Take This Waltz (feat. editor Christopher Donaldson)Friday, May 25th, 2012 2:24 pm—Film
Take This Waltz (Canada 2012, Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Sarah Polley
I’d been looking forward to Take This Waltz since early 2010, when a friend auditioned for it and told me about the great new script from Sarah Polley. I’ll see anything she directs; in fact, her directorial debut, Away From Her (see the Away From Her review from July 2007), inspired me to get this blog going. So it’s not a big leap that I’d be looking forward to her second feature film. But having heard teasers about the storyline, I was even more excited.
I finally saw Take This Waltz at a sneak preview at The ByTowne last month. I was not disappointed—even after a two-year wait.
Set in Toronto, Ontario, Take This Waltz is about Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen), a young married couple whose routine is disturbed when Margot develops feelings for their neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby). The movie is bold, real and courageous. Polley unabashedly explores her characters’ quirks and foibles, without fear of making them unlikable and unattractive, and without worry about causing ripples in the usual flow of romantic comedies.
Compared with Away From Her, Take This Waltz sounds closer to Polley’s own voice—bold and uncensored. It reminds me more of her short film, I Shout Love, than her feature debut, which isn’t surprising given that she adapted the script for Away From Her. Take This Waltz, on the other hand, is a true original. (There’s a great coffee shop scene between Margot and Daniel that gives new meaning to the term “oral sex.”)
I held off on writing this post because I’d been in touch with Take This Waltz editor Christopher Donaldson (through our former Queen’s University film prof, and Kickass Canadian, Clarke Mackey) and wanted to speak to him first. So although I could go on about my take on Polley’s Waltz, I think I’ll let him cut in now; he offers a much more revealing spin on the movie.
Chris is one of Canada’s foremost editors. (Hit TV series Slings & Arrows and Flashpoint are among his many career highlights.) Take This Waltz came his way via its co-producer, Susan Cavan. She showed Chris the script and he “loved it a lot immediately,” he says. “It felt entirely unique, and it was personal to me in a way that, I think if you’re open to it, it can be personal to everyone. You can see yourself reflected constantly in all of the characters’ actions.”
Chris was also thrilled at the possibility of working with Polley, whom he’d long admired. He started an ongoing email dialogue with her about Take This Waltz, which happily led to him landing the editing gig. “Sarah is extremely collaborative,” says Chris. “She wants your input. She wants you to bring everything you have and (your vision) to the project.”
While Polley and the crew got lost in production, Chris was given considerable freedom to construct the movie in his editing suite. “We emailed every day (during production), and Sarah was very specific sometimes on performance and which takes she particularly liked,” he says. “But in terms of the overall shape of scenes, she really let me play.”
Chris’ play led to some pretty great stuff. We talked about some of the scenes that offered him a lot of footage and gave him room to bring his vision to the table. Two in particular, both involving Margot and Daniel, came up: one when they go swimming in a pool, ebbing and flowing into and away from each other; the other when they’re spun every which way on a Scrambler ride, their emotions tossed about to the rhythm of Video Killed the Radio Star.
With both these scenes, says Chris, “You have in your head what you’re going for, but much of what you’re doing is intuitive.” Working from hours of footage of Williams and Kirby, Chris cut and recut until something clicked for him.
“I know the feeling I’m going for, but I don’t know necessarily what that means in terms of putting the picture together,” he says. “With a scene like (the swimming pool scene)… you just keep pushing it forward, shaping and shaping it until that feeling you’re going for, you can feel it emanating from the images. You can step back from it and feel it.”
Chris definitely achieved that. The swimming pool scene stood out in my mind as one to ask about. It’s got a beautiful sense of poetry and limbo to it—floating, suspended, in between. The Scrambler scene also has its own brand of magic, and highlights gorgeous (wordless) emotional exchanges between Margot and Daniel.
There was a third scene I wanted Chris’ take on, this one between Margot and Lou. It’s a moment when Lou tries to process some heavy news. Polley decided to let the actors improvise the scene, something Chris says happened a lot on set.
“Michelle had had a lot of experience improvising in Blue Valentine, and obviously Seth, from his (comedy) background, he’s as comfortable improvising as with anything else,” says Chris. “Having two actors that good at it, there’s an abundance of great material to work from.”
The improvisation is very effective. But what’s most interesting about the scene is that we only see Lou’s reactions. Other than a brief glimpse of her arm, Margot is entirely off-screen.
That scene, and more specifically that approach, says Chris, is one of the main reasons Rogen signed on to play Lou. “It terrified him, I think, and that was part of what made it interesting,” says Chris. “He’s sort of pushing himself… It’s very, very easy for Seth to be funny. He’s a fantastic comedian. He had to really push himself to not fall back on comedy in that scene.”
In the end, one Rogen joke did make it into the scene. But the strength of that moment comes from his ability to tap into a deeper level of emotion. It may not be what most people have come to expect from the actor, but for me, that’s why it works so well. Polley isn’t afraid to take chances, whether they involve casting against type or cutting up the traditional fabric of romantic comedies.
“In a movie like Take This Waltz, you’re not necessarily trying to please everybody at every moment,” says Chris. “You just have to believe that what touches you (in making the film) will touch others as well; that there are other people out there like you and it will touch them, too.”
Chris isn’t concerned about delivering a movie that appeals to all audiences. He quotes a Salon magazine review of Take This Waltz: “It’s not for everybody, but if it’s for you, you’ll never forget it.”
Case in point: Legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders attended a private screening before the movie’s official Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere in 2011. Polley was discouraged when he left immediately afterward. Until, that is, she got an email from Wenders explaining he’d had to leave because the movie affected him so much, he needed time alone “to just walk and think.”
“When I heard that, I thought, ‘That will make up for 1,000 people saying they hate it,’” says Chris. “You just have to trust that there are people out there who will feel for it the same way you do. That’s who you’re making the film for.”
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Take This Waltz opens June 29, 2012. Go see it. Polley has a smart, daring Canadian voice that gets stronger with every project. It should be heard.