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Rocket Men

Filmmaking Twins and Their Creation Dream Of Chasing Space

COUNTDOWN TO LUNCH: (from left) Director Michael Polish, Billy Bob Thornton, and writer/actor Mark Polish chat on the set of The Astronaut Farmer.

By Wendy Ward | Posted 2/21/2007

Read the review by Wendy Ward

Ten minutes into an interview with The Astronaut Farmer's filmmaking twins, Mark and Michael Polish, the star of their latest movie, Billy Bob Thornton, saunters into Washington's Georgetown Four Seasons lobby bar. The grayish-haired, smooth-skinned, and dimpled Thornton looks just like he does in the movie--only instead of a shiny silvery spacesuit, he sports a handsomely cut gray wool coat and trousers. He takes off his narrow purple-lens sunglasses while digging into the salty nuts and wasabi peas set out in small dishes on the bar's coffee table. "You guys drinking?" he drawls.

As a matter of fact, yes. Libations duly ordered, the trio start talking their hard-to-sell old-fashioned movie. The Astronaut Farmer follows the life's pursuit of Charles Farmer (Thornton), who retires from NASA to save his family farm but never gives up his dream of going into space. To do so, he builds his own rocket, but the purchase of fuel brings him into the FBI's cross hairs. The movie highlights a number of classic conflicts, including man vs. machine (his rocket), man vs. self (a space-travel dream), and man vs. man--in this case, the governmental Man.

"I love the classic story of the blue-collar man does the system," Thornton says, though he admits that his publicist shot him a look when he called the film an "old-fashioned story." He doesn't want people to stay away for that reason. "These guys are pretty hip filmmakers," he says of the Polish brothers. "So they added their thing to it. You take a sort of old-fashioned theme, a film that is for a broader audience, and add what they do to it. And you have to admit, [Charles] is pretty eccentric, and also there's humor throughout the film, and all kinds of secret messages."

The brothers laugh in unison. "You need a decoder ring," one says. "Every other scene you can see that we propose to Bill." They love Thornton as much as the young guy who slips by the actor's handler to get an autograph for his girlfriend. Guess the guy doesn't recognize the twins.

Michael and Mark Polish are identically slim men of medium height with long faces, clear skin, bright eyes, relaxed demeanors, and calm speech, until sharing their opinions. Mark, who plays a sensitive FBI agent in the movie, has longer, looser brown hair with a bit of curl. Michael, the director, wears his hair slicked back so that the brown shines closer to black. Both have easy laughs, and they frequently interrupt each other. Siblings tend to sound alike, and these two are almost indistinguishable, their separate voices interrupting each other when threading together sentences, sometimes making it difficult to figure out who said what when transcribing this interview.

"That was the very first thing ever." The Polish brothers tumble over each other's words to explain the movie's germinating seed, the image of a man in a spacesuit walking the farmland's lonely plains. "First line of the script was, `Guy in an astronaut suit walking in the snow.' It was a snow scene, and we wanted to replicate the moon, but we wanted him to always be thinking of training, of what it would be like in the suit. It looked nutty."

The rogue filmmakers are known for such striking imagery. Their 2003 Northfork, an odd parable of the life and death of a town soon to be submerged by the building of a dam, opens with a casket rising to the surface of a body of water. As with their previous outings--1999's Twin Falls Idaho, 2001's Jackpot, and Northfork--the Polish brothers co-wrote and -produced The Astronaut Farmer, a very different kind of movie for the duo, one they are not ashamed to call "feel good."

It's a story that started with that spacesuited farmer. "The power was in that suit," they go on to say, rippling out to talk about the movie's other farmland-set Space Age ideas, such as a cartoonishly silver bullet rocket modeled on NASA's Atlas-Mercury model. "We really paid attention to the rocket, the detail, the blueprints. That's probably the most impressive rocket [the U.S.] ever built, probably the most visually strong image we have, the rocket based on a missile. So we made it huge."

But how do you go about making an independent movie with a rocket in it? "I don't know," Mark laughs. "Like the Siamese twins that we played [in Twin Falls Idaho], we only showed you what we could afford to do, which was a body wrap--an old mesh where we were put together." He gestures to the side of his torso. "It was what you didn't see, in that sense," that makes the illusion works.

They pull off the same cinematic sleight of hand for Astronaut's rocket. "The engine room wasn't there," Michael says of their construction. "We just dug a hole and stuck it there."

"So, it's `magic,'" Mark adds, "like when Billy's looking up [inside the cockpit], he's looking at the ceiling."

The shooting conditions required that they have an actor who can sell both the situation and the astronaut-cum-farmer character. "Otherwise you think, God this son of a bitch is so selfish," the brothers say, tripping over each other's words. They found that in Thornton, whom they deem "a throwback to the John Glenn era. He looked like one of the The Right Stuff cast members."

In fact, they named Charles Farmer after Chuck Yeager, the most famous of nonastronauts, and one they have a personal connection to. "After we saw The Right Stuff we came home and our older brother found his name in the phone book and called him up," Mark says, recalling watching the movie on the big screen when it came out in the early '80s. "My dad said, `You know he lives in Grass Valley [Calif.],' and [older brother] Matt goes, `Really?' And he picked up the yellow pages and found Chuck Yeager and called him up right after the movie."

Thornton chuckles. "Chuck talked to him for an hour about breaking the sound barrier, and I don't think Chuck even knew the extent of what [The Right Stuff] was going to do," Mark says. "That's the power of what movies could do when we were a kid."

Such experience laid the early groundwork for The Astronaut Farmer. "I came to Mark and said, `What if a man or a person built a rocket in his barn?'" Michael says. "If we were to do it, how would we do it?"

"I think originally it came out of a rebelliousness of well, we can't go to space because we didn't do these certain things," Mark adds. "We didn't go to the Air Force, we didn't go to NASA, we didn't do those things, so guess what? We're never going to go to space. . . . It kind of came out of that spirit."

Guess what? They made it to space. "The message is never stop," Mark smiles. "I couldn't imagine not making movies and giving up. That would be miserable. And that's the message: Look at my happiness. You're living the dream, and it's much bigger than that. That's the example of the movie that I want to set--it's worth it. The reward for the risk is worth it."

It may sound hokey, but the brothers recognize that feel-good isn't purely a cliché, even if it's hooey for film snobs. "We have prescription drugs to touch you now," the brothers say. "We have Zoloft, which will make you feel good a lot longer than an hour-and-a-half movie. Was it bad that I said it was a feel-good movie?"

"`Eww, I don't wanna feel good,'" Thornton jokes. "Like that's a bad thing, `I don't wanna feel good.' Like those humpback geeks on the internet, they don't wanna feel good, they wanna hate. They wanna be cynical and hate."

The brothers concur. "Look at us," one says. "We're the feel-good army--center field, left, right."

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