The Polish Brothers seem like they work slowly – it’s been
eight years since Twin Falls Idaho, with The Astronaut Farmer only the third
feature to follow their debut. But with acting and writing gigs for other
filmmakers, plus their own research, their output isn’t as surprising.
Neither is their focus on Americana, which has been perhaps
the duo’s most consistent and defining quality. Whether with a Lynchian bent
or, as in their latest film, coming from a more family-oriented perspective,
Mark and Michael Polish are telling stories about this country in a way that
sets them apart from other contemporary American filmmakers.
doesn’t seem like a story that quite fits in with what we know from you both –
where did The Astronaut Farmer come
Michael: Every idea that you come up with you want to be
inspired, and hope it gets you to 110 pages. So this was just ‘how about a guy
who builds a rocket in his barn?’ It was really that simple.
Mark: And it comes out of the rebellious nature of
filmmaking. Take the idea that we, as kids, were looking at launches and
realizing that we were never going to get into space. The elimination process
drives out the common person. So it comes from the idea that a rebellious
person could say, well, I’m going to do this anyway. And that relates to us,
and we took the kind of energy that we used in our first filmmaking and applied
it to this story.
Farmer is almost classic in the way he’s elevated by determination.
Michael: Yeah, definitely. Billy keeps saying this is his Mr.
Smith Goes To Washington. We never set out to make that type of tone,
but I’m happy it worked out that way. We just wanted to make a sort of
archetypical type of film.
Mark: You start with this blank page, and as you render it,
you do so in part because of moves that have to be made financially. So we end
up with this classic house and barn, and those things start dictating the tone.
Because of the limitations of the budget, you make compromises, but they all
play into the feeling.
significant were the compromises you had to make? For example, there’s a launch
sequence that must have cost as much as the rest of the movie.
Michael: And in that, there were things we shot that we
weren’t able to finish. He went through someone’s house originally, while the
person was watching TV. We shot that but never finished it. We wanted to make
it like a cartoon.
Mark: We like the Warner Brothers cartoons, and that was the
Wile E. Coyote scene.
like that help make this potentially a crossover from the art house to
mainstream for you.
Mark: We made this exactly as we wanted to, without the
intention of ‘crossing over’. We approached this like any other, and decided to
find financing as usual, whether it was independent or equity or studio, we had
no idea. We just wanted it to be accepted as it was. So we started off and
Warner Independent was kind enough to give it a chance, and then from that
success Warner Brothers took it over. That process ended up here; the success
has already happened, in our eyes.
Billy Bob instrumental in making that leap?
Michael: Yes. To him, he would have made this movie for
three or four million. We thought about who would be the best guy to become
this person who’s an astronaut and a farmer – two themes going there – and Mark
said that he has the characteristics of both. WE talked to him on a weekend and
by Monday we were ready to go.
Mark: And we had his name before it went out to financiers,
and he just solidified himself in that role. People read it and thought no one
else could play it. It was one more piece that they didn’t have to think about.
And Virginia completed it.
of them are very right for the film; does that make your jobs easier?
Michael: Absolutely. And if they like each other, even
an American archetype, there are few more classic images than the astronaut,
but do kids still want to be astronauts?
Michael: In pockets of the US, yeah, they probably do. But
overall I don’t think it’s the same as it used to be. And we’ve had some kids
come to the screenings who want to be astronauts.
Mark: It’s just so iconic. The whole era, the suits, even
the shuttle, is indelible.
your division of labor on this film change at all, or was it business as usual
Michael: We’re never working in close proximity. We’re
always doing two different things, and it’s like two people running a war. We
don’t even write the script together. One of us will do the first draft, the
other the second, and so on. It becomes a question of who feels more able to
give the most to the story at the time. So here I took the first draft, Mark
took the rewrites and I went into preproduction. Then I’m directing, he’s
producing and is usually in it..there are so many facets that we’re rarely
standing shoulder to shoulder.
Mark: Except in the first film. But really, we know each
others’ strengths, and so only have to conference if it seems like there’s some
question. And I did a really huge amount of second unit, directing well away
from the picture on this time. All the FBI guys were directed by me.
Michael: And it was weird, not that I don’t trust Mark, but
it became that whatever scenes he was in, he had to go do. Because when it came
to crunch, it was like this was still an independent movie. We had less than on
Northfork. And if he was in the FBI scene, it meant he was going to a location
three hours away to shoot. He’s going to come back with the scenes, and that
you stay on this level, is that how it’s going to be from now on?
Mark: It’s a great idea to get that type of footage, but if
I’m in it…then I’m out there, Dances with Wolves style. And it was
tough for me because I’d never done it. Even on the first film, we were
together. But being in a scene and directing, especially without a full second
unit worth of equipment – we didn’t have a script supervisor or monitors – was
Michael: All the scenes he’s in are really guerrilla. Just
Mark: So I’m out there arresting the pickup truck driver,
and I was terrified.
Michael: We had a great cinematographer, and we were able to
determine how everything would look before hand, and work based on that.
from small films, is it almost more difficult to make a mid-budget film?
Michael: You’re either really poor, or…but really, it’s all
relative. On Poseidon, you’d hear everyone talking about how there wasn’t
enough money. Every project seems to hang itself no matter what.
Mark: Like they say, whether you have 10 million or 100, the
sun still goes down at the same time every day. You have to deal with that
regardless. And with us, that’s why a lot of the film was shot the way it is.
We’d just grab at the end of the day. You end up taking real advantage of those
natural events. There’s a sunset? What scene can we shoot?
that change how you envisioned the film?
Michael: It actually promoted it. We wanted that classic
Norman Rockwell setting, with a lot of warmth. That illustration feel. We were
able to get more of those tableaus. We were all over New Mexico, and it really
worked. White Sands, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, up where Georgia O’Keefe lived, all
over. People say ‘your cinematography is so beautiful’ and I have to ask ‘do
you see what we’re shooting?’ Just read the light meter and point the camera
and that’s it.
Mark: We’ve had people on forums comment that I broke some
of the rules, like my horizon line isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I was out
there without a cinematographer, I didn’t know there were rules! I just wanted
it to look good. And that sort of binds you in a weird way. I just shot the
stuff the way I thought it looked the best.
that technical hands-on what separates this movie from your others?
Michael: We’re going into a more mainstream type of movie —
not to us, since we wrote this before Northfork, but to other people. And
people have said, is it OK that you made a feel good movie? And why does it
have to be OK? Why is it bad to feel good. We all grew up watching action
movies, sad movies, comedies, and for all of them it seems like you never went
into them and tore them apart the way people do now. The cynicism…it’s not that
you want to be graded on a curve based on your subject matter, but you want
people to enjoy the experience.
you ever write something that doesn’t have the Americana sort of feel?
Micahel: We’ve written other stuff on assignment, so yes.
And we write what we want to make. We were writing a science fiction movie when
this idea came up. We were getting stalled with some aspects of that story, and
Warner Brothers wasn’t going along with some aspects of it, so we threw this
Mark: That one is definitely not Americana. It’s a more
hardcore science fiction piece about identity and the commodity of life.
Michael: in a way it’s related to America, the current state
of America, at least. It’s hard to get away from how juicy this country is.
There’s so much to draw on.
Mark: We invented the Mob! That’s great!
Michael: It’s so rich! You’ve got jazz and rock and roll
stories, science, this country has had so much interest. I mean, it would be
fun to run around Europe with a Super 8 camera and make a love story, but
that’s not really us.
you could just watch Breathless.
Mark: You’re kind of responsible for the land you live in,
in a sense. You have to tell those stories.
lot of people don’t see that, though. They see their place as limiting, and
they want to go over there.
Michael: People always have an exit plan. But that’s what
makes this country beautiful: it’s so diverse. People don’t have to be locked into
one mentality. It’s nice that we can go from Twin Falls Idaho to this.
to a lot of people, just means kitsch, though.
Mark: It’s become derogatory. If you say ‘that’s such a
great American film’ it sounds like an insult.
Michael: Well now, when I think of America, the term, I
think of it like a Ralph Lauren catalog. It’s a look. You think of it as a
fashion thing. It’s been commoditized and sold. And if you want to use it as a
label, that’s fine. But Americana to me is something that has a lot more going
Mark: Because of the issues we’re having globally, I suppose
that’s why it feels derogatory to me. The word has become so promoted and
shoved down people’s throats it’s hard to escape that. But the basic people’s
ideals that we have, that’s something that’s great. Even if it’s impossible to
live up to them.
your feeling there make this a political film?
Michael: It totally does.
Mark: It’s politicized, yes. When we were in Washington DC
there were people making jabs…
Michael: Well, be specific. It wasn’t people. It was the
Washington Post, and nobody but them. They were reacting to the political jabs
we have in the film, and they weren’t going to cover it. But it’s easy to see
why people might not be excited any more about what the space program is about,
and we’re reflecting that.
would be hard to be excited in the same way now.
Mark: Now, with the space shuttle, you’ll hear about a
launch and a re-entry, or about a repair. That’s it. That’s what it’s come down
to. It’s like you’re seeing the plot points between explosions in a disaster
Michael: Though it’s still inspiring, the idea of going to
space. There are no limitations. And that’s what still sparks something for
people. And that’s why something like Close Encounters floored us.
Mark: Although — do you know what NAMBLA is? — I heard
that’s a favorite movie of theirs, that their favorite image is this grown man
walking among naked, alien little boys.
you monitor the internet at all, in terms of reaction to your films?
Michael: I really stay away from it. I can be corrosive.
Mark: The first film, it wasn’t as bad, because the internet
was young, so there was more actual talk.
Michael: I love to read people’s insights. It doesn’t have
to be a review, but I like reading critical thinking. That’s really interesting
to me. But a lot of the criticism, to any film, takes personal shots and just
goes for the bash. You even get big papers doing it. And they write about
production in the review, which seems insane to me. That sort of thing has no
place in a review.