Film School: Stories Sarah Tells

Sarah Polley Sarah Polley

How award-winning director Sarah Polley (Women Talking) is modelling the kind of environment she wants – and we should all want – to create within.

In her interview with James and Roger Deakins on the Team Deakins podcast, Sarah Polley shares insights about her journey from actor (Splice, Go, Mr Nobody) to writer-director (Women Talking, Stories We Tell):

Some takeaways (the emphases are mine):

Directing Actors

Sarah cites mentor Lindy Davies in her goal of “making an actor feel like they’re living in a space of unconditional positive regard, and that feeling of safety, and that feeling of trust, and how conducive it is to good work.”

How to conduct a good interview as a documentary film-maker

Sarah lists startegies she learned from documentary workshops:

  • “After someone finishes speaking, leave a pause, see if they might want to fill it. That’s where you get the most interesting stuff.
  • Ask a question three different ways – you’ll get three different answers.
  • Don’t interject.”

Speaking specifically about the documentary about her own family, Stories We Tell (2012): “In terms of a family narrating a history, how often do we not interject? Which means actually we don’t ever hear the whole story of our siblings.” Employing the interview strategies above, she found: “I was constantly surprised by new information that I would have been getting in the way of in ordinary conversation around a dinner table… revelations of pieces of family history nobody knew… because no-one had been asked before. That was incredible.”

Put people’s experiences before the product… that ultimately makes for a better film.

Directors Sarah has learned from

Jaco Van Dormael (who directed her in 2009’s Mr Nobody): “He’s the most beautiful person i’ve ever seen run a set. I think he’s a genius artist, but really for me is the model of you create an environment that’s good for people to work in, how you put people’s experiences before the product and that that ultimately makes for a better film.”

Directing as a woman (and constantly saying “sorry”)

Early on, Sarah says, “I was constantly apologising for myself, or didn’t think I should be there, and wasn’t [wanting to be] taking up space, and would let my self get rolled over too much… I felt like the only way I could be in that position and not have people hate me would be to apologise for my existence 24/7.”

The clearer I can be, the kinder this is to everybody,” she has since learned. “If I’m [saying sorry] out of some sense of being kind or not wanting to take up space, what I’m actually doing is wasting a lot of people’s time. People want clarity, they want to know what you’re doing, and that’s a nicer work environment than somebody taking up a lot of time apologising for being there.”

“Often people can interpret a soft voice or a collaborative nature [as] a lack of vision,” she observes at one point, and then later elaborates: “People are used to leadership looking a certain way… [sometimes] you have to kind of like suddenly assert yourself in a way that isn’t comfortable to make clear the definitions between wanting to be open and collaborative and create a good work environment, and really having an artistic vision… hopefully that’ll just change culturally over time, and we won’t have to alter ourselves to fit into these ridiculous notions of what confidence looks like.”

“I had to get over my own sense of not belonging there” (and she credits her early key crew – “mostly guys, and they were good guys” – with helping her to do that). “I had to kind of get trained into my confidence.”

Directing more generally

“The whole job is problem-solving… [in the past] I would see problems come up and I would go, ‘Oh shit, a problem!’ And now I kind of go, ‘This is the job! The job is problem-solving, so the problems aren’t a problem. It is literally your job to be creative about how to solve these issues’.”

Further Viewing

“[This] shouldn’t be revolutionary, but on a film set it is”: a roundup of interviews with cast and crew on the environment Sarah Polley created for Women Talking (2022):

“Figure out how can we make a movie set more family-friendly and human-centred… Let’s dream big!” – similarly to Sarah Polley, directors Daniels showed the world you can be commercially- and critically-successful while being kind with their film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) – not only on the screen, but also behind the scenes:

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