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Coming to her

Sarah Polley had never written a produced screenplay, directed a feature or gotten an Oscar nod. 'Away From Her' changed that.

February 17, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

At the recent luncheon for the nominees for the 80th Academy Awards, the Oscar contenders gave "Away From Her" star Julie Christie probably the loudest ovation of the afternoon, suggesting she's the favorite for the best actress trophy next Sunday. But Sarah Polley, the 29-year-old who scripted and directed Christie's performance, was nearly lost in the starry crowd.

For the official Oscar photo of this year's nominees, Polley was tucked between two of this year's hottest "it" girls: "Juno's" Ellen Page and "La Vie en Rose's" Marion Cotillard. Polley could hardly match the wattage, either, of her fellow adapted screenplay nominees: "Atonement's" Christopher Hampton, "There Will Be Blood's" Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's" Ronald Harwood.

For all of her comparable anonymity, though, Polley's achievement is nonetheless remarkable: Having never before written a produced screenplay or directed a feature film, Polley not only wrestled a knotty Alice Munro short story into an articulate script but guided an actress more than twice her age into one of the best performances of her career.

"It's totally shocking to me," Polley says of all of the awards attention "Away From Her" has generated. "I think I was the least-prepared person who has ever been nominated for an Academy Award."

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Polley's work. In independent movies as diverse as "Go" and "The Sweet Hereafter," the Canadian actress has stood out for combining ethereal beauty with forceful intelligence. Although Polley has flirted with commercial projects (an appearance in 2004's "Dawn of the Dead" being a rare example), more often than not she appears in films so small ("The Secret Life of Words," "No Such Thing") that their box-office grosses are less than the Oscars' catering budget. Seriously.

Given her proclivity for art over commerce, it was only fitting that Polley chose Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" for her feature debut. As rightfully celebrated as her short fiction may be, Munro's stories are not overtly cinematic: In place of narrative, there's contemplation, and where obvious exposition might reside, you'll find veiled gestures.

But Polley believed there was a movie in Munro's story of Fiona, a woman with Alzheimer's disease slipping away, while her imperfect husband, Grant, labors to keep the one man who brings his wife happiness -- a fellow patient named Aubrey at an assisted living center -- near her side.

Before she could make "Away From Her," Polley had to enlist Munro and Christie, neither of whom leaped at the chance to participate. "I thought it was hilarious that I was surrounded in this process by older women who were really elusive," Polley says. "It felt like the bane of my existence were these women who were older than me and I was chasing them. I had some Freudian analysis of it, to do with the fact that I lost my mother when I was young and I'd created a life for myself where I was chasing these maternal figures around the world, begging them to be a part of my life."

Munro and Christie, who plays Fiona opposite Gordon Pinsent's Grant, eventually came around, but that was hardly Polley's only challenge. There was the matter of the story itself, filled with inner monologues. "That is specifically the huge challenge with adapting her work," Polley says. "She is so eloquent, in terms of people's interior lives, and that's such an impossible thing to convey."

Although Polley showed remarkable faithfulness to some of Munro's slightest details -- the coffee cup holder in the home of Marian (Olympia Dukakis) is precisely as Munro described it -- she enlarged several minor characters and overhauled the chronology. "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" ends with Fiona and Aubrey together; "Away from Her" begins there.

"I thought it was more interesting to have the suspense and the tension be about how things happened as opposed to what happened," Polley says.

She also gave words to a young woman named Monica (Nina Dobrev), a character who darts through but does not speak in Munro's version.

"That was my entrance into the subject matter," Polley says of her adding Monica. "That's sort of me, as someone half the age of these people, looking up to these people: not quite understanding how they got there, being in awe of them, being curious about them. There's a kind of presumption in making a film about people who have an experience that is so far beyond your own that I felt like I needed to make that my connection somehow."

Rolling up her sleeves

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