who runs it is like my favorite person; he’s given me more hours of joy than any man in the world!
Was there a moment you realized you wanted to switch direction, from acting to directing?
I think just by doing it; I made a short film once because I had an idea for one when I was 20. I’d never thought of directing before, and I was like, Oh my God, I can’t believe I’ve never done this, this is the best thing ever. The intensity of the collaboration, working with so many different departments, and trying to create a whole world — there’s nothing more thrilling.
I feel like so much of what’s written about you is like, “Sarah Polley was supposed to play this big role, which she turned down because of X … ” It’s like you’re the one that got away.
That’s really funny. It’s good, because it means I never played those parts and failed at them! So you can imagine: I might have been fantastic! Or I might have been terrible.