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Bridging the Generation Gap

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Sarah Polley Transcends Youth to Envision Lifetime of Experience

Canadian actress Sarah Polley first attracted American attention in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997). Writer-turned-director Audrey Wells cast Polley as the lead in “Guinevere,” a hit at Sundance in January 1999. She became Hollywood’s “It Girl,” a position cemented when Doug Liman’s “Go” was released in April 1999.

Polley has always been a bit different from her “Young Hollywood” peers who graced the cover of Vanity Fair. Only years later did she act in a big Hollywood movie, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,” which appealed to her because of its anti-commerce sentiments.

In her native Canada, the indie queen is famous for roles in small films such as “Don’t Come Knocking” (directed by Wim Wenders), “The Claim” (Michael Winterbottom), and “eXistenZ” (David Cronenberg). In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Polley was asked if she received inspiration from being on the set with all these world-class directors.

“I definitely wanted to do directing. I really loved it—an amazing experience. Oddly enough, I think you do pick up [the craft] by osmosis. But I was actually kind of shocked—when I first went to make my own short at film school—about how little I knew about the process, how little I absorbed. It was very upsetting,” she recalled.

“What you find out very quickly is that 90 percent of the job of people on a set is to protect the actors from all pertinent information,” she laughingly quipped. “So what kind of happens until you direct your own is you know very little unless you’ve made a conscious effort to learn. I kind of took really small steps: five short films. I learned the process from square one.”

But Polley recently took the plunge by directing the feature “Away from Her.” “The biggest surprise for me on this film in terms of what I learned about myself is that I’m a total control freak. I had no sense of that before entering into this process. I think it was clear to everyone else—just not to me,” she said, smiling.

Inspired by an Alice Munro short story, Polley’s adapted screenplay portrays how an elderly couple copes when Alzheimer’s strikes the wife (Julie Christie, the legendary British actress). “It was really interesting for me to look forward and wonder what a marriage looked like when that much life was piled on top of it, and life kind of had its way with you,” Polley explained.

Gordon Pinsent, the Canadian lead actor, noted: “I have a brother whose wife is in the second stages of Alzheimer’s. The thing that struck me and applied to my characterization: the pain that he went through, not able to do anything except deny it himself.”

“My grandmother has been in a retirement home for the last three years,” Polley added. “The environment is incredibly interesting to me and something we don’t talk about enough. So many of us are dealing with loved ones going into these institutions and feeling conflicted about it. It’s important for me to portray that environment.”

Christie’s character refers to the “garbage playing in the U.S.,” although Polley makes a sort of retraction. “In fact, if I had to do it differently, that line is slightly inaccurate. It’s not an issue of American films vs. Canadian films.

“Really, what it is [is] kind of a complete takeover of the blockbuster Hollywood films as opposed to getting to see the independent films. That includes a lot of great American [independent] films being made. I just don’t think there are a lot of great films being made in the mainstream.”

She continued: “In Canada, we don’t have access to seeing Canadian films because they’re being taken over by huge commercial American films, so it becomes a bit of a cultural issue and a bit of a national issue. In fact, it’s more to do with commerce than anything else.”

From Zombies to Cops The indie British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) raked in big box office numbers both domestically and overseas. It revitalized the U.K. film industry while garnering a slew of British awards and nominations. The Washington Diplomat had a lively chat with writer-director Edgar Wright, writer-actor Simon Pegg, and actor Nick Frost to discuss their follow-up, a police action comedy called “Hot Fuzz.”

Wright commented: “The idea behind ‘Hot Fuzz’ is that these films just don’t exist within the U.K. We thought we’d have a lot of fun taking the sleepy, rural U.K. and dropping a [Jerry] Bruckheimer [action movie] into it. We wanted to pretty much cover every single type of cop film: serial killer, corruption, conspiracy, buddy cop, action.”

Frost quipped: “I would have liked to have seen a Viking burial somewhere as well, a burning longboat.”

For research, Wright and Pegg watched 200 videos—not just Hollywood films. “We watched quite a lot of Asian films: ‘Memories of Murder.’ It’s an incredible film,” Wright recalled. “It’s weird watching ‘Infernal Affairs’ now. [John Woo’s] ‘Hard-Boiled’ feels like a dry run for ‘Infernal Affairs.’ It has the same plot and one of the same actors. ‘Infernal Affairs’ [remade as ‘The Departed’] is fantastic.”

Pegg talked about how comedy also translates, especially across the pond. “Globally, with the Internet and cable TV, everyone’s getting exposed to more stuff. Our sense of humor isn’t all that different. You only have to look at the success of ‘The Simpsons’ in the U.K. It’s about the American family specifically. Yet we get it completely. There’s no real cultural barrier there.

“One thing we’d never try to do, and I think that show never tries to do, is assume that the audience is anything other than erudite, clever, literate, intelligent people,” Pegg added. “You always get more out of something when you feel like you’re not being talked down to or treated like an idiot. It’s so gratifying to watch something and feel like you’re being respected by it.”

Pegg and Frost, the leads of “Hot Fuzz” and real-life best friends, are backed up by a star-studded cast from the British empire. Wright explained: “Because we’d done ‘Shaun’ within the British film industry, we had a reputation. Jim Broadbent and Paddy Considine both approached us, saying how much they liked ‘Shaun of the Dead.’ Everybody else reacted to the script. Tim Dalton had seen it in L.A. Billy Whitelaw’s son liked it a lot.” Other talent includes Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, and Edward Woodward—plus Cate Blanchett, Steve Coogan and Peter Jackson in uncredited cameos.

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999