Polish Brothers (Directors - 'Astronaut Farmer')
'Dancin' in the Moonlight'
From the time he was a child, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) had only one goal: to be an astronaut. Earning his degree in aerospace engineering and joining the Air Force as a pilot, Farmer was a natural for NASA's astronaut training program and was well on his way when a family situation forced him to drop out and return home - effectively ending his career.
But Farmer was not a man to let anythiny stand in the way of his dream.
Michael Polish (Director/Producer/Writer) and Mark Polish (Producer/Writer/FBI Agent Mathis), identical twins known professionally as the Polish Brothers, have previously written, produced, and directed three feature films: 'Twin Falls Idaho,' 'Jackpot' and 'Northfork.'
The first film, 'Twin Falls Idaho,' premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 to critical acclaim. Subsequently, 'Jackpot' was named winner of the 2001 Independent Spirit Award's John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000, as well as the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival's New American Cinema Award; and 'Northfork,' starring James Woods, daryl Hannah and Nick Nolte, was itself an official selection of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Their latest movie, 'The Astronaut Farmer' starring Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern and Bruce Willis tells the story of Charles Farmer, a man who spends several decades building his own rocket in his barn.
Sitting down with both Michael and Mark, save the clothing, their identical differences only being the way their hair was styled that day, both answered the questions quickly. And with - as it became profoundly evident during transcribing - the same vocal inflections enabling noted distinctions to be virtually impossible, what follows are their collective answers!
How much space knowledge did you have to immerse yourself in to get this film to gel? Was it way more than you originally bargained for? "Yes, especially in the investigating of how a rocket is put together. You just want to get it right. But I wasn’t going in saying that this was a lot of work, I don’t know about it yet. It’s just when you get into rocketry and you get into science and are not quite sure, you’re gonna need someone with experience beside you. But you also don’t want to get caught up in that as you’re gonna lose audience members that are younger. The story will always tell itself.”
If there was a NASA boffin sitting in that theatre watching your movie, could they pull it factually apart?! ”Of course … I mean, there’s way more people pulling it apart for its story holes than whatit stands for. I mean, could someone get a Mercury Atlas vessel and can they launch it from their back yard? I think, like the movie, it would be very difficult."
Indeed, so why a huge rocket in the first place? Why not something a little more practical? ”There just wasn’t another vessel out there that had such a dramatic, cinematic effect that we were looking for. But yes, if you really wanted to propel yourself into space you would probably use a vessel that was a lot lighter. This movie is dramatic and captures our imagination of the Mercury era of space travel.”
The space suit worn by Billy was a detailed replica of the 1960’s-era suit used for the Mercury missions. Was it the only one you used on set? ”The one we that went underneath the water in the pool was a different suit. But yeah, there was only the one replica hanging around from that era and he had to fit into it! Otherwise we would have had to have one built for him. But Warner Bros. had it for referencing, but we had to give it back.”
Billy told me that he cut a pee hole in it! Did they notice that when you handed it back?! ”I did not know that,” Mark laughs. "I hope not!"
How did the premise for 'Astronaut Farmer' first come to you? "Back four years ago we just wrote a slim, first draft and put it away while we did ‘Northfork.’ Once we were done with that - and knowing it would take a while to get ‘I.D’ off the ground [their next movie project] - we thought why not bring out ‘Astronaut Farmer.’ So, we brought it out, polished it and got to work on it.”
So, the character Charles Farmer is actually a farmer! Couldn’t you have come up with a different last name, perhaps?! ”Er, we could have, but … we didn’t. It’s just, … because! I mean, we’re the Polish Brothers and we’re Polish,” Mark laughs. ”But, we wanted to equate two iconic images together: the astronaut and the farmer. I think it’s more of a metaphor than anything else.”
What was one of the hardest aspects of getting this film right? ”In this case there’s not a lot of referencing of actual pictures we found. The stuff of Earth was actually given to us by NASA. But you have to get your mind wrapped around the visibility factor as it goes across the screen. So we were getting real images from NASA each day.”
Did there have to be a happy ending? Couldn’t it all have gone South for Billy’s character?! ”Oh yeah, for sure, yeah. That’s the difference between a $2 million dollar budget and a $14 million dollar budget when you come to make that kind of decision,” Michael laughs. ”But when we were writing the script we knew that it had to be a happy ending.”
But, it was contemplated at some stage?! ”Oh yeah. I mean, everybody’s attracted to darkness in films. It was like we could actually turn this into Spam in a can,” he laughs. ”But you’re not gonna get any money for that. I mean, you’re gonna need money to get this rocket launched and $2 million bucks just ain’t gonna do it. So you’re gonna have to bring him back fully around to get that kind of money.”
So, you’re saying you get more money for a happy ending?! ”Wouldn’t you pay more money for a happy ending?”
But how does the average audience member know that there’s gonna be a happy ending before they pay their money and see the film?! ”Come on now, think … wouldn’t you pay more for a ‘happy ending?’,” Michael overly stresses.
It was then that it hit me!
Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, I get it ………… then yes, of course I would pay more for a ‘happy ending’!! ”I knew you would get there eventually,” Michael loudly laughs.
OK, and moving quickly on ………. this seemed to be a very Polish-family themed movie come the final credits re: Mark, Logan and Jasper Polish on screen and Michael behind the camera! ”Yeah, and they all worked for free,” Mark laughs. ”We started out in independent film so we started bringing our family, That’s what you do.”
In reflection, is there anything you would change about this movie? ”The media exposure in the film I wanted to be greater. I wanted more of a circus atmosphere, but that was very hard to do. It was very hard to get that type of equipment out there. There was enough out there, but I just wanted epic proportions."
Are there any hidden in-jokes to be found, perhaps?! ”The whole movie’s an in-joke,” Mark laughs. ”There’s a Last Supper scene in there. In fact, they ARE the Last Supper! It includes Bruce Willis sitting in Judas’ seat! Also, Meriwether Lewis is the name of the school; as in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Great explorers keep coming back.”
Watching the film, I was completely taken aback by the star power of Bruce Willis appearing out of nowhere for his quick role! How did you get him on board?! ”We didn’t … Billy pulled a favor! We don’t know what he did but he got him! We were about 40 hours away from shooting that part and Billy was like, ‘I know who would be great … would you like Bruce?’ We had always been talking about needeing a heavyweight for this role. We needed someone that everybody knows and can bring in that weight. Someone to certify this vessel. Someone to get excited about what’s going on ... but without stunt casting.”
There was a lot of CGI towards the end re: the launching of the rocket. Did you purposely try and stay away from using too much up until that point? ”Yes. They were all practical uses though. We kind of integrated that into the actual film. It wasn’t until he went into space that we really started using it. Even when the barn doors blew off … we did that ourselves. We actually blew the sh*t out of them!”
Are you against CGI saturation within movies in general? ”No, I enjoyed it! Our next movie is all CGI. Our background is in CGI.”
Please tell us more about that upcoming movie, ‘I.D.’ ”It’s a science fiction movie set in the future when your identity becomes a commodity and when your information is currency. It’s set 100 years from now, but it becomes more than we are now. It’s when you truly know what your own worth is. It’s basically micro-managing the human race … giving them birdseed and watching them."
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