Although it would be natural to assume that Gabe and Alan Polsky would be drawn to a story about brothers for their directorial debut, you’d only be half-right.
“You bond when you create art with someone,” Alan recently told the crowd who gathered at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily for a sneak preview of his co-directing debut “The Motel Life,” dismissing the notion that their own fraternal connection was why they were primarily interested in Willy Vlautin’s novel about Frank and Jerry Lee, two down-on-their-luck siblings attempting to evade the local authorities after Jerry Lee flees the scene of a hit-and-run accident after being snowblind. Instead, it was the hope the Polskys saw out of the family that forms around the two as they struggle to do the right thing and find the best way forward, something the brothers experienced firsthand in adapting “The Motel Life” for the screen.
The Polskys are accustomed to bringing together disparate elements (and tones), having started their filmmaking career as producers on such films as Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” With “The Motel Life,” the two were introduced to the book by actor/writer Noah Harpster, who would later co-write the screenplay and take a small but pivotal role in the film, and spent over a year lobbying its author Vlautin to sell them the rights. One can see why there would be trepidation, given the world-weary, dark comic nature of Vlautin’s prose, yet with gently affecting performances from Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff as the two brothers as well as a fine supporting cast that includes Justin Leonard and Kris Kristofferson combined with a pungent rebellious streak exemplified by the animated fantasies the onscreen brothers have of a better life for themselves, the film is a pleasant surprise, so much so that Kristofferson, who appears briefly in the film, made a point to announce at the Cinefamily screening that it’s “one of the best films I’ve seen.”
Shortly before “The Motel Life” hits theaters, the Polskys spoke about moving from their usual role of producing to directors’s chairs, their ongoing relationship with Vlautin and how they shut down a Reno casino for a showstopping tracking shot.
Alan Polsky: Gabe and I have wanted to direct ever since we really got in the business. We were just looking for the right piece of material. With “The Motel Life,” it had a few things going for it that we really like. For one, it was a somewhat contained story. It wasn’t a massively high budget project, but it has [in] the voice of Willy Vlautin in the novel [something] very unique, very profound and actually a lot of humor in it for a story that has this much pain and challenge in it. That was really interesting in a movie like this because it helps carry you through the movie in somewhat of a lighter state of mind. The animation has helped with that too, to infuse that humor but Gabe and I were never looking to make an extremely depressing movie.
Gabe Polsky: We never looked at it like this is movie about losers or subterranean kind of people. We looked at these two guys, two brothers, and in a way, it’s just very universal. We didn’t want to focus on the fact that these guys are living too much on the fringes and it’s about that.
Alan Polsky: We actually saw this as more about soul and imagination [with] the gravitas of a drama that Gabe and I tend to love.
At the Cinefamily screening, you said it took over a year to convince Willy Vlautin to give you the rights and obviously, he’s been pleased with the film since he seems to be promoting it. What’s that relationship been like?
Gabe Polsky: Actually, it’s a huge feather in our hat, the fact that the author supports this movie because Willy Vlautin is a cinephile in his own right. He’s a lover of good movies and strong filmmakers, and I think “The Motel Life” was a very precious work for him. It was his first novel that got him a lot of acclaim and he just wanted to make sure we’re doing it right. I don’t blame him for being a little skeptical with two first-time directors trying to make the story, but having him support this film and throwing screenings for it, it really feels great.
Alan Polsky: Yeah. For Willy, Kris Kristofferson is a legend. So that day, we got him on set at the Halfway House at Reno, which is a restaurant there, we shot the scene with Kristofferson and I think we scored some points there. Once he saw the film, he was pretty excited about it.
Well, you show off some moves in the film. There’s an uncut tracking shot that leads into the pivotal Tyson-Douglas fight at the casino, where Frank is hoping to score some money to pay for his brother’s bills. How did that come about?
Alan Polsky: That was an important shot for us because the Tyson fight is a very high energy, high impact moment of the film and the tone is a little different than the rest of the movie. That tracking shot really builds you up for that moment with the music and the energy through the casino. This being a low budget feature, we didn’t have that much time for it and they gave us the casino for like half a day, so we actually only did five takes on it. I think we put take number four in the movie. Obviously, it was inspired by Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, but it was fun for us to do our version of it.
Gabe Polsky: It wasn’t difficult. We definitely had to interview a number of different artists and finally we found Mike Smith, this artist out of Portland who blew us away with some of the sketches that he did. We were looking to do, like you said, something edgier, but fit the mood of the movie and the characters because obviously, it had feel like it was coming from the character of Jerry Lee. Ralph Steadman and Egon Schiele were a couple influences [of the kind of look we were after] and we started working a bit with Mike to figure out the right look and he did a great job.
You mentioned that one of the questions you get asked most is about Noah Harpster, who introduced you to the book, co-wrote the film and steals scenes in the film as Frank’s friend Al. How did he find his way into the actual film?
Alan Polsky: Noah lobbied for us for it for a while and we didn’t say yes. We were just telling him, “Yeah, when we get there, we’ll look into it.” We might have read some people [in auditions] for that role. But Noah read for us too and he had the right mentality. He had done a lot for the project and he’s an actor himself, trying to establish his career, so it was really nice to have this role for him to get him out there more as an actor. At the same time, he just really killed it. I don’t know who else could have done a better job.
Has it been different for you to experience filmmaking from this perspective, putting on the director’s hat in addition to being a producer?
Alan Polsky: Producing and directing are such a whole different set of decision making. Obviously, in directing a film, your head is really buried in the creative elements of the movie. Gabe and I both found a lot of gratification and satisfaction from that, that I think we always knew that we would. One of the things that always frustrated us a little bit with producing is we’ve been very hands-on developers of material and if you’re a creatively-minded producer, you hand the keys over to the director to let him do his thing and sometimes it’s a little tough. It was very satisfying for us in this process to put that director’s hat on and make all of those decisions. The main reason why my brother and I got into this business was for the creative opportunity that it gives and we really enjoyed this.