MY LIFE WITHOUT ME
Movie Feature by Susan Hodgetts
With director Isabel Coixet and star of the movie - actress Sarah Polley.
Isabel Coixet, director of the Spanish/Canadian co-production MY LIFE WITHOUT ME, was determined not to let the grim subject matter of this film gain the upper hand during filming.
"It was a fun shoot. I feel blessed to have worked with these people, we were all on the same wavelength. Everyone loved their characters and stories. There were some sad moments, especially the scene of Sarah [Polley] in the car alone recording messages on the tape recorder."
"But she's so focussed on life, so positive, that death was only the backdrop," adds Polley, who plays the central character, Ann, who is dying from inoperable ovarian cancer.
"The film is based on a short story I read some years ago, although the film is very different from the story," says Coixet. "In the story she tells everyone she's going to die. It's a new point of view and a new story if she doesn't tell anyone. I'm obsessed with death in an uplifting way, I want to shine on my deathbed, to try to be alive.
We saw every actress in LA from 18 to 28, including some very well known stars as well as unknowns, but there was something lacking. I remembered Sarah from SWEET HEREAFTER. We spoke on the phone and I sent her the script, and then we met in New York's Algonquin hotel. Something told me as soon as we met that she was right. Something in my stomach."
"I wanted to do it because there were so many traps it could have fallen into that it didn't," says Polley. "I kept expecting it to disappoint me, and it never did.
"I think Ann is better, stronger, more noble than me. I had to constantly see things through her eyes because I wouldn't have done things in the same way."
Asked why Coixet and her team chose Canada as a setting, the director reveals "I did a commercial in Vancouver with Kate Beckinsale and spent a month there. I was just chatting to people about the film and they took me to Barnaby in the suburbs of Vancouver, and in one square mile we had everything we needed for the picture, the Laundromat, the school, everything. I showed Pedro [Almodovar] pictures of it and he said great!"
"It fits into the kinds of films we make in Canada," adds Polley, "but I don't think we'd have people dance in the supermarket [which features in one of the scenes] in a Canadian film!
"And I don't want a good death scene!" she exclaims. "The hardest thing to show is being in love, vomiting or dying convincingly, so it's better to try and avoid the latter 2!"
To the accusation that having an Oscar winner as a producer [Pedro Almodovar] can't do the film any harm, Coixet responds "I was always a fan of his, I used to have his photo on my wall when I was 15. For me he's a genius. This man knows what he's saying. It's better to have him than studio guys. And he was very respectful. I had no pressure or anything, he said "it's your film." When he watched the finished production, he said "You were right," and he was the first person to say that. There are not many producers who do that!"
On her decision to cast glamourpuss Debbie Harry, Coixet recalls "Deborah Harry kept calling as she liked the script. I was very sceptical. I thought, "Well we can sing together!" She came [to the audition] with no make up on, wearing second-hand clothes, her hair was messy, and she did an amazing reading."
"I knew her more as an actress," admits Polley. "I missed Blondie really by a couple of years. I'd seen VIDEODROME and a porn movie called THE FLUFFER. She was incredibly normal and down to earth, you can't imagine her as an icon. She's a very genuinely innocent person."
Polley really bonded with the two little girls who play her daughters, Patsy and Penny. This was the thing I was most scared of. It can ring really false but Isabel gave us loads of time with the kids so we spent a lot of time together and got very close. We had lots of pool fights! They're lovely kids and really funny, the younger one, Jo, is really crazy. We improvised lots of the stuff. Scott and I just followed their lead and acted around them."
"The small one thought we were some new type of day care," laughs Coixet. "I don't think she realised we were doing a movie! And Sarah [Polley] has the motherly thing with everyone. I just wanted normal kids. They were very good together and they're still friends." As for the casting of Scott Speedman, Coixet says "I never saw FELICITY, he was just the right guy for the role. And Mark was perfect for his role too. I'd met Mark before he did YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. I didn't cast him in another film, but he was someone in my mind."
"I was astonished at how great the guys were to work with," adds Polley. I think I've been spoiled with my co-stars in this movie! I went to high school with Scott and Mark is the most generous actor I've worked with. I've had so many disappointments since then!"
Polley has repeatedly been on magazine "one to watch" lists, but says "I want to do things with the right intentions, I want to work with filmmakers who have interesting ideas. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with these kinds of people, and don't crave any other kind of exposure. I'm very happy with my life right now. People can survive doing independent movies. People have different perceptions of what you need to live. I don't know why you would choose to do stuff you don't want to do [just for the money]."
As a lullaby in the film, Coixet wanted to use Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. "It was something I used to sing to my daughter as a lullaby, but we couldn't have the rights to do this in the film. Pedro even called Courtney [Love] himself but we weren't allowed to use it."
Meanwhile, Polley, an active political campaigner as well as talented actress, is focussing her energies on championing her chosen candidate in the municipal election in Toronto, although maybe she's not quite ready to stand herself. "Maybe I will at some point, I don't know - it's ambiguous."
It seems this girl's determined to make the most of her life.