Culture

Tainted Love: An Exclusive Q&A with Take This Waltz Writer-Director Sarah Polley

Romantic infatuation -- and all the frank yearning and need that define its early onset symptoms -- is a dangerous intoxicant that should be a controlled substance used with extreme caution. Those still not convinced of one’s impaired ability to make sound decisions while under its influence need only read Anna Karenina. Or you might want to watch "Take This Waltz," writer-director Sarah Polley’s portrait of a marriage that has slipped out of the hot zone and into the comfort zone, with its routines, inside jokes, and halfhearted sex that’s all too easily derailed. This every-marriage does not suffer from any particular strife or strain. But it still comes under mortal threat when the wife (Michelle Williams) sparks a connection with the rickshaw-driving artist (Luke Kirby) across the street and gradually detaches from her loveable lout of a husband (Seth Rogen). Unequal amounts of excitement, ecstasy and agony ensue.

"Take This Waltz" is built from the same splintery material that forms the foundation for great Romantic tragedies, from Tolstoy to Flaubert. Only the film’s narrative and aesthetic sensibility -- with its keenly observed insights into domestic life and the power of life’s quotidian moments in deciding our fate -- seem to have borrowed just as much if not more of the greats of contemporary short fiction: Alices (Adams, Sebold, Munro), Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Richard Ford, and TC Boyle.

Though based on Polley’s original screenplay, "Take This Waltz" might be considered literary short fiction’s adopted offspring. Polley is steeped in the stuff. Her first film, title "Away From Her," was based on Alice Munro’s novel of the same name.

With "Take This Waltz" due to roll out on VOD today and into theaters on June 29, Polley shared her thoughts on our quixotic quest for a bright burning romance that never needs recharging and her own repressed desire … to write books.

Signature: There is something kind of novelistic or literary about the story you’re telling in this film and the way you chose to tell it in stolen moments and the patterns of daily life. Were there specific books or writers that you used as creative touchstones in creating this story?

Sarah Polley: No one book springs to mind. But I will say that since I was a little kid, I imagined myself writing something other than screenplays, so that might sneak in to how I write a screenplay, sometimes, I think to its detriment. The struggle I always have in the editing room is always noticing people say a lot less than I’ve written. So I think that must be evidence of my repressed desire to write prose.

SIG: Michelle Williams’ character is tormented by her romantic idea of what it means to be a writer, so much so that she can barely talk about it. Seth Rogen’s character, on the other hand, writes cookbooks and doesn’t make a big deal about it. Was their relationship with writing a metaphor for how they approached love?

SP: Absolutely. At the beginning of the film, from her point of view, he’s too easily satisfied. Her attitude was: You should work harder to have a more rich and dynamic life. But I also like that we begin to equally empathize with his position, that a shorter route to happiness might be to embrace where you are and what you have and enjoy that moment to moment rather than constantly trying to find something more. I kind of get what she’s demanding in the relationship and what she’s demanding out of her life in terms of pushing herself harder. But I think, ultimately, I respect his character more in terms of the idea of: What if you just made something beautiful out of where you are rather than constantly striving to be or have something more? I think we live in a very aspirational culture where it’s thought of as a kind of surrender or failure to accept where you are. But I really respect it when people can do that actually.

SIG: I love that Seth Rogen plays a character who may be the most emotionally mature person in the film.

SP: I just feel like Michelle Williams plays an immature character in a way but no more immature than most people. Her character is emblematic of how many of us operate in today’s society: If there’s something missing in your life, that means that there’s something wrong so it needs fixing. And then we’re kind of astonished when we fix that one thing and another chasm opens up somewhere else. We’re all trying fill holes as empty new ones arise.

SIG: We’re all set up with unreasonable expectations that love can take away our existential loneliness. Was that a conclusion you arrived at or did you go into this project hoping to convey these ideas about the nature of modern love?

SP: I think that was the original idea behind it. I was thinking a lot about the idea of what Sarah Silverman’s character says: Life has a gap in it and you can’t go around trying to fill it. And I think I’d been thinking about that a lot in my own life, not in terms of relationships but more in terms of a general outlook on life. Something’s missing, so I better fix it; and then being shocked when it didn’t get fixed or something else got broken as a result. I wanted to make a film about that but I didn’t know how. And I thought that relationships were the most obvious place where people are looking to find an anchor or find themselves settled and then feeling bewildered when they fail.

SIG: People use romantic love like they use alcohol, for a fix.

SP: Yeah, there’s this addiction to getting as opposed to being. I think it’s natural. What was also important to me was to make the process of what it feels like to fall into desire and what it feels like to desire as delicious as it actually is, instead of some mortal treatise. I wanted to capture what it feels like to want and desire and need. And I think that’s so human and can be so gorgeous.

SIG: Was that hard to capture authentically?

SP: Yeah. I think what was really important for me was to make it as fun as it is. I think when we look back on moments when we’ve desired, we’re often so engaged in the pain of it. I wanted to look at how the world comes alive and kind of goes Technicolor when you find an object for your desire.

SIG: But this film also makes the point that tearing up your life for a grand romantic gesture doesn’t often beget a happy ending.

SP: I guess one of the things I was really interested in was the idea that we constantly think we have to have an out: an out from feeling bored; an out from feeling restless; an out from the basic unease of being alive. And we put a lot of pressure especially on romance to be the thing that will resolve things for us. And it’s so shocking when it doesn’t. So I feel like when you have an all-consuming desire and passion, there is this huge expectation that that will sustain itself and sort of solve your life. It’s such a difficult point when you realize that everything moves and changes and you are going to be the same person you were at the beginning of this.

SIG: Did you learn a lot about love by making this movie and telling this story?

SP: I do. I had a lot of questions around this stuff. And I think what’s been most informative has been watching people’s reactions to the film. People tend to either love it or hate it. Everyone thinks this film is from a different character’s point of view and that it’s making some kind of moral point. I made this film more as a question with equal empathy for all three characters; and I’m just fascinated by how much people bring their own life and their past relationships to bear on what they think the film is saying. I’ve kind of loved the negative feedback as much as the positive.

It’s funny because I sort of felt like I was making a film that was pretty tame and the thing I would criticize about it is that it might not have enough edges. But judging by people’s reactions you’d think they were watching a Lars Von Trier movie. It was as though I’d done something unbelievably controversial. But what I really think is happening is that I think it touches a bit of a nerve between how people view their last relationship and their current one. What I’ve also noticed is that people don’t like the idea of leaving a good guy. But the truth is that when people leave relationships, generally they’re not leaving bad guys. Most breakups happen between two good people. I think that’s hard for us to wrap our heads around.