INTERVIEW: Double Threat: the Polish Brothers' Directing, Writing, Starring Debut, "Twin Falls Idaho"
by Anthony Kaufman
One would be hard pressed to come up with a more appropriate debut film from a pair of identical twins. Michael and Mark Polish’s “Twin Falls Idaho” is the story of Blake (Mark) and Francis (Michael) Falls, two conjoined brothers, one dying, the other not, and the odd sort of love affair that follows when a beautiful slim, young drifter (former model Michele Hicks) enters their dark motel room one very special day.
The half-Mexican 28-year-old filmmaking duo got their big break with a short film called “Bajo Del Perro” (“Under the Dog“) which won acclaim at film festivals across the U.S. and played on the Independent Film Channel. It was their short that led to a meeting between actor Jon Gries (“Get Shorty“) and producer Rena Ronson (now with WMA Independents). While Ronson was at Lakeshore International, she tried to get the twin’s first movie off the ground, but it took her exit from the company to finally make the Polish brothers’ vision a reality. With Ronson, and producers Marshall Persinger (“Kill the Man“) and Steven J. Wolfe (“Relax. . . It’s Just Sex“) on board, as well as a lot of pre-production on the part of Michael and Mark (e.g. the making of storyboards, the twin’s suit), the first sympathetic film about Siamese Twins was made over 17 days for half a million dollars in the summer of 1998.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Twin Falls Idaho” screened in the American Spectrum section (“not getting into the Competition was a good wake-up for us,” says Michael), but the movie still sold to Sony Pictures Classics during the festival. Now team Polish are on their way, planning to repeat the process with their first screenplay “North Fork” — about a damming town — slated to begin shooting this Fall, and a third feature, “Jackpot” about those who seek validation through celebrity. The actor/writer Mark and actor/director Michael met with indieWIRE on the eve of their premiere to speak about creating a million dollar look for half the price, a New York set while staying in Los Angeles, and collaborating as twins. And by the way, they really do finish off each other’s sentences.
indieWIRE: Michael, you went to Cal Arts? As opposed to other film schools like NYU and USC, isn’t Cal Arts more open to experimental film? Was that an asset?
Michael Polish: I was in the fine arts program, actually. Because I was 17 when I went to Cal Arts, and they weren’t accepting people into the film school, I thought how can I get into this art school without ever doing film.
Mark Polish: I applied to the directing program and didn’t get in.
Michael: So with that experience, I put a portfolio together and I got into the visual arts school. They asked me if I wanted to transfer into the film school and I thought no, because I can do film without being in that school and carrying the burden of finishing a film. So I got a fine art background. So that fine art education was really helpful.
iW: And the look of the film really shows that. For a low-budget film, it really looks gorgeous.
Michael: That was something we really wanted to tackle. You look at so many independents and you go, why do they look the same, why are they framed the same? So we said, what can we do to make this a gorgeous film?
Mark: Also, the characters inspired that, because they were so immobile. The Siamese twins couldn’t get up and move a lot, because of the rig we made, so we had to compose shots that looked like paintings.
Michael: So we looked at Vermeers, Edward Hopper. We looked at their paintings and their source light, how light fell into their rooms. So we based it on them. I was really particular about painting the sets, that all the sets had some monochromatic feel to them.
iW: I like the idea that the characters dictated the visuals, the space and the movement.
Michael: I always felt that we only have $500,000, let’s see how much we can get. . .
Mark: . . . in front of the camera.
Michael: In front of the camera. Because it’s not so much what film stock and what camera you use, it’s what kind of art direction. What are you going to paint the sets? Can you get steel frame beds? It’s funny, because the more timeless you try to make a film, the more expensive it looks. If you get an old chest of drawers, or iron frame beds, you’re going to add a production value that’s going to help the film. One of the reasons we did go darker is that it’s a lot easier to hide things.
Mark: We had body parts to hide. . .
Michael: . . .we had a leg to hide and two arms, so when you go darker.
Mark: . . .it’s easier to hide that stuff off.
Michael: Everything was to help the twins be believable, that was our main goal, to make sure these guys looked, moved and felt real. So if it meant closing down a few stops to make sure their arms are gone or their leg is gone, it was really in the pursuit of that. It’s never been done before, and you really want to stay as true to being the first film ever made about conjoined twins. You got a lot riding on you, because you could easily turn out to be a Rosie Greer with a head stuck on your shoulder. [Referring to 1972 blaxploitation film, “The Thing With Two Heads.”]
iW: I think there must be a lot of strange expectations surrounding this movie. You hear about this conjoined twins movie and you’re like, “What is this?”
Mark: You can’t fight that either. When people hear about it, they’re thinking “How freaky is that?” So as much as we promote this film, it’s still got a big taboo.
iW: Tell me about collaborating? You guys have been with each other for your whole lives. . .?
Michael: I think what makes us work so well is that we’ve defined our roles. Even though Mark has an influence on my directing, he’s pretty much the primary writer as I have an influence on his writing. So we define our roles as easy as I draw the pictures and he writes the words. And that’s our strength.
Mark: We defined what he’s good at it, and I defined what I’m good at and that’s what we bring to each other. But I still allow him to comment on the writing, and he allows me to comment on directing.
iW: Does the relationship in the movie between Francis [Michael] and Blake [Mark] mirror, in some ways, your own relationship?
Michael: It actually flip-flops. Mark has actually spent more time in hospitals, so Blake was a lot stronger in the movie. And it’s funny, because I was writing the part of Blake and I was finding that it was turning it into the lead. And I thought I can’t be the lead and the director, so Mark wrote Blake and I wrote Francis.
Mark: As for our relationship, it shows a lot. I think just siblings or even married couples.
Michael: Any intense relationship.
Mark: Any intense relationships where there’s give and take.
Michael: I think it was quite easy for us to write a film about Siamese twins. You can make it freaky and distant, but what we wanted to do was make it a metaphor, make it accessible.
iW: Did you shoot in New York?
Michael: We wanted it to look like it.
iW: I was convinced.
Michael: That’s good, because it’s all L.A. We added subway sounds. Our sound was a bitch. We put a bunch of city stuff from here. We wanted our soundtrack to always have that ambient feel.
Mark: And we found the one park that has –like all the parks in New York — a wrought-iron fence. And we found the one in L.A. and we put a subway sound underneath that.
Michael: We found all the buildings that had east coast architecture. So it was very pain staking.
iW: Why didn’t you shoot in New York?
Michael: All the actors live in L.A. All our film resources were there. You can drive to Deluxe, you can drive to Panavision and really chat these people up. In New York, you can probably do the same thing, but we knew these people.
iW: It’s kind of interesting, because you were able to create this kind of original setting, a slightly just-off New York.
Michael: We didn’t really want to name the city. That was the biggest reason why. Because we couldn’t go to the city we wanted. A lot of things happened because we couldn’t do it the way we wanted. The reason it’s dark is because we couldn’t afford CGI, the reason it was shot in L.A., because we couldn’t shoot in Baltimore or Chicago, so we really went out to make our own city. Los Angeles’s got a couple really nice buildings, but that’s it.
Mark: And that one park.
Michael: And that one yellow taxi.