Northfork is a weird and powerful film. It also stars a raft of high profile actors including Nick Nolte and Darryl Hannah. The POLISH BROTHERS tell Alistair Harkness how they pulled it off.
ometirnes films can catch you unaware. Remember the dreamy confusion of Donnie Dar/m. the narrative trickery of Memento. the happy ‘huh‘." factor that accompanies movies you can‘t quite explain but which knock you sideways anyway? Well. the Polish brothers. the identical twin filmmakers from California. make films like this. Mark writes and acts. Michael writes and directs (though occasionally he acts too) and their films — while infused with the playfulness of the (‘oen Brothers and the weirdness of David Lynch — tend to kick against the formula-driven output of both I-Iollywrxxf and lndicwood. Their debut effort. the creepy 'livin Falls Idaho ( 1999). had the ultimate 90s indie film hook (they played conjoined twins). Their
new film North/ink (set in Montana) completes a loose trilogy of
‘Northwestern‘ films. linked by their geographical settings. All three are shot through with a dry wit and a vivid imagination.
Set during the l95()s. North/brk is certainly a challenge to decipher. The story of a dying community forced to relocate to make way for a darn. it revolves around an evacuation committee. headed by James Woods. and its attempts to evict the last residents. Fused with this plot is a sickly child (tended by Nick Nolte). who has a fever dream incorporating a group of wingless angels. It’s an ambitious fable about life. death and the limbo-like existence progress brings. but you‘ll be forgiven if you find it all slightly baflling.
‘People aren‘t really conditioned to the way we're going to tell a story.‘ says Michael. 'But we want to evolve new ways of telling stories instead of having a straightforward narrative that we push down your throat.’ His brother adds: ‘We weren’t going to give you any mechanisms. We allow you to piece it together yourself.’
It‘s disconcerting chatting to the brothers. Michael has long. brown hair. but in every other way they're identical — same angular features. same soft voices. When thoughtfully answering questions they speak over one another. finishing each others’ sentences and generally making life hell for journalists trying to transcribe interviews.
Maybe this is why they are remarkably candid about their desire to be different. More likely. though. they speak with confidence because they are examples of an increasingly rare breed of genuinely independent American filmmakers. North/ink. despite its luminous cast. was made for less than 82m. none of which came from the studios or their ‘independent' affiliates.
‘We are truly independent filmmakers.‘ says Michael. “But that label is used by everybody. 90% of the independent films that come out are made within the studio system or linked to the studio system. Financing is one part of independent. What you‘re trying to do and trying to say is another. Hollywood thinks independent means low budget and that‘s it.‘ Says Mark: ‘They're kind of what we term “cheap mainstream".'
They have a point. The most successful independent film of all time is not set. lies and videotape or The Blair Witr'h l’rajer'l. it‘s the Tom Hanks-produced My Big Fat Greek Win/(ling. not exactly a film breaking down any barriers. Peter Biskind. in his bitchy new book Down and Dirty l’ir'tures: Sundanee. Miramax and the Rise aflnde/n'ndent Film. attributes this to the success of
‘YOU KNOW, WHERE THERE'S A WILL THERE'S A WAY; NOT MANY PEOPLE ARE DOING
IT, BUT IF YOU WANT TO, THERE
IS A WAY'
Miramax and its co-chairman. Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein — with his flare for marketing. ruthless policy of re- cutting films and fearsome reputation for bullying filmmakers - stands accused of betraying the independent cause by sacrificing artistry for profit and risk-taking originality for ()scar glory.
There’s evidence to back up Biskind‘s argument. After Disney bought out Miramax in 1993. Weinstein used the Disney dollar to produce mush like (‘lmm/at and studio-style award-winners such as The English Patient. Those who did continue to work with Miramax found themselves with two choices: accept Weinstein‘s creative input or have their projects shelved.
It‘s something the Polish brothers have had experience of. Before starting North/ink they were hired to make Truth. Justiee and the Ameriean Hit): a biopic of a troubled actor whose rise to fame as Superman on l95()s TV ended in a suspicious shotgun suicide. Miramax picked up the project from backers USA Films with the Polish brothers already attached. then virtually sabotaged it by trying to turn it into a prestigious star vehicle. ‘It was a conflict of casting so we decided to allow them to do what they needed to do and left.‘ says Mark.
Battles like that are par for the course. but Biskind‘s depressing prognosis is a bit
Weinstein he leaves no room for a decent analysis of the digital film revolution (this year's Sundance was won by a $7000 feature shot on a
directors who move into the studio system. Meanwhile there‘s no mention of smart cookies like Mark and Michael Polish.
The brothers know what it takes to survive in the industry. Says Michael: ‘The 90s were good for the one-hit wonder but it‘s not really about your first movie: are you a career film-maker? When we made Twin Falls. we said. “this is really gonna look like we shot our wad here." so it was important to step back from that pressure.‘
Doing this helped them secure a stellar cast for North/ink. They met Nick Nolte while playing in Neil Jordan‘s The Good Thief. and he surprised them by asking for a part in their next film. So they had to hire a private jet to fly him in from the set of the Hulk. James Woods also sought them out.
‘You‘re kind of taken aback when they‘ve been attracted to the material.’ says Michael. ‘But they’re just as much into your work as you’re into theirs.‘ finishes Mark. ‘They know what‘s going on and they have certain things they want to do. so when they see an oprxrrtunity they're gonna take it. You meet all kinds of actors at festivals who say. “oh. it would be great to work with you.”
What augurs well is that it's not just actors who are taking notes. ‘We had a couple of film students come up to us after a screening and say "thanks. it really helps us to know that what we‘re feeling and what we want to do".‘ says Michael. smiling. ‘You know. where there‘s a will there's a way: not many people are doing it. but if you want to. there is a way.‘
Northfork is on selected release from Fri 12 Mar. Down and Dirty Pictures, by Peter Biskind, is available from amazon.co.uk.
misleading. In his desperation to tear strips off
camcorder). and dismisses the artistic merits of
Nonhfork boasts Nick Nolte, Mark Polish and child actor Duel Fames (opposite) among its fine cast, but the Montana landscape is the real hero
4—18 Mar 2004 THE LIST 13