AWAY FROM HER written and directed by Sarah Polley, from a story by Alice Munro, with Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis and Michael Murphy. A Capri release. 110 minutes. Opens Friday (May 4). Rating: NNNN
Sarah Polley isn't fazed that her feature directorial debut, the absorbing drama Away From Her, is opening the same day as the latest comic book sequel blockbuster.
"We are going to mop the floor with them, you just watch!" laughs Polley, with the same gung-ho attitude she used to blow away zombies in 2004's Dawn Of The Dead remake.
"It's going to be the entertainment story of the year. Even though we'll be on, I think, three screens in Toronto, and they'll be on thousands."
Polley, relaxed and in-the-moment in a Little Italy restaurant, is smart enough to know about the industry ploy called counter-programming. It could just work. Since the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its strong reception at Sundance, Away From Her - based on a story by Alice Munro - has generated lots of buzz both here and abroad for her and the film's stars.
"We're entering the time of year when my friends and I usually stop going to the movies," she says. "You sort of take the summer off. So it's nice to release something a little more independent and less commercial, so there's another option for people."
But enough industry talk. As an actor, Polley seldom chooses roles because of their box-office appeal. Why should she be any different as a director?
"The story took hold of me for a long time before I worked on it," she says about Munro's The Bear Came Over The Mountain, which chronicles the decades-long relationship between philandering professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and his beautiful, patient wife, Fiona (Julie Christie), who's losing her memory. Polley says adapting the story affected
her own ideas about marriage to husband David Wharnsby, a Genie Award-winning editor.
"The story altered me and changed what I thought was important and interesting between two people," she says. "That definitely affected our relationship, and then extended into the fact that David edits everything I do. When you're looking at a marriage that's 40 years ahead of where you're at, it's fascinating. It was intense and not always easy, but working with him on the film was the most pure and raw communication I've ever had with another person."
Directing actors as well known as Pinsent and Oscar winners Christie and Olympia Dukakis - each of them well over twice her age - was understandably intimidating at first.
"I remember the first day of filming wondering why I had chosen this as my first feature," says Polley. "It seemed so immense. But they really welcomed me and were supporting and nurturing. I've learned from a variety of directors that there's no one way to make a film, and no one way to direct actors. Actors need completely different things depending on who they are and how they work. It's your job to discover what those things are."
One thing was clear in the casting: she was determined to get Christie for the lead and knew she'd have to pursue her.
"She's somebody who is reluctantly an actor, and I knew she'd be hesitant to step into a role this big," she says. "But I kept on asking her. I can't think of another actor like her who has this weird mix of being so engaged and yet so ephemeral at the same time. As audiences, we have this elusive relationship with her, we're always chasing her. It's part of who she is, and was so essential to the character."
Though only in her late 20s, Polley's evolved so often it's hard to keep up. Child star. Indie icon. Outspoken activist.
When I ask about her experience on David Miller's appointed transition team during his first year as mayor, she frowns.
"That was complicated, because I really loved David Miller. I was a huge supporter," she says, stressing the past tense. "But the bylaw that passed during his first one or two years banning the homeless from sleeping at Nathan Phillips Square was horrible. I felt betrayed because I'd worked on his campaign, and I don't feel he ever explained that decision.
"It was the only time I had cast a ballot with a whole heart, and I don't know if that'll ever happen again. "
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On why she avoided the use of flashbacks in the film:
On getting two phone calls from Alice Munro:
AWAY FROM HER (Sarah Polley)Rating: NNNN
Polley's feature debut is an absorbing and poignant adaptation of an Alice Munro story about an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer's. Childless couple Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been in love and married for more than 40 years, some of them rocky because of Grant's womanizing. When Fiona starts losing her memory - shown in a few richly detailed scenes - Grant reluctantly puts her in a seniors home, where she forms a mysterious bond with another married resident (Michael Murphy).
Munro's plots don't lend themselves to synopsis, but Polley fleshes out things suggested in the text, and whenever possible uses repeated images - Fiona skiing, for instance - to create a mood and hint at subconscious memories. The subtle score helps a lot, too.
Polley knows that so much of drama is about what's going on in the eyes, and the two leads have hugely expressive baby blues. Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson and Wendy Crewson deliver good support, but the two leads, Munro and Polley herself are the stars. Expect a raft of award noms.