Chicago natives and brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky have had something of a fascinating young career as producers of films that have more of an artist slant to them, the kinds of films that maybe don't have mass appeal, but are still fascinating achievements nonetheless. Right out of the gate, their first produced film involve pairing Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog for THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL-NEW ORLEANS. You have to give credit to producers that think that combination up.
In 2011, the put together the indie coming-of-age drama LITTLE BIRDS, with a daring performance by June Temple at the center; and the fantastic do HIS WAY, about legendary movie producer Jerry Weintraub, which premiered on HBO. For the last couple of years, the Polsky brothers have focused their energies on adapting Willy Vlautin's novel THE MOTEL LIFE, which also marks the brothers' directing debut. The film concerns a pair of working-class brother (Emile Hirst and Stephen Dorff) who get involved in a nasty hit-and-run accident and are force to go on the run from their Reno motel room. Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson also star, with Fanning furthering her march in more adult roles with this heartbreaking performance.
During the Chicago International Film Fesetival last month, I sat down with the Alan and Gabe, whom I first me several years back when I moderated a Q&A with them for their BAD LIEUTENANT film. As producers, they still have several fascinating projects in development, and if even one of them gets made, I'll be excited as hell. For now, please enjoy my talk to Alan and Gabe Polsky…and be warned, there's a fairly substantial SPOILER in the interview, so tread lightly.
Capone: Around the time of the release of BAD LIEUTENANT, I remember you talking about getting THE MOTEL LIFE made, with James Franco starring in it. What happened to that arrangement?
Alan Polsky: Yeah, we talked to James’ team about this movie, and they liked it, but we in the end decided that this would be perfect for us to make our directorial debut.
Capone: Because you don’t have enough going on that you need to throw in directing on top of it? [Everbody laughs] What was it about this film that spoke to you in a personal way? Did the fact that it was about two brothers make a difference?
Gabe Polsky: I think when we read the book it had a lot of soul and it had a lot of heart to it, aside from the obvious fact that it was about two brothers who are there for each other in really challenging situations. It examines the relationship between two brothers and forced us to think about that and the beauty of Reno and that kind of down-and-out world that you haven’t really seen on film.
AP: I think it was just a really exciting movie for us to make as our directorial debut just because it had a lot of elements going for it. For one, it was a contained movie, and the budget wasn’t massive; it was something we could kind of handle. As you know, the story of two brothers, I think, in order for us to get talent to work with us as first-time directors, we had to prove that we knew something about something. "We know about being brothers, and we're also creative together as brothers like the two brothers are in this book."
Capone: They are bound together by storytelling.
AP: Storytelling and being artistic, and they co-create together. One tells stories and one draws. So there was a strong parallel with us there, and I think that the last piece was making an independent drama. I think that the opportunity to play with all the animation and to use that form of storytelling as a part of this story was really exciting for us, because it allowed us to get into this whole other world and show a lot of things through the animation that helped with character development--that was exciting as filmmakers.
Capone: I wanted to ask you about the animation, because that's really beautiful stuff, and it’s really clever how you use it, but that's obviously something that wouldn’t have been in the book. How did you come up with the idea to use animation to visualize these stories, and then put that together?
AP: Well, the stories were in the book, and it’s a very important aspect of the movie. We probably wouldn’t have told the movie if it weren’t for these stories, because they provide an escape for the audience as well as the characters, a breath of life and humor and a little edginess.
Capone: To escape the misery of their existence.
GP: Exactly, and of their situation too. So, we knew that we didn’t really wanna just put a camera on the actors and go back and forth telling the story. We knew it had to be dynamic, and we just had to figure out how to do it. One way is though animation. So, we had to go through a process of How should it be? Obviously it can’t be cartoonish. It had to be organic to the movie and to that world of Reno and the edginess. So, we looked at different artists and we talked to the animators, and ultimately ended up going with a guy named Mike Smith, who's out of Portland. He did NATURAL BORN KILLERS. He’s a really talented artist and he started developing the design of how it would be, and ultimately what you see on the screen is where it ended up.
Capone: The film itself, outside of the animation, is very simple, atmospheric thing. It actually reminded me of a filmed play. What was the appeal of that sometimes-claustrophobic atmosphere in this story.
GP: I think that Reno in general was a really important character in this film. These two guys growing up in this old, dilapidated gambling town, where all their influences are drunks and gambling addicts and strip clubs and influences that I think are really critical in helping set a tone and a mood for the film. Then you have that feeling of claustrophobia in the motel room and stuck in these little places. We got really lucky with the weather too. Snow was supposed to be a huge element of the film, because there is no natural antagonist in the story. It’s really themselves getting in their own way; it’s not like they are getting chased by the cops. It's their environment and the elements and themselves getting in their own way. You need all those things to feel this heavy weight on them, because otherwise, there is not much getting in their way, you know?
AP: There is the law and that creeping…
GP: There is the law, but we didn’t play off of the cop aspect, the thriller.
Capone: It’s definitely a presence but its not an overwhelming threat.
GP: We had more stuff with cops that we cut out, and that was a challenge. It was something we really worked with and wondered if this was going to work? I don't know. And as we played with it more, we found that it really did work for us. I don’t know if that answered your question about it sort of feeling like a play. And for that, it’s like a simple universal story. We never wanted to be complicated visually. We just used hand held and cranes. We just wanted to tell a classic story. But I know what you're saying.
Capone: But at the same time it’s steeped in this beautiful atmosphere. There's a lot of real beauty to it; it’s more about just a couple characters in a couple locations, mostly interior. Emile Hirsch was born to play these kind of introspective, cerebral, slightly melancholy guys. Tell me about hooking up with him initially.
GP: I could say he was probably one of our top choices to begin with, and he’s obviously an outstanding actor and he’s the kind of guy that’s got a lot of inner-life. Frank doesn’t say much in the film, and you have to feel how he’s feeling, and Emile we felt could do that really well. To see the inner-life without hearing it with dialogue.
Capone: And to counter that, Stephen's character is such a mess. What did he bring to this?
AP: He brought a lot of commitment to it. I think from the very start, he really wanted to commit himself to the character and was all over us about back story and wanting to bring in different elements. A lot of times, we had to pull him back. He wanted to like wear teeth to really transform, and we didn't feel that it really needed that. But, he was just extremely committed and really wanted to go all the way there, and he was game for whatever we were looking for, which is awesome. Both the guys were.
GP: And based on his work, he had never done anything quite like this, and that character is not an easy character to play. We had to read him with Emile and really make sure that we were going for it. But he really has deep down the spirit of this character in his core. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he’s a passionate guy.
Capone: I think he's been a severely underrated actor for most of his career. I especially liked SOMEWHERE, the one he did with Dakota’s sister. And then Dakota rounds it out with what I think is the most mature role she has ever played. A lot of times she's still playing the teenager or someone who's acting like a teenager, but here, she's a woman who has been through a few things in her life. Tell me about working with her.
GP: Yeah, she's a real professional. She has been in the business so long, longer than we’ve been in the business, and she turned 18 on set, on that really tough day where--I don’t wanna give anything away--but when she's on her knees. But you know, she's such a professional and she brought so much to this movie because she has this freshness to her that Frank really needs. But she also has that emotional weight in her eyes. She doesn’t have that much air time in the picture, but I think she brings so much levity that is needed to really give you that boost at the end and to really get the audience excited about Frank’s next chapter, which is really the key. We wanted to really end on a hopeful note, and she really helps that. And it’s not an easy role either. We could easily go the cliché route, you know, the damaged girl, overplaying it. But we didn’t want to go that way, and she was able to bring something different, more of an angelic quality even though she has done some bad things.
Capone: But there's a real strength to her too, like someone who has overcome. She does have that look on her face like she has come out the other side of something bad. When did you discover this book, or did you discover it though the screenplay?
GP: A couple of writers came to our office with this book, and they hadn’t done anything, but Alan and I, we actually went on a road trip in Utah right as we got this book, right afterwards, and started reading it, and Alan started reading some of it. I could tell he really liked it, and he usually doesn’t like a lot of things, but this one he was liking. Then I grabbed it and started reading it. We fell in love with the book. We knew we had to do this. Ultimately, we knew we had to do it together as our first movie. The characters are unique. I don’t think we’ve seen a movie like this in a while, and we had an opportunity to tell a universal story that means something, that people could walk away feeling like they were not going to forget it.
Capone: Yeah, what do you remember responding to when you were reading it, Alan?
AP: I think the tone and the storytelling. The way that Willy Vlautin, the author of the book, and the inner universe that he created for Frank, I felt was such a unique voice. It was sad but at the same time weirdly comedic. He has a way of talking about this downtrot world of Reno and all of the tough, sad parts of it. In a way, he used comedy to tell the story but not in a laugh-out-loud-type of comedy, but that sort of inner-belly laugh that’s consistent throughout, and I really thought that the tone was super unique. As you mentioned with the play feel, when you're a first-time director and you're looking for this thing to make, you don't want to over complicate it. I think with this story, there were a few characters that were very rich, and it felt like we weren't biting off too much. There's a lot to directing a film, and we felt like it was that right piece for us.
GP: Yeah, it was sensitive but it wasn't melodramatic, you know? Often times, we get the comment that this is a really dark story but I don't think--and I speak for myself and Alan too--that we never looked at this as a real dark movie. On the surface it is--what these guys are going through, what is happening--but at the same time, we saw a lot of humor and a lot of hope and creativity and positive things.
AP: Yeah, I think that whole idea of the dark movie, it’s like what is a dark movie these days? When I think of dark movies, it's films with a lot of rape scenes or crazy drug addict-type scenes. With this movie, it’s like, yeah, a guys dies, but he has to die. You need to see this other character move on to a better life. In actuality with this movie, we wanted to look at both these guys as the protagonist, and in the end, Emile was able to cut the cord and move on with his life with this girl. And for Steven, he’s able to release his brother, which he knows he’s a burden to, and I think that through that last animated piece he gets what he wants. He gets the girl in the story. He strikes oil and gets rich. He becomes famous. All those things he talks about though the movie, he gets in his imaginary world. So we hope that it ends in a positive place.
GP: If you look at all these movies out there right now, there are so many killings, deaths, you know, violence, whatever, but people don't say, “Oh, that’s a dark movie.” Because we are forcing people to examine their own emotions, their own relationships, people are like uncomfortable. They feel that it’s dark.
Capone: It’s always an interesting thing when a death actually means something in a movie these days. The perception of producers is not that they are the driving force as far as the artistic portion of the filmmaking process, but I think you guys seem drawn to project that require you to be. You're the ones who had the brilliant idea of putting Cage and Herzog together. Can you talk just about your artistic leanings more as producers I guess than you did in the movie.
AP: Different producers do different things; that title covers a lot of ground. I think that where we started off as producers was as developers. We were looking for original material whether it was a book, like the Walter Isaacson’s Einstein book ["Einstein: His Life and Universe"] or FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, or whatever. We were looking for this core material that we could develop, that we could have a real hand in developing. And I think that s a producer, if that really interests you, you probably are more interested in the artistic side of the business versus finding the money and putting the packages together and sweet talking the agents and all of that. All of which is a very important part of the process, but I think that both of us were really drawn to the development and the storytelling side of the business.
So I appreciate your comment, actually, and I think that that is where our focus is and that’s why we sort of got into the business in the first place, because we wanted to tell stories that we wanted to go see. Unfortunately, these days what’s happening in the film business and with the studio system, all these studios are making more franchisey movies that appeal to very wide international audiences and children. I go see some of them, but they tend to be less story-driven film making projects verses action and movie star process. We’ve always been drawn to sort of that side of the business.
GP: For us, everyone has their own way and working with guys like Werner Herzog and even Jerry Weintraub, they are complete polar opposites. They are both renegades but on complete different ends of the spectrum, and I think for us it was important to get that experience, to learn from these people. We had a lot of learning to do. At the same time, we felt like we could get some great properties and work with some great people before we could take a step; it was an important step in the process to really learn from these great people that had different varying prospectives. Even on LITTLE BIRDS, it was [writer-director Elgin James'] first movie, but we got to see that and be a part of it and work with him before we made THE MOTEL LIFE. So we could go though a very small movie before we did ours.
Capone: You mentioned a couple of things: the Einstein biography, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. I think you have a Sigmund Freud biopic as well. What’s moving forward the fastest, and what might we see next from you two?
GP: I’m working on a documentary right now that I’m getting close to completing that's about the Soviet Union and the greatest basically sports dynasty of all time, the Red Army hockey team. So it’s a character-driven historical tapestry that’s also sports related.
Capone: Do they just kill people on the ice?
GP: [laughs] No, but there is a lot of drama to it.
Capone: Are you directing that?
GP: Yeah, directing and producing it. So yeah, that's what’s next for me. And Alan’s got his fun.
Capone: I'm really curious about FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON and those biopics.
AP: Yeah, and unfortunately there are a lot of moving parts to getting movies like that made, and the book’s amazing, and we did the best thing that we could with it. We attached Will Smith to that project, and this wonderful writer, Paul Attanasio, wrote a script for us that’s great. But it depends on Will’s schedule and things with Sony. There are just things that are out of our control. Once you get into this studio system, it's part of the game, so you never know.