The Toronto director/actor chats with director Doug Liman about their experiences making the cult crime comedy set in the late-90s L.A. rave scene
The rave scene in Toronto peaked in 1999, with parties like Hullabaloo! and Citrus going from warehouses to the Ontario Science Centre. The euphoric, bass-heavy glow stick culture garnered mainstream but also calls to shut the parties down after three fatal overdoses that year.
Also in 1999, a little movie called Go landed in theatres, weaving a multi-threaded Pulp Fiction-like crime narrative about hard partying teens and young adults who orbit a holiday rave called Mary X-Mas Super Fest.
The movie is stylish, funny and out of control. And it was an embarrassment of riches in terms of young talent. Doug Liman would go on to direct and produce The Bourne Identity, Mr. And Mrs. Smith and Edge Of Tomorrow, and the cast included Katie Holmes (just breaking out on Dawson’s Creek) as a good-girl raver, Timothy Olyphant as a drug-dealing menace in a Santa hat and Melissa McCarthy in a hilarious bit part that would become her big-screen debut.
The ensemble’s star was Canada’s own Sarah Polley, who dazzles as a hard-up grocery store cashier trying to make rent by hustling pills on a wild night.
Polley never gave any interviews on this film, but she’s correcting that 20 years later, inviting director Doug Liman to join us for a podcast and revisit the experience that would inspire her transition from actor to filmmaker. So yeah, we have Go to thank for Away From Her, Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell.
Among so much more, we discussed why Polley initially turned down the role in Go and her firm refusal to star in The Bourne Identity her U.S. border problems Doug Liman’s love for challenging the system and what Senator Chuck Schumer has to do with all of this.
And come to our NOW Free Flick Mondays at the Royal Cinema on April 8 for our 20th anniversary screening of Go. Doors are at 6:30 doors, pre-show at 7:30 and movie starts at 8 pm. Free tickets are available at nowtickets.ca.
Radheyan Simonpillai: This is the first time you’ve done press for this?
Sarah Polley: Better late than never. [To Doug Liman] I think you said one time that your mom was mad that I didn’t do any press for this.
Doug Liman: Well, certainly the studio was. I don’t know if you remember this. You got me all fired up. You were like, “Movie press is such BS. All people talk about is what clothing I wear. There’s real issues in the world that people should be talking about, not what the name of my pet is.”
And you got me all convinced. When Sony said, “Alright, it’s time to start talking about press,” I was like, “Sarah and I aren’t doing press!”
They were like, “Let me explain to you how this works: if you don’t promote this movie, no one will go see it.”
SP: I had no idea that you had done that.
DL: Cut to Los Angeles Magazine doing a piece on up-and-coming directors posing in an image from their favourite movies. Brett Ratner had already done his. He’s in The Graduate and he’s in the chaise lounge chair with sunglasses and Mrs. Robinson’s leg in the foreground. I’m like, “Oh my god, you look like such an asshole.”
They were like, “You have to do this and set an example for Sarah, so she will follow suit and do some press so people will go see this movie.”
I thought, I’m going to pick The Full Monty because somebody along the way is going to say no. We had four male producers. It’s got to be me and the producers. There’s five of us like in The Full Monty. And we had to be naked.
I was like, “The producers are gonna say no, or the magazine is gonna say no. Someone’s going to say no.” Cut to two weeks later: I’m at a photo studio in West Hollywood and [producer] Mickey Lidell has brought two bottles of wine. He’s like, “We all better start drinking.” And we did this naked photo shoot for Los Angeles Magazine.
RS: Was the “movie press is BS” reason really why you didn’t do press?
SP: My life until a year before making this movie had been full-on political activism and nothing else. I hadn’t been in school. I hadn’t been in the film industry. It all seemed hypocritical and awful and stupid. It came out of principle and integrity and [the belief] that actors and movies should not be taking up air space. Important issues should.
The truth is, it’s not like in the absence of me doing an interview about Go someone would have printed something about homelessness. It was a pretty naive thing to think. Probably over the years, especially now that I make my own films, you realize there are sometimes a hundred people working extremely hard to make something. And then it’s sort of on you to get it out there. And then you don’t, and that’s kind of painful for people involved with the production. I would say, my view on doing press for films has slightly evolved.
DL: A little late.
SP: But we’re doing this podcast now, so, like, you’re welcome!
But also, I really, really didn’t want to be in the public eye. I really didn’t want to have any kind of fame. I was really stressed about the idea of being in a movie that was being pushed to be out there. At that age, that was my real phobia.
DL: Even from the beginning, you didn’t want to be in a Hollywood movie.
SP: I didn’t want to do this movie.
DL: You didn’t want to meet with me because you thought I was too Hollywood.
SP: I was in L.A. to do a reading for Audrey Wells’s movie Guinevere, which I loved. I was obsessed with that script. Then I read Go. It’s obviously a great script, but it was not where I saw myself going. I wanted to do much more serious movies.
I had said no, and then I feel like I said no again. And then I basically got told, “On your way to the airport tomorrow, in the lobby, you’re going to see Doug Liman. He’s coming to your hotel.”
DL: No, we had lunch.
SP: Yeah, but it was not voluntary.
DL: We threatened your agent. We told her that she wasn’t going to be able to put anyone else in the movie. We knew you were in L.A. and we were like, “She has to at least sit down with Doug.”
SP: But then, in that meeting, you were talking a lot about filmmaking and about how you shot things and about light and about how people were still lighting as though they had to outline someone’s hair to separate from the background and that didn’t need to happen anymore because we’re shooting in colour.
I’d never actually been interested in filmmaking before that. I had been begrudgingly acting in things I really believed in. But it was the first time where someone started talking about filmmaking and I was like, “that’s fascinating.” So then I struck a deal that I would do it if I could apprentice you. Is that how you remember it?
DL: Yeah. But you don’t remember asking for the script at the end of that lunch?
DL: I always think of this as being the critical moment. After this lunch – that she obviously was very begrudgingly having with me – she was like, “Okay fine, give me the script.” And I’m like, “I don’t have it with me.”
SP: Oh, yeah. That’s right!
DL: You’re like, “What do you mean? Aren’t you here to convince me to be in your movie?” I’m like, “No, but I’ll get it sent over.” She’s like, “No, I’m heading to the airport right now. I’ll read it on the flight home.”
SP: Ohhh. I guess I hadn’t read it then.
DL: You’re like, “How could you not have the script with you?!” It was the start of this relationship. This sort of Mother Hen kind of like, “What kind of director are you?! You’re here to convince an actress to be in your movie and you don’t have a copy of the script with you!”
I was like, “You know what, I bet you there’s one in my car.” And my car is a total mess.
SP: I do remember the trunk being filthy.
DL: I start rummaging through my trunk.
SP: You gave me a dirty old script with food stains on it.
DL: I found a dirty old copy of Go that Steve Mirrione, my editor, had marked up. Steve and I – we’re like brothers, and he could be very critical. I look at the script. I flipped open to see what he’s marked in it. On the second page, he circled something very angrily and wrote, “This is a stupid line!” A few pages later, “DUMB!” The whole thing is filled with criticisms of the script. That’s what I handed to you.
I was thinking you so didn’t want to be in a Hollywood movie that there was no version of Go that would have been more appealing than one that was so self-deprecating.
RS: Is that what convinced you then?
SP: I think the idea of apprenticing Doug and learning about filmmaking did.
RS: Did that actually happen? I do know that your transition into filmmaking happened soon after.
SP: Soon after. I mean, cut to the first day of shooting at a grocery store and Doug’s got the camera on one shoulder and a manual for the camera open in front of him. I was like, “Okay, maybe this isn’t going to go as planned. Maybe I’m not going to learn as much as I thought. Maybe I should just get the manual.”
(After Liman recounts a financing fallout that almost unplugged the Go production, Polley recalls when and how she almost dropped out.)
SP: I was raised to be absolutely terrified of the United States of America. I had a father [who] was so violently anti-American in a way that was almost religious. The only time he had ever been in the U.S. he found himself in a hotel room in Washington for a conference the same day the Cuban missile crisis started. He was like, “I’m never going again.” This is what I was raised by.
So I go to the border to be in L.A. for Go – my first protracted period in the United States. I get stopped at the border and they were really aggressive. I got taken into a small room. I was like, “I’m going to miss my flight.” They started referring to me as a “trouble maker.” These customs officials were totally terrifying.
So instead of waiting, I was like, “I want to go home.” And they were like, “No, no we have to process it.” I was like, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t need to go to the States. I’m going home. I won’t try again. I’m good.” I got in a car and went home.
I was like, “I can’t do the movie because I can’t cross the border. I’m not going back into a room with the Americans.” I was really scared, which in retrospect, there was nothing to be scared of back then. I don’t know what the problem was with my visa but they were not letting me into the country. And then you got some senator involved to get my visa through.
DL: Chuck Schumer.
SP: Chuck Schumer got me in. For Go! It was ridiculous!
DL: Chuck is a close family friend.
SP: That must have been annoying to have to deal with that.
DL: It wasn’t him. It was someone in his office. That is, in fact, something senators do. He is my senator. I live in New York. You’re responsible to constituents who have problems.
SP: Like, “We can’t get …”
RS: … a Canadian across the border?
DL: Four hundred people had worked for two months or longer [for post-production] because you came into the country.
SP: I think you might have been able to make the movie without me. But that’s very nice of you.
RS: Why were you bent on casting Sarah?
DL: I had seen The Sweet Hereafter and I was like, “I want her.”
RS: I read [in the Huffington Post] that she was the only one who got a straight-up offer while everyone else had to come in for readings.
SP: That was the advantage – especially when I was younger – of truly not caring. I can’t tell you what an advantage that has been in my career.
DL: I’m sure we started with, “Can Sarah come in and audition?” and they were like, “No, she passes.”
SP: It makes you so much more attractive to people when you are absolutely out of reach. I have gotten jobs that I had no business getting, only because I was a little more difficult to reach than other people.
What makes [Doug] tick is all about getting what’s really hard or the impossible. I’m convinced if I had come in and read for Go, I wouldn’t have gotten the part. It’s because I wouldn’t meet with you that I got the part.
RS: Doug’s just nodding in agreement. You wouldn’t have gotten the part. Let’s jump forward. That play didn’t work out for The Bourne Identity [Polley was offered the role that eventually went to Franka Potente].
SP: I just passed on…
DL: I was like, “The part is Canadian!” It’s literally Canadian. Seriously how many Canadian parts are out there? I mean what are the odds that Robert Ludlum would have written a Canadian female lead in a spy movie?”
SP: To be fair to myself, it was during the war in Kosovo. And the draft I read – which I think changed although I never saw the movie because I was really offended – the draft I read, all the Serbians were the villains. And I was like, “Are you crazy? We’re going to make a movie demonizing Serbian people during the bombing Kosovo?” So I was like, “No!”
But of course I forgot that it’s a Doug Liman movie. I don’t know if you even remember that there were Serbians in it originally.
DL: I don’t remember the Serbians.
RS: That’s not in the final movie.
DL: Well, once we didn’t have a Canadian co-lead and we had to go German, everything changed.
RS: The first question I asked Sarah [before this conversation] was whether Go was one of her terrible experiences and whether it’s worth revisiting. And she said, “No, I loved Go.”
SP: It was a great experience. There aren’t that many directors that you work with as a young actress who are respectful and treat you like a colleague and a peer.
But also, that’s probably why I ended up making films. I honestly had never thought of directing a film in my life. Then listening to Doug talk about directing films and the way he was doing it made me want to apprentice him for no real reason. I didn’t have an idea for a movie.
It was such an adventure. He included [the cast] so much in it. And he’s so open about what he doesn’t know, and the ways in which his thinking is a mess but he’s working through it anyways. You feel like you could do it too. He’s open in the process where a lot of filmmakers want to show an expertise that doesn’t exist by withholding and being cagey.
Suddenly, this looks like something you could do. Even if you don’t have the skills you can just open the manual to the camera and do it.
DL: I do want to be open about my limitations. The system prefers directors who are like “this is exactly how it’s done.”
Jimmy Carter, when you look back at his presidency, he held a nine-day gathering at Camp David to figure out what was wrong with the economy and come up with solutions to fix it. He announced he was doing that and the country sort of revolted. They were like, “We want the president to tell us what’s wrong with the country and just be in charge.”
They don’t want to watch Jimmy Carter figure it out. They want the bravado of Trump.
The movie – because there are a lot of directors who have a lot of bravado – is more comfortable with that. I know I’m a little bit of an outlier. I’m the more Jimmy Carter model. When I don’t know, I’m going to be pretty obvious that I don’t know and I’m going to then try to figure it out.
SP: You should say “I’m just more like Jimmy Carter” and just leave it at that. Don’t give it context.
I do think that there is this thing that’s annoying as an actor on a film set when the director is doing a performance of a director. People can take up a lot of space doing that kind of performance. And most people do it. That’s why it’s refreshing to work with Doug. There is no performance. He’s exactly who he is. He knows a great deal, but he’s more focused on the things he doesn’t know.
(A conversation about on set pranks leads here….)
DL: The passport prank happened.
SP: You were mad that I was leaving. He wrote disgusting things in my passport.
DL: They weren’t disgusting things.
SP: And once again I had a border problem.
DL: I just drew a fake stamp on her passport.
RS: Did the border people…
DL: They caught it.
SP: It was a nightmare. It was a total nightmare. These are not pranks you play now.
DL: The main reason you don’t play it now is because it would highlight that these are things that privileged white people can get away with. For that very reason, it is so uncool.
I think about that a lot just in my life. Even the whole idea of Go. There’s always something in my own life that is the reason that I want to make that movie. It’s not just that I like that story. There’s something personal to me. It was about being 18 and having a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because I felt like when I was 18, you could get away with anything. I wanted to make a movie that celebrated that, like “while you’re young go for it.”
That’s a very privileged view of the world. A privileged, white, 18-year-old has a get-out-of-jail-free card. Not everyone has that.
I still wanted to make a movie about what I connected to about being young and free and getting away with stuff. But I can’t help but be aware that had I been born in other circumstances, the very events in my youth that made me want to make Go, would have turned out very differently.
I’m not sure how to process it.