Outside of the Outside
Interview with Michael and Mark Polish
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 31 August 2001

Mark and Michael Polish don't only finish each other's sentences... within a few minutes, they're finishing mine. Talking with them is like entering into a free-for-all of ideas, where distinctions dissolve into a fluid give-and-take, where identities and ideas are in motion. The thirty-year-old identical twins cast themselves in their first film, 1999's Twin Falls Idaho, as Siamese twins who fall in love with the same woman. The title of their new film, Jackpot, also refers to a place, Jackpot, Nevada, But, at the same time, it refers to the "prize" sought by its protagonists, Sunny (played with mournful self-consciousness by Jon Gries), a liquid soap salesman and karaoke singer who imagines that some day he'll make it big, and his manager and co-soap salesman, Les (Garrett Morris). Mark Polish observes with a smile, that Sunny and Les "are kind of based on Amway salesmen, trying to keep America clean."

For Jackpot, the Polish brothers remained behind the camera (save for a brief appearance by Mark, as a karaoke singer performing "Sad Eyes"). They shot the film for only $400,000 on a Sony HiDef 24p camcorder, granting the proceedings heightened "realism," in very sharply defined images. But much of what goes on takes place in Sunny's mind, as the film cuts back and forth in time, each shift motivated by his finger on his tape player's rewind or fast-forward button. This nonlinear structure complicates the standard road picture movement, and is based on the Polish brothers' own memories of their childhood, when they "did a lot of road traveling."

Cynthia Fuchs: How do you see your three films, including the upcoming Northfork, to be connected?   

Michael Polish: All the stories are "American." We didn't want the "road" in Jackpot to be about getting from A to Z, but about the state of mind, not knowing where you're at. We weren't necessarily going to name the movies after those towns, but we wanted to encompass the stories as being American. For Jackpot, even though they're trying to get there, it really relates to their state of mind, or everyone's state of mind, that "I'm one lottery ticket away from making sure that my life's good."

Mark Polish: Yes: all my problems will be solved. Something's always driving that, and right now it seems to be celebrity.

CF: And yet you resist it: I notice that you like working with the same people -- crew and cast -- repeatedly.

Micheal P: When you only have fifteen days to shoot, it helps to have an automatic shorthand. Even though we did kind of reinvent the style or look in this picture, compared to Twin Falls, that really happens between three people. Everybody else is in tune.

CF: How do you see karaoke as a means to a kind of celebrity?

Mark P: When you do your research, you find people who are doing it seriously. Not everybody, now, because it's become fun, a form of partying. But at first these people would get up and sing, and they're just a couple of notches away from being really, really good.

Micheal P: It's about imitation, not about your own voice. You have to sound as close to the original singer as you can. If they're good, they're thinking in their head, that they could do it.

Mark P: It's the instant gratification of fame: people "know" them instantly if they match the voice.

Micheal P: And a hit already has a built in audience that likes a song.

CF: How did you decide on the structure for the film?

Micheal P: It has to do with the songs. You hear a song like "Sad Eyes," and it conjures up certain memories. And that's how we decided to cut the film, according to the way that songs trigger memories for you, in a way that's nonlinear, and cuts back and forth.

Mark P: We've all seen a lot of films that are nonlinear, and they just do it. But we wanted to use a tool, the rewind and fast-forward on the tape player in his car. And that nonlinear structure goes with the use of the HD videotape, which inspired us to go faster, back and forth.

CF: How did you decide to use HD video?

Micheal P: We heard about the development of that camera. We looked at all the "consumers" and the "pro-sumers," the professional cameras, and we thought this film could exist on this medium. For one thing, we thought, these characters don't "deserve" to be recorded on film. Then we found that the little cameras didn't do what we wanted them to do.

Mark P: The little ones didn't hold the light.

Micheal P: Yes, plus, with Garrett [Morris] being African American, it closed down everything. And you couldn't have a white actor and a black actor in the same shot, because you'd adjust for one of them, and lose the other one. So then we thought that with the HD, it was so close to being film, but it was still imitation, and the karaoke singers are so close to being real singers, but they're imitating. And then we wanted to shoot in wide screen, because, okay, they may not "deserve" it, but their egos are really wide. It's hyper-realistic, meaning that the video heightens the realism, makes it crisp and sharp, and the colors are richer.   

CF: What do you think about inexpensive digital filmmaking as a way to open up the field to more artists?

Mark P: It kind of can blur those lines between independent and studio films. There's that John Cassavetes style that so many of the young filmmakers seem to use, and there are filmmakers who want to get a more polished picture. Now you can shoot a polished-looking film, at 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which you couldn't do before with video.

CF: How would you describe the partnership between Les and Sunny?

Mark P: I see it as a metaphor, where Les has got his racehorse, and he's riding him to the finish line, whispering in his ear. He's kind of a racehorse that's past its time, but still wants to run. Les is the hardworking man who's so on the outside, and so wants to be on the inside, so he's betting everything on Sunny. And, they're two people who are joined at the hip, involved in this give and take.

Micheal P: And they have a romance: they're the main couple in the film.

Mark P: They need each other. In the end, they have the salvation, that their relationship is stronger, and they're ready to go do it again. It's like me and Mike: we can have this big argument, and then get up and go, okay, let's go.

Micheal P: It's a heightened friendship. It's really about how you can repair friendships and keep going. They know they've got soap to sell and will get the job done.

Mark P: We were going for the ambiguity, too, a certain crowd will be pleased if Sunny goes back to his wife [Daryl Hannah], and another might want him to stay on the road with Les. There are so many endings, we decided not to decide.

Micheal P: This is a day-to-day film, it's about survival.

Mark P: If we met him today, he'd probably still be doing the same thing, still be undecided, because a dream is addictive.

Micheal P: I think most human relationships want to be resolved, as a friendship. You don't want to go to your grave with it unresolved. And to me resolving a friendship is better than resolving the film's ending.

CF: It seemed to me that their relationship was particularly well represented in those bathroom scenes, before each show. The space was so tight...

Micheal P: Right, the pep talk, And Les always had Pepsi, because it was a pep talk. [Laughs] And every bathroom was different, and every one got smaller.

Micheal P: It was the "B and B" tour, the bars and the bathrooms. And it was funny, it was like a rodeo, and he's getting on a bull, because it was so small in this one bathroom.

Mark P: And we didn't always know where we were going to shoot the next time, so we had to use the day off to scout new bars for the next day. We only had a certain amount of money we could spend on each location.

Micheal P: And I really wanted to have no decorations in these bars, just as is, and I wanted to buy every damned Christmas light, little fairy lights. And they really invite you to sit and stare at them.

CF: What are your future plans, as far as working together?

Mark P: We're doing it child by child, film by film. You never know. We may come on a child we don't want to raise together. Someday we should do some True Hollywood Story, and bitch and moan about all the films we've done together, but by then we'll be famous. But Michael needs to get a drug addiction.

Micheal P: Right, because if you don't have it, there's no middle segment. I want two hours! But we're working well together.

Mark P: We have fun, it's good to have someone who opposes you as well as supports you.

Micheal P: And we've been together for so many specific times in our lives, so we can just look at each other and know what we're thinking. There's a power in that, because people have problems on the sets or studio problems. And I can say, I don't have the energy to tackle this today...

Mark P: And I do, so I'll take care of it.

Micheal P: It's not what makes us identical that keeps us together, it's the differences that helps us out.

Mark P: We know each other's strengths. I'm more disciplined in writing, and he's a little more up on the technical aspects of directing.

Micheal P: I think that's where we separate, as twins. We don't co-direct, most of the time. We do different things. I'll diagram the script in terms of visuals, and he'll do pages or lose pages, and then I look at it again. It's a great dichotomy, I think. I think in the near future, we'll be more interchangeable: he'll know more about my trade and I'll know more about what he does best.

CF: In writing, Mark, how would you describe your process?

Mark P: For a film like this one, writing pop culture references to go with the plot and characters comes really easy to me. I can write about funny things, like Kevin Smith or [Quentin] Tarantino. You're writing about what's around you and making fun of it, but it's harder to craft that to make sense as a plot.

Micheal P: And that's where those guys stand out, Smith and Tarantino, because they can really craft it.

CF: And those pop references give the audience a place to sit: the film maintains a certain sympathy for Sunny, while also observing him from a distance

Micheal P: That's trusting the material and knowing it'll come through that way. You ask yourself: how do you get someone to sit next to him? There are some things that he does that you can see in a bad light, and others that are admirable. You find a lot of that out when you start cutting the movie, as you decide how you want to portray him...

Mark P: ... Like when he sleeps with someone and gets up and leaves. That's not necessarily sympathetic, but you can look at it and understand, you can see how pathetic that is. There's a participation, too, that allows you to see what he's like...

Micheal P: He's not mean...

Mark P: The hardest scene to shoot was between Sunny and Tangerine [Camellia Clouse]. They don't know what they're going to do. And it's disgusting in a sense, that you think he's going to sleep with a fifteen-year-old. It could be a scene out of 9 and Half Weeks. But we wanted that tension, to take the scene to that "punctuation." 

Micheal P: It's a comment on the whole culture that's about young girls and sex...

Mark P: It's like, who's going to be win, in the Britney and Christina Aguilera contest? The first one who strips. Right now Britney's ahead, because she did it at the MTV Awards show last year.

Micheal P: And now everyone's following: Jessica Simpson, the preacher's daughter; Mandy Moore. And that's what we set up with Tangerine's room, in that it's so pink and clean and innocent. It's about the consequences of making little girls into sex symbols. And then the Marlboro Man comes to visit.

Mark P: She's so innocent, that she wants him to write in her yearbook. Remember what that was like? You can't say what you feel, you have to write it and then have the person read it. It's so awkward.

Micheal P: And I remember so clearly when we were filming that scene. It was so surprising. I could have watched [Camellia] all night...

Mark P: ...The way she took the beats. When she got the yearbook, she sat there and kept turning the pages, and turning, and turning, until she came to the perfect page for him to sign. It wasn't in the script. We even ended up trimming it a bit. She was real as a teenager. And she was already twenty-one at the time.

Micheal P: And with her first line, she reminded me of Jodie Foster, you know. "Are you my mom's new boyfriend?" Plus, it was like mother, like daughter.

CF: That calls up some history. How do you imagine your own relationship to the "independent scene" in filmmaking?

Micheal P: We're not totally averse to doing studio pictures, but at this moment, we have a certain idea we want to express. And we're still learning our craft. This allows us to learn without failing on a big scale.

Mark P: Who is it who says that your mistakes become your style? [Laughs] I don't know how we fit in the "community." We still feel on the outside. When I see mentions of the independents in magazines, they don't say our names.

Micheal P: Somebody was telling us, from an independent filmmaking magazine, that they feel like we're on the outside of the outside. And I said, "Wow, that's really far out there." It's not that we want to be far out. It's that we don't associate ourselves to do the right things, so the right publication will say that we are somewhere.

Mark P: And a lot of independent filmmakers aren't so much defined as independent, but by how they're being financed. You go to the [Independent] Spirit Awards at the end of the year, and a lot of [the nominees] are studio-financed.

Micheal P: Still, there's nothing to complain about. We get to make the movies we want. It's only in the press where people start trying to put you in a category. The shortest line they can draw, the happier they are. 

Mark P: If you're brothers, you're the Cohens. If you're freaks, you're David Lynch.

CF: As a means to resist that categorization, were you conscious of wanting to do something very different from Twin Falls with this film?

Micheal P: The script was different, with more dialogue, and the medium was different, the video. And there was no reason why we needed to go into a low light situation and make an "artistic" film, like Twin Falls, because this one has more pop culture references, and Twin Falls was more like Edward Hopper.

Mark P: And we have different stories in us. It's not something we consciously try to do. We wanted to tackle the country-western "genre." We knew that music from when we were younger. Those country artists from those times -- George Jones and Merle Haggard -- they really lived their lives before they became singers. Haggard was in prison. Johnny Cash went to San Quentin, and they took him seriously. Now, the holy grail now is celebrity. People will sell everything about who they are, just for a million bucks. 

Micheal P: Nothing's sacred. That's the sad part.

Click here to read Elias Savada's review.



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