Well, it’s been a long time coming, nearly a year in fact since its 2012 Rome Film Festival debut, where it picked up three awards—editing, screenplay and the coveted Audience Award—but “The Motel Life” (our review here) is finally making its way onto screens this week. The debut film from producing-turned-directing brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky, starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff with Dakota Fanning in a small role, the film is based on the 2006 novel by musician and writer Willy Vlautin and tells the story of two brothers who flee their Reno motel after getting involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident.
While they’re new on the scene as directorial talents, the brothers have been around for a while, producing Werner Herzog‘s lunatic “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans” and the Juno Temple film “Little Birds,” and having an in-development slate that currently boasts no fewer than seven titles. After the film’s premiere in Rome, we got to talk to the Polskys about brotherly relationships on and off screen, their upcoming slate, and just what it was like to watch Werner Herzog in action.
As a duo, how did you divide up the directorial duties?
AP: Gabe and I spent a lot of time in pre-production really making sure we were looking at each scene and each beat the same way, and once we got on set we just tried to work as organically as possible. We tried not to confuse any actors or give them too much, so we’d discuss before each scene to make sure we had concise feedback.
GP: We’re not the kind of brothers who finish each others’ sentences. I mean, we get each other but we certainly have our own points of view, so we just knew that, especially first time out and we didn’t have much time to shoot the film, we knew you couldn’t have these long discussions while you were shooting. So we’d do rehearsals and have visual discussions, storyboarding all that stuff, making sure … obviously with room for improvisation, but there can’t be different visions.
And did you find yourself mapping your own experiences as brothers onto the brothers’ relationship in the film?
GP: Personally, I tried to look at every scene and be like, how I would I feel at my core about this situation. Alan is the only brother I have; I think it’s inevitable. You can’t not be thinking about your own family relationships the whole time.
AP: Yeah I think there’s something of every character in the movie in me personally, so to make it as honest as possible you try to look within your self to find some similarity.
That may account for the tremendous feeling of affection for your characters that comes across—even the minor ones.
AP: Yeah, they’re pretty much all good guys. Except maybe the cops.
GP: We fell in love with the book, and the fact that it’s a story of two brothers … we felt that the relationship between Frank and Jerry Lee was like this idealized version of a brotherly relationship. Even though it’s so tragic, they just love each other, they’re there for each other ’til the end, unconditionally. We felt that people after the movie would go call their brothers. They’d ask, “am I that good to my brother? Would I sacrifice my life for him?” and I think that’s kind of the magic of the story.
It is unusual to see a brotherly relationship that is not in some way fueled by conflict or jealousy or ego.
GP: And yet it’s not an unreal version—you can tell that Frank is struggling with having this burden, and he feels guilty, so it’s complicated.
Stephen Dorff mentioned to us that he had a job convincing you to cast him as Jerry Lee. Why was that?
GP: Well, the character’s pretty volatile and childlike in a way, it was a very challenging role.
AP: Jerry Lee has this childlike sensibility that makes him very likable that allows you to empathize with him, he’s a guy who is obviously artistic but has a gentler soul that would never want to harm anybody. it’s very easy to take this role and go overboard with it, to overact. The real thing that Gabe and I were focussed on was that real fine line between … he’s not retarded, but there’s a simplicity to him and at the end he has these really profound insights which allow his brother to understand his own reality and their reality together. He has a very real way of looking at their situation that’s profound. But he’s a little different, a little … off.
GP: He’s a guy that you want to root for and he does have energy for life, but he’s a tragic character.
A key feature that lifts the film out of being “just another indie drama” is the animation sequences. Tell us how they came about.
AP: There’s storytelling in the novel and when we read that we saw the stories as a great way to understand the characters better. A lot of films in order to give backstory and understand the characters, you need to tell the audience things and what we saw with the animations was a great opportunity to show what these guys are into. There’s a lot of sexual stuff in the animations, but these guys grew up in Reno, a place of so many strip clubs … the things that they’re influenced by or turned on by or whatever really come out with these animations in a way that you don’t have to have Frank telling Jerry Lee or Jerry Lee telling Frank.We really saw the animations as a great way, in a non-didactic way to help the audience learn more about these guys … We just thought it was a very unique element added to a traditional drama. So we always envisioned them and had them in the screenplay.
GP: And you see in the animations a lot things that happened to them in their real life, how things circle back, how their reality is influenced. You learn a bit about their relationship with their father, or the guy with the used car lot …
AP: Most people get that on the second watching, the first time you’re just taking it all in but the second you see things in the animation that you tie to the live action. And one thing I’m really proud of with this film is that everything ties back in some way, we tried to make it tight in that way.
GP: And without the animation it would be, as you say, a classic independent film. But when we read the book we thought, you know, it is a positive story, and it’s easy to look and say these guys are in a horrible situation, they’re losers but it’s really about hope and redemption and acceptance—a beautiful story in which they both, in a tragic way, get what they need in order to move on. And the animation gives it a levity and little more humor and moments of breath, so it’s not so relentless.
AP: I don’t think either of us are huge fans of the dark indie drama quote-unquote, and … we saw it as sort of a hopeful story that needed to go to the depths in order to show that hope. The nature of their situations is kind of dark, but we really wanted to tell the story of how these guys persevere in this situation, in a hopeful way.
Do you see yourselves working together always or might you pursue separate projects?
AP: Right now we’re both working on a lot of different things.
GB: We’ve got stuff we’re working on independently and stuff we’re working on together. But I’m very proud that I did this project with my brother. it had to happen this way, that our first movie was like this and about two brothers.
As producers, you had an idea to make “Bad Lieutenant” into a series of films, pairing a different director with a different actor each time. Are you still pursuing that?
AP: We’d like to. There are other parties involved, which is always a challenge. But we still really believe in that concept, finding different auteurs and matching them with a great actor and finding different versions of the ‘Bad Lieutenant,’ but at this point we don’t have a screenplay or anything.
Have you any viable director/actor pairings in mind?
AP: I try not to go down that road until it’s real. There’s a lot of amazing combinations.
GP: I do think that other directors have been influenced by the ‘Bad Lieutenant.’ I’ve seen a couple of other films and I won’t be specific, they’re called different movies but they’re essentially a version of ‘Bad Lieutenant.’
At script stage, before you got Herzog involved, did you envision ‘Port of Call – New Orleans’ being as batshit as it came out?
GP: It had to be that way. I don’t think Alan or I would have wanted to do a movie that was down the middle, a conventional cop movie. If you read the script it’s kind of a linear, procedural thing … we needed a director that just totally dismembered it and blew it apart and made it something interesting so that we would be proud to have our names on it. Werner Herzog—you have a guy like that, it’s impossible for it not to be like that—he’s a perfect storm for that kind of thing.
But did you originally envisage Abel Ferrera returning?
AP: We had a responsibility to talk to Abel because of the contract.
GP: But we can’t really talk about that.
So how about your “Flowers for Algernon” project?
AP: We got the rights to the book which was a very difficult process and took about a year. And since then the rights holder Cliff Robertson passed away, but we thought Will Smith would be great in that role and so did Cliff Roberston, so we partnered with Overbrook and Will and we’re hoping to make this movie. We’ve been developing it, we think it would be exceptional.
You’re also developing a Dorian Doc Paskowitz surfing biopic that has Sean Penn attached?
GP: Yep, just developing it, trying to get the script great.
Would Sean Penn be a possible director for that project?
AP: Anything’s possible.
How about “Gun With Occasional Music,” the Jonathan Lethem adaptation?
AP: They’re all in development, and as we did with ‘Motel Life’ we keep working on the script till it’s great. That’s how we got started in this business, developing—so we’ve had a lot of experiences of adapting things and doing things from scratch. It’s one of the toughest things to get right.
Do you prefer your role as producer or director?
GP: I think I enjoy being involved with the creative process and the producer is less involved with that. It can be fun but it’s a more creatively removed position, obviously it has to be someone’s vision. I think Alan and I enjoy the creative process thoroughly and directing is the most creative position, as producer you don’t have the same input …
AP: I disagree a little with that. I think lot of producers are very creative people, I think that even things that we’ve produced we try to be as hands on as we can. When you’re making a film with Werner Herzog it might be less of a collaboration day-to-day than if you’re making a film with a younger filmmaker but it’s a very creative business and the emotional involvement and the time of directing obviously you get into the guts of the story more, but there’s a lot of creativity to be had producing, finding the right material, developing, getting the right team together.
GP: It depends on where you want to put your energy and how much time you have. Obviously if you’re directing you have to just focus on that.
I can imagine that working with Werner Herzog might pose some very creative producing challenges.
GP: That was our film school, making that movie with him. The experience that we had with him was insane … The way he thinks, which is out of the box, the way he looks at the world, that’s not conventional. His attention to details that are skewed. He doesn’t try to be [odd], that’s the thing, he doesn’t even know that he’s being insane, he has no idea until people tell him! He thinks that it’s completely normal.
“The Motel Life” opens this Friday, November 8th in 20 national markets and is available on VOD and iTunes simultaneously. We recently hosted an Soho Apple Store chat with the filmmakers, Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff. Two clips from that chat below. The entire Q&A can be heard in the form of an iTunes podcast that you can download here.
1. What drew Stephen Dorff to the material?
2.Emile and Stephen discuss working with producers-turned-filmmakers.