Interview: Maya Forbes on “Infinitely Polar Bear”

Posted on June 19, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Writer/director Maya Forbes did not just base her new film on her own childhood; she had her sister contribute to the soundtrack and cast her daughter as Amelia, the character inspired by Forbes herself. The film covers the period when Forbes and her sister were living with their father, who has bipolar disorder, in Boston, while their mother was getting her MBA in New York so she could support the family. Cam, the father, is played by Mark Ruffalo and the mother, Maggie, is played by Zoe Saldana.

Most movies are not very accurate in portrayal of people with mental illness. What did you want to make sure to avoid in creating a more realistic, three-dimensional character?

Yes, there are some movies that are great and there are many that are terrible. And I didn’t want it to be this sort of cute characterization or assembly of quirks. It was very important to me that it felt like the core was Cam, who he was. The mental illness was something he experienced but not everything he was. I had my father and other people who are bipolar in my family and I sometimes are wonder, “Are you manic right now or are you just really happy?” And that sort of anxious feeling because you don’t want to tell someone that they’re manic when they’re just happy. Because they’re not that different. It was very important to me to make it feel holistic. And I was trying to avoid making light of it but I also wanted to show a person who is loved and loves other people and is lovable. A lot of families have mentally ill people and it’s somebody they love who suffers from addiction or mental illness. It is a family issue and so it is important to me to portray that.

What were the challenges of making this evoke the 70’s?

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

I wanted it to feel like a vivid memory. Sometimes memories pieces are kind of faded and sepia, but to me it felt like memories that are sort of vibrant and alive. And I was drawn to that style of doing it. Especially doing a smaller budget movie you are looking for these evocative environments that have a sort of neutral quality. There is a movie called “Small Change,” a Truffaut film that I love. He shot that in a French village and it’s very simple because it’s mostly the stone facade of these big old French buildings. I was kind of looking for brick and stone and wood. I’m going to look for texture. I’m not going go to Harvard Square because Harvard Square doesn’t exist anymore. I didn’t shoot in Massachusetts actually; I shot in Providence because Providence looks more like Cambridge in the 70s than Cambridge does now. So Providence had all these great locations that have not been gutted up and changed. Also with the clothes I wanted it to evoke the period that does not bludgeon you over the head with “Hey remember the 70’s, wasn’t it cool?” I wanted it to have a bit of a timeless quality but with just smaller touches so working with my whole design team we were looking for these textures and these little touches that would evoke the period without trying to recreate the whole period, which is something that we wouldn’t be able to do anyway.

Speaking of “Small Change,” like that film, this really gives us the point of view of the children, though we understand more of what is going on than they do.

Being embarrassed, that is one thing children do definitely understand. They understand how to be embarrassed by a parent’s annoying behavior. The wonderful thing about the kids is that they really are in the moment. The main thing is just getting them to listen to the other actors. That’s the key; they are listening and they are responding, they also need to seem quite natural. I didn’t go looking for kids that were highly trained because I don’t feel like this movie needed that. It needed a freshness and a naturalness. There was a lot of anger, there was sadness. My daughter plays the older one, so I would take her off into the corner before some of the sad scenes. We talked about the context of the scene then I would start crying and then she would start crying and I would say, “Okay, now….” So that was part of the process of working with her, sort of sharing the emotion in a context with her was helpful to her in terms of bringing her to that place.

Did you see your childhood differently as you worked on this?

I knew always that my sister and I we were a team, we were a team as children going through the world, and we still are. The main thing is I resolved a lot of issues with my mother. I had never felt that she abandoned us but then when I had children of my own…I had two little girls, just like she did, so it was almost like I was reliving something. All these memories came flooding back. I was just catapulted back into my childhood and reliving it somehow.

My mom is an ardent feminist. She has always wanted my sister and me to go out and be in charge. So for her to see me direct this movie, that’s what she thought I should be doing. She thinks it’s important for women to step up and be leaders. But we were having some conflict in the areas of motherhood and career when my kids were younger. She pushes the career so hard and I wondered if she was just trying to validate her choices. I said, “Maybe I don’t want to make those choices,” and she said, “Don’t drop out. It’s hard to get back in. You’ve built a career, don’t drop out.” I was resentful of some of those messages. Then as I was writing the movie I saw things so much from her point of view, what she had been up against and what she had wanted for us and what she had given us in terms of sending us to good schools. My father’s family sort of have a culture of “don’t try too hard.” You want things to come naturally to you. You don’t want to be a striver. And it’s easy to kind of absorb that attitude but it is a crippling attitude; it means that you don’t go out and try because you are not supposed to fail. But my mom is not like that. It almost didn’t matter to me whether it got made because what it did to my relationship with my mother was so profound. She became my hero and I realize she was right about a lot of these things. And, on my mother’s side she had read it and it did the same thing for her seeing my perspective as a child and what it had been like. She was there but I don’t think she as deeply understood some of the painful times, just the complicated emotions that we had, that my sister and I had just because of the situation that we were in it, a lot of different feelings and exposure to things that you maybe don’t want to kids to expose to or to have to deal with. Seeing each other’s stories was really amazing.

She was working really hard at school, she didn’t have a great apartment, she came back to our apartment and it was not like anyone was trying to make it easy for her. We weren’t all taking care of her when she came back. She came back and took care of us. It was very, very difficult and I’m so grateful to her.

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