Sarah Polley: ‘Run Towards the Danger’

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Sarah Polley. Photo credit: Luc Montpellier

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back director, writer and actress Sarah Polley, whose new collection of essays is “Run Towards the Danger:  Confrontations with a Body of Memory.” Polley’s films as a director include “Stories We Tell,” “Away from Her” and “Take this Waltz.” Polley tells The Treatment about her traumatic experiences as a child actor on the film set of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and how those experiences still reverberate now as an adult director. She says she is averse to finding a rigid, inflexible narrative about one’s personality or experiences, but is open to revision and evolution over time. And Polley says it took a decades-long journey of health challenges to get her to a place of gratitude about her body.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest Sarah Polley is an actor, a producer, a director, a screenwriter, someone who has seen “Clockwork Orange” a few times at the age of seven unsupervised and is now the author of the book "Run Towards the Danger."  The book is a collection of essays that you found a way to knit together, but all these various sections are about recovery, be it from scoliosis, or childbirth, or celebrity.  I just wonder if that's something you had in mind as a thematic link for these.

Sarah Polley: I'm really glad you framed it that way because I feel like on the surface, this can seem like a book about trauma, but it is a book about recovery. I don't think that I knew that was what I was doing when I was writing these essays. I wrote some of them over 20 years; I wrote some of them quite quickly. I didn't know what brought them together until they were kind of done. And I realized, by the end of it, that it wasn't so much about the content of these traumatic experiences. It was about the process of them funneling their way through the present, and moving in a different direction, and my relationship with those memories changing in a way that was a kind of recovery.

KCRW: I link it to your last time here. You had a terrific documentary "Stories We Tell" about your ability to turn a reportorial eye towards your own life.

Polley: It's funny, because I think I used to feel a bit self conscious about that, that all my ideas seemed to have some root in my life. And then I just had this moment where I went, if that's what you leave here, that's okay. The thing you know the most about is your own experience and how you've processed it. And I think I made some kind of peace with that, that my imagination wasn't consumed with fictional things as much as it was trying to sort out my own experience here on planet earth.

KCRW: Much of what you write is about characters or your own self trying to find a way to be honest with yourself in a world, especially in this book, full of folks who can't quite see what the truth is, or are uninterested in doing that.

Polley: I think the tricky thing is: there's layers of honesty, right? I think you unpack one layer to find a truth, and then under that there's another trap door with another truth, hidden underneath. I'm just really curious about those layers, about what we think we know about ourselves. And then the way in which we find out the meaning of that thing is actually something entirely different. I think that's a lifelong process.

KCRW: I think it can be if you're honest about your approach to art. And I think you, as an artist, exist as somebody who wants these questions answered. So often we see [people], and I'm sure you've known quite a few people like this, who can be completely invested in the work and then once the work is done, turn away from any kind of examination of the human character.

Polley: It's true, I have met people who are incredibly incisive and perceptive in their work about humans, but actually totally uninterested in the ones in front of them. It's always an amazing thing to run into.

KCRW: Again, almost any of these pieces could have been an entire book: you writing about about your pregnancies or about growing up under these unusual circumstances, which include both touching on celebrity and losing a parent, or the section I want to get into a little bit: talking about artists who have a disconnect from their effect. Your whole section on "Baron Munchausen" and then working with Terry Gilliam, and starting with what that presence of “Monty Python” meant in your life with your family. 

Polley: I grew up in a house where we were obsessed with Monty Python. We'd listened to "Flying Circus" a million times. We'd seen their films a million times. And then, suddenly at the age of eight, I was cast in this movie directed by Terry Gilliam, and with Eric Idle. The collective blood pressure in my childhood home went through the roof, like it was the realization of this enormous dream that no one had ever even dared to dream. It's not a good starting point, I would say, to go into a film production with your eight year old child, if you're that in awe and starstruck by the film's director. 

This was a time that, thankfully, there's a bit more awareness of, although it's certainly not gone by any stretch, where this concept of genius and what genius looked like, was madness and craziness and an inability to see the impact of your behavior on other people. And usually it took the form of a white man. And that allowed for a lot of permission and space for things to go really awry and for things to not be responsible, for things to be reckless. I was very, very frightened for much of my time on that set, and things really did go off the rails more than once, in really, really scary ways that were dangerous. So sort of unpacking that experience and how it came to pass, which I think had a lot to do with just culturally this notion of what brilliance looks like; it just paved the way for so many abuses. In the case that I had with "Baron Munchausen," just so many things happening that were terrifying and hard on other people and traumatic for other people because we were all in the service of this genius. 

Now, I don't think Terry Gilliam is a monster. And I don't think he's a villain. And it doesn't serve me to think of him that way. I think he also had some beautiful qualities, and he's a brilliant artist. But we didn't really hold people accountable the way we should have for the ways in which they were not being responsible with other people. And I would include him in that category of people, for sure.

KCRW: He's someone of such enormous confidence and playful charisma because there's nothing baleful or malicious about him. You can get lost in moments with him. And I can imagine, especially as a child, wanting to find somebody to believe, and you write about the absence of authority in your own household, just maybe clinging to this ideal authority figure who was also someone you idolized.

Polley: Well, he was like having the best playmate in the world, right? He was crazy. He didn't care about getting in trouble. He was so funny. And he had really expensive big toys. Who doesn't want to follow that kid around? He's making this giant movie and creating the most amazing playground. And he was infectious; his enthusiasm and his vision is infectious. And that can be kind of blinding. 

In my case, for decades, I think that I held my parents more responsible than I held him and to a certain extent, yeah, should they have pulled me off that set a bunch of times? Absolutely. Is it really hard to stand up to 200 people on a film set where there's a lot of money and time pressure, and be the one who's not working on the set to go: Sorry, I'm shutting you down because I'm worried my eight year old or nine year old is uncomfortable or unsafe right now? Yeah, that's really that's a big ask, I think. And I think the truth is, if you create a professional environment as a producer, director and there are kids involved, their wellbeing has to become your first priority beyond your film. And I think most filmmakers and producers, no matter how ethical and great they are, would be incapable of making that happen in a high pressure moment on a film set. So in a way, many times in this book, I just questioned the whole notion of it. Like, can this work? I don't know.

KCRW: You do write in the book about someone who is the 180 of all that, your experience with the director of "Mr. Nobody" and how psychological and physical safety was the most important thing to him.

Polley: Yeah, Jaco Van Dormael, who's one of the more brilliant, visionary and compassionate people I've ever come across. And this was a really healing experience for me because there is a special effect in the film that I did with him in my late 20s that actually was objectively not that unsafe. I had a big reaction to it because my experiences with explosions and fire and special effects as a kid had been so scary, and things had gotten really out of control and dangerous. I was very, very nervous, and he spotted this and came over and said, You don't have to do this. And I was like, Well, clearly, it's safe. I just saw you test it out sitting in the place I'm going to sit in and it's fine. This is ridiculous. And he just looked at me and said, Yeah, but I didn't do "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" when I was eight, or nine, so we're not doing this, and he just sort of walked me away from the set. 

I do think it's possible to notice people's wellbeing on a film set, but it's very hard, and it takes a lot of focus and I can say, as a filmmaker, very, very difficult to remember in those pressurized moments that the safety and well being of the people you're working with must come first. It's very difficult, and it takes an extraordinary person to walk away from a shot that's taken a long time to set up just because someone's not feeling comfortable with it.

KCRW: Much of what you're writing about in the book is kind of the difference between childhood and adulthood. That seemed like a very grown up thing to do. And I think so much of this is about you being such an observer. And this is something I've noticed: I can always see you paying attention to things, and your ability to note the difference between childlike behavior and adult behavior seemed to hit you at a pretty early age.

Polley: I made a film this summer, and I haven't directed a film in 10 years. I've been off with kids and not in this environment that I was basically raised in. So it's the longest I've ever really been away from home. And I was walking around this environment of this film set, really noticing how I was taking things in and how I was negotiating moment to moment. And what I realized is, I had to figure out as a kid really quickly, who I could trust, and who I couldn't, and how to get people to like me because sometimes my life would have felt like it was at risk. And I needed those people to be connected to.

 I was just sort of noticing this crazy instinct I had to connect so deeply with everybody which comes from a genuine place. I mean, I do like to get to know people. But I also realize there's a quality of urgency in it. That must be from being in environments that felt very unsafe as a child and going, I'm really vulnerable right now. I need to figure out who everybody is, what my relationship is to them. And if they're going to be the ones to yank me out of a shot, if it gets really scary.

KCRW: I think about the films that you've done as a director with "Away from Her" or "Take this Waltz, and they are stories about emotional chaos inside of a family, and I just wondered if you've tried to find some way in these films to tell these stories in ways that they hadn't been told before? 

Polley: Yeah, I guess I'm deeply interested in the small nuances and shifts of human dynamics and emotions. And the way we're grappling, I think, specifically with memory seems to be a bit of an obsession. I kind of think if you're starting to make work that's dealing with the same material over and over again, which I clearly am in certain ways, there's something about that that you don't actually have words for yet. There's something in your subconscious that's pulling at a thread that you're following. I can come up with a whole bunch of reasons why these things are interesting to me. 

Certainly the idea of chaos. I grew up in chaos, in so many ways, both on sets, and after my mum died, and my dad kind of fell apart. There was a chaos there, for sure. But my gut is, if there's something I'm exploring over and over, it's because I don't actually know the reason why. It's something unresolved ultimately, I think.

KCRW: You're attracted as a person to looking for answers, and your films have all been about, in some way or another, somebody being forced to ask a question they never thought they'd have to ask before.

Polley: In these essays, there's that desire as well. And I think that what I'm learning more as I get older is that the answers change, and the answers need to make room for other answers to sit beside them, and that if we're looking at anything really important in our lives, or in our past, it has to be an expansive process of making room for being wrong the first time and for finding a different truth that contradicts the first truth or one that can coexist beside it, but that it's this very fluid, ever evolving process of discovery, and that the answers are really good placeholders. They feel really satisfying to find in the moment when you're looking at something difficult or hard to look at. But they're going to get replaced, and they're going to get expanded upon. And I think that's sometimes where life can get boring when you're sort of like, okay, I've found my rigid narrative of what that means and what that story was and its place in my life, and it's there and it's not moving. And I think that's where we can get stuck. Or at least I can.

KCRW: Your movies are all about- I don't want to say "Rashomon" because I don't want to be reductive about it–but about everybody having a different answer to these calamitous questions. And even "Alias Grace" is about that, too.

Polley: I hadn't thought of it that way before but you're absolutely right. I think that I'm interested in stories told by a chorus of voices, that there's no one truth. I certainly had this experience making my documentary "Stories We Tell," where you hear the same story in the same family told by five different people. And you're listening to five totally different family histories. And I'm sort of mesmerized by that. I'm mesmerized by why we remember things differently from each other, how we create a context around a story that applies to our life and doesn't work for somebody else's.

I think because of my obsession with understanding other people's versions, it's been really hard for me to know what my own versions of my stories are. I think that's what this book is sort of unpacking. In "Stories We Tell," as an example, I interview everybody in my family about something that happened to me: finding my biological father. And the only voice that's really missing is mine. I never tell my version of that story. That film is everyone else's version of a story that I lived. So the challenge with this book was: what are my versions of my own stories? And can I let them exist? And how complex are they? And how many contradictions do they have in them? And that was a really interesting and very challenging process for me.

KCRW: In the middle of an anecdote you stopped and interrupted yourself to say, I feel bad for all the people I've met, who are my age, who maybe when I was a kid, I was grumpy towards them. There's a reevaluation of yourself, as you're telling the anecdote, even.

Polley: There's endless ways to perceive an event. And I'm really curious about making room for all those things.  I don't love settling on a narrative. I just find it less interesting. I'm even developing an aversion to people telling me what they're like; when people are like, I'm this kind of person, and I'm optimistic and I'm practical. What about tomorrow? What are you gonna be like? How do you know? I know we're all supposed to get to know ourselves, but I'm also deeply curious about the idea of what if we accepted that we didn't, and that we might shift radically in the next three weeks? What if this idea of a self is actually making our lives more boring?

Because I know, I've changed a lot over the years, and I don't think you could attach certain characteristics to me now that would have applied 10 years ago. But I think not having too strong a sense of self is not necessarily the sort of problem a lot of people would think it was. I think it can be really liberating.

KCRW: There's a part of you that's so rebellious. The idea of: A, holding on to a kind of simplified, boiled down narrative, and B, the idea of accepting what sort of institution behavior towards people in your line of work. There's a part of you that rejects that so vociferously. A great part of the--I hesitate to use this word-- fun in reading "Run Towards the Danger" is you're wrestling with these things and weighing your own kind of shifting opinions about them.

Polley: I think one of the hardest things to negotiate when you're thinking about what is just and what is fair, and what you're going to do about it, is to want to live a life where you're embracing the nuance of things, and not actually vilifying people, and actually, embracing the whole spectrum of human behavior, and analyzing your own role in things. Sometimes those things can feel at odds with each other. And it's also necessary to take action sometimes. It's also necessary to push back and to say, This isn't good enough, and this needs to be changed both on an individual level and on a systemic level. And so I think that that movement of that part of you that embraces nuance and sees it, that movement of that part of yourself to the back seat for those moments where action needs to be taken can be really tricky, but also necessary, and then knowing when they can sit beside each other. I'm finding that a kind of interesting process of figuring things out as well.

KCRW: Conceptually that there's more than one answer to anything occurred to me thinking about that section in the book when you and your family are going up to Prince Edward Island, and the customs agent just says it's the birthplace of Canada, and suddenly it becomes this whole thing about trying to explain to your daughter. You try and then your husband tries and then it's still basically a free ball. It's so much a nutshell idea of what the book is.

Polley: That answer changed for me when I was younger. My kid's question to me in that moment was: was Canada being born a good thing? I had been raised to think it was, and a lot of that had to do with carving out an identity separate from the United States, a trade route that went east-west instead of north-south. There were many things that seemed really good to me about that. Certainly, this country has had a much more mainstream reckoning recently with the history of residential schools. But realizing really over the last 10 or 15 years that this country was built on genocide, it's a big moment, when you're sort of connected in some way to a national identity, and then learn enough about it to realize that there's something horrific and violent, and a people was almost decimated by the existence of this country, that's a really big thing to absorb. 

To want to give your kid an honest answer and also give you a sense of the history of your own thinking around it, and also respect that they're, at the time, I think six or seven years old, and what gets said in that moment and how, I think that's what's most challenging and also interesting about being a parent is figuring out how you answer these kinds of complex questions in a way that is interesting and rich and invites conversation. And can you have that conversation without panic or fear, and to know that you're not going to get it right the first time and can come back to it over and over again? It's such a privilege to get to have these conversations with my kids, but also the responsibility of it is enormous.

KCRW: So often, even in the book, the idea of what home is seems to be this really fungible thing. And I just wonder when you became aware of that as a way to tell stories about people.

Polley: My mom was somebody who changed her mind a lot, and I was really aware of that. She articulated that. I thought that was the most common quality in the world. And then I realized, not many people do that. Not many people say, when you say, Do you believe in God? “I don't know. Some days I do. Sometimes I don't. And I sort of do when I'm with my mom, and I don't really when I'm with your dad. And when I'm on my own, I go back and forth.”

 Just the openness about not knowing and the ability to be vulnerable and not behave entirely confidently, I found it interesting to watch somebody live that way. I think it brought her a lot of joy. I think she lived in a state of curiosity. And so I wonder sometimes if that sort of impacted the way I want to tell stories in the sense of: I don't want to know exactly what that story is. I don't want to be too confident about it. I want to have questions and be skeptical and hear different points of view. 

KCRW: The section you write about finding your scoliosis, you kind of bookend that, with the last section in "Run Towards the Danger" when you're concussed. And that idea of what you thought was being a norm being snatched away from you, and then having to go back to your home and live with a norm being taken away and what that does with your relationship to this place that we all have. We're all told it is a place that we're the safest, and these are no longer safe places for you.

Polley: Certainly, as a kid, I did feel that a lot. There would be kind of a safe place for a minute and then it was gone. The subtitle of the book is: “Confrontations with a Body of Memory," and certainly, my body has been this unpredictable thing for me. I've had a lot of health issues. They've come up out of nowhere. It started with my spine curving nonsensically to the right when I was a kid with very severe scoliosis, and endometriosis, and a concussion and a high risk pregnancy. I think that does allow you to take very little for granted. 

I do feel like when I'm feeling okay in my body and not in pain, I really notice it; I really appreciate it. I do think these things that happen to us add to our capacity for gratitude for what we're living in the middle of, and right now, I'm not in pain, and I'm not sick. And that's an amazing thing that doesn't go unnoticed by me. But yeah, I'm also aware of, like you said, things can get snatched away at every moment. So to be fully present for these moments where things are at peace and are somewhat settled. And I think part of the joy I get in those moments is knowing that they don't last forever. That's just not how we're built as humans, and it's good, I think, to be able to notice when it's going well.

KCRW: I wanted to ask you about choosing that graphic for the book cover. It's a curvature that once we read the book, we know exactly what that represents.

Polley: Yeah, I really loved when they first showed me the cover of it. I was so happy about it because there's this crack of light. It's a curve that traces the curve of my spine as a kid. But there's this yellow that's in the curve. And there's something about that Leonard Cohen line of "there's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." And I do feel like these are the privileges in life, getting to survive hard things that soften us and make us able to be in our lives in a more rich and interesting way. I'm sort of grateful for all of the things that happened to me that are in this book. I mean, I didn't skip there and I didn't jump there and I went through a lot of anger and grief first. I don't think you get to jump to gratitude. I don't think there's a shortcut. But I'm there now. 



Rebecca Mooney