COURTESY WARNER BROS.
Writer Mark Polish also played FBI Agent Mathis, left, with Jon Gries as FBI Agent Killbourne in "The Astronaut Farmer." The film was directed by Polish's twin brother Michael Polish (facing page).
For twins, film isn’t rocket science, it’s life
These talented siblings see their tale of a rancher-scientist as an ode to independent moviemaking
Critics like to snicker about how the subtext of every independent film, no matter what the plot, is really about making an independent film. But filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish are up front about the not-so-hidden metaphor of "The Astronaut Farmer," their charming movie about a rancher whose hobby is rebuilding an Atlas rocket in his barn.
"It's a parallel of independent filmmaking. Every time we make a movie it's sort of like launching a rocket," said Michael Polish, who directed the film and co-wrote it with brother Mark.
"The other idea is the basic story, having a man personalize space travel, if he was like the Charlie Farmer character where he wanted to go into space but didn't have the direct route to NASA."
"Being dreamers and trying to achieve our own dream in making movies, we just try to be as truthful in these situations as possible and sometimes it comes off as an imbalance," said Mark Polish, discussing the primary character's curious obsession. "I think having a family around him really helped that, helped balance him out in his character in the story."
"Astronaut Farmer" is an old-fashioned family film without being childish or saccharine. The Polish Brothers also produced it. And act in it. And they're identical twins -- do you recall them as twin Cenobites in "Hellraiser: Bloodline"? -- and they apparently have so many skills their CVs are full of slashes. None of this helps in telling one from another on the telephone, so from now on, we'll simply quote them as The Brothers Polish. They finish each other's sentences, anyway.
"There were a lot of trials and tribulations that we went through that are definitely in the movie," said Polish. "This one is more personal than any film we've made. In screenwriting, we come up with the basic seed of an idea and from there find an outline that supports this idea -- at the beginning you're not researching, you're using yourself as the resource. Our own struggles to get films made are shown in scenes of Charlie's struggles at the bank and at the family dinner table. You start there and once you get that truthful moment, you add the elements of your character's situation; his goal to get into space or making a movie or whatever."
"The Astronaut Farmer" is the latest from The Brothers Polish. Their previous films have been marked by an appreciation of visual storytelling and wide open spaces, and a quirky sense of character and dialogue. The next one up is a science-fiction adventure called "I.D." Yes, Mark Polish is in the cast and Michael Polish directs; both of them wrote and produced the script.
When he was a kid, Michael picked up a camera and started to film Mark. "And then we started screenwriting to facilitate both needs, director and actor, so we started writing short material that eventually led to feature-length material. And then, to get that material made, we became producers.
"It just seems to be done quicker and you get a better deal when you do it yourself. Filmmaking by committee is very tough. It suffers because everyone has their own taste. It's like trying to make your food as bland as possible, and that's not good!"
They cast themselves as FBI agents in "Astronaut Farmer," small but pivotal Rosenkrantz/Guildenstern bits: "It's a balance, and fun to do it all. In this particular movie we got to do a lot of funny stuff."
Although their goal was to make the best movie they could for the money they were given -- "It was $12 million. Just a catering budget on a big movie. It's just enough rope!" -- "Astronaut Farmer" is being greeted as a modern American fable, and a whole-family movie that treats audiences with respect.
"It's been wonderful in the way that it's a true family reaction, not just for kids or parents; everybody can come. We've been in the heartland and even on each coast it's been pretty neat. We didn't intend it that way; 'Hey, we're gonna write a film to appeal to every age group.' It happened naturally.
"The American icon image is a little tainted and tarnished at this point. We're hoping maybe it will show you what our forefathers' ideas were where we had freedoms and it was about dreaming -- the American dream."
"The Astronaut Farmer" may be a fable, but it's not all that fictional. When The Brothers Polish started researching backyard space flight they discovered there really are guys building suborbital boosters as a hobby.
"Billy Bob is just like this himself. And there are probably four or five guys we've met that have their own rockets in their back yards -- their flight applications aren't being cleared! -- and we did extensive research, learning of staggering and thrilling rocket science and launch vehicles, as much as we could without bogging down the film in sort of a tech-heavy way.
"Astronaut Dave Scott from Apollo 15 helped us with trying to find a propellant that would send Farmer sideways and another propellant that would send him into the atmosphere. Scientists from NASA never came after us, but they have viewed it since and are in great support of the spirit and the message of the movie."
And where else, other than on a movie set, do you actually get to build an Atlas booster? The rocket in the movie is not a special effect.
"The rocket was made up of real stuff," said Polish. "A lot of the material is declassified and you can find it around on eBay and you can find some stuff in junkyards and people have it who will let you borrow it, so it was nice to be able to gather as much authentic pieces as we could find.
"We integrated a lot of practical explosion stuff in the CGI because you just wanted to grab it and keep it real. A lot of the explosions we filmed for real. We like to blow up things!"
Another reason to go into the movie biz.