Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Mark Polish, Michael Polish & Billy Bob Thornton

Inside the Outsider Aesthetic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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During a recent conversation with Mark and Michael Polish, both 36, about their new movie The Astronaut Farmer, several questions came up about insiders and outsiders. For example, the Polish brothers made their debut with the quirky indie film Twin Falls Idaho (1999), in which the identical twins appeared as Siamese twins. It received some good notices and took in nearly double its initial cost, but it didn't exactly catapult the brothers into the mainstream.

Their two follow-ups were equally odd and endearing. The underrated Jackpot (2001) followed the wanderings of a professional Karaoke singer (Jon Gries) and his hapless manager (Garrett Morris). And Northfork (2003), shot with striking, wide, empty frames, told the story of a valley about to be flooded and the efforts of a group of mysterious men to evacuate the locals -- some of whom refuse to go. The brothers co-wrote all of these films, but after Twin Falls, Michael moved squarely into the director's chair while Mark remained on camera.

For their fourth film, the Polishes have elected to tell a more appealing story of the American Dream. Michael Polish compares it to David and Goliath, but it could also be likened to Rocky with a space capsule instead of a boxing ring. Charles Farmer (whom everyone affectionately refers to as plain "Farmer" -- even his wife) was a one-time NASA hopeful who quit the space program when tragedy struck his family. Now his only chance to get into space is to do it himself.

He builds a rocket in his barn and prepares to launch it, despite the haranguing of the local bankers and the slightly veiled threats from the FBI. Frankly, one NASA colonel tells him, the space program's multi-billion dollar budget would be pretty embarrassing if some guy proved it could be done a lot cheaper. Farmer's family -- his wife (Virginia Madsen), his teenage son (Max Thieriot) with a knack for engineering, his younger son and daughter (Jasper Polish and Logan Polish), and grandpa (Bruce Dern) -- are the only ones who stand by him.

Actor Billy Bob Thornton, 51, who plays Farmer, visited San Francisco along with his directors and talked about some of the outsider aspects of his character. "I related to this guy in terms of dreaming big and having a lot of naysayers," he says. "I also grew up in a small town in the South and I was about the only person in that town that ever left it and had any type of success. In my town, people were always talking about, 'One of these days I'm going to move to California and be in a rock 'n' roll band,' or whatever it was. But people don't tend to get outside of the safety net or the nest. A lot of really talented people I grew up with are still back there working in hardware stores or whatever, and have, like, 14 children and that kind of thing."

So Thornton never fit in with his hometown crowd, but neither does he really fit in with the Hollywood crowd. "I am fairly embraced by the Hollywood community, and I love making movies and I love acting, but I'm not real crazy about the Hollywood system. So the fact that they embrace me is a shock to me because I tell them to kiss my ass all the time. I don't understand why they haven't thrown me out on my ear. The other thing is I don't participate much. I have very few friends within the movie community. I hang out with some guys I've known forever. They're all broke and eat me out of house and home. But I stay home mostly and I don't go to the parties. Maybe that preserves me."

Perhaps this makes Thornton the perfect actor to play Farmer, one who straddles both sides of the line. He's legit as an outsider but also can achieve success from within. The twins are a little less comfortable with people calling their new movie a "mainstream" breakthrough. "If the mainstream comes, then it's mainstream," says Mark.

Michael insists that The Astronaut Farmer isn't all that different from their other films, adding, "To me it's the same thing. In Northfork we had a guy building an ark, and in this movie we have a guy building a rocket."

Even during shooting, the Polishes encountered the constant conflict between insider and outsider thinking, between planning and spontaneity. For example, in casting their own children as Farmer's youngest son and daughter, the brothers probably assumed they'd have more control over the set. But it didn't work out that way. The children assumed they were playing make-believe and when they were finished, they'd simply get up and leave. "We always went into the scene with a structure, how the scene was going to play," Mark says, "but then there was Billy. He was really good at being a parent within the scene and allowing them to escalate and be kids and control them as a dad would control them. As a parent, Mike and I are sitting there going, 'calm down,' and Billy was saying 'It's OK. Let them play.'"

"There are things you can't control, but then you get gifts in other ways," Michael says. "Some of the things about the ranch: we wanted more of a flat range. But then you get the cottonwood trees that turn yellow. So you give some of that stuff up and then you gain some other things."

In the end, the twins wound up with a highly enjoyable, entertaining movie, but one that still has their unique, personal touches -- a perfect compromise between artistry and commerce, and the best of both worlds. But the next battle came when the Hollywood suits attempted to take out some of the personal touches in favor of "moving the plot forward."

"There were a couple of issues they were circling on certain things," Michael says. Specifically, the studio wanted to delete scenes of two FBI agents, played by Mark Polish and Jon Gries, who hang around Farmer's ranch waiting for signs of an impending launch. The agents have very little to do during this time and wind up having hilariously deadpan conversations and even playing horseshoes. "They tested so well that we left them in. It re-affirmed what we thought was good. It kept them laughing."

As for the issue of a do-it-yourself rocket, the brothers insist that it will be as possible tomorrow as a do-it-yourself movie is today. In other words, outsiders will be able to visit space as easily as expensively trained NASA astronauts. "It's possible," Mark says. "Not exactly in the way we show it in the movie, but it's definitely possible. Come next year this will be a movie of the week."

February 13, 2007

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