The giant leap to A-List Hollywood is a small step for intrepid indie filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish
Until The Astronaut Farmer, the Polish brothers, who grew up in Roseville, have made movies with low budgets and profiles, narrow releases, small audiences, and mixed reviews. In the peculiar world of indie filmmaking, those otherwise discrediting uncertainties sometimes add up to a certain credibility. Or at least to a mystique. Since 1999, the Polishes have specialized in the type of movie you might sort of remember hearing something about and thinking you probably needed to see. The films of their so-called American Heartland trilogy—Twin Falls Idaho (1999), Jackpot (2001) and Northfork (2003)—were by turns darkly comedic and earnestly melodramatic but consistently personal, so idiosyncratic they seemed destined to forever wear the cloak of obscurity, if also designed to wear it well.
It’s true that the brothers, now 36, have developed a system for making their films. Michael directs and Mark acts. Michael acted also, once, in Twin Falls Idaho, but only because that one was about conjoined twins. The Polish brothers are not conjoined, but they are twins and they both write and produce. So far their collaborations also have included cinematographer M. David Mullen, who has a keen eye and a painterly bent. And, go ahead and call them old-fashioned, but the Polish brothers have made movies for love instead of money.
“We don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the world of critique,” Michael said recently. “Our voice is our voice.”
“We’re going to make the movies that we make,” Mark added. (Yes, their system allows them to finish each other’s sentences and, indeed, to speak individually on behalf of the pair.) This brings up the question of whether history will judge the newest Polish brothers picture—which also happens to be a Warner Bros. picture starring Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen, rated PG and opening this weekend across the country—as a departure for its makers, or as their arrival.
“It’s a myth that doing a mainstream studio movie is any different from doing an independent one,” Michael said. “Not at all. It’s the same thing.” Seated at a massive conference table at San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, he eyed the high ceiling and the elaborate snack buffet, then wheeled playfully in his plush chair on the immaculate carpet. “OK, maybe the promotion of it is different …”
“The story we chose is a little bit different this time,” his brother, seated nearby, interjected. “The emotional connection is probably more accessible.”
Hence, presumably, the Warner Bros.’ interest. And the stars’. “I instantly wanted to do it,” Thornton said. “I’d seen Northfork and I loved the style of it, but I especially wanted to do this kind of movie. A Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra kind of thing.”
“I don’t even want to say it’s a family movie because of what that means now,” Madsen said. “Now, they always have to try and write children to be too precocious. The wives are always totally unrealistic and not like real women at all.” She shook her head. “I think that in a sense maybe people walk in resistant, with their arms crossed, because they’re tired of crappy movies. But I think with this one my grown-up friends will like this just as much as my kids.”
Madsen herself was disarmed to hear one viewer’s declaration of how disarming The Astronaut Farmer is. Michael may have summed up the Polish brothers’ approach to cinema when he said, “You don’t ever want to deprive people of their dignity.”
Thornton plays Charles Farmer, a former NASA trainee who never made it into space, but not for lack of interest. Rather, he’s highly determined—enough to build his own rocket in the barn on his Texas ranch, and to launch it with or without official help. It’s partly so his wife (Madsen) and kids may learn from his example not to abandon their dreams.
Of course, Farmer’s determination becomes an obsession and, to his family, a burden. Even with the farm on the verge of foreclosure, he’s pricing rocket fuel by the ton—and drawing attention from the FAA, the FBI, Homeland Security and the media. Still, the Farmer family bears up with love and tolerance. The family dynamics play out in gracious, sincere performances full of strong but subtle choices.
“Some people think, ‘What an ideal family! That just doesn’t exist,’” Mark said. “But we were raised in that type of family. Our parents never said we couldn’t do anything. Although the movie business was so abstract, and they didn’t have any connections or specific advice on how to get into it, they always put us in the best position to succeed. I never heard once from either of them, ‘Do you have a fallback plan?’”
Apparently none was needed; easygoing familial encouragement has sustained the Polish brothers richly. “They set a great tone for the set,” Thornton said. “You feel like they’re your cousins and it’s a family reunion.”
Mark expressed mutual, comparable affection for his star: “We have such similar backgrounds. It’s almost like he’s our older brother. There’s not a beat that we all miss.”
It’s also worth noting how naturally Michael’s 7-year-old daughter and Mark’s 4-year-old play Farmer’s young girls in the film. As movie kids go, with due respect to Madsen’s astute observation, these seem just precisely precocious enough.
That’s inherited, probably. The Polish brothers, who were born in Southern California and moved with their family to Rocklin in 1976, knew early that they wanted to get into the pictures. They figure their vocational education properly began in Roseville High School, to which they say The Astronaut Farmer occasionally alludes, in the same fond way it occasionally alludes to The Right Stuff.
“We had a great English teacher named Steven Fischer,” Mark said. “Every morning he wrote a quote on a chalkboard.”
“Every day,” Michael said. “For 200 days.”
“After a while,” Mark went on, “you just can’t deny the greatness that people have achieved. You know, within just a sentence or two sentences, it was always something profound. It was a great way to always come into class.”
They reflected. Then Mark added: “Assuming we were even in class.”
Michael: “If a film was opening on a Friday …”
Mark: “ … we would ditch.”
Trading cues evenly, they continued: “Fischer showed movies sometimes, and showed us how to break them down. He exposed us to the great literature in movies.”
“He wouldn’t show a movie that didn’t have any value.”
“He probably doesn’t know who the hell we are. ’Cause we sat in the back, and were never students to make ourselves noticed.”
“I never wanted to raise my hand. I never wanted to engage. I always wanted to hear other people’s reactions, to observe.”
Fischer now teaches photography at Granite Bay High School. He does indeed know who the hell the Polish brothers are, but, when reached by phone, admitted not having known that they are filmmakers. “But I was looking forward to seeing this movie anyway,” he said. “And now I’m looking forward to seeing some of their others. This one looks like it’s mostly about the human spirit. It looks like my kind of film.” Fischer also appreciated the twins’ appreciation of him.
Not all educational relationships can be so blessed. “Art class,” Michael recalled with a wince. “I was kicked out my freshman year, never to return to the thing I adored.” That teacher, whom he didn’t name, just didn’t do it for him. “I wasn’t trying to be Van Gogh. I just wanted so much more than I was getting. When you see a kid rebel, it’s because they want something. It was difficult to engage an art teacher who was very, um, Disney-fied.” (Never mind that the Polishes’ short film Bajo del Perro later won a Young Filmmakers Award from the Walt Disney Company, among other prizes.)
Michael later matriculated to CalArts’ fine-art program: “They didn’t look at GPA, so I was able to get in.” Mark joined him there the following year. “Mark applied to the film school twice,” Michael continued. “And they didn’t let him in. So Mark said, ‘I’m not going to take this.’”
Leaning back in the cozy Ritz-Carlton chair with a mock-proud grin, Mark nodded his approval of this origin story.
And so began the Polish brothers’ system for making movies on their own terms. To wit, the first sentence in their 2005 book The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking, an instructive anecdotal history of their professionally formative experiences: “We never set out to be independent filmmakers.”
“A lot of young filmmakers are just trying to copy what they think the industry wants,” Thornton said. “They want to hear that they should do their own thing. Like these guys.”
It’s admittedly through trial and error that the Polish craftiness and control of tone has improved since the brothers’ soft-spoken debut. They’ve learned to balance sincerity with irony, to trust their silences and, with cinematographer Mullen’s help, to treat imagery and environment as characters. For all its mainstream, major-studio gloss, The Astronaut Farmer still reads as another of the twins’ elliptical tales of gently askance Americana. And as Madsen put it: “It starts you dreaming from the first moment.”
If there’s conventional wisdom in the peculiar world of indie filmmaking, it’s counterintuitive. How else could it be that the best way to foster a movie about reaching for the stars is by remaining steadfastly down to earth? Or that the best way for a pair of filmmakers to assert their independence, after many lean years of anonymity and eccentric self-determination, is by finally convening a Hollywood A-list cast and major-studio backing to make, of all things, a simple family movie?