Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Mark and Michael Polish

Twins Peak with 'Northfork'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Twins Mark and Michael Polish used their indistinguishable identicalness to help sell their 1999 debut feature Twin Falls Idaho.

"Our story is only good once. And we sold that in '99," jokes Michael.

Since then, they've had to rely on their talent alone. Fortunately, that's more than enough. Their second feature, the underrated Jackpot, opened to mediocre reviews and cold box office, but has since gained a small cult following thanks to video and cable.

Their third film could change that and really put them on the map among America's foremost independent filmmakers. Northfork is actually their first project, a screenplay that was unable to get financing until now.

Good thing, because with two feature films under their belts, the twins were able to attract a big-time cast, including: James Woods, Nick Nolte, Daryl Hannah and Anthony Edwards. In addition, Ben Foster, Kyle MacLachlan, Peter Coyote and Claire Forlani liked the script so much that they took on much smaller, sometimes miniscule, parts.

Mark Polish plays Woods' son and Michael Polish took over the directing duties. Both brothers wrote the script and produced, and Mr. Woods co-produced.

"We never know how our films are going to resonate until we put a script out there," Mark says (or is it Michael?). "Jimmy [Woods] watched it and said, 'I'm so fucking glad I'm in this movie.' He walked out and said it to the head of the studio. He said: 'If I had watched this movie and I wasn't in it, I would have been so bummed.'"

About ten years ago, Woods discovered that his agent had turned down Reservoir Dogs without even showing it to him. He immediately fired the agent and began taking a more hands-on approach to his roles.

In Northfork, Woods gets some kind of weird revenge. He plays one of six men in black suits whose job is to get the inhabitants of a small town to evacuate their homes to make way for a new dam.

"They're the original reservoir dogs, because they're really protecting a reservoir," jokes Michael.

The Polishes turned up at a recent San Francisco press screening of "Northfork" and stuck around to say a few words about their newest pride and joy. It's easy to tell them apart these days; Michael the director wears a beard, and Mark the actor wears a wool knit cap.

They may seem like a product of some exotic country (especially after their quick-change performance as English thieves in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief) but they come from Northern California, growing up near Sacramento, in Rocklin "where the 49ers practice in summer training," says Mark. "I watched them especially when they played the Cowboys. Joe Montana is a nice guy. They were all nice guys."

This good-natured appeal is evident in Northfork, which not only follows the adventures of the black suits, but also tells the story of a young boy who may or may not be a fallen angel. He comes across a family of strange travelers and tries to convince them that he had his wings cut off when he was younger. Eventually, the two worlds cross over in a kind of dreamlike, fantasy logic.

The brothers also fill Northfork with tons of little jokes that audiences may or may not pick up on. In one scene, Woods speaks to his son, named Willis, asking him the question, "What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?" -- a famous line from the 1970s television sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."

"That was made up right then," Mark laughs. "Jimmy didn't get the reference."

At the same time, every shot is carefully considered, like a Terrence Malick film crossed with a Coen Brothers film. "Quirky" is a good word to describe the film, but "beautiful" works just as well.

Mark and Michael's father Del Polish built the movie's amazing sets, including a 91-foot ark occupied by a stubborn farmer hoping to weather the flood. "It was really life-size," Michael says. "He built everything to last. His main thing was that he didn't want things to blow over. They cost a little bit more, but when you show up one day, your set will be there. The church is still there; it won't keep you warm, though. The only thing is that the ark had to come down because it was on state property. I wish the ark was still there because it was really pretty."

When they first saw the film the studio heads asked about showing the flood at the end of the story. But the brothers explain that it takes years to fill up a dam. Even so, they imagined plenty of other images.

"It would have been nice to see a house with a half-lake around it," Michael says. "I also thought of watching them walk and their footsteps filling up with water."

"That's the way we think," Mark adds. "Those images are the way we want to portray the movie."

These days the brothers enjoy watching Jackpot when it turns up on cable because it conjures up such specific memories, but neither of them likes to watch Twin Falls Idaho anymore.

"That's a hard movie to watch," Michael says. "Jackpot was fun because I wasn't in it." He adds that Northfork is their real brainchild, a kind of combination of the real and the surreal, a crossing of Twin Falls and Jackpot.

The brothers worry somewhat about the film's appeal and about losing box office, but they remain confident. "Every time you stick true to what you want to do, it's easier to sell."

July 11, 2003

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