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In Features, Issues

A love story with Siamese twins? A fable of dependency? The Polish Brothers’ Twin Falls Idaho recounts a darkly optimistic tale that blurs genres and traditional aesthetics. Peter Bowen speaks with them about the act of collaboration, their influences, and not being David Lynch.

M. Polish and M. Polish of Twin Falls Idaho. Photos: Sebastien Raymond

Despite its claim to be the significant art form of the twentieth century, cinema’s origins remain firmly rooted in vaudeville and the carnival – cultural institutions through which the bizarre and the grotesque were freely paraded out as entertainment. And, as the century has progressed, early silent black-and-white images of Edison’s strong men have given way to When Animals Attack, Lumiere’s savage moon men have been transformed over time into Lucas’ prosthetic aliens. At first glance such morbid fascination would also seem to be the lure of Michael Polish’s Twin Falls Idaho, a parable of reclusive Siamese twins forced to slowly enter the world around them. Co-starring Michael’s twin brother Mark, who also co-wrote the film, Twin Falls guides the viewer behind the curtain into the twins’ intimate confines.

But as the characters grow more distinct, more identifiable, the biological turns metaphorical. The fleshy attachment that knits the brothers together begins to resemble that thing we call love, and their mirrored shapes and faces suggest empathy and kinship.

For many, however, this tradition of the grotesque as metaphorical or metaphysical is itself an anomaly, a freak show of genre. While foreign literary examples, like Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum or Michel Tournier’s The Ogre – both of which have been turned into motion pictures – demonstrate the poetic and philosophical potential of the grotesque, American examples are few and far between. We tend to be too literal, reading the grotesque as, well, grotesque. In reviewing the film’s trailer for example, the MPAA slapped it with a restricted tag on the grounds that a scene with one of the twins kissing a woman was quite literally a menage-à-trois. Many critics seem similarly inclined, treating the film (and its Siamese twins) as spin-offs of David Lynch’s repertoire of the strange and bizarre. But while Lynch’s narratives often delve beneath the normal to expose the alien underneath, Twin Falls moves in the opposite direction, finding the human and recognizable just under the shell of the bizarre.


Filmmaker: As twins making a film about Siamese twins, collaboration seems to be both your film’s theme and mode of production. How did you work together?

Mike Polish: We conceived the throughline together, and since I am more visual, I would say, "This what I want to see. This is what would make a good image." And Mark would come through and point out that if we say it we don’t need to show it, and if we show it we don’t have to say it. He would be much more literal. Almost the opposite of what I am; he would organize the scenes.

Mark Polish: I would take Mike’s images and rework them according to what should go where. Eventually all his pictures made it in, but I would arrange them as a sort of puzzle.

The Polish Brothers with Michelle Hicks
Filmmaker: Since Mike took the title of director, how accurate is the writer/director split to your working relationship?

Mike: I was the director of everything before this, and I wanted to keep director-ing. Neither of us wanted to act originally. But it is very blurry. Since we directed most of the film in the script, we figured someone should get the title for calling the shots, and that was me. And it is easier for people on the the set to recognize a hierarchy that people can deal with. And then we can play good cop/bad cop. No one wants two directors who are both bad guys. Someone could go to him, and filter an idea though him to me. We also didn’t want to focus on the brother thing – "Look they both direct; they both write; they both act."

Mark: If he is going to remain director, why not start off as director?

Filmmaker: How did you two get started making films?

Mike: I did have a film background, I went to CalArts, but instead of going to grad school, we decided to make films. We thought, if we are going to make film, we needed to get out of where we lived and just do it. So we moved to New York, checked into a hotel room – not that different from the one in the movie – got an Arriflex and shot a couple of shorts. And then we came back here and decided to make something in sync sound. Once we had a sync-sound film, we used it to demonstrate to people that we were serious about making a feature.

Mike: It is a real leap from doing a short to a feature. It didn’t really matter to anyone that we had done shorts. It only mattered to us, the filmmakers, that we did them, because that’s where we built our confidence to make a bigger film.

Mark: Actually it was only 14 more days for a feature. The short [Bajo Del Perro (Under the Dog)] was three and Twin Falls was 17. So it wasn’t a big jump. It wasn’t as if we were doing a six-week shoot.

Filmmaker: Obviously the other big jump from a short to a feature is the budget. How did you pull the money together?

Mike: Our gut said that in the end we were going to be handling the financing ourselves. But it would be foolish not to test the waters and see if a Fine Line or a Miramax or anybody else wanted to make this. So we did the typical thing of sending the script out. The response was pretty much the same wherever we went.

Mark: People told us that it would be something they would more likely acquire when it was finished than make.

Filmmaker Where did the money finally come from?

Mike: A wealthy lady from Seattle.

Mark: She had read the script and had had twin sisters herself. So she could really relate to it.

Mike: Rena Ronson from Lakeshore was instrumental in getting the film made. Unfortunately at the time she couldn’t get it made through Lakeshore. She had it in her contract that this was the film she wanted to make. But when it came down to it, Lakeshore never really pulled the trigger. But she felt that since she had sold films for a lot of people, she could go back and talk to those people. There was so much confidence in Rena and her ability to sell movies; people felt, if she was attached to the script, it must be okay. And it was done on the cheap, so you could sell it to two or three territories and still get your money back.

Filmmaker: Did you find making an independent film in Los Angeles difficult? One often hears that while everyone in L.A. is in the movie business, nobody wants to make your film. You live in this huge industry town, but you can’t participate in it.

Mike: Not participate, but there is a lot of overlap. You go to the same people who are cutting these huge productions, like Titanic, and you can ride the coat-tails of these huge productions. They are spending so much they don’t mind.

Mark: Here there are either big studio productions or us. There is no middle class. So the system can sometimes help float the little guy.

Mike: Our special effects department was also doing Blade, and there was so much silicon left over that they just let us use it for free. We have the advantage of tapping into bigger budgets without them even knowing it.

Mark: That also worked with Panavision because they really liked the material. I remember driving out there and telling them that we were doing an independent film. The guy looks at me and says, "Yeah, and you want a free camera." And we said, "We want a free camera, and we also want primo lenses." He says, "You know those are the best lenses in the world." And we were, "Yeah, we know. That is why we want them. "I told him, just give me three, and I’ll design the whole film with three lenses. I don’t need a whole suitcase. And he finally said, "Okay, you can get three primo lenses."

Filmmaker: Coming from the world of art rather than film, what sort of influences did you have?

Mike: Our first influence was not even film, it was painting, especially Vermeer. He was just so cinematic in his time, and it wasn’t even about cinema. The way he framed things was all about looking through lenses and catching light.

Filmmaker: The way the light and people’s attention always comes from off stage, always creating the sense of larger world out the painting?

Mike: Exactly. For film, one of our main influences was probably Krzysztof Kieslowski, especially in the way he treats strangers, the way in which they come together and develop a relationship. Like in Red.

Filmmaker: And, of course, Kieslowski had his own twin film in The Double Life of Veronique. In being twins doing your twin film, did you have reservations about how that would be read?

Mike: Yeah, we felt people would think, "Of course, they’re twins. They’ll do a film about twins. It’s their meal ticket, their one-trick pony. Let’s just see what they do next." Actually this is our third script. The other two were sold. We just thought we could get this one made.

Mike: I never wanted to be in front of the camera. But you also learn to use your best resources. We had this Siamese project so why not do it? It was the easiest and quickest way for us to do a film.

Mark: It seems like acting was the easiest part anyway. It was getting financing and the writing that was the hard part.

Mike: It was the most peaceful time during production.

Mark: We spent so much time trying to get it made that sitting in front of the camera wasn’t really a problem. Also, as our first film, people didn’t know who we were. So acting in it made the twins more believable since there were no expectations about who we were. They could actually appear real. We wanted to take advantage of people not knowing us.

Filmmaker: Are parts of the film autobiographical?

Mark: Yes, in a more general way. In the way we depend on each other. But it is not autobiographical in that one of us is sick and the other isn’t. For us it’s much more a day-to-day relationship. We made the film more extreme to push the point.

Filmmaker: That seems to be the narrative arch of the story, to move beyond a dark drama to a larger fable or parable about relationships. Many have read the early dark part of the film as being indebted to David Lynch.

Mike: When we did this film, we realized that we could have gone into a dark Lynch-like territory. But we choose not to do that. Now everyone is referring to us as Lynch-like. The hard part for us was making these guys accessible, giving them some part of humanity so you care for these guys as opposed to saying, "Okay, it’s dark." Let’s just watch two things from afar."

Mark: Let’s get between that whisper, let’s find out what those guys are whispering about. And because it is in low light, we are automatically compared to Lynch. Most of the time the low light was really helpful in hiding the legs and the limbs.

Mike: Our film was much less about being dark in the Lynch sense of dark. Besides I think our dark is much more chocolate brown opposed to being a black dark.

Filmmaker: Your film seems the opposite of Lynch, in that Lynch turns the normal into the bizarre and grotesque, and your films starts with the cliché of a freak and humanizes it.

Mike: The film’s not about being Siamese in any literal sense. It’s a metaphor about relationships between people and not a freak show, not about the physical conjoining of two bodies but about their souls and how they relate to everyone else. People come out relating to the film as being about how people need each other.

Filmmaker: The film’s plot revolves around the contradiction between the need for independence and the fear of separation.

Mike: We saw it as inevitable that they would separate just as in our lives we are going to have to separate – whether that be death or just not seeing each other for a while.

Mark: I think that was the evolution of the script in that you have to go someplace with these guys. When one thing ends, something else comes around. Even though one loses half his self, another half in another form comes along. I think that the movie is very optimistic that way.

Filmmaker: How have audiences received the film?

Mike: Well no one has told us it is bad. The only problem is the constant comparison to David Lynch. It’s a great comparison – he’s a great filmmaker, but we never intended to make a David Lynch film.

Filmmaker: If not Lynch, what sort of influences did you have?

Mike: There were lots of traditions we relied on for influences, often very unexpected ones. We got from Sergio Leone the operatic feel for the film. And we used lots of Mahler, as well as Thai music. When I first heard the Thai music I thought it was so odd, but then I found it so comfortable. We also wanted to pay homage to Chang and Eng. [The twins from Siam, currently Thailand, that give this condition its name.] In fact, hearing the Thai music is not unlike seeing Chang and Eng. At first it seems odd, but then there is also something very beautiful and comforting in it.

Filmmaker: That double-edged emotion seems to be evoked throughout the film, of things being uncanny in that they are both strange and comforting. It’s the same feeling created by the dream sequence.

Mike: There is nostalgia built into the breakup automatically, and we wanted to use that nostalgia, but we didn’t want to shoot little kids. The Super-8 gives you the feeling of something that has past but is not precise. Then we re-photographed on 35mm which gave it a pulsating feeling. I remember the first time that we cut it; we were just in tears. It was so emotional for us.

Filmmaker: There is not a clear sense about what type of genre your film follows, but there is a strong and clear artistic sensibility.

Mike: I think that is true. We make color and light definite characters in the story, definite parts of the story. Often I am just interested in how light falls on things. I am also a real sucker for source lighting, especially in how it motivates the story.

Filmmaker: You seem much more attentive to visual style than many low-budget independent films. Do you feel that is your strong point?

Mike: I felt that if I could get the visuals down, then hire the best actor for the job, I’d be fine.

Mark: I think writing is our weak point right now, but it is something that will improve.

Mike: But if I can nail the images, and work with an editor, I could assemble something that could speak in pictures without a whole lot of dialogue. This is not a very spoken film because I think the visual of the twins is so powerful that you don’t want a lot of commentary from them.

Filmmaker: How do you structure the narrative then?

Mike: It always starts with pictures. First pictures, then words.

Filmmaker: But in structuring it that way, how do you end it?

Mike: The end of the movie could have been after the dream sequence. It would have been a nice way to wrap it up. But it seemed better to know that these characters who you might not have been too keen on in the beginning, end up in a better spot than you expected. We just knew that it would end in separation.

Filmmaker: Twin Falls is part of series of films inspired by towns in North America. What’s that about?

Mike: My father lives in Montana, so we drove back and forth a lot. And we passed through all of these towns, Twin Falls, Idaho and Jackpot. This film doesn’t really have anything to do with the town, Twin Falls, but I think of it as the town the story should be in. Jackpot is also the same, in that it is named after that town, but it is about looking for a jackpot, about a thing called celebrity disease. North Fork is about a river. They all tie in together in that they take place in North American towns, but they all take place at such completely different times.

Filmmaker: But they aren’t really about the town; the town names are simply markers for parts of America.

Mark: And also milestones. Since Jackpot comes out at a time when one thought they would turn around and become rich, and North Fork marks a period when water was so valuable.

Filmmaker: Have you gotten any comments from people in Twin Falls?

Mike: Yes, and most of them are, "Why didn’t you shoot the falls? You never see the water falls." I remember seeing the local paper saying "There is this great indie film named after our town."


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