The Polish Brothers | Building a Rocket Ship


"We became writers; we became producers; we became actors; we became financiers. You just build yourself up with more responsibility. I think that's the key to everything: empowering yourself to get it done."


In the film the Astronaut Farmer, small-towner Charles Farmer spends nearly a decade toiling away in his family's barn, constructing a rocket which, he determines, will fulfill his lifelong dream of soaring him into outer space. Filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish pulled off a similar feat in only three years.

Their triumph began with a small, rickety idea. Back in 2003, the brothers Polish dreamed up the story of a failed astronaut and began constructing a screenplay. After three months' work, the two decided to tuck away the script. But this wasn't a failure, by any means. Mark and Michael weren't about to stop erecting this humble vehicle they'd plotted the blueprints for. After all, at this point, they had all the right tools.polish2

Since 1999, Mark and Michael have been co-writing films, with the latter brother always taking directing responsibilities. Their first full-length feature, Twin Falls Idaho, told the story of two conjoined twins (played by Mark and Michael, also real-life twins) who are forced to reconsider their lives after being separated. Shouldering the tasks of writing, acting, and directing may have presented a towering burden to the Polish brothers, but it also led to the ultimate success of the film.

"Every time we hit a road block with [Twin Falls Idaho], we just made ourselves do something else," Michael said in a recent interview. "We became writers; we became producers; we became actors; we became financiers. You just build yourself up with more responsibility. I think that's the key to everything: empowering yourself to get it done."

This extra responsibility would certainly pay off for the brothers. At the 1999 Athens International Film festival, Twin Falls Idaho took home the coveted audience award. The excitement caused by Mark and Michael's first flick carried over into their next project Jackpot (2001), a film about aspiring singer Sunny Holiday (Jon Gries) who embarks on a nine-month road tour of rundown Western towns. At that year's Independent Spirit Awards (an event celebrating independently produced films), Jackpot won the John Cassavetas award, meaning it was voted the best film produced for under $500,000. Michael also claimed Jackpot as one of his favorite movies to make, citing it as the Polish brother's first film shot with a digital camera and adding that it " just felt like a little road trip."

But one of their greatest successes was yet to launch. After the release of their 2003 film, Northfork, Mark and Michael went back to the screenplay they'd already invested three months into. After three more months, the Polish brothers had finished the script. Constructed and refined over six months, Mark and Michael had erected their latest, well-oiled vehicle: The Astronaut Farmer.polish3

"We thought it was gonna be independent," said Mark. "[We thought], ‘we'll get through this, get a couple million for it and go off and shoot it,' but it got a really good response in the reading part."

One of the major benefits of the script's success was the all-star cast attracted to the project. Starring as Charles Farmer, the film's lead, is Billy Bob Thornton (Monster's Ball, Bad Santa), a prestigious actor and Academy Award-winning writer (Sling Blade, 1996). Virginia Madsen, who won a Golden Globe for her supporting role in 2004's Sideways, fills the role of Audie, Charlie's supportive wife. Max Thieriot (the Pacifier), stars as Farmer's helpful son Shepard, and Gries appears in his fifth Polish brother's film as FBI Agent Kilbourne, an operative sent to investigate Charlie's farm. Mark and Michael reveled at the opportunity to work with such top-list actors, but never allowed it to skew their perception of film performers.

"Because they've done it so well and you're more familiar with their work, it's nice to watch [Thornton and Madsen] do this. But you're gonna get surprises from any actor," said Michael.

The Astronaut Farmer took nearly three years in going from the script to the screen. With a larger budget, larger stars, and the likelihood of a wide release, it became one of the most massive projects the Polish brothers had yet conceived. Even with the inherent pressure this brought, they never wavered in their determination to send the film soaring. Failure wasn't an option, Michael said. Now that their vehicle's launched, the Polish brothers are even a bit surprised at how high it's flying.

"Now that The Astronaut Farmer is coming back as being ‘inspirational' and ‘meaningful,' we've succeeded," Mark said. "A guy came up to us the other day and said, the movie ‘allowed me to go up to my mom and really talk to her, because now I know her sacrifice.' I'd never heard that before. It just makes you feel really good."

Yet this pursuit of deeper meanings and emotional connections with the audience is nothing new to the Polish brothers. Even though they've erected a massive blockbuster vehicle with The Astronaut Farmer, taken home various filmmaking awards, and even attended star-studded Hollywood release parties, Mark and Michael haven't forgotten one of the true purposes of film: making a connection.

"All this stuff like top ten lists and gold statues—that's not what we're doing this for," said Mark. "You wanna make a connection with people. That's the larger picture."

There's no telling how high the Polish brothers can soar. | Drew Stewart

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