Prepare to Launch
An interview with the writer, producer and star 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.
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.
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m really glad we didn’t alienate you.
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 The Astronaut 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.