Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, her follow-up to 2006′s Away From Her, is a riveting love story about a young married woman (Michelle Williams) who has lost her passion for her husband (Seth Rogen) and is beginning to fantasize about her neighbour (Luke Kirby). It’s a wild emotional ride that demonstrates the humourous and dramatic sides of being in a long term relationship. It’s also set in Toronto during a sweltering hot summer and is a big love letter to the city, using it as its backdrop better than any other film has. Criticize This! spoke with Polley about the film. Read our Q&A below.
Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams gave the best performances of their careers in this. Did you have them in mind from the start and was it easy to get them onboard?
Sarah Polley: I had Seth in my mind from the beginning when I was writing it. He really grounded the script and anchored it. His goodness… there’s something so authentic and genuine about him. And he’s smart. He’s incredibly busy so I went to the set of The Green Hornet and talked to him. Then he read the script and sent me a note a week later saying ‘Yeah, sure!’ It was the most low maintenance experience ever. He also surrounds himself with people who are very low maintenance and lovely and sweet and I felt really supported getting access to him. It should have been a lot harder for me to get the script to him.
The idea of a woman looking outside of her marriage for something more fulfilling is very taboo. What has the reaction been like?
SP: One of the things I find most interesting about people’s responses to the film is that technically she doesn’t cheat on her husband. She has this intense flirtation. What gets me is some people really empathize with her and get her and get her sexual restlessness. But when people judge her, they judge her harshly. They think she’s a totally self-involved selfish brat. But we all love [Mad Men's] Don Draper. And I find that totally fascinating with what we expect along the gender line. We find it in our hearts to love Don Draper even though he’s constantly lying and cheating on his wife, but if a woman expresses sexual restlessness in the confines of a marriage we balk at that. I feel that a lot of what she does is unlikable and yet she’s an empathetic character because she’s flawed like all of us are. When people don’t like her they really hate her and when people like her they are incredibly defensive of her.
Did you expect that mixed reaction?
SP: I didn’t think I made a movie that polarizing. It’s shocking. I didn’t exactly make a Lars von Trier movie. It’s pretty soft and candy-coloured and fun. There’s a Scrambler in it [laughs]. People are acting like it’s so impassioned and so extreme and I find it fascinating that something so subtle speaks to people’s own personal experience with relationships in such a jagged way. That’s been a really weird experience.
As an actress yourself do you find that helps you when you’re writing and directing?
SP: I think I’m more self-conscious when I give directions because I am an actress so I think it’s a little bit of a handicap. I’m constantly hearing how stupid my direction is and it’s taken me five shorts and two features to learn how to talk less. I would start into these nervous babbles and everything I would say would sound stupider than the last thing and all I could think was that if I was the actor I’d be so thrown I wouldn’t even be able to move. I also think that as an actor you’re so isolated from the actual process of making a film and the technical stuff that you think you know way more going in than you actually do. So I don’t know if it’s helped that much.
I read a funny story about how you ended up getting Feist to cover Leonard Cohen’s ‘Closing Time’ for the film.
SP: The whole film was kind of charmed. There was always awesome crazy things happening and that was one of them. It was a week away and we needed the Feist song for people to dance to in the party scene and we didn’t have it. I had literally just sent an email saying we needed to look at other options and then two people rode by on bikes at like 2 a.m. One yelled out ‘Hey, Sarah!’ and I turned around and it was Howie Beck and Leslie Feist. I asked if she could record the song in the next two days and she was like ‘Sure!’ I turned around and my producer was standing there with her mouth open.
Is the Toronto portrayed in the film your personal vision of what the city is?
SP: It’s an idealized portrait of Toronto and a romanticized portrait of Toronto. That’s how I experience Toronto. I’m totally in love with this city in a fairly unhealthy and unrealistic way. The film ignores all the problems of the city. It’s Toronto how I would like it to be as opposed to what Toronto is becoming and all its issues. The truth is I love living in this city and there are things about it that are just miraculous. Having residential areas in the downtown core, the sweltering summers, the colour and vibrance, and the sense of community.
How did you decide on the area of Toronto you shot the film in?
SP: I knew I wanted it somewhere between Little Italy and Little Portugal, Parkdale and the Annex… the West of downtown. Little communities and villages that you can walk through.
Were you ever worried only people in Toronto would get the film?
SP: Canadians are the only people who worry about that. Since I first started making films people have tried to get me to make them less Canadian so that they reach a bigger audience. I’ve never been to another country that worries so much about trying to seem less like what they are. Stories feel more universal the more specific they are. The more specifically you could set something in a place, whether it be Scotland, Japan, or Hungary, and then make it about a specific human emotion, the more people see themselves. I relate more to a specific world that’s foreign to me than I would to a generic world. If you look at the movies that have done really well from England or Australia they never hide where they are. People feel like the Canadian stuff is laid on thick in this film, but in my mind I never made an effort to make it Canadian I just didn’t hide it. We’re so use to seeing Toronto hidden that it seems like a statement to make a movie that is where it is.
Geoff Pevere will have to update his book Toronto on Film now.
Geoff Pevere is actually the reason I made this film. I was walking down the street a year and a half after Away From Her came out and it was snowy and I was trying to get to the YMCA and I was in a bad mood. Geoff Pevere came up and said ‘Hey! You figure out what your next film is going to be?’ I hadn’t and he said ‘Well now’s the time to make any movie you want because the reviews are already written. It’s going to say ‘Disappointing sophomore attempt by Sarah Polley’ and we’re just going to plug the name of the film in so be sure to do whatever you want.’ I went to the YMCA and had a shower and was in the gym with all these other women and thought ‘Fuck it. I’m making this movie!’ Cause if I’m just supposed to have fun this is the movie I’m doing.
Take This Waltz opens across Canada on June 29. Check out the trailer for the film below.
Top image: Sarah Polley on the set of Take This Waltz. Courtesy Mongrel Media.