Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago back with you for part two of my interviews with the people that make the upcoming film THE ASTRONAUT FARMER so darned worth checking out. The other day, I gave you stars Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen. Today I've got the writer/director team Michael and Mark Polish, creators of such magnificent works as TWIN FALLS IDAHO and NORTHFORK. Listening to the tape of our talk, I'll confess I wasn't always 100 percent sure which one of these twin brothers was speaking. Fortunately, one of them was closer to my recorder than the other, so I think I've got these quotes attributed to the right speaker…I hope. And please be warned, there are SPOILERS peppered throughout in the Brothers' answers.
C: Half seriously, have joking, I’m going to ask you the same first question I asked Billy Bob and Virginia: Does having a full-sized rocket in your barn filled with 10,000 lb. of rocket fuel scream good parenting to anybody?
Mark Polish: [laughs] You know what, it makes for an exciting family.
Michael Polish: I would have loved that, though. If you were a kid, do you think you would be turned off by it?
C: Not as kid, no. As a parent…
Michael: If the dad’s doing it, you’re going to be a kid. Your wife might question it, but if you’ve been doing it for 15 years, she probably on board. I think it’s a cool idea, rather than, like, building a Corvette with an air-brushed naked girl on the hood. I think a film that has a rocket is a little more encouraging, you know?
C: I guess that’s one of the questions that might come up for some people.
Michael: Well, Dad running around in the corn field listening to voices would be a little bit more worrisome.
C: I don’t mean this to sound cynical, but is there a point where dreams become dangerous?
Michael: Yeah, definitely. It becomes an obsession. Where does that obsession stop and where does it start to hurt people. And, in this film particularly, he gives it up. It’s not until his wife gets involved and says, “This vision that you were holding up for all of us is important. We all believed in it, and we’re all going to make it happen. You were there for us to think of you, and now, we’re going to be there for you to think of everything.
Mark: You’ve seen it in past films where that dream fractures the family, like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, so you see those creative choices. And, we didn’t want to take that route because we can relate to this type of family more than we can relate to those families. Our father was instrumental in keeping us involved, in giving us the confidence to do, to build the rocket, to make a film. So, we wanted to show you that example. Yeah, he’s obsessed, but the message was bigger.
Michael: There is a selfish nature in pursuing. You can look at the Olympics. Every athlete there is pretty damn selfish. They give up everything so they can run around a track. At some point, they’re alienating a lot of stuff.
C: I guess anyone who’s really following their dream to its inevitable conclusion is going to run the risk of alienating some people. You mentioned your father, but were there people either in history or your own lives that served as a model for Charles Farmer?
Mark: Maybe, our father had the same ideal. He was an eccentric, but he believed in hard work--“I’m going to show you how it’s done, rather than tell you how it’s done.”
Michael: When we wanted something welded, he’d say, “Go pick up the welder.” He wasn't like, I’m going to just do it and you guys go watch TV. It was really about showing us how to weld and, you know, this is how you build a house. We built a house. He was a pilot by trade. He gets the manual and goes, “Find the airport.” He was very instrumental to us.
C: With the exception of TWIN FALLS IDAHO, I’ve always gone into your films deliberately knowing nothing about them. So, I was surprised at how accessible you’ve made this film, without pandering or being overly sentimental, still having your dark corners, and your distaste for figures of authority. Was that a deliberate effort?
Michael: This was just another one of our screenplays.
Mark: We try to take every story and say, What’s the best way of telling this? And, you can make these creative choices where he doesn’t come back, or he fractures his hand, or does things that alienate the audience. We just felt, you know, there’s a craft to these types of movies. Why screw it up? Why go out of bounds just because people expect us to do that. "Hey, he’s going to wreck, but he’s going to die." We knew what it was going to take to get from the $2 million budget to the $12 million budget. It’s a very conscious decision, because you know if he doesn’t come back to meet his family, you’re not going to get money for that.
Michael: It wasn’t for us to really push that envelope of despair. At this time in our nation, in the world, it would be nice to do a movie that inspires.
C: You’ve always featured a version of Americana. It’s not always the most pleasant. And, I’ve noticed, even in the casting, you tend to go for very manly, all-American men and very feminine women. Is that a reflection of films you watched growing up or…?
Mark: Sigourney Weaver turned us down.
C: …for Virgina's role. I had heard that.
Mark: The reason why we get manly men is that the actors we’re using are of another generation--Nick Nolte, James Woods, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern. These are men that have baggage of being real men or playing manly roles, who fit perfectly in the sort of Western landscape that we use. And, we grew up watching these types--Clint Eastwood and MAD MAX, Man with No Name types, so we respond to those types of characteristics.
Michael: It goes into the ethos of that kind of Joseph Campbell.
Mark: …although we loved TOOTSIE.
C: Can you talk a little bit about what Billy Bob brought to this film that maybe you hadn’t anticipated, something to the character that he added that maybe wasn’t there in the screenplay.
Mark: Obviously, a great silence. He brought a great silence to it and an understanding of Farmer's ideals. He understood Farmer's dilemma on the personal level, and he didn’t judge him as ‘Hey, this guy’s losing it.” He was Charles Farmer. He kind of sat in the pocket of this character. There were many times I looked at Mike and said, This reminds me of our uncle. A spitting image of how our uncle from Montana worked the ranch. He had a lot of cattle. His silence, his thought processes, how a rancher thinks. I didn’t know if Billy would…I knew he’d have great character, but I didn’t know if he’d play him that way. And, many times, I looked at Michael and said, “He reminds me of my uncle,” just the exact cadence, the way he said things, the way he looked. That was very surprising, ’cause I knew he could do the astronaut and I knew he could do the farmer, but I didn’t know if he knew that character as well as he did.
C: Off the top of my head, I can not think of a more iconic American image than an astronaut on a horse.
Michael: It doesn’t get more iconic than that. Those are two images that are kind of fading, or have faded, and we put them together.
Mark: That’s quirky, that’s really strange, I don’t get it, you know--that’s America. We’re strange, and we’re quirky, and we have different facets, and what you think is the best thing about the Marlboro man is actually stranger than this.
C: Is the film a tribute to an era that is dying?
Michael: Yeah, but it’s still alive because, I mean, we’re making films about it.
Mark: America is so many different things, and you have to be comfortable with that.
C: Maybe I’m wrong, but I almost got a sense that you don’t 100 percent condone everything that Farmer is doing here. There are just enough critics or naysayers in the film to make one believe maybe the filmmakers really are not sure, themselves. Or, are you fully endorsing carrying out these dreams as far as they can go?
Michael: I think there were points in the film where there is doubt. There’s doubt, and you have to be realistic about that doubt. There were enough people telling us, “Don’t make NORTHFORK. Stop. You lost your money, you have no money.” So, you sit there, and you go, Whoa, what am I doing here?
Mark: That was the worst scenario. We had just put the stakes in Great Falls, Montana, and somebody says, “You guys have lost financing. You have nothing…Jimmy Woods is on his way up. Tell everybody to go home.” Sort of like, you know, before the launch of the rocket, saying, “We’re not letting you do this. You don’t have the right to do it.” That kind of feeling, so there’s doubt, but then you say, Yes, I’m going forward. We said we still want to do it. We said, “Let’s just fuckin’ do it.” That point is where you believe in the story. That’s where we know Charles Farmer was going ahead.
C: It seems like the character that the audience can most closely can identify is Bruce Willis’ character, who is very supportive of his old friend, but at the same time, he’s there to say, “Okay, this is enough.” That’s a tricky role.
Michael: You wanted a heavy to come in, and you kind of cast it accordingly. We always feel that, if it’s a small role and you don’t have the time to give it an arc, we can cast an actor's baggage. Can we cast what they were before? And, he came from ARMAGEDDON, and he’s been there before, so you automatically go, “Oh, he’s an astronaut.” And, he’s coming in, and he’s going to give the stamp of approval on this vessel, but, at the same time, go, “Oh, this is what you’re doing? You’re serious, you’re pretty serious.” But then, put the reality of “Let’s do it the right way.”
C: Is there a reason why Bruce’s name is not in the credits?
Mark: Yeah, he didn’t want this to be marketed as a Bruce Willis show.
Michael: He just wanted to tie the studio’s hands up and say, “You know what, you’re not going to be able to do this,” because that’s what they would do. They would turn it into…
Mark: …two buddies trying to build a rocket, and show them with a cooler of beer in the barn.
C: You guys have a real love of interesting faces. Almost to the point where you sometimes are not paying attention to what certain actors are saying, because you’re studying the lines of their face. It’s almost like a photographer’s sensibility. Is that deliberate? In this film, I’m thinking of people like Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Jon Gries. Is that something you seek out?
Michael: When you meet people on the street, and you buy a hot dog or whatever, you look at people and go, That’s a great lookin’ guy. That’s a great lookin’ person, that’s a great lookin’ woman. They’re real. You’re not trying to say…and I'm not dissing models who are beautiful or anything…but you’re saying, This makes a much more interesting tableau.
Mark: The flaws on people are more interesting. That’s what makes you beautiful, the flaws, your deviated septum.
C: And, you brought your own children into the cast. Since the film’s about family, it makes sense. Is that the thought there?
Michael: It works on that level, but our initial idea was, you know, we’re going to have a couple million to do this film. Start with free and family. We put ourselves in our first film, and we always look at filmmaking from that angle, what we can do in the most resourceful way. We didn’t know at the end of the day we'd be working with Warner Bros. We’ve got the girls, we’re going to need a family. We wanted it more than two kids, we wanted it three kids. Four would have worked, too, but we just wanted it to be a little, you know…the bigger the family, the more the jeopardy.
Mark: We wrote the roles specifically for them, and we know we were going to write a role where the heaviest thing Logan [Polish] carried was a donut. She wasn’t going to have these Shakespearian monologues or anything that was going to destroy her as a performer, an actress, or even as a human being. They were place markers, you know, for the dinner table, and they were going to say the things that we knew they could say. It was in our control.
C: As many great people as there are in the film, the one I tended to focus on is Bruce Dern, because I love seeing him, and he’s such a part of the Golden Age of film. Did he find you, or did you find him? How did that work?
Michael: Billy knew him. But, we also were talking about who was out there that could fit this role. In his age bracket.
Mark: He would have been Billy Bob. He could have played astronaut farmer back in the '60s or '70s.
Michael: And, we would sit up at night talking to Billy, and he said, “You know, Bruce would be great for this.” So, he talked to him. As a result, we got double Bruces.
C: He wouldn’t necessarily be your first for this character because he’s so low key in the film, but I love it when he plays low key, because you don’t think of him as low key anymore. They always seem to cast him in more cantankerous roles.
Michael: In person, he can really get it out there. He has a lot to say.
C: What is this film I.D. I've been reading about?
Michael: I.D. is science fiction.
C: Is that for real?
Michael: Yeah, it’s for real. It’s been floating around for a while. We’ve been trying to make it for a long time. We’ve been trying to get the studio’s heads wrapped around it, basically, because it’s very abstract. Well, not to us, but if a studio is going to give you 50-60 million bucks they want to make sure that they’re going to get a return on it, you know. But, it’s basically a future when information data is currency--that’s the new currency in the future, where your identity and your personal information is more worthy than what we’re dealing with now. What you eat, whatever you do, every choice you make is worth something to somebody, and how that becomes a commodity for big business. So, that’s the identity I.D.
C: How far along in the process are you ? I assume there’s a screenplay.
Michael: Yeah, the screenplay’s done. We’re like 50 screenplays, each one a little more dumbed down than the last.
Mark: We were joking--we’re down to the point of making “I.D. for Dummies,” because it’s just an abstract thought when people become that dehumanized.
C: Is that what happens. You said there are multiple screenplays with revisions. Is that what you’ve been doing, dumbing it down?
Mark: You can get caught up as a writer in just the technology aspect of it--it’s so fascinating, technology and where we’re headed, that it can really bog down a story. And, we’re basically cleaning that up. I wouldn’t say we’re dumbing it down. We’re just cleaning it up to a point that they can understand that. Can you imagine George Lucas telling them about the fur on the hands of Chewbacca: he’s an 8-foot creature and he’s got furry hands. How do you get your head wrapped around that?
C: One of my favorite films is THE GOOD THIEF. How did you get connected with that?
Mark: It was called DOUBLE DOWN at the time when we did it. It was all about double images and doing double things, robbing something, but doing it over here, having two games…everything was about doubling down.
Michael: I think [casting director] Susie Figgis knew that there were twins out there that could possibly perform. So,[director] Neil Jordan went in and saw it. He was fascinated and liked it and then called me up, “Hey, would you guys be interested in doing this?”
C: So, it wasn’t the Nick Nolte connection?
Michael: We met Nick on that set. This is a funny story…I left because I had to go to Seattle, and JACKPOT won, our second film won the American Cinema award there, and as I was waiting I called, “Mark, we won.”
Mark: It was, like, midnight over there [Monte Carlo].
Michael: …and Mark was sitting with Nick. And, Nick says, “Oh great, because another movie I did with…” He did a movie with Alan Rudolph that was at the same event-- INVESTIGATING SEX, which never got distributed, I don’t think. It was almost like KINSEY. It had psychological aspects of why people have sex. And, then Mark was in France, and Nick says, “Oh, that’s great. We should do something together. A lot of films are there. What are you guys doing next?” And, we said NORTHFORK. He said, “When we get back, come to Malibu, and we’ll talk about what you’re doing.” So, we drove up to Malibu in the middle of pre-production on NORTHFORK, thinking that he would play the Jimmy Woods role. He said, “No, I like the father role.” James already was circling around the Walter role, so we avoided any difficult decisions about who was going to play what.
C: THE GOOD THIEF was a simply awesome movie.
Michael: It was so much fun to make. You shouldn’t have that much fun making a film like that.
C: When you don’t have the pressures of writing and directing…
Mark: As an actor, my goodness, it is a breeze. It’s like craft services is your ally. And, Neil Jordan was great that way. He’s really fun. He’s a good guy.
C: Is the acting going to continue? Mark, you’re the only one in ASTRONAUT FARMER.
Mark: Yeah, I’m the only one in this one. It all depends. I get things sent my way. It’s hard just to go away from our projects. It’s hard to do either way. It has to be something special. I read things quite a bit…TV that they want to put you on, and that’s just a life sucker. You’re obligated to do so much every week, and it’s hard.
C: You mean like a series, not just a one-off movie of the week?
Michael: You know, you score indie, and you’re a good lead in a series.
Mark: Or, you’re a fourth lead in a big movie. You see all these indie stars be fourth leads in movies.
Michael: That’s how Billy started. He played in ARMAGEDDON. They snapped him up there.
C: He’s always been really good about aligning himself with projects from indie guys or guys that come out of more indie stuff.
Michael: He’s great. He’s such an ally for us in this picture.