An interview with the writer, producer and star of TheAstronaut Farmer
By Devin D. O’Leary
Michael (he’s the one on the right) and Mark Polish (he’s the one on the left) discuss business on the set of The Astronaut Farmer
Twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish burst onto the indie film scene in flamboyant fashion, writing, producing and starring in the 1999 drama Twin Falls Idaho. That off-kilter film fest hit focused its cracked lens on a pair of Siamese twins (Mark and Mike, who are not quite joined at the hip in real life) falling in love with a hooker. Following that freshman effort (cranked out for around $500,000), the Polish brothers produced another couple cult-leaning ensemble films, 2001’s gambling comedy Jackpot and 2003’s biblical allegory Northfork.
With their latest film, the feel-good drama The Astronaut Farmer, the brothers are poised to reach their widest audience to date. The film, about a retired-astronaut-turned-rancher who dreams of constructing a rocket ship in his barn, has its quirky character moments, but its “never give up on your dreams” message is guaranteed to play well outside of the savvy Sundance crowds. The film stars Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen and Bruce Dern and was shot right here in New Mexico last summer.
Mark Polish, who served as the film’s producer and co-writer (and who also appears in the cast as a grumpy FBI agent), spoke to us recently by phone.
That’s a big rocket
What drew you guys to New Mexico? What made you want to shoot your film here?
We were doing location scouting and we were going to pop into a couple of states, but New Mexico was our first stop and we figured the environment worked perfect for what we were trying to do. The original story was set in Texas, and we were thinking about going to Texas, but the [state tax] incentives and the look [in New Mexico] were perfect. ... We had a limited amount of financial resources, and we had to find a place that would really help us achieve what we needed to do. Not only that, I mean the incentive’s great, but the cooperation with the State Film Commission was amazing.
What was your experience with crews in state? Is it comparable to California?
Yeah. It’s exactly the same. Very hardworking people, easy to get along with. With the crew we brought, everyone was cohesive, everyone worked together. They were very helpful when things would arise and we needed the extra crew and people knew other people. There’s just not a bad thing I can say. This film is almost a postcard for your guys’ state. We were all over--from White Sands, up to Abiquiu, all the way to Ghost Ranch, Las Vegas, down there, too.
You used a lot of the state.
Yeah. Very resourceful. There’s a lot of imagery and things that you wouldn’t think New Mexico has, because of its heavy pueblo-type look. We had to search for the kind of modern, space-age stuff that we were looking for. There was a lot sprinkled throughout the state that was really nice. Where they did the atomic testing--Los Alamos--there was a lot of that space-modern design sprinkled around that was really good.
Glad we could be of service.
No, I tell everyone when they show me a script, “Try New Mexico first. If it doesn’t work out, look someplace else.”
Getting down to the film itself, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I’ve admired your work since Twin Falls Idaho.
Not at all. But, at the same time, I do think this is a more accessible, more hopeful film than your earlier work. Not that those films were completely depressing. But do you view Astronaut Farmer as a clearly a more upbeat film--or is this just one continuum for you guys?
There’s a little bit of both in that. There’s the conscious decision to have a larger emotional connect with our audience, and hopefully we’ll have a wider range of people watching this movie. But at the same time, Charlie Farmer [from TheAstronaut Farmer] is the same guy who built the ark [in Northfork]. We love eccentric characters or characters who have an expression that doesn’t go with the majority. There are those themes in our movies that we don’t shy away from. So there are our same themes throughout but there’s a little bit more of an accessible storyline here.
How has the reaction been so far?
You still get, “Wow, this is quirky!” or, “This guy’s really eccentric!” But to us he’s normal. We can relate to that storyline a lot more than some of our previous work. We make films, and it feels like a rocket every time you’re making one and launching one every time you release one.
When I was a young kid, one of the very first careers I wanted was professional astronaut. Did you guys grow up with that?
No, movies were our big thing early on. It didn’t develop into “we want to make movies” until later on, but we wanted to be a part of it. We wanted to be part of that magic from an early age. A lot of the space movies were the ones that were big. Close Encounters, E.T., 2001: Those are the films that really resonated with us. In a weird, indirect way, being an astronaut was on top of the list--it’s just that through movies that sort of occupation was introduced to us.
What about casting this film? How did Billy Bob come along?
Billy Bob was the first on our list. We were wrestling with the two very large characteristics of an astronaut and a farmer. You wanted the believability of both. And Billy Bob is the type of guy who has one foot in each. He could have been either. But you believe he could have been both also. So when Mike and I discussed who we could use, his name immediately came to the surface. We’re very lucky he signed on early and propelled this into being made.
Working with Michael, do you guys have real set boundaries or do you kind of freeform when you’re there on the set?
On certain things we have--I won’t call them boundaries--we have our jobs that we do well. And we allow each other to do those jobs without interference. But if I want to step in and give a suggestion [on directing], it’s always something that he welcomes and vice-versa on acting and producing. On this particular film, since we were under such a time constraint--we only had 33 days--we created a full second unit. I had to go out [and direct] that second unit. We were out halfway across the state doing the FBI sequences or the rocket wreck sequence. So, in this particular film, we weren’t as close in the working environment as we usually are.
Finally, it’s a bit off the topic, but Oscars are coming up. Any pics?
Oh, man. I don’t know. ... Once Upon a Time in America. That’s my Best Picture for the next hundred years.
Dad (Dennis Quaid) is a dyed-in-the-wool, midwestern corn farmer doing anything he can to survive in the world of genetically modified crops. But sonny boy (Zac Efron) just wants to be a NASCAR driver. If that sounds like a contrived plotline, you're correct. But up-and-coming indie director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) wrings some great performances from his stars, resulting in a surprisingly sincere melodrama about the modern farming industry, small-town entrapment and father-son dynamics. With race cars. 105 minutes R. (Opens Friday 5/17)
This lavish 1963 production starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is certainly the definition of epic. The infamous Hollywood historical certainly deserves the digital restoration it gets here, but the film was a colossal flop at the time it came out and hasn't shed any of its campy excessiveness over time. 243 minutes (Opens Wednesday 5/22)
The first annual Dark Matters Film Festival celebrates films that happily embrace the darkness. Three days' worth of horror, science-fiction, dark fantasy and black comedy invade the Guild Cinema, May 17-19. Countries such as Spain, Italy, France, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and the United States are represented in the fest's 12 features and 14 shorts. The opening night film is a supernatural action flick called Compound Fracture starring wrestler-turned-actor Tyler Mane (Halloween). The closing night film is the all-star anthology flick V/H/S/2. Between those two are wedged all manner of singing space aliens, teenage slashers, zombie-killing baseball players, demonic superheroes, talking teddy bears and mythical monsters. Log on to darkmattersfilmfest.com for a complete list of films and times. (Opens Friday 5/17)
Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, "Boardwalk Empire") stars in this true story of Richard Kuklinski, a notorious contract killer and family man. When the guy was finally arrested in 1986, neither his wife nor his daughters had the slightest clue as to his real profession. Crazy, no? It's grim stuff, but Shannon gives a gripping and restrained portrayal. 106 minutes R. (Opens Friday 5/17)
As the Allied Forces sweep across Europe during the final days of World War II, a sheltered German teen (Saskia Rosendahl) is forced to guide her young siblings on a 500-mile trek though the Black Forest to safety in Hamburg. While engaging in this "Red Riding Hood"-meets-The Incredible Journey quest, our young heroine is slowly confronted with the truth about her parents' beliefs and their involvement with the Nazi party. 108 minutes Unrated. (Opens Monday 5/20)
Director J.J. Abrams amps up the action even more than he did in the last frantic Trek reboot. Here, Captain Kirk (super-angry Chris Pine) leads a manhunt through a war zone to capture a space age terrorist bent on revenge (Benedict Cumberbatch, trying his best to add nuance to an underwritten role). The film is littered with in-jokes, but longtime fans might find themselves wishing Abrams had spread his wings a bit--rather than just rooting through "Star Trek" reruns looking for characters and catchphrases to recycle. 132 minutes PG-13. (Opens Thursday 5/16)
TV actor Chadwick Boseman stars as baseball-playing barrier-smasher Jackie Robinson in this period biopic from writer-director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, A Knight's Tale). Harrison Ford is color-barrier-ending Baseball Commissioner Branch Rickey. 88 minutes PG-13.
Do you love wacky romantic comedies with the word "wedding" in the title? Here's one. It stars Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Topher Grace and Susan Sarandon. At some point Robin William drops by to play a priest! It's an American rewrite of a French farce about a long-divorced couple who fake being married while their extended family unites for a wedding. 90 minutes R.
Robert Redford directs and stars in this drama about a former Weather Underground activist who goes on the run after fortysomething years when a journalist uncovers his identity. The screen vet-heavy cast includes Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliot and Shia LaBeouf. Redford might not be the most realistic choice to play a hippie terrorist, and the script (based on the novel by Neil Gordon) has enough plot strands to fill an IFC mini-series. Still it's a compelling piece of political drama from Hollywood's peacenik past. 121 minutes R.
On the surface, this CGI toon is just "The Flintstones" with a sassy grandma and a bit of The Land Before Time tossed in for good measure. Nicolas Cage voices an overprotective caveman whose rebellious daughter (Emma Stone) befriends a primitive inventor (Ryan Reynolds) who brings warnings about the end of the world. Cloris Leachman plays the sassy grandma. Of course she does. Dreamworks Animation tried harder with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, but the animation is colorful and occasionally amusing. 98 minutes PG.
From the makers of Hoodwinked! and a whole bunch of CGI Barbie movies (whoopee) comes a generic family movie in which a pile of movies stars (Brendan Fraser, Ricky Gervais, Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara, Sarah Jessica Parker, George Lopez, William Shatner) provide voices for some cute cartoon characters. The excuse for Burger King kids' meal toys this time around is that a bunch of friendly space aliens must escape from Area 51. 89 minutes PG.
After nearly a year's delay and a bunch of re-shoots, this live-action sequel to 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra finally hits theaters. Channing Tatum is back as Duke, but he's mostly supplanted by newcomers Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock and Bruce Willis as Joe Colton. (As fans in the know are aware, that's the name of the original 12-Inch G.I. Joe figure from 1964.) This time around, the baddies are blowing up the White House (a popular thing to do in movies these days) and framing the Joes for crimes they didn't commit (shades of the A-Team). 110 minutes PG-13.
Lurid Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) yanks the curtain back on his Jazz Age Disneyland version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novella. Tobey Maguire is the World War I vet who gets lured into the fabulous lifestyle of his nouveau riche Long Island neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Carey Mulligan (An Education, Drive) is the contentious object of affection, Daisy Buchanan. Throw in some fantabulous fashions and an explosive soundtrack (Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lana Del Rey, Florence and the Machine, Jack White, will.i.am) and you've got one hell of a party. The pure over-the-topness of it all makes it hard to take the characters seriously, but Luhrmann's manic razzle dazzle ultimately fits the narrative quite snugly. 142 minutes PG-13.
Industrialist/superhero Tony Stark's personal world is torn apart when he's attacked by an international terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Filmmaker Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) keeps everything breezy, funny and, most of all, fast as a jet plane. 130 minutes PG-13.
This Steven Spielberg blockbuster about cloned dinosaurs running wild on an island theme park holds up surprisingly well, delivering thrills, chills and straight-up fun after 20 years. The new 3D effects are a nifty addition. Well worth seeing on the big screen. 127 minutes PG-13.
In this Tom Sawyer-ish magical-realist melodrama, two teenage boys discover a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on a tiny river island in Arkansas. Turns out this fugitive (nicknamed "Mud") is on the run from bounty hunters. But he's just an innocent (mostly) fellow trying to reunite with his ladylove (Reese Witherspoon), who's stuck living at a rundown local motel. A lovely, if overly allegorical anti-fable from Jeff Nichols (writer-director of 2011's equally metaphor-heavy Take Shelter). 130 minutes PG-13.
Tom Cruise is a technician assigned to post-apocalyptic Earth following a devastating war with invading aliens. His job is to repair drones, mining the abandoned planet's last resources. But as he explores the wasteland, he's haunted by visions from the past. Perhaps all is not as it seems. Director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) has created a stunningly beautiful sci-fi film, but the script tries too hard to be a Christopher Nolan-style mindbender. Most viewers will figure out what's going on long before the story peters out. 126 minutes PG-13.
Evil Korean terrorists attack the White House. Disgraced former presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) just happens to be trapped there. Naturally, he starts working with the NSA as an "inside man" to rescue the president (Aaron Eckhart) from kidnappers. The script is strictly Die Hard in the White House, but at least director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) gives the violence some style. 130 minutes R.
Disney, still glowing from their actionized Alice in Wonderland sequel, launches a prequel to L. Frank Baum's famed Wizard of Oz. Actor/enigma James Franco stars as the smalltime magician who ends up in the fantasy land of Oz and must decide if he's got the stuff to battle a wicked witch. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are on witch duty. Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) directs. 130 minutes PG.
Michael Bay (yes, that Michael Bay) tries his hand at directing a (relatively) inexpensive action comedy. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play a trio of Miami bodybuilders who come up with a stupid scheme to kidnap a jerkbag businessman. Naturally this results in much chaos, gunplay and exploding things. It's based on a true story from 1999 involving kidnapping, extortion, torture and murder--which apparently wasn't very funny. 130 minutes R.
Craig Robinson ("The Office") plays a blue-collar children's entertainer who's dating out-of-his-league babe Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington). Things get crazy, though, when he crashes the high-tone Peeples family reunion in order to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage. If domestic comedies have taught us anything, it's that meeting your fiancée's parents is a wacky, slapstick-filled occasion. Tyler Perry threw his name in the credits, but he didn't have much to do with this genial, if overly familiar, comedy. 95 minutes PG-13.
Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper (easy there, ladies) both star in this edgy crime thriller from filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine). Gosling is a motorcycle stunt rider who turns to bank robbery to support his lover and their newborn child. Cooper is the rookie cop navigating a department ruled by corruption to catch the fast-paced thief. No simple cops-and-robbers flick, this stylish multigenerational drama aims for the scope and impact of Greek tragedy. It doesn't always achieve it, but you can't fault anyone here for their ambition. 140 minutes R.
How dumb could this be? Well, on the poster, the title is actually written "SCARY MOVIE." Did you catch that? The "V" is actually a "V"--not as in the letter V, but as in the Roman numeral V. Not that you'd ever notice, because they're the exact same freaking thing. Anyway, Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen are among the pop culture cameos. It's basically a parody of Paranormal Activity--which former Scary Movie writer/star Marlon Wayans already did earlier this year in A Haunted House. 85 minutes PG-13.
Century Rio Fri- Sat 2:30, 5:05, 7:50, 10:30; Sun-Thu 12:00, 2:30, 5:05, 7:50, 10:30
An uptight, rules-following Princeton admissions officer (Tina Fey) faces a personal crisis after she meets a college-bound alternative high school kid who may be the son she gave up for adoption years ago. Also, she falls in love with his teacher (Paul Rudd). Ultimately predicatable but smartly written, this one's based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. 107 minutes PG-13.
Halle Berry continues her poor post-Oscar career decisions (Die Another Day, Catwoman, Perfect Stranger, Frankie & Alice, New Year's Eve, Dark Tide, Movie 43), starring in this cliché-laden thriller. Berry plays a 911 operator who gets a panic-stricken cell phone call from a young woman (Abigail Breslin) who has been kidnapped and stuffed into a car trunk. For various extremely contrived reasons, Berry must step in and rescue the girl--as opposed to, say, the police. 94 minutes R.
Desperate Twilight lovers may or may not be mollified by this follow-up effort based on a different series by author Stephenie Meyer. Instead of supernatural romance, it's sci-fi romance. In the near future, Earth has been taken over by parasitic aliens who need humans to inhabit. Naturally there's a love triangle between a "special" alien girl (Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones) and a couple of rebellious, well-coiffed teens (Jake Abel from Percy Jackson & The Olympians and Max Irons from Red Riding Hood). Director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show) shot it here in New Mexico. 125 minutes PG-13.
Jason Bateman is a mild-mannered businessman who decides to hunt down the deceptively harmless-looking woman (Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids) who's been living it up on his stolen identity. The result is a predictably wacky road trip. 112 minutes R.
Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men: First Class) directs Hollywood's latest fairy tale fantasy in which a young farmhand (Nicholas Hoult from X-Men: First Class and Warm Bodies) gets caught in a war between humans and giants. There's even a princess to rescue. The effects are cool, but the whole fairy tale thing (Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, "Once Upon a Time") is kinda played out. 114 minutes PG-13.
Disney teamed with Pixar Animation (Toy Story, A Bug's Life) for this 2001 computer-animated hit. Now it's back in 3D. John Goodman and Billy Crystal are a couple of monsters employed at the biggest scare factory in Monstropolis. When a cute little girl crosses over from the real world, the not-so-frightening duo risk their professional careers to bring her home. 92 minutes
David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees) directs this schizophrenic, seriocomic love story based on Matthew Quick's novel. Bradley Cooper plays a troubled Philly schoolteacher who moves in with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) after spending time in a mental hospital. Our undermedicated protagonist tries to get his life in order and reunite with his estranged wife, but gets sidetracked by his relationship with an equally messed-up young widow (the always-wonderful Jennifer Lawrence). 122 minutes R.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's son gets arrested in a drug deal gone bad. Naturally, beefy super-dad volunteers to become an undercover agent for the DEA in order to free his son. Much punching, shooting and 'sploding follows. 112 minutes PG-13.
A young zombie kid (Nicholas Hoult from X-Men: First Class) falls in love with an uninfected human survivor (Teresa Palmer from The Sorcerer's Apprentice) in this cute, but not terribly inventive undead romance. Hoult and Plamer have as much chemistry as a dead guy and a girl with a shotgun can muster, and there are a few good chuckles to be had; but the script's just another rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. 97 minutes PG-13.