Actress Sarah Polley makes her feature film screenwriting and directorial debut with the dramatic movie, Away from Her. Polley adapted the screenplay from Alice Munro's short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which tells the story of a longtime married couple facing the ordeal of having to deal with Alzheimer's disease.
The Appeal of Alice Munro’s Short Story: Polley explained why Munro’s story caught her interest. “I think it was just such an interesting examination of unconditional love. Oddly, even more than a love story, I felt like it was like a coming of age story about a man in his '70s. Someone discovering themselves and what they were capable of and what unconditional love meant at the end of their marriage. I thought that was so interesting, and the fact that these characters were so incredibly nuanced and specific and funny and intelligent, and I just kind of fell in love with them all.”
Connecting with the Older Generation: The 28-year-old Polley isn’t sure why she connected with people from her grandparents' generation. “It's funny because that's the only thing that's occurred to me since I've made the film, that it's strange to make a film about people so much older,” admitted Polley. “I think I've always had friends at really different ages. I have friends who are a lot younger than me and friends who are a lot older than me. So Julie [Christie] was one of my close friends and so was Olympia [Dukakis], and I feel like I do have a certain amount of access to people who are living that part of life. I don’t claim to understand it at the age of 28, but it's not something that feels like it's from a foreign country either.”
Bringing a Little Humor into Away from Her: The film addresses a sensitive subject but Polley believed it was important to add a limited amount of humor. “I feel like the thing that kind of alienates me from films is when they feel like they're at the center of the world or that whatever tragedy or emotional story is going on in the film, the world has stopped for it. I feel like Oliver Stone's the most guilty person for that. It's like nothing in the world is happening except what's going on in his movies, even if it's about football. And it's really important for me when I see any work of art that someone has a sense that the world can be very indifferent and the world can keep laughing, and people keep having moments of joy even in the middle of the worst kinds of tragedy. So I thought that the audience would needs moments to release the emotion that was building up, and also a sense that yeah, life does actually go on. That's part of what's really tragic and really funny about the world.”
On the Reaction of People Who’ve Dealt with Alzheimer’s Patients: Polley said an interesting part of the process has been hearing from people who know someone with Alzheimer’s. “It's also been a real education in how prevalent the disease is to see that almost everybody that sees the film has some relationship to having dealt with this disease,” explained Polley. “I think ultimately the reaction has been okay, even from people who have gone through that because I do think that more than anything, it's a portrait of a marriage. Alzheimer's disease is a very important part of it, but I think it's more of a metaphor for memory and the trajectory of their relationship than anything else.”
The last major feature film to deal with the subject matter was The Notebook with Gena Rowlands as a wife and mother who loses her memory to the disease. “It was certainly a good reference point to have that that was a film that people connected to and was accessible to people,” said Polley. “And at the same time this was always going to be extremely different than that film. I think that this was much more about them as they are in their '70s as opposed to who they were when they were young.
In terms of the way Alice Munro wrote the short story, these very vibrant, very rich characters who are full of sexuality and edge and darkness as well as being lovely people whereas I felt like The Notebook had that quality which I think a lot of films have when they deal with people in their '60s and '70s, that people become very sweet and sexless. Everything becomes okay and nothing happened in between them getting together and having this perfect life later. There were no betrayals, there were no failures, which isn't in my experience of the world a very honest portrait of a marriage.”
On Doing Her Research: Polley spoke to real caregivers and family members in the process of getting ready for Away from Her. “Yeah, absolutely and just the time I spent in my grandmother's retirement home for three and a half years was really informative, as well as the great books I read on Alzheimer's disease. I think two of the best books I've ever read in my life are The Forgetting by David Shenk and Hard to Forget by Charles Pierce. Those are two of the most interesting books I've read period, let alone being really amazing to research.”
Getting Julie Christie to Sign on to Away from Her: “It was really hard for me to imagine the film without Julie since she was such a huge factor in me wanting to make it in the first place, was to see her play this part. It took some time to convince her to do it. She's just someone who takes a lot of convincing to get to do anything in acting, period. And I don't know, when she finally said yes, I was totally thrilled and kind of in shock. And of course the first day of rehearsal was completely intimidating. All of a sudden, I realized I was making this film and directing Olympia Dukakis and Julie Christie, which was kind of an insane way to start. So it was certainly terrifying but they just sort of dispelled all that stuff pretty fast.”
Putting Her Acting Career on Hold: Polley didn’t act for two years will working on Away from Her. “I think it's scary because you do have to put a certain amount of energy and work into an acting career to keep it going so yeah, two years is a long time to not be acting if you want to be an actor. But I have this very optimistic fantasy that I'll somehow be able to juggle both and do both equally, and I think I'll just see how it works out and. I don't think I can know at this point.”