At a small dinner in a lively Park City cafe Monday night, Polley said she was taken aback by the frank stories told to her by audience members after Sundance Festival screenings of Stories We Tell, her film about uncovering a secret about her parents and the way it affected relationships within her close-knit family.
Polley arrived at the dinner sporting a new chin-length bob. She’d cut her shoulder-length hair three days before. The youthful-looking Polley, 34, appears even younger with the new hairstyle.
There’s mention of the famous Coco Chanel quote: “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” Polley laughed.
“Maybe it’s more predictive,” she said. “Nothing is happening that’s new.”
“Except everything,” she agreed with a smile.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Polley, starting with the birth of her first child, a daughter, last February. (The baby is at Sundance with her.) Stories We Tell premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, then screened at the Telluride Film Festival and, a few days later, the Toronto International Film Festival before opening Oct. 12 in theatres in Canada.
Called “extraordinary in every way” by Star movie critic Peter Howell, the film was also a hit with the Toronto Film Critics’ Association, which gave Stories We Tellthe richest arts prize in Canada, the $ 100,000 TFCA Rogers Best Canadian Film Award.
“It really was one of the best nights of my life,” said Polley of the awards evening, which happened to fall on her 34th birthday, Jan. 8. The guests in the crowded room at the Carlu broke into “Happy Birthday” as she accepted her second prize of the night from Toronto critics, the Best Documentary award.
“I was really stunned and it was amazing,” she said of the Best Canadian film prize. “It means the world to me.”
The doc continued its warm reception at Sundance. The Salt Lake Tribune gave the movie three stars (out of four) and those who had been in the screenings say the doc was very well received.
But Polley said while she’s pleased Roadside is ensuring “as many people as possible” can see Stories We Tell, “I try not to think about” the Oscar chatter.
“You can get caught up in things like that, that are really abstract and of course they are amazing and wonderful when they happen, but it’s not something that’s tangible or you can control,” she pointed out. “And in the meantime there’s this amazing experience of talking to people about the film and getting to festivals and I feel that would be somewhat diminished if there was some hope or expectation for something beyond that.”
“All my short films played here and (festival director) John Cooper and (programming director) Trevor Groth have been so nurturing and supportive of me, taking me seriously as a filmmaker even when everybody just looked at me as an actor who was dabbling.”
Polley initially made her mark as an actress, especially for her ongoing role as precocious Sara Stanley in CBC’s Road to Avonlea. Dubbed Canada’s sweetheart, she first captured attention south of the border with feature films The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and My Life Without Me (2003).
The wrenching drama Away From Her, her writing-directing debut about how Alzheimer disease invades a long-married couple’s lives, led to an Oscar nomination in 2008 for Best Adapted Screenplay. Polley followed that up as writer-director on the romantic drama Take This Waltz in 2011.
Her ongoing relationship with Sundance gives Polley an interesting perspective on what she calls the “seismic shift” in the moviemaking industry with more women screening their films here than at any time before.
“It’s amazing,” said Polley. “I remember when I was here with my first short film I spent the festival trying to find another female filmmaker to talk to of any age. It was very hard to find another female filmmaker and it was very weird and lonely and now there’s 50 percent women.”
(Just before we sat down to eat, the results of a new Sundance Film Institute-commissioned study were released, showing 23.9% of all U.S. movies programmed for the Sundance fest between 2002 and 2012 were directed by women.) The next hurdle to overcome, Polley said, is to bring new voices to filmmaking, including socio-economic diversity.
“That’s going to be the hardest thing to even out and I think it’s going to be the most important thing,” she added.
Polley is heading back home to more work, trying to find time for her next project, writing a script for a new drama based on Margaret Atwood’s Giller Prize-winning Alias Grace. Polley, who will also direct the film, said she manages to find time to write when her daughter naps but the process is slow and she’s not sure when she’ll start production.