Twin filmmakers share recipe for movie making

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The Westside Ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker" opens this weekend at Pepperdine's Smothers Theatre.

Mark and Michael Polish didn’t have connections in Hollywood, so they just went ahead and made their own movie-now the two have big time studio backing, but they strive to maintain their independent style.

By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times

It has been said that accomplishment in Hollywood is dependent on who you know. Twin bothers Mark and Michael Polish have proven that work ethic, talent and a relentless determination is also an avenue to success, and it doesn’t necessarily require millions of dollars and studio backing to produce quality, award-winning films.

The brothers have chronicled their journey in the independent film world in a book that is a concise guide to making a film outside the Hollywood studio system. They are making the final stop of their three West Coast book signings on Dec. 1 at Diesel, A Bookstore in Malibu. The book is suitably titled “The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking: An Insider’s Guide to Making Movies Outside of Hollywood.”

The brothers were born in El Centro and spent time in Sacramento and Montana before Michael came to Los Angeles to enroll in the film program at California Institute of the Arts.

“Sometimes it really is about connections and how you’re connected,” Michael said. “We were always fascinated with films but didn’t know anyone in the industry, so we just kind of figured it out as we went.”

The brothers made several short films in Los Angeles, New York and Sacramento, and decided to get the equipment, cast the films from their circle of friends and just start shooting.

“We needed a story and we just started writing,” Michael said.

“We decided to write about what we knew,” Mark added. “That was about small towns and people, and the landscapes of Montana.”

After completing one of their first short films, the brothers were walking near their apartment in Hollywood and ran into actor Jon Gries, who was walking his dog. In a chance meeting that is better than fiction, Gries asked to see the film they were carrying. After viewing the film he asked to see another script.

“The short film they had done, they shot in a weekend,” Gries said. “They utilized a visual sense that really enhances the depth of the story.”

Gries introduced the brothers to producer Rena Ronson, who he had worked with and who had produced the film, “Female Perversions,” starring Tilda Swinton and Frances Fisher.

During the meeting, the brothers successfully pitched Ronson the idea for a feature called “Twin Falls Idaho.” She vowed to make the movie.

That film, which both brothers and Gries starred in, garnered them critical recognition and Hollywood’s closed doors started opening for the brothers.

“After ‘Twin Falls’ there were a lot of offers,” Michael said. “But we decided to make another independent because we felt there were still things that we wanted to do and learn, and express in the independent world. We wanted to keep rolling and not have five years between movies or get in to some production deal or development deal. We ended up doing three movies in four years.”

Their second film, “Jackpot,” also starred Gries and revolves around an aspiring singer who goes on a nine-month road trip through desolate Western towns in a pink Chrysler.

After critical success of those projects they began writing and directing more projects and recently completed films starring actors such as Bruce Willis, Daryl Hannah, James Woods and Nick Nolte, and are currently in the post-production phase of a film they recently wrapped called “The Astronaut Farmer,” starring Billy Bob Thornton.

“You are always going to have pressures,” Mike said of shooting a studio picture compared to an independently backed project. “Our book is primarily about keeping that [independent] vision intact.”

“We’ve been in the trenches quite a bit,” Gries said. “We’ve done a lot of stuff together.”

Gries had so much faith in the Polish Brothers he mortgaged his home in order to loan them $100,000 to kick-start one of their film projects.

“I told them if you have money in the pot, other people will start putting in,” Gries said. “They are very smart. Even though Michael is more of the director and Mark is more of the actor, they confer on everything and work so well together. That’s why actors love working with them. They make choices not just for the sake of making choices. They have a unique visual sense that creates itself as almost another character.”

Gries has been an actor in three of their feature film projects and has also served as a producer on three. He says a Polish Brothers film has a reputation of being impeccably organized.

The films they have produced have earned them the John Cassavetes Award, which is given to the best feature made for $500,000, at the 2002 Independent Spirit Awards, a Seattle International Film Festival New American Cinema Award, and actor Garrett Morris was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for “Jackpot.”

“They have a work ethic that is second to none,” said Jonathan Sheldon, who co-authored the Polish brothers’ book and is head of development at their production company. “When they are focused on something they create an energy that is contagious.”

Sheldon has worked with them since before they were dealing with studios, A-list actors, agents and publicists. He says he doesn’t notice any difference in the twins since their newfound fame and said their creative process has remained the same.

As to how to get a movie made, Mark Polish said, “My advice is to get into a community or a school and just start doing what you want to do. Every town, no matter where you are, has a network of filmmakers or artists.”

The constantly busy Polish brothers have a slate of projects on the agenda and will likely begin production on a science fiction film they wrote soon after post-production is complete on “The Astronaut Farmer.”

The Polish brothers will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore at 3890 Cross Creek Road on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.