Sarah Polley is getting an earful from reporters asking her just how autobiographical the marital breakup is in her latest film, "Take This Waltz." The writer-director's answer: It is not autobiographical at all.
Polley and her first husband divorced a few years ago, but she said she was writing "Take This Waltz," which stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a couple drifting apart, long before her marriage ended.
"None of my actual personal life is in this film, which seems very hard for people to believe for some reason," Polley, 32, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival a day after "Take This Waltz" premiered there.
"I've been making films about long-term relationships since the very first short film I made when I was 20. But I think because of what's happened in my life, I think people are now assuming my interest is autobiographical. But it's not. It's fiction. None of the characters resemble anybody I know."
Her feature directing debut — 2007's "Away From Her," which earned Julie Christie a best-actress nomination at the Academy Awards and Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker Polley a screenplay nomination — dealt with a couple struggling in their relationship toward the end of their lives.
"Take This Waltz" centers on a young wife and husband in Toronto who have not quite reached the sour middle but are well beyond the giddy blush of early romance. Williams' aspiring writer Margot and Rogen's Lou, who writes cookbooks about chicken, have settled into a comfortable and affectionate relationship with playful routines to keep some sparks alive but troubling moments of disconnection that lead to chilly silence.
On an out-of-town trip, Margot finds herself attracted to Daniel (Luke Kirby), an encounter that probably would have ended innocently except it turns out he lives right across the street from her. A platonic but sexually charged relationship grows as the two continue to meet, allowing Polley to explore the dynamics of Margot's fading love for Lou and the feverishness of her growing feelings for Daniel.
"I was particularly interested in exploring the beginnings of desire and to viscerally feel that as an audience. What it feels like, the color of it, and the sensation of it, and the intoxicating, hyper-real quality desire has, where the world kind of comes alive," Polley said. "When you first fall in love, first fall in lust, the world is just Technicolor and popping and alive and vibrant. Everything is visceral, and you smell more and you hear more and you become this heightened version of yourself in some way."
Polley, who married again in August and is expecting her first child with her new husband, started as a child actress in her native Toronto, working in Canadian television and landing roles in such big-screen films as Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."
Though she occasionally strayed into Hollywood productions as an actress (the zombie remake "Dawn of the Dead"), Polley still lives and works largely in Canada, focusing on smaller personal dramas such as "The Sweet Hereafter," "My Life Without Me" and "The Secret Life of Words."
Her most recent starring role was opposite Adrien Brody in last year's horror tale "Splice," and while Polley is certain she will act again someday, her focus for now is on writing and directing.
"I made my first short film kind of as an experiment, without any great ambitions," Polley said. "I just found it more rewarding and stimulating and challenging and difficult in ways that I never wanted to let go. So I'm just driven to do it. I'm excited to do it, and I can't stop that part of myself."
"Take This Waltz" does not yet have a release date, with the producers seeking a theatrical distributor at the Toronto festival.
Co-Star Sarah Silverman, who plays Williams' sister-in-law, an alcoholic fighting to stay sober, said Polley is a rarity, a director who is focused and in command without raising her voice or becoming heavy-handed.
"She is so smart and works so hard and has a vision and knows how to execute and has very specific ideas of what she wants," Silverman said. "But she also is very open to be inspired and is able to be lovely and warm and effusive the whole time. It's a lesson that says you can be lovely and get a job done exquisitely."
"Take This Waltz" has a more playful touch than the somber "Away From Her," yet both films showcase Polley's gift for drama leavened by genuine and poignant moments of humor.
While she has no interest in making an all-out comedy, Polley said humor always will be part of her work.
"I'm really into making films where people laugh a lot. Like last night at the premiere, watching the movie with an audience, and people were laughing through a lot of the movie. That's really satisfying to me," Polley said. "I definitely would not be interested in making a film that doesn't make people laugh. I would never want to get that gloomy."
Toronto International Film Festival: http://tiff.net