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California-bred and CalArts-educated, twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish intended from an early age to enter the film business. “We wanted to make a movie to begin with. We didn’t know we had to become writers, too. We thought we could just go film,” says Michael, who directed the brothers’ two low-budget features, Twin Falls Idaho and the new Jackpot, the tale of a would-be karaoke champion on a tour of small-town Western bars.
“So we wrote this first screenplay out of the initial idea of doing twins,” he continues. “He’ll write one draft, and I’ll write another draft, and we’ll pass it back ’til we like it. Then we go into production, and he’ll take over anything else or the final draft of that screenplay while I’m doing everything else. I’ve always wanted to be a director, and Mark always wanted to be an actor, so it was always clear.”
“So I’m acting as a producer,” jokes Mark, who can be distinguished from his brother principally because he hasn’t shaved today. Both have the same close-cropped hair and wear Nikes that are nearly identical. Mark’s feature a brighter color scheme, which seems apt, because he’s the (slightly) more boisterous of the two.
“I think on our films, producing starts when you write it,” he explains. “‘Cause we know what we can’t film. We couldn’t build all the bars, we knew that. So as we were doing the research, I met with the owners and said, ‘Hey, can I come here? I’m gonna do a movie. I’ll showcase your bar.’ So I was producing it way before.”
Before they began filming their first movie, the brothers had written three scripts, all named for towns in the Rocky Mountain states. “We needed titles for movies. Very simple,” says Michael, only half-jokingly. “They’re not really related to the towns. Twin Falls Idaho is sort of a play on words. Jackpot is more of a state of mind, although [the central characters] are driving there. North Fork, the third picture, deals with a town that doesn’t exist anymore. It was there; it’s flooded.”
The brothers were introduced to the Rocky Mountain region on visits to their father in Montana but admit that they haven’t surveyed the area carefully. “North Fork is where we’ve spent the most time,” Mark says. “Jackpot we just drove through. Twin Falls, too. Jackpot is just really small. It’s like a block of Vegas, like the highlights of Vegas, sort of stuck up on the northern border [of Nevada]. It’s kind of there for Salt Lake City folks to come and bet their paychecks.”
The duo did investigate the area’s karaoke circuit and believe it’s something like what they depict in Jackpot. “I don’t know if it’s as organized as we might have portrayed it,” Michael admits. “If you went to every town, you could put together your own tour. Every night, there’s some karaokeevery single night somewhere. There’s competitions at least once a week.”
“Everybody has their song,” Mark says. “It’s not about their range. It’s about doing a song of the artist they’re trying to portray. That’s it. They don’t do anything else.”
His brother says that the pair went looking for “just the details. You’d see the same people over and over again. We wanted to see how they choreographed their night, what they did. And if they didn’t get their song. Sometimes they didn’t get to sing their song. So they got really pissed off.”
Once they began casting the film, one of the brothers’ tasks was to audition bad singers. “But they don’t know that,” Michael cautions. “When we told the lady to come in and sing Patsy Clineshe was the only one to actually sing in front of us beforehand. We were in our office, she came and she decided to sing, and I go, ‘She sounds pretty good.’ And then when we played Patsy Cline in cross-dissolve, it was, ‘Wow, she’s really off-key.’ That kind of set the precedent for everything else.”
“There’s no additional recording afterwards, so everything you hear in the bar is there,” Mark says. “Sometimes you can hear them get off-key or off the beat.”
A half-dozen amateur performers were cut from the film, but not because they couldn’t sing. Most were trimmed for time reasons, or because getting clearance for the songs they sang was either too expensive or simply impossible. One tune that was denied themit’s mentioned in the film, but not heardis Van Halen’s “Jump.”
“There was a Captain & Tennille song we had in there that we couldn’t get,” Michael recalls. “The only one we knew we were going to pay for, regardless of how much it was going to cost, was George Jones’ ‘Grand Tour,’” the protagonist’s showcase number. “We were expecting to pay a lot. We ended up spending the most for it, because it’s used eight times, but I was willing to pay whatever. They don’t know that.”
North Fork was announced as the brothers’ second feature, before slipping to third place in the trilogy. “The fires kind of diverted it,” Michael explains. “Last summer, a lot of fires swept through the area where we wanted to shoot, so we couldn’t bring generators up. And access to those areas was really difficult.”
“I almost thought that was going to be our first film,” Mark adds. “But I think it works out better [last], because it’s the biggest picture of the three.”
When the duo couldn’t initially get financing for North Fork, they just kept writing. “What we did was we started writing screenplays that were cheaper than the ones before,” says Mark. “So North Fork, being the most expensive budget, is the third one now. We kind of worked our way up. Although Jackpot was cheaper than Twin Falls[by] about $100,000.”
That’s a lot of money to the Polishes, who made their latest film for $400,000. They did so by shooting in just 15 days, relying on stars Jon Gries and Garrett Morris’ experience in the fast-paced world of TV-series production. They also enlisted several performers to play low-priced cameos, including Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards, and Mac Davis.
“We wanted George Jones to do a cameo, but we couldn’t find him for anything,” Mark says. “So we thought, Hey, Mac Davis, that might be nice. So we got his cell-phone number. He was at the golf course. He said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ Then he got the script and we called him again, and he said, ‘I’m not sure. It says Sammy Bones, and it says he’s really skinny. I’m not that skinny.’ We said that was OK. He was really worried about that. And then he said, ‘You want me to sing ‘Grand Tour’ for you?’ That’s not in the script, but he got up on the stage and sang ‘Grand Tour.’”
The filmmakers also reduced costs by shooting in video, although this is barely noticeable because they used a new high-definition video camera that shoots in “24 progressive,” emulating film’s 24 frames per second. “Lucas is using this camera for the next two installments of Star Wars,” says Michael. “We were lucky enough to get one. Now they’re on the market. There must be 100 productions now using this camera.
“A VHD-cam tape costs about $75 for 50 minutes. For that [on film], it’s about $2,500,” he adds. “And when you get the film developed, there’s about $4,000 difference between tape and film. That saves so much money. And you have a digital image, so you can take it into a computer and start editing if you want to.”
After the video is transferred to film for projection, he says, “it starts to get that film quality, but I’m not quite sure it’s there yet. Sometimes, the neon in the background looks digital. It’s not as soft or organic as [film] emulsion.”
“It’s imitation film,” Mark offers.
“Conceptually, we went to this camera as a kind of comment, that karaoke is sort of imitation singing,” Michael notes. “We had a choice between a lot of cameras, but we thought that really commented on what we were trying to say.”
As the brothers prepare for a winter shoot of North Fork, safely out of forest-fire season, Michael is thinking about another sort of visual. “Some of the areas we were shooting before burned, but it actually looks kind of nice,” he says. “Black trees look good in snow.” Mark Jenkins