Sarah Polley swears her new film, Take This Waltz, is not autobiographical. Honest. Yes, she has some things in common with her heroine, Margot (Michelle Williams). Both women are nervous fliers who live in funky downtown Toronto. Both regretfully ended marriages to men they met young – in the movie, Lou (Seth Rogen); and in Polley's life, the film editor David Wharnsby. And both found happiness with someone new: Margot with Daniel (Luke Kirby); and Polley with David Sandomierski, a PhD law candidate at the University of Toronto, who has clerked with Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. They got married Aug. 23 at chef Michael Stadtlander's Eigensinn farm near Singhampton, Ont., followed by an intimate reception at his restaurant, Haisai, and a honeymoon at Arowhon Pines in Algonquin Park. And they're expecting their first child in March. But just like her film, Polley's story is more complicated than any details.
"Any time a young woman makes a film, people think it's autobiographical," Polley, 32, said on Monday, laughing and shaking her head. "I don't know why they don't think the same thing about dudes, but they don't."
She was sitting at a table in a hotel interview suite, wearing a black satin dress that betrayed no sign of her pregnancy. But there was no hiding her radiant glow, and she didn't try to. 'I'm pregnant, 3½ months," she said a few minutes into our talk. Her hair looked like a shiny blond sheet, and her wide, soft eyes – soul-stabbers onscreen – were even more expressive than usual. She's always been an honest talker, though in the past she seemed a little nervous about it, a little controlled, in a way that could make her seem over-earnest. This time she was frank, funny (she laughed a lot) and relaxed, open to almost any idea or discussion. True to her long-standing activism, she even tweaked Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. "When I think about what I find beautiful and exciting about Toronto, I think about street art and streetcars and bicycles. And they're exactly the things right now that are under attack," she said. "I shot even more scenes of bikes than I used, and now I wish I hadn't cut those out."
News of her pregnancy went out over the wires like a shot, but Polley wasn't making a fuss. "It's been pretty easy so far," she said. "I definitely was nauseous for a while, but I'm feeling good now. I'm tired, but nothing to complain about." She's happy about her March due date, "because you've got a month of being inside, then you get to go outside." Her family – her father Michael Polley, an actor and insurance agent, and four older siblings, including John Buchan, a casting director and her frequent collaborator – all live in Toronto, so they'll be around to help. (Her actress mother, Diane, died of cancer when Polley was 11.) "But I can't quite imagine it," she said, her eyes widening. "A few friends have said to me, 'Then they just give you the baby and tell you to go home with it' – on your own!"
Polley knows people will think that her film is autobiographical. "And that's totally fine," she said. "Obviously, I was in a marriage that ended. But I started writing this when the marriage was quite good. And why it ended was in a strange way sadder than the one in the film. It was just a marriage that didn't work. There was nobody else involved, there was no venom or anger or sense of betrayal. That makes it harder to grapple with."
She paused. "It was pretty sickening, I have to say. I hope I don't go through anything as sickening as that in my life again. I was really, really sad for a long time. And I still am. I still miss him. I still miss having that person to talk to about everything I'm doing creatively. I'm married now, and I'm in an amazing relationship, and I'm super, super-happy. But David Wharnsby was responsible for me ever taking myself seriously as something other than an actor. That relationship will always be one of the most important of my life."
They're still close enough that he watched every cut of Take This Waltz, and is giving notes on her next film, a documentary about memory and storytelling that she's editing now (it's due out in January). "If this film had really been based on our relationship, he would have been so pissed off, I wouldn't have had him to consult with on it," Polley said, laughing. "There's no freaking way I'm going to alienate him."
But if viewers project their own feelings onto Take This Waltz, well, that's exactly what Polley wants. "Different people seem to have fundamentally different experiences of it," she said. "People feel very passionately that the film validates whatever their own point of view is – on long-term relationships, monogamy, what happens to romance, whether Margot and Lou should have stayed together. I'm happy about that. I feel the film's point of view is ephemeral. I feel no judgment of Margot for doing what she does, but I'm not sure it's the right thing."
In fact, Polley admits she doesn't fully understand Margot even now. "Her, her details, I don't know exactly where they came from," she said. "That's why it was such a long process to cast the role. I needed someone to help me figure her out." How can you write a movie about a character you don't get? "I don't know," Polley replied, shrugging. "But Michelle [Williams]somehow understood her better than I did. She has a kind of poetry to her, such a profound intelligence, and such a genuine, self-deprecating, painful embarrassment about her. She made sense of the whole picture for me."
A film with a not-conventionally "likeable" heroine, and without a crystal-clear point of view, is a risky thing in today's market. Especially since Polley's first feature, Away from Her, was such a success, earning her a Genie for best director and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Polley knows this, but jumped anyway.
"I ran into a film critic about eight months after Away from Her came out," she said. "He said, 'Just so you know, it doesn't matter what you do next. The reviews are already written. They're going to say, "disappointing sophomore attempt." So this is the moment to do whatever you want.' It was the most liberating thing anyone ever said to me."
She went for it, exploding bomb after bomb. First, she wrote a screenplay that flies against Happily Ever After. "I'm constantly fascinated by the contrast between what we're told that long-term relationships are supposed to feel and look like, and what they actually are," Polley said. "And the sense of inadequacy that I think most people have because of that."
Second, she cast a comic actor as her co-lead, and put him through an emotional wringer. Though she didn't know Rogen personally, she had him in mind from the earliest writing, because she knew audiences had to root for Lou to make the film work, and, "Seth has some kind of goodness that you feel come through his pores," Polley said. She grinned. "I find him super-attractive in the film."
For the pivotal scene in which Lou, freshly heartbroken, pours out his pain, Polley trained her digital camera on Rogen in close-up, and filmed for three hours. Without cutting. "I wanted it to be as brutal as it is, if you're the person on the other side of that conversation and you can't look away," she said. "I also wanted to have an unblinking eye on the chaos of your emotions when someone breaks up with you. And since Seth hadn't done that kind of dramatic work before I didn't want to miss a second of what it was for that seal to get broken."
Some of Rogen's torrent was scripted, some not. "Some things were emotionally shocking to be there for," Polley said. "When he said, 'I thought you were going to be there when I died,' all of us kind of looked down. The focus puller was crying, the camera operator was blinking and blinking away tears." They cut three hours down to two minutes, the longest they worked on any scene in editing.
The third bomb Polley exploded: She got her actresses to do full-frontal nudity, but not in a sex scene. "A lot of the film is about sexuality, how mercurial it is, how erratic and unpredictable. It felt weird to me to shy away from the body," Polley said. "At the same time, I didn't want to do anything that objectified anybody." As a member of the YMCA, Polley is used to the scene in the communal shower, where naked women chat casually to one another. She'd long pondered how something so normal in life would be startling on film, and decided to write a shower scene into Take This Waltz.
"Generally, when I've done nudity, it's very controlled, it's very specific about what you're going to see, and it's usually looking really sexy," said Polley, who's been taking a break from acting of late. ("I don't know what my relationship with acting is any more," she said. "I might be really interested in it again, but it's not my priority. My priority is writing and making films.") But she wanted her shower scene to feel casual, with no limits on what could be seen. Williams and co-stars Sarah Silverman and Jennifer Podemski agreed to go for it.
On the shooting day, however, the actresses were anxious – photos of them in costume in bathing suits had appeared the day before on the Internet, along with the usual snarky comments. Polley offered to scrap the scene. "There's a certain feminist aspect to it that would be subverted if anyone felt pressure to do it," she said. "But it turned into this roaring, 'No! We're doing it!' Everyone was super on-board."
The result is like the rest of the film: brimming with a raw honesty that makes us realize how unreal most movies are about women and relationships. "If we were to take anybody who we think is strong and together, likeable and rational, and see them alone in the confines of their long-term relationship, we would see a bit of a mess, and someone they're not necessarily proud to be," Polley said. "I wanted to not shy away from that. I wanted to see Margot's mess. It's really in romantic relationships where we show our most embarrassing selves."
So yes, the film is about Polley. Because it's about all of us.