'Infinitely Polar Bear' Filmmaker Turns Ugly Family Fights into Movie Fodder

Left to right: Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart. (Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

What if you could go back in time to one of those moments that presaged your parents’ temporary separation or ugly divorce? As an adult, what exactly do you remember about the fights they had, the struggles they went through to take care of their own lives and put food on the family table? Would you be more sympathetic to their flaws and failings if you could overhear those heated conversations and arguments? Could you forgive them, at last, after all these years?   

Maya Forbes stages and recreates those moments in her debut feature film Infinitely Polar Bear.

Like Kramer vs. Kramer and Shoot the Moon -- films that depict marriages in turmoil -- Forbes’s movie is generously empathetic to all the players involved, if not especially so to the character of her manic depressive father, as played by Mark Ruffalo.

For Forbes, the impulse to make the film was rooted, lovingly, during a moment of her childhood when her father was, briefly, the primary caregiver: “When I was little, I just so wanted to fix everything and solve everything and make everything okay.” For 90 minutes, in her own cinematic way, she has.

KQED Arts sat down with the filmmaker to discuss her work.

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The artistic consciousness of this film, from the way the camera moves to the set design, is clearly influenced by films from the 1970s.

There were three films I saw when my mother worked in a movie theatre for a short time:

Outrageous. a Canadian film. Craig Russell plays a drag queen and his best friend, Liza, is schizophrenic. My sister is a singer in the band Pink Martini, and I can't help but think that Craig Russell had a lot to do with that.

Another one was Young Frankenstein, amazing.

The third, which was the most influential on Infinitely Polar Bear, was Small Change, the Francois Truffaut film.

What I loved about that film was, obviously, the children were so real. As a child, I related to them. I love the look of it. Truffaut is shooting in this old French village so all of the backgrounds are not dressed. It's just the stone buildings and facades of this town.

That's what I was looking for with my film because, aesthetically, I like that but also because I was making a period film with limited resources. I went to Providence, Rhode Island, which looks more like Cambridge in the 1970s than Cambridge does now. And I always wanted dirtier, more trash, “Don't clean this place up. I want that texture.” It felt like, in those films, they were also dealing with disuse in an intelligent and humane way.

The 1980s brought this gloss to everything. I don't want that gloss. I also really, really wanted to see this on Super 16 because I love grain as a part of the whole texture of film. That's why I use the Super 8s and the Polaroids too because film was just so important at that time.

Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart. (Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart. (Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The dawn of 1970s era feminism is a poignant subtext in the story of your mother’s decision to pursue a graduate degree.

My mother wanted to be a theater producer, and she was for a while. But then, when my father had his breakdown, she had to figure out how to make a living. A theater producer wasn't going to pay the bills -- it was like being an independent filmmaker.

I saw that decision as a double sacrifice. She was doing this because she really wanted us to have an education, and she was giving up her dream of being in the world of arts, which is where she wanted to be. She was very successful, but I saw the sadness in that, which was compelling to me.

When I got older, because I knew I wanted to be an artist, I also had this conflict about motherhood and career and ambition. Career and ambition are often not even the same in some ways. I had a really good career as a Hollywood writer. But I wasn't fulfilling my ultimate ambition, which was to make a movie that was very personal.

Is ambition a separate space that you have to make room for in your psyche?

If you're a mom, are you allowed to have it? Is it bad to feel it? For a long time, I thought it was not okay to feel that because it meant that I didn't love my children enough. I looked at my own mother and I thought, "I know you left because you wanted to get us a great education and you did that, but maybe you also left because you want to make things better for yourself." For a while, I thought, that's not okay.

In writing this movie, I realized I'm absolutely fine with whatever it was that made her want to do that. I'm so happy for what she gave to me. But whatever she felt that she needed in herself, I think she was allowed to have it. She wanted to have a better life than cleaning up after her irresponsible husband. That's okay.

What did you want to get right in the filmed depiction of your father’s condition, and mental illness in general?

I didn't want to do something that was either cartoonish or overly dangerous. My father certainly had a temper. He also had the ability to apologize. He had a lot to apologize for and he apologized a lot. Somehow, that was something he could do, which isn't to say he could get away with all sorts of terrible things.

What was so fascinating to me was this period of stability for him. The only stable time of his life, really. My mother knew that he was a very loving father and I think she also knew that he needed responsibility, he needed some kind of anchor and he was better when he was with the family. He was better when she wasn't around because then he was the responsible adult. When there's another responsible adult there, you can be the crazy one.

The weight of routine, of everyday parenting, forces him to grow up.

After my sister and I left, he had a very hard time staying out of the hospital. He felt emasculated at first being a father. But in the end, that was the role that he was best at. He was here to help everybody. He would drive our friends wherever they wanted to go. He just wanted to be around people and kids.

I wanted to avoid that put-on craziness I'd seen in other films and tell a story of who my father was. I feel like any time you're mentally ill in a movie, you're dangerous. I just hadn't seen a movie where you're a loving person and a loved person. But that doesn't mean it's easy. There's a lot of still rage and complicated feelings around having a parent like that.

Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes. (Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes. (Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

How did you approach recreating your parents’ conversations during those years?

When I was little, I was very, very nosy. I asked questions, and they told me a lot of things. What that time gave me was a real curiosity about people's stories and how it works and how people talk to each other. I felt I just had a handle on both of my parents. My mother is a very steady, stable person so that was extremely helpful to have, and that really balanced out with my father. They did really love each other, so that was also always a nice element to it.

The movie’s ending feels like an elegy and an homage to your father.

My father died in 1998 so I was saying goodbye to this experience of being with him. What I also realized was, of course, that all he wanted was to take care of us. At the same time, all he was ever trying to say to us was, “You go out into the world and conquer.” He was a feminist too and he had that conflict in him. That's the whole sacrifice he has, which really hurt. I feel that every time thinking about him.

 

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'Infinitely Polar Bear' opens June 26 at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco; and on July 3 at the Landmark Shattuck (Berkeley), CineArts @ Palo Alto Square (Palo Alto), Century 16 (Pleasant Hill), Camera 7 (San Jose), and the Rafael Film Center (San Rafael).

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