Sarah Polley's documentary "Stories We Tell" has been lauded by critics for its invigorating storytelling and the compelling way it unveils a deep-seated family secret. (Spoilers ahead.)
But many viewers say they feel particularly energized by the movie once they catch on to a filmmaking secret: Polley mixed home movies and other archival material with new footage of actors playing her family members in many of the scenes.
Though Polley contends that she didn't set out to confound audience members — leaving them questioning what was real and what was re-created — the need for footage did lend itself to the broader theme of the film, which was to examine how we construct stories out of our experiences.
"We were making a movie about storytelling and this was a version of that," said Polley in an interview in Los Angeles prior to the film's opening. "It was always part of the premise to not pretend that this was some factual thing, that this was as close to the truth as we could possibly get with a million different versions — and one of those versions is this film."
Polley says that around 40% of the film is from her family's Super 8 movies — she imagines her dad's camera broke when she turned 3 or 4. All the footage shot with the actors hired to play her family was also done with Super 8 cameras — a dicey proposition considering it took three days to process the film and by the time they got the dailies back, the crew had already struck the set and moved on to the next location.
Polley is still surprised by some audiences' reactions to the film. Some people, despite seeing Polley set up shots with the actors — even appearing in scenes with them — were stunned to view the credits roll and realize that actors were portraying her family members.
"I didn't want to intentionally confuse people but I did want people to have moments where they wondered, but in a conscious way, what was real and what wasn't," said Polley. "I was surprised at how well it worked."
The art, hair and makeup departments worked so seamlessly that one viewer suggested that Polley had used computer technology to add herself into a frame with her mother, who died when Polley was 11.
Polley's secret ace in making the whole movie congeal was her older brother, casting director John Buchan ("The Virgin Suicides," "Away From Her"), who, in addition to being interviewed in the film, cast the entire group of actors including the younger version of himself.
"It was surreal having to audition myself at age 18. I’ve been casting for about 25 years and never have I had to release a breakdown describing what I was like as a teenager," he said in a phone interview from Toronto. "I made sure I got someone who was way better-looking than me too, because I like the idea of rewriting history."
In addition to casting himself, Buchan was charged with casting the role of his mother, something he had been ready to do since he met actress Rebecca Jenkins 25 years ago.
"I'd always remarked on how she closely resembled Mum and I always thought, 'If ever anyone wanted to make the Diane Polley story, there she is,'" said Buchan.
According to Buchan, they filmmakers searched all over Toronto for the right woman, but had no luck finding her. Buchan finally reached out to Jenkins, who had relocated to Vancouver, and convinced her to play Diane, in a part where she would never utter a word.
"Rebecca did her homework and, voila, look what Sarah got," said Buchan. "A couple of times, I couldn't tell the difference and had to ask."