The Polish Brothers: The brothers from another planet

They're twins, dream about spaceships and describe themselves as 'suicidal'. Nick Hasted meets a unique film-making duo
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The Independent Culture

The Polish Brothers don't need anybody else. Michael directs, Mark acts, both write, and their movies take $100,000s, not millions, to make. They are their own private Hollywood, and they have to be, because the delicate language of symbols and dreams they speak would collapse if an outsider interfered. Identical twins themselves, they played conjoined twins in their debut, Twin Falls Idaho (1998), in a shadowy, murmuring world. Jackpot (2001), meanwhile, was about a karaoke country and western singer, searching for fame on the bottom rung.

Their new movie, Northfork, is their most lavish yet, starring not only Mark but Nick Nolte, James Woods and Daryl Hannah. It tells the epic tale of the drowning of the titular Midwest town by the Montana dam in the 1950s, and of the stranded souls who refused to leave. But it is also their purest project, an odd, jarring film to enter which becomes shatteringly moving. Mixing washed-out, coldly empty Midwest landscapes with the fever dream of a tough, dying little boy left in the town to be tended by Nolte's priest, and bargain in his mind with angels, every image hovers between two worlds, and austerely taps emotions that Hollywood can't imagine. It's a borderland the mixed-race twins - father Austrian-Montanan, mother Mexican - were born in.

Sitting either side of me early one morning in central London, the Polishes are as fiercely unusual as their films. Though Michael's long hair provides a helpful clue, I've forgotten who is who almost instantly. Playing the tape back later, the voices seem indistinguishable at first. Then they suddenly become jarringly distinct. Mark's is the slurring, halting drawl. Michael is the assured, assertive one. But by the end, they'll be talking almost together, merging like their movies' split dimensions.

The mixture of alienating quirkiness and true feeling in every frame is something they strive for. "There are oddities, but they still connect with the soul of people," Michael says. "I wanted the boy to be the heart of the story, and take branches from that," Mark tries to explain. "They may be cold, but the boy is warm. We tried to make it cold, warm, cold..." "You get like... flu symptoms," Michael considers. "American society looks at symbolism as the seasons changing, winter then spring. It's nice for us to go deeper and farther, interior. The way you place a cup and the way you do things should all have meaning.

"It's definitely not a film that's going to be instantaneously accepted," he finally admits. "James Woods said when he came out of the screening, 'That's the best movie I've ever been in. But not many people are going to see it.'''

The volatile Woods and Nolte proved less fearsome than their reputations. "They were really tame - with that unpredictable sense maybe a lion in a circus has," Michael recalls.

"They react, like any wild animal, to the arena they're in," says Mark. "We weren't going to poke at them, or laugh at them, so they do what they're asked. James told me he gets called to the set on a Hollywood movie, and they put him in the trailer for eight hours - in a box, in a cage. So when he comes out, he's gonna strike. But in Northfork, he came to the set, and as fast as he could get into his costume, he was working. He enjoyed that."

Duel Farnes, as the sick eight-year-old yearning to be snatched up by angels, was also perfect. "He read the script with his mom," says Michael. "And he goes: [businesslike] 'I just wanna know when do I die?' He was so happy about dying. He talked about it every day." "And he just wanted to be with Nick," Mark offers. "I think because his mom knew Nick Nolte, and was a big fan. 'When's Nick get here, when's Nick get here? I wanna die...''' Mark, it turns out, doesn't feel so very different.

"Mark's almost died a couple of times!" Michael cheerfully informs me, when I ask if Northfork's obsession with a beautiful, transcendent end mirrors their own. "Hit by a car, stuff like that," Mark breezily concedes. "It is a great obsession, in the sense that you don't know what's out there. It would be great to explore death, and return. I don't think I wanna die. I look at it scientifically, as an exploration. If a spaceship came down like in Close Encounters and said, 'You can get on, but you're not going to return,' I'd jump on it in a second. That's the same as death. It's very suicidal, in a sense."

"Just to embrace death as much as you embrace birth," Michael adds, "is really what Northfork's about."

It's also about the brothers' own past. Their grandfather worked on the Montana dams. The stoic reserve that makes their films so intriguing runs deep. "We appreciate visiting our relatives there, they're dealing with life and death in a daily manner," Michael says. "They don't talk very much," says Mark. "Emotion runs very thin up there. But then there's this sense of caring."

"Even though they're not going to say 'I love you' as much," Michael agrees, "they're going to back their family up. There's a pride in bonds. We could have made a movie where everything was rigid and proud. But, that's only half of where we're from. The other half is from Mexico. My mom is very emotional."

The pair grew up in a series of Californian towns. Asked if they fitted in, Michael answers: "We knew we wanted to leave." He went first, Mark a year later. But the bond never broke, till they learnt how to film. Did anyone else understand them? "Certain people understand fierce determination," Michael says. "And that's it. You're abandoned in that sense. Our films are unique in that way, if you look at other people's. Because there's a fierceness to keep the vision original. That comes from us supporting each other." Would they be complete without each other? "I don't think so," Mark says. "We're learning what each other thinks. Sooner or later, we'll know enough to maybe separate."

Twin Falls Idaho deals with this prospect in the most literal way. "It was a projection of what some people think of us," Mark remembers. "That we're conjoined. Every time I get a meeting, they bring him along too - like we're attached."

Do they resent such endless blending? "Sometimes," they each say, their sentences running together. "When people are upset at him, they'll ice me out, and I can't do anything about it" Mark complains. "People won't separate you as individuals." "Sometimes it's annoying," Michael says. "But privately, I think people probably feel jealous. There's a bond most people don't know how to feel."

It makes being a twin, even a conjoined one, sound like the sort of love many people dream of. "Exactly!" Mark says. "Because we weren't Siamese twins, I was trying to make that film a metaphor for marriage. It was turning into a metaphor by the time I'd finished writing it, because we weren't conjoined..."

"Interdependency," Michael finishes for his brother, without a trace of irony, "was something we didn't really know about."

'Northfork' is released on 12 March