In 2006, Sarah Polley made her directorial debut with the drama Away From Her for which Julie Christie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Polley was also nominated for an Oscar, for her screenplay.
Splitting her time between acting and filmmaking, she is currently starring in Vincenzo Natali’s new sci fi thriller Splice as a scientist, Elsa Kast, who along with her husband, Clive (Adrien Brody), has combined human and animal DNA, making a new hybrid she names Dren (Delphine Chaneac) which turns out to be her worst nightmare.
As a filmmaker, Polley will next direct her original screenplay Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen. I spoke with Sarah about her career in front of and behind the cameras.
How did you get involved with Splice?
I was sent the script and I knew Vincenzo but not very well, I certainly knew his work. The last thing I was thinking about or wanted to do was a sci-fi or genre movie, but I started to read it and thought it was one of the most interesting scripts I’d ever read in my life. I’d never read anything like it, it was so shocking and so compelling.
I think the thing about sci-fi and genre movies is when they are good they’re incredible. I feel a lot of them don’t reach that level but when they’re great, they can talk about things in a way that other kinds of films can’t. This script, for me, really reached that level.
I think there can be such a focus on being commercial that you lose the intention to make a really interesting movie at some point. I think this film really benefited from being made independently, and it didn’t shy away from things and let itself be shocking and let itself push boundaries without a lot of interference.
Did you insist on seeing what the creature would look like before signing to do the picture, because if it had been really bizarre or too weird it could have ruined the movie?
I guess I just had a lot of faith in Vincenzo, because I’d seen his films. He’s made films with zero money and, visually, they’re so astonishing. The film he made out of the Canadian Film Center, Cube, for like a hundred thousand dollars, was so ambitious visually, so I had enormous faith in his ability to take care of that side of things.
Why does your character want to create?
It’s a weird brew of the scientist wanting to go further and see what they can do in terms of what they can discover, in terms of trying to cure disease. But, I think also, with Elsa, she’s a pretty damaged person who is incredibly ambitious and wants to make history and there’s also a certain vanity in that.
How much green screen work was there in this? How much acting did you have to do to nothing?
What was amazing about this film, and where we were at such an advantage, was getting to act with a real person, Delphine, who is also a great actor.
In so many of these films, you’re working with green screen and a piece of tape on a grip stand, and you’re trying to imagine what it will look like later. Certainly there is a lot done with Delphine’s image after the fact but we got to act with her face to face, and also with Abigail Chu who played her younger.
So, that was amazing. She’s such a strong actor and she’s so complex and so moving and can do so much with no words. It’s astonishing.
Was it interesting for you to play a gender reversal? It’s usually a male Dr Frankenstein character and his fiancé is the one saying, ‘Please come home.’ This time it’s Adrien’s character that is being cautious.
That’s what’s really great about the movie. You get to see the girl be the mad scientist and that’s really rare. Vincenzo wrote a really, strong, rich, difficult, complex female character and that’s something a lot of people don’t do, especially in these genre movies.
Vincenzo went into this saying he wasn’t planning any sequel but when you watch this movie you certainly think, ‘We know this is setting it up for the sequel’. Would you be willing to come back? Would you want to see what happens next?
No one’s mentioned anything to me about a sequel although I agree with you, it seems so obviously set up for one. I don’t know. No one has talked to me about it yet and, at this point, I’m just thinking about this one.
Would you want to be involved if he has more ideas on this?
I really haven’t given it any thought. For the next year and a half, I’m directing my own film and I have another film that I’m doing so I have no idea if that would work out timing-wise, but certainly I loved making the film and it’s not something I would rule out.
Can you talk a little about Take This Waltz?
It’s a romantic drama although it does have humor in it, but I would be false to say it’s a romantic comedy. Seth (Rogen) and Michelle (Williams) are married and the film is about the beginnings and the endings of relationships, and what happens to relationships when the newness is gone.
Do you get more satisfaction out of being a director?
I think probably ultimately, yeah. I love the play of acting, and I have a ball and it feels like the luckiest job in the world in many ways. But directing, I think, is twenty times harder and thus twenty times more rewarding.