July 11, 2003
Dams and angels
Filmmakers the Polish brothers talk about God, death and the movies
By LIZ BRAUN
Mark and Michael Polish are the identical twin filmmakers behind a terrific new movie called Northfork.

They do indeed look exactly alike, these brothers, and -- let's get this over with -- they finish each other's sentences and do all that other, allegedly uncanny stuff identical twins are said to do. The bottom line with the twin thing is that in conversation, you get twice as much of whatever is going on, and with the Polish brothers, what's going on is always interesting.

Northfork is a modern fairy tale. It's an odd movie about life, death, and a small town in Montana about to be destroyed by the creation of a new dam. Some of the inhabitants just don't know how to make the transition. Other of the inhabitants are angels, brought into being by the fevered imagination of an ill orphan. The movie mixes magic realism with a curious form of can-do American spirit. The Polish brothers, who are 32 years old, have a dad from Montana and a mother from Mexico and say the movie reflects those disparate parental influences. Or else they were pulling my leg.

Northfork, which stars James Woods and Nick Nolte, is the last film in the trilogy that includes Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot. The film reflects the brothers' Catholic upbringing, refers across time to their grandfather's actual work on the dams of Montana (which the brothers have visited), involves a soundtrack of country songs their father listened to when they were children and uses puns and wordplay just as the brothers do in real life.

Mark Polish might have been a football player except for the car accident that broke all the bones in his leg.

"That was God saying you've got to stop," murmurs Michael.

Michael wanted to direct. Mark wanted to act. To facilitate both careers, they decided they had to write. "I was really, really naive about writing scripts," says Mark, laughing.

"We just started scribbling ideas." Michael explains that all their movies begin with a visual, a picture they'd like to see themselves. And the mental image behind Northfork?

"Wings. Detached wings," says Michael.

Or maybe Mark said that. Okay: Why wings?

"It was interesting for us to explore that motif -- what's the story behind angelic creatures having wings? Why is flying, or descension, part of their character? So we went back to the Celts, the angelic messenger, the swan god."

"And I'm obsessed with death," explains Mark. "Death is the last great frontier. I look at it as a space thing. It's like the last frontier we haven't explored yet. It's all faith-based. We'd like to look at it as more of a science."

Mark is married to an illustrator and Michael to a makeup artist, and both have young daughters. They talk about the role of imagination in childhood. Michael says, "To sustain that imagination is just key. That's all we have."

"Well, we had each other to believe in things," adds Mark. "We were 11 or 12 when E.T. came out, and that stayed real for us until we were, like, 18."

"It's still real," says Michael. "Without imagination," he continues, "we don't go anywhere, scientifically or otherwise."

Northfork, says Michael, "Is kind of a commentary on the United States, on the connection betweeen progress and destruction." Visually, the film is exceptionally beautiful.

"At least we got that right," laughs Mark. "It could be as dumb as a doornail, but at least it's pretty, huh?" They laugh.

Michael says, "Things that are very beautiful are often very complex," revealing a possible lack of experience with supermodels. He talks about glaciers as an example -- beautiful far away, complex and deadly close up.

We take back the supermodel thing.

There is one other Polish brother, and he is two years older than Mark and Michael. He did a documentary on the making of Northfork, which will be on the DVD.

Their father built the sets. How, exactly, did this wild bunch of guys spend their childhood?

"Fishing," says Mark.

"Pike," says Michael. "Ever caught a pike? They really do have teeth like dogs."

The brothers have finished three other screenplays and need only decide which one to film next.

Do they write together, too?

"No, separately," says Mark.

"Or we'd drive each other crazy," says Michael.

IS THIS HEAVEN, OR MONTANA?

Question: After you die, where do you end up?

Mark Polish: "Back in Montana."

Michael Polish: "It's personal. It's like manifest destiny. It's where your energy takes you -- if it's positive, it's positive. If it's negative, it's negative. That's all you have, your energy, positive and negative."

Mark Polish: "And when they clash, there's thunder."