Denouement: A Conversation With the Polish Brothers

Last Thursday, I was minding my own business when across my radar came a trailer for "Stay Cool," a not-very-promising-looking comedy about a writer returning to his old high school and, in the process, reliving a whole bunch of unresolved teenage angst. To my surprise, I realized it was the 2009 film from the Polish brothers that had never gotten a theatrical release after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, despite a positive Variety review. That was the same year their deadpan, visually striking, dramatically undernourished period comedy "Manure" had debuted at Sundance. It also hadn't gotten a theatrical release. This was a distressing turn of events: Less than a decade earlier, twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish (respectively credited as their films' writer and director) were seen as up-and-coming indie auteurs with "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Northfork." But their last theatrical release had been 2006's "The Astronaut Farmer." What had become of them? So I wrote a post about that and their "Stay Cool" trailer. My charming title for the piece? "The Polish Brothers' Career Has Fallen Off a Cliff."

Not surprisingly, there was a little pushback. Commenters ripped me on two points. First, that I failed to mention that "Manure" (now called "The Smell of Success") and "Stay Cool" had been taken away from the Polish brothers and recut against their wishes. Second, that they'd recently made "For Lovers Only," a no-budget romantic drama that the brothers shot in 12 days, distributed through iTunes and Amazon, and managed to turn a tidy profit on. No one was more annoyed than me: I don't mind having strong opinions about things, but my absentmindedness about remembering to mention "For Lovers Only" was just plain dumb. But more than that, I wondered if I'd been too aggressive in my dismissal of their current career fortunes. Writing about movies means you can't please everybody -- especially filmmakers -- but being grossly unfair is another matter entirely.

So I decided to reach out to the Polish brothers to see if they'd be interested in talking about how they perceive their career at this point. They graciously agreed, and I did my homework, catching up on "Stay Cool" (which is available On Demand in a recut version the Polish brothers want nothing to do with) and "For Lovers Only," a slender but lovely portrait of former lovers unexpectedly reunited in Paris. What follows is our conversation about what happened with "The Smell of Success" and "Stay Cool," how they dealt with walking away from those movies, the liberating effect of making "For Lovers Only," and how close they came to leaving the business. I'd had my say -- it was only fair I let them have theirs...

So what happened with "Manure" and "Stay Cool"? They both premiered at festivals in early 2009, but the versions on On Demand and iTunes don't have Michael's name listed as the director.

Michael Polish: The films were great to make, and when they were finished the financier felt that he didn't receive the offers that he wanted to recoup. The offers that we get as Polish brothers, every movie we've done gets distributed and there's always a deal. But that wasn't satisfying to the financier. And in having him be disgruntled about it and not really like those offers, he took it upon himself to say that [he] wasn't getting the offers that he imagined they could get.

Mark Polish: The bottom line is it was a financial decision on their part in the way they want to recoup their investment. And they felt to move forward and recoup that we [didn't] need to be a part of that. They weren't gonna achieve it with us being on board. So they removed us legally and recut the film -- dramatically, from what I've heard.

Michael Polish: I've watched enough of both of them to know that they're drastically, drastically different from the movies that Mark and I made. I mean all the way from the voiceovers, the characters, to the plot changes. Everything about these movies have nothing to do with the Polish brothers' stamp. From the coloring --

Mark Polish: -- to the music...

Michael Polish: As you probably know, Tim, we've had the same crew for 12 years. We've had the same people working on our movies, the same sound mixers, the same composers. Everybody's been the same, so it's been a Polish brothers family. And what happened when these films were taken away, that whole identity was stripped. So the composer was removed, the editor was recut, the sound effects were redone, the cinematography was recolored in a way. It stripped us of who the Polish brothers were in those movies. And that's what they felt that they needed to do, and me and Mark have remained silent because of the legalities.

Mark Polish: The only course of action that we had was to remove Michael's name as the director at that point to show that it wasn't his vision or my vision. [Note: "The Smell of Success" and "Stay Cool" are now credited to "Ted Smith," a DGA pseudonym, as director.] Unfortunately, that's not getting across. People think these are our two films, and the backlash has begun, mainly [from] your article and a few others. People bringing it to my attention are very, very disappointed [by] these two films by the Polish brothers.

And your only course of action would have been to take the financier to court?

Mark Polish: The reason why we didn't combat [them] ... They're very aggressive. They have very, very deep pockets. When they legally served us to remove the rights from the movies from us, we just didn't have the financial resources to fight them. We would have tried to combat them. And that's the risk of an independent filmmaker when you're searching for money. We properly didn't vet them -- you know, we thought we did. We didn't know who we were getting in business with. But, you know, previous films had private investors, and we had great experiences, and everyone made their money. So we felt this would be another type of those relationships. We didn't anticipate what has happened to us.

Michael Polish: They were disappointed because of the perception of a Sundance, the perception of the lottery ticket that was built in the '90s -- you were gonna get the huge guaranteed minimum up front. When that stuff doesn't happen, then the perception is your film isn't good. Well, at that point in 2008, independent filmmaking was just taking a dive.

Mark Polish: They were very obviously new at financing movies. That obviously played a big part of it. They just weren't educated with the idea that, look, you know, you can recoup through foreign, you can recoup through guaranteed minimum. The idea was we went into it as a business sense where we would establish this company and continue to make these films -- they recoup over a long period of time. But they weren't gonna recoup within the first year.

Because you had experience with independent filmmaking, couldn't you explain how the process works?

Mark Polish: All that dialogue didn't really add up to much.

Michael Polish: Our experience was just thrown out the door. We were the veterans that were saying, "You might not recoup right the day you sell the movie, but going through foreign and going through the regular stuff that happens with an independent film...." That wasn't allowed to happen because the first offers weren't what they expected. And I don't know what that number was because they never discussed it with us. We never knew what that number was that they were trying to get in terms of what would be satisfactory to them.

So your only option was to fight them in court?

Mark Polish: Yes. But the stuff they were saying in their court order would have taken years to unravel. I mean, it was just so big and laborious -- we're not financially that stable already, being independent filmmakers. This would just kill us.

Michael Polish: Walking away [from those two films] was the hardest decision me and Mark have made in our career. These two films were exactly what we wanted to have out there, and they were offered to be released. And to have that completely be turned around was probably the hardest decision me and Mark have had.

Mark Polish: It was painful. I mean, I can only compare it -- and I'm a parent myself -- to an abduction of a child. It was that heart-wrenching where me and Mike were just completely devastated. We didn't have these two beautiful films that we worked really, really hard on. We both wrote them, we produced them, we directed them, we made them back-to-back. We were comparing it to Evel Knievel jumping the fountain at Caesar's Palace. If we landed this thing -- because we were gonna do something that almost was not possible, which was [shooting] these two films [back-to-back] -- if we [did it], that would be a great success, and we felt that we did. And then to bring them up and get offers and then to be rejected, we might as well have wrecked it.

So was it a conscious decision to do a really quick, tiny film like "For Lovers Only" after everything that had happened?

Michael Polish: We were associated with Warner Bros., we had offers to do movies with studios, and we were always writing for them, always doing stuff. But ["For Lovers Only"] was almost a rehabilitation to me and Mark just to take off to France and do this movie. We wanted to make this movie anyway -- we wanted to make "For Lovers Only" for the past 10 years. But the technology was there, and we knew that we didn't have to spend any money to make a homage to the French New Wave, which was really inspiring to a lot of filmmakers in the '70s.

I also wonder if the themes of "For Lovers Only" -- that bittersweet, melancholy tone -- made it seem appropriate to make at that moment.

Mark Polish: There was just a lot of hate and a lot of anger that was wrapped up with the end of those films. It was about the film business; it was really about the financial end of it. It was really about battling over money, and that's not something that as artists we're particularly interested in. We want to make movies. We love when they make money, and our goal is to make sure that they find an audience. But [after "Manure" and "Stay Cool"], we wanted to just make a movie that completely celebrated what we were as filmmakers.

But to make a film that wasn't going to be distributed in a traditional way, were you concerned that you would be perceived as being "out of the game"? What about that public perception that you hadn't "released" a movie in five years? Was that a worry?

Michael Polish: Yeah, of course.

Mark Polish: We basically made a movie almost every year, every 17 months. We were those type of filmmakers that just kept making movies and making movies. None of them ever lost money, just some of them made more money. We had a good business plan going, make it for this amount of money. But when those two films were taken away from us, it was a big black hole. We're out of the game for now four or five years because of this. What do we do? Do we leave the business altogether because this isn't what we planned? Or do we strap it up, strap on the boots, and just make another movie? We're filmmakers at heart, and you can't take that away from us at any price.

Did you seriously consider getting out of filmmaking?

Mark Polish: I romanticized throwing peanuts over at Texas Stadium, [just being] any kind of vendor where you knew the end game. It sounded nice. It was that dark where you thought, "This is not the business I'm in."

When you started out making "For Lovers Only," was it a choice not to seek theatrical distribution?

Mark Polish: We just wanted to make a movie. We didn't really think about the distribution angle of it.

Michael Polish: We knew the way we were making it and just in terms of [it being in] black-and-white, it was, you know, a limited amount of exposure no matter even if you got a distributor. We had the round of distributors come after the movie and discuss it, but we felt, "Why not we make a movie that you can just deliver right to the people and just get it straight to them and not have any filter process?"

Mark Polish: No critiques, no articles. Let's see if we can get this film right to the people and really use the word of mouth. And in that process, we wouldn't have to talk about ["Manure" and "Stay Cool"].

Still, weren't you running the risk that people wouldn't find out about "For Lovers Only" through the channels indie films need -- festivals, critics -- to get discovered?

Mark Polish: I mean it was under-the-radar in the sense that that's what we wanted to plant. I figured if it did well, word of mouth would help it out and that would be great. If not, then, you know, I wasn't really concerned on the perception of it: "Oh, another film didn't do well." I was more in the mindset of, "Let's get this film out here and let's see what it's gonna do." Obviously there's that risk, but my mind wasn't really concerned on the failure aspect of it. I love the film, and I thought it was really ambitious and fun and all that stuff that comes with filmmaking that really fulfills a need. I'm shocked at the reaction of it, you know, that people are really getting behind it. The word of mouth has been really, really great.

Michael Polish: Mark's compared it to our version of street art. It was our version of going out and putting our name out there or putting our art out there the same way that Banksy would do it. You know, our street art now is the Internet, and what we do is we're gonna go tag a couple sites with this movie. And when you see it, you see it. When you walk by a Banksy, you don't always see it. And then when you see it you go, "Wow, that's pretty cool."

For independent filmmakers, is there a lot of concern about making sure you're always perceived as having "heat"? Is that something you're cognizant of?

Mark Polish: We're working all the time. We're doing commercials, we're shooting Sade in concert, we're doing different things here and there that keep us occupied. I think if we were, you know, dormant, just sitting around the house, maybe we would be a little bit more concerned.

Michael Polish: We've always been quite tenacious about how we do things. You have to be that way to even make a first movie about Siamese twins ["Twin Falls Idaho"]. You have to have some sort of ability to make something happen out of nothing. So if there was a couple years or a few years of nothingness, we're always turning the wheels. I mean Mark's constantly writing and I'm constantly shooting. We're shooting as we speak another "For Lovers Only." You always worry about the perception that you want people to know where you're at and what you're doing because that's the ability to finance your work. But there is a circle within the industry and there's a circle that always has kept us really, really hot. It's always kept us warm. Our brand is very well taken care of.

This new "For Lovers Only" -- is it in the same quick-shoot style?

Mark Polish: It's a bigger version of "For Lovers Only." You know, we like to think of not doing 3D movies, but doing 5D movies, which is good for us. We like that format, and so we're trying to take that format that we did with "For Lovers Only" and we're doing it bigger right now. Instead of concentrating it in 12 days, we're doing it over a period of time.

Michael Polish: It's a really great experience because you're making a very big movie on your time. And you're finding huge set pieces and big things to do. It looks like you're spending 30, 40 million dollars on a picture, but me and Mark are doing it on our time, which means that it's not consecutive. We're building this beautiful movie.

In the meantime, the "Stay Cool" that's not your version is going to be coming out in September. Had you even been aware of that?

Mark Polish: No, I wasn't aware. We're not aware of pretty much anything that's associated with those movies unless an article comes out or somebody emails me that's seen it. The special effects supervisor on "Astronaut Farmer" saw "Stay Cool," thinking it was us and had written me a pretty disappointing letter. I had to correct him, but that's about all I hear about.

That has to be hard to know that movie will be coming to theaters soon.

Michael Polish: The concept was for us to pay homage to John Hughes and make an '80s movie. Mark cleverly wrote a script that would be an homage but it would be now, and we would hire the people in the movie that you would want if you were in the '80s and you were raised in the '80s. You'd want [Elliott's] mom [from "E.T."], Dee [Wallace], to be your mom. You'd want Sean Astin to be your best friend from "Goonies." You'd want Winona Ryder as your girlfriend. So the concept was not only this movie was our homage to John Hughes but it was also about making the ideal '80s movie now with people you wanted to be with in the '80s.

Are you guys holding out hope that your original version will eventually see the light of day?

Mark Polish: We're optimistic that eventually the intention of what we were trying to do with both films will be allowed for the public to see. You'd have to have that hope. Because other than that it's pretty dire.

You're currently working on an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "Big Sur." Are you planning on showing that to distributors?

Michael Polish: Yeah, we're either gonna take it to Sundance or Berlin or both. And this is back to great filmmaking in terms of the financiers. It's 3311 Productions -- just wonderful, wonderful guys behind that. We've been trying to work with them for a while. If you could see how dark it was [after "Manure" and "Stay Cool"] -- it was the worst experience to the best experience.

So I don't have to worry about you guys working at a football stadium anytime soon.

Mark Polish: No, no. But it looked attractive, let me tell you.