In 2006, she’d been apprised of a family secret that had been percolating for years. Ever since she was a teenager, Polley’s siblings had teased her about being an outlier — “Like, ‘Are you sure your dad’s your real dad?’ It always seemed to be in the form of a joke — my family has always had a really irreverent, dark sense of humor — but there was a moment at which I started to take it a little bit more seriously.”
Her entire life history, it turned out, had been an exercise in make-believe in more ways than one.
After pursuing various leads (grilling friends of her mother’s), she managed to track down the truth — but she was determined to keep it from her father, just as her mother had kept it from her. Then, in 2008, the threat of a journalistic exposé left her no options: She wanted to be the one to break the news to her father.
As for the filmmaking aspect, “The story itself didn’t interest me that much,” she insists, “because I think there’s something typical about it.” What sparked her, creatively, was the “elegance and generosity” with which the man she still calls her “real dad” responded to the revelation.
It’s true: Amid the mosaic of memories that Polley’s family members — including her biological progenitor — create out of their often conflicting recollections of a woman who was full of life if not always consistent (or faithful), Michael Polley emerges as the ultimate gentleman, willing to accept culpability for failing his wife in certain ways. Loquacious, reflective, he’s a model of gracious acceptance.
“I don’t think there’s anything typical about his response — which he doesn’t agree with,” Polley says. “When we’ve been at Q&As for the film, he always says, ‘I think you’d be surprised how many people would respond this way. People are a lot more grounded and decent than you imagine.’ ”
As carefully constructed as Polley’s take is, it leaves the impression that the story is far from told — but may serve as a bulwark, perhaps, against existential chaos.
“One of my main interests in making the film,” Polley says, “is this really essential human need to be able to create narrative out of the mess of our lives, and how at sea we are if we can’t do that.”
She favors a quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace,” about a notorious 1843 murderess: ”When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion: a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood . . .”
That’s an environment with which the young Polley was all too familiar, and now she’ll be coming to terms with it — taking “ownership,” as she might put it. Having secured the rights to “Alias Grace” after a 15-year campaign, she’s crafting a script during her daughter’s naps and looking forward to creating her first period film.
“It’s kind of funny, finally, to be the person making the film as opposed to being the little kid in the bonnet sitting around,” Polley says. “Making something very dark!,” she gloats. “It’ll be” — her favorite word is at the ready — “interesting.”
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at email@example.com.