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Cover Story: Hot Issue: Sarah Polley Is 'The Natural'

Actress transitions to filmmaking with sublime results

By Matthew Hays · May 30th, 2007 · Cover Story
  Sarah Polly directs the location shoot of Away From Her.
Sarah Polly directs the location shoot of Away From Her.

Sarah Polley makes it all look so effortless. She pulls back her long blonde mane to reveal a satisfied grin. Not so surprising, given that her feature directorial debut, Away From Her, is getting rave reviews for its sensitive and intelligent take on a woman dealing with Alzheimer's.

The film was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and, on its strength, Polley was invited to serve on the Cannes jury when the 60th anniversary edition of the prestigious film fest unreeled earlier this month.

So how did Polley assemble an A-list cast and get the film rights to highfalutin' author Alice Munro's short story? Again, Polley makes it all seem so smooth and easy. She was on a flight back from filming Hal Hartley's No Such Thing when she read Munro's story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," in a copy of The New Yorker.

"At the time, I really wasn't looking for something to adapt," she recalls. "Usually, if I really love the writing, I want it to be left alone.

But this story was so cinematic, so visual, it just made perfect sense to turn it into a movie."

Polley set about adapting the book to a screenplay version herself. The result is a delicate, complex film about a woman (played by Julie Christie) suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's. Her husband (Gordon Pinsent) puts her in a home, where she begins to forget him and fall in love with someone else. It's a fascinating premise, setting up a series of questions about identity, memory and the meaning of everlasting love.

Was the act of adapting someone as widely regarded as Munro daunting? Not to Polley.

"I found it to be a really fantastic and liberating experience," she says, straight-faced. "There's always a certain degree of self-loathing when you're dealing with your own work. You see the flaws. There were things about this short story that I never doubted -- dialogue -- parts of the piece I never fell out of love with. Of course, when you're making a movie, especially a feature, it's nice to know you're going to be able to maintain that kind of enthusiasm."

But Polley does concede there were moments to pause. It was crucial for her to remain faithful to the spirit of Munro's prose, even if there were shifts in structure and dialogue. Film and books are entirely different media, she points out, consumed in very different ways.

"Reading is such a solitary act," she says. "You never know if you're being faithful in anyone else's eyes, just in your own. I've been completely faithful, though, in that I'm confident -- I certainly didn't invent the tone of the film."

While not the inventor of the tone, Polley -- the star of such cult oddities as Go, Last Night and the Dawn of the Dead remake -- is being praised by the likes of Christie and Pinsent for her directorial skill.

"She was incredibly professional," Christie said last September at the Toronto Film Festival, adding that it was tough to believe this was her first feature.

Polley says she picked up the most about the delicate art of adaptation from watching Atom Egoyan rework The Sweet Hereafter, based on Russell Banks' novel of the same name -- not so surprising, given that she was in the film.

"The things he chose to subtract from the novel, the things he chose to elaborate on -- some very interesting choices," she says.

She also cites The Thin Red Line as a standout adaptation, Terrence Malick's artful epic anti-war film, based on the James Jones book.

As cinematic as Munro's story was, it also struck Polley that there was something decidedly literary about it, too.

"There were some very unusual and distinctive bits of dialogue, written in ways that a screenwriter would never write while writing a movie. That was what was, and is, so great about them. They have a rich quality to them, something I left intact."

And did Munro give Away From Her the seal of approval?

"Yes, she did, which I was obviously very happy about," she says. "But I've never met her. And for the life of me, I never figured out the original title of the story. 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain' -- I don't get it. I didn't have the guts to ask Munro."



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