August 31, 2003|I met Mark and Michael Polish in the Green Room of Denver's NBC affiliate just after the pair had appeared live on local television to banter with the indigenous fauna about their latest film--and last in a loose trilogy of Americana--Northfork. Garnering a great deal of national praise for their audacity-verging-on-pretension and collecting comparisons to filmmakers like Wim Wenders and Terrence Malick, the brothers, in person, have an air of something so rare it's like vintage from a forgotten cellar: they're grateful for where they are, excited for what the future may bring them. It's a lesson in thankfulness that found me at the right time, just before the crushing festival season, right at the tail end of the summer (and winter and spring) doldrums--questioning, truth be told, what it was again that I was supposed to be doing here when it just didn't seem that much fun anymore.
Travelling across the country in a giant RV, the Polish Brothers are unfailingly polite and enthusiastic. Gracious in conversation, to the point of addressing me by name, Mark, in baseball cap and a day's growth of stubble, seemed fatigued and wan (in fact, our original plan of meeting at Red Rocks Amphitheater about twenty minutes outside of downtown Denver was quashed by exhaustion), while Michael, bearded and bright-eyed, fielded the bulk of the questions. Though I've been an admirer--albeit a cautious one--of their films (Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot the others), I was reminded during the course of our conversation that there is something noble just about the will to create from rough loam a career in the arts that is uncompromising and, as much as it can be anymore, unsullied by strange hands. Life doles out its measure of wisdom when it's needed most--so here at near my lowest point I meet two guys at their highest, and we spend a few minutes at the end talking about how intriguing Freddy Vs. Jason is (Mark: "That scene where Freddy erupts out of the water--Jesus, that's just so interesting"). Hallelujah.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Describe how your relationship with cinematographer M. David Mullen has evolved from the Edward Hopper of Twin Falls Idaho to the 24p DV of Jackpot to the bleached starkness of Northfork.
MICHAEL POLISH (MIKE): I went to school with him (the fine arts program at CalArts -Ed.), he was in graduate school when I was an undergraduate, but it wasn't until we were both out did we really start working together. I was looking for a DP and here he was, already established--doing a lot of small independent features--when I went to meet him. We clicked right away, I think, because he knew my art references and of course the film references, and that if he worked with me he could experiment in traditional art forms while I could learn about filmmaking. We were really a perfect match.
MARK POLISH (MARK): Our relationship with Mullen has really been one of mutual experimentation.
MIKE: Working in 24p for Jackpot was our opportunity to sort of taste what digital video was, the lighting challenges of that sort of hyper-realistic, super-sharp, deep-focus kind of image. That camera that we used was such a new thing at that time, it was some kind of beta test version that was going to "Roswell" but they decided not to use it so we picked it up. I mean, the idea of this imitation of film used to capture this imitation of a singer was really delicious to us.
I wonder if that experiment in photo-realism influenced the look of Northfork in that the comparisons to artists that it draws are mainly to photographers like Ansel Adams, Helmet Newton, Robert Frank...
MARK: No doubt, no doubt, someone just the other day, too, compared the look of it to a Roger Deakins.
The Coen Brothers' DP? I'll bet you were thrilled by that comparison.
MARK: (laughs) You can't help it, that's the nature of it, y'know. It's so easy to do to say here are some brothers, and here are some more well-known brothers, they must be comparable, but in truth we've only seen a couple of their pictures. We're not nearly so film literate as a lot of our critics would make us out to be.
MIKE: You know, they're actually more American Heartland in theme than we are, we're more of a north by northwest ethic. I mean Jackpot, NV, right, they never even really get there.
Which of course will draw comparisons to Fargo...
The idea of frustrated communication figures highly in each of your pictures--does that reflect an internal conflict between your art design background and your film ambitions?
MARK: We really value the spaces between the words as much as the words themselves.
MIKE: We're really interested in the methods and idiosyncrasies of the way that people talk--the reality and the artifice of the way people talk, the truth and art of conversations, how folks might great each other with the just the first name and no salutation. It's the sort of thing, I think, that can speak to a person's educational level, their parents, the place where they've been reared--and if you don't share that background, maybe you can't have the same level of understanding...
MARK: It's amazing, though, how adaptable people are in falling into another person's rhythms--I mean, you'll find yourself as an actor sometimes falling into the patterns of the person you're working against just like falling into an accent when you talk to someone from another country--it's this mania to avoid misunderstanding, y'know, and you need to guard against that to a degree but there's another dimension to it in that if you're too fastidious in denying that instinct, your performance suffers the reality test, too.
One scene in Northfork really popped for me as both aesthetically interesting and cinematically sound: the one in the diner...
MIKE: The naturalistic approach to environment is to see what it has to offer--when you go into a diner, it's naturally dark, when you go into a hotel room, it's naturally dark, so you try and approach things with the source light feel. Not to over-light situations that are realistic to us. We had a very stylistic approach to the piece, of course, but that's really framing and production design more than cinematographer. In the diner scene, we were looking at it in regards to meticulous movement and shape--they embody sort of a murder of crows lined up on a wire. Very particularly in this film and Twin Falls Idaho, we were conscious of the actors being part of the compositions as much as possible--arranged in the frame.
That being said, you pull some pretty interesting, unconventional performances out of Nick Nolte and James Woods.
MARK: I think that all actors, all good actors, have that in them, of course, that vulnerability.
MIKE: You have people pigeonholing actors--casting directors who'll say well, let's shoehorn that guy into this role because he's done it before and there's a vibe to their work and let's get them more work. They follow patterns. Woods is easiest to see as a steamy actor who can blow people up, but isn't it more interesting to cast against that baggage? That being said, we were really blessed on the Northfork project because people came for the script--there's nothing that either of us could have said or done to convince Nick Nolte or James Woods to be in our film if they didn't want to be involved. No money, first of all, and who are we really after two small movies.
MARK: It was really gratifying to us because these people, they saw something in the picture that would give them the opportunity to do something that was maybe different and maybe a little exciting for them, and recognizing that they agreed to do it for next to no money. It's really a relief, you know, to know that there are these huge, well-known actors out there who are still looking for the challenge.
Speaking of "arrangement," your matching shots are extremely self-conscious in Northfork.
MIKE: We tried to do every sort of transition possible, too. The film, after all, is about transition so we thought that would tie it in visually.
MIKE: Just that they're so hard to deal with--you usually deal with the beginnings and the ends, but not that slice of the middle. I think that there's not really a beginning or an end to our pictures--you enter in the middle and end in the middle--and that's more challenging, I think, that moment sitting by yourself wondering where to go next.
So you storyboard, of course.
MIKE: Yeah, and a lot of that is out of a desire for that arranged quality that we're talking about, but also on our budgets with our shooting schedules, we needed a strong game plan because there wasn't too much time to experiment once we got on the set.
MARK: That structure, too, I find can free up more time for the actors to find their space in there.
The images of gravestones and then the dam generator as a gravestone for the city...
MIKE: Yes, yes exactly right--they always looked like big headstones to me these dams--standing over the drowned cities that they're responsible for.
MARK: Our grandfather worked on dams and when I was a kid we'd go into these dams and there'd be pictures in there of the towns that were destroyed by the dams. We were always looking for a picture of our grandpa in there, but what really stuck with us over time was how haunted those places felt--especially with the irony of it in that these were mostly public works projects, essentially good things for our country, and yet here's this great cost to these individuals. We were eight or nine years old and those ideas are all swimming around in there, inarticulate, adding up to this sort of breathless, sad feeling that we were really interested in evoking in here.
You were both in the third version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey--what governs your non-auteur turns?
MIKE: We pick stuff that will help me learn to be a director--we did The Good Thief with Nick [Nolte] and Neal Jordan and it helps me immeasurably to be able to talk to a guy like [ace cinematographer] Chris Menges and the entire crew. Bridge of San Luis Rey was shot by [Javier Aguirresarobe] who did The Others, which is just a beautiful-looking film, and [production designer Gil Parrondo] was the art director of Dr. Zhivago, and also, how can you pass up the opportunity to work with Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Robert De Niro...
MARK: Kathy was just a dream. We really took it as a learning experience more than an acting experience, you know, but once we got there we really got more than we bargained for.
MIKE: Yeah, it was really demanding.
MARK: I was thinking, great, my character dies--but I spent four days dying, trying to get up that emotional level and keep it there through take after take--it was gruelling.
Your next project, a big budget, major studio science-fiction piece, brings with it a great deal more expectation and probability for serious creative interference. How worried are you?
MIKE: Yeah, there are always control issues.
MARK: I wonder if it'll be more of a marketing issue, though, because they know our work, they know what we bring to the table.
MIKE: They know that they're going to be dealing with something that tries to be more thoughtful than shoot-'em-up, but that being said, I'm not going into the studio system with the intention to make an esoteric film. I'm not going to indulge in that personal vision for ninety minutes--we wanted it to bigger, wider, painted with a broader brushstroke. We wrote it to have a wider appeal than something like Northfork but still have our feel to it--our signature for whatever that's worth.
This'll bring up comparisons to the Wachowski Brothers of course...
Your first film as actors was also a genre piece: Hellraiser: Bloodline.
MARK: (laughs) Oh right--you know we love science fiction, we love genre films.
MIKE: People have been calling Northfork magical realism, but really, I think that it has more to do with science-fiction. If successful, you travel to another dimension, you question identity and space.
J.G. Ballard's three pillars of science fiction are identity, space, and time.
MIKE: Exactly right, exactly right. With Hellraiser: Bloodline, what happened was we were the cenobite twins, but they went back and re-cast/re-shot some scenes with different actors.
MARK: We were never out of make-up for that shoot.
MIKE: Right--and they needed shots of the twins before transformation and we weren't willing to come back. They did use us in make-up, though.
MARK:You know, we've still never seen that picture.
Final cut was taken away from Kevin Yagher--it's still sort of an interesting piece, though.
MIKE: I remember liking the idea a lot, but we were doing Twin Falls Idaho at the time and went to Kevin for prosthetics for the Siamese twin effect and he expressed that he'd love for us to be in Hellraiser: Bloodline so we sort of did a trade.
MARK: Besides, how cool was it to be in a Hellraiser movie?
MIKE: Doug Bradley was just a really great guy--a sweetheart. To have the patience to put on all that makeup... The man's a saint.