INTERVIEW: Patrick-Ian Polk Ain't a "Punk"
by Jordan “Bobby” Brown
(indieWIRE/ 11.05.01) — Real men don’t eat quiche, but only a real man would have the balls to make “Punks.” First-time director Patrick-Ian Polk stood by his convictions and made the movie he wanted to make. “Punks” looks at the lives of gay men of color in West Hollywood, California.
Marcus (Seth Gilliam) is a successful, fashion photographer. His friend Hill (Dwight Ewell) is facing a “midlife crisis,” while Hill’s live-in French boyfriend was caught with another man at Hill’s 30th birthday party. Chris (Jazzmun) is lead singer of the drag girl group, The Sisters. The “baby” of the quartet is Dante (Renoly Santiago), a Hispanic man who lives with his rich parents in Beverly Hills. Enter Marcus’ new neighbor Darby (Rockmond Dunbar), a straight man with a girlfriend. However, Marcus and Darby become good friends, but where will their friendship lead?
For a first-time writer-director, this subject is a hot potato and Polk should know better. The Hattiesburg, Mississippi native was a film executive before he became a filmmaker. The USC film school grad worked as a producer’s assistant at Amblin Entertainment and as a development executive at MTV Films. In 1997, Tracey Edmonds and her husband Babyface needed Patrick’s help. They were looking for a development executive for their new film company Edmonds Entertainment. Polk convinced them he was their man. In January 2000, he was named Vice President of Production and Development at e2 Filmworks. Patrick now heads his own company Tall Skinny Black Boy Productions.
Two years ago, “Punks” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but no major distributor would touch it. Urbanworld Films stepped in to release “Punks” nationwide last Friday. indieWIRE recently talked to Polk about “Punks,” development, and the writing process.
indieWIRE: Do you think if you had done “Punks” with a white cast it would have been an easier sell to distributors.
Patrick-Ian Polk: No question, of course. I mean, there have been tons of white gay-themed movies. “Broken Hearts Club,” you know, is very similar to “Punks.”
iW: How did you write the “Punks” script in eight days?
Polk: You know it’s not that difficult really. People have this idea that writing is really, really hard. I mean I assume for some people it is. Some people are really meticulous. They rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and they slave over it and labor over it for months and months. I’m not really like that. For me, it’s just finding the time to actually sit down and do it. If I have the time and if I have uninterrupted time and I’m really motivated, I can hammer out a script in a week or two. Once you know the characters and once you quickly map out your story, you know, scene-by-scene, it’s not that hard. It was Christmas vacation. I had the time off. I didn’t make any plans. So I just sat in my apartment and did it.
iW: Are the characters in “Punks” purely fictional?
Polk: It really fictional. It’s only based on people to the extent that all writing is based on personal experiences of people. But it’s really fictional and what I really wanted to do is give a good cross section of the [gay] community. And so, I came up with sort of these archetypal characters and built them from there. You know, I wanted four very different types of characters.
iW: But the humanity of your characters stands out.
Polk: I hope that all the characters I create, you know, are very, very human. That’s what I think any writer, who wants to be a good writer, strives for. I hope that everything I do comes out that way, ’cause I don’t want to create characters that don’t feel real, that don’t feel human.
iW: Was switching hats from being a development executive to being a first-time writer-director as nuts as it sounds?
Polk: Not really, it’s all really related. When you’re producing, it’s overseeing, it’s getting everything together. I went to film school, so my plan was always to be a filmmaker. So there was really nothing nuts about it.
iW: Did reading other people’s scripts as a development executive make you a better director and writer?
Polk: Reading scripts as a development executive, which you do all the time, you know, 50% of the job is reading scripts after scripts after scripts. Every script that you read informs your own writing. It helps you become a better writer just simply because the more scripts you read, the more you better understand structure. The more you better understand what works, what doesn’t work. I always say that reading bad scripts is even better that reading good ones. I think the more scripts you read, the more you do development work, it really helps you become a faster writer. So it doesn’t take you as long to get a script that’s closer to being ready to shoot.
iW: Is there a technique that you have found for writing a good script?
Polk: You have to study basic format. You really have to get that down. There are plenty of books that you can read. I’m a big fan of the Linda Seeger books. “Making A Good Script Great” was the first screenplay book that I ever read. I think that’s one of the best. So take a class or read some books, you’ve got to get basic structure down. You have to know the rules before you break them. The big secret is — I think it’s not even a secret — is to always have some people that you trust who are willing to read your material. So when I finish a first draft, I have at least two or three, sometimes four, five and six people who are either writers themselves or development executives or people who know screenwriting, to read my material for me. People whose opinions I know and trust. You know, not just friends that like me or friends I like, but they’re qualified to give me opinions. And they themselves are good writers or they know screenwriting. Sometimes you’re too close to the material. It takes outside eyes to kind of identify problems that maybe you aren’t seeing. And if you’re smart and able to step away from your own work, sometimes you can identify some of those problems yourself.
iW: You used storyboarding as a way to tighten up your “Punks” script. What did you learn by storyboarding?
Polk: What is the important information that we’re learning in every scene. You boil it down to a sentence and then you string those up in a line scene by scene. And then you look at that and then you figure out: “Is that making sense?” If it’s not making sense, in terms of the flow of the story and the drive of the narrative, you start taking things out. You start taking scenes out that are interrupting the flow.
iW: Wasn’t it hard taking apart your first feature?
Polk: You have to be brutal sometimes. In our movie, Marcus’ story is the main focus’ the other stories are subplots. Usually, subplots are the first things that you kind of have to pear down. We did that and there were some really good scenes that I hated to cut, but again, it’s about the movie as a whole. Luckily, now we have things like DVD where you get to include a lot of extra things that people appreciate. So, we’ll have all those scenes on the DVD.
iW: The dialogue in “Punks” sounds very natural, not like in the usual movie dialogue. Was there a lot of improvisation on your set?
Polk: A lot of people ask me that. I tell people actually, it’s not really. 90, 95% scripted, down to the syllable, really. I do try to write the way people really speak. That informs a lot about who the characters are. It helps the actors in what they’re trying to do. I think it helps everybody.
iW: What directors influenced your style of directing?
Polk: I don’t know if I can identify any specific ones. I never really think like “Oh, I want to make a movie like this or that.” I’m a fan of “Mahogany” [the 1975 Diana Ross film directed by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy]. So, I really wanted the film to have a fun sense of whimsy the way I think that film did. To be really glamorous, performance montages. The photo shoot montages, I wanted to be just really glamorous and fun. So that film definitely inspired me. I don’t have any strong influences that I can point to. I’m a fan of early Woody Allen. I’m a fan of Spike Lee. I’m a fan of French filmmakers like Louis Malle. More so, what I like is really fearless filmmaking. People who aren’t afraid to do something a little different or take a chance. Gutsy filmmaking, that’s more what I respond to as opposed to a specific style of a director.
iW: Speaking of gutsy filmmaking, you made some interesting choices building the relationship of Marcus and Darby.
Polk: A lot of people have said “Oh, do you think you’re playing into that thing of the ultimate gay man’s fantasy is to land a straight guy.” I always say, “No, that’s not the ultimate gay man’s fantasy. That’s the ultimate gay man’s nightmare.” Those situations never work out. Any man coming out of the closet into his first experience, 99 times out of 100, that’s basically going to be a bridge into the lifestyle. He’s never going to live on a bridge. He going to then dive in and move on. It brings a lot of headaches because guys who are in that position usually are confused. There’s usually a lot of drama, they want to keep everything on the “downlow” (be involved in a secret relationship). There are a lot of problems associated with that.
iW: You also stayed away from the stereotypes of homosexual men being predators and trying to pick up straight guys.
Polk: It was important to me that these guys not be viewed in that way. When they first meet Darby and the other three are really aggressively pursuing him and they find out he has a girlfriend, they all flee instantly.
iW: Patrick, you have recently left Edmonds Entertainment and opened your own film company Tall Skinny Black Boy Productions. What are some of your upcoming projects?
Polk: I’ve written a college, comedy-drama set at Brandeis University where I went to school. That is starring Gabrielle Union and Donald Faison. That hopefully will shoot sometime next year. I’m writing a big romantic comedy right now for Janet Jackson and Vin Diesel. And I’m starting to do some writing for television.
iW: How do you want your audience to feel after viewing “Punks.”
Polk: I want them to feel like it’s a good film.
[Jordan “Bobby” Brown is a veteran writer-actor based in New York City.]