Threat advisory: Under evaluation
Have your cake and eat it too. If that's your cup of tea.
In the next two days, the town of Northfork will cease to exist.
The year is 1955 and Northfork is literally about to be “dammed,” flooded to make way for a new hydroelectric project. The town's rugged plains are going to drown, its Heartland houses will be swept away and its citizens are heading for higher ground. With the exception of a few stoic resistors.
Now a team of six trench-coated men has been charged with removing the last few stragglers before it is too late. As the Evacuation Committee spreads out across Northfork, they encounter a group of people not quite ready or willing to leave. They are each in limbo. Some are looking for a sign. Others are hoping for a miracle. Yet, one way or another, they will all have to say goodbye. Among these tenacious individuals are a lustful young couple, a man who has built an Ark (complete with a pair of wives), and a frail orphan whose fevered visions have led him to believe he's the lost member of an ancient herd of roaming Angels calling him home.
Theatrical propaganda posters
Target demographic movie keyword propaganda
- Film drama dam flood
Persons of interest
- Josh Barker .... Matt
- Graham Beckel .... Marvin
- Marshall Bell .... Mr Stalling
- RJ Burns .... Neil
- Peter Coyote .... Eddie
- Anthony Edwards .... Happy
- Duel Farnes .... Irwin
- Claire Forlani .... Mrs Hadfield
- Ben Foster .... Cod
- Clark Gregg .... Mr Hadfield
- Jon Gries .... Arnold
- Daryl Hannah .... Flower Hercules
- Michele Hicks .... Mrs Hope
- Kyle MacLachlan .... Mr Hope
- Nick Nolte .... Father Harlan
- Mark Polish .... Willis O'Brien
- Robin Sachs .... Cup of Tea
- James Woods .... Walter O'Brien
- Mark Polish .... Screenwriter
- Michael Polish .... Screenwriter
- Michael Polish .... Director
Cinematic intelligence sources
- Northfork official movie site
- Northfork film production notes
- Awards and film festivals:
- Sundance Film Festival 2002: USA première
- See also The river, Twin Falls, Idaho
- Studios and distributors:
Special Agent Matti
Security censorship classification
M (Mature themes, Low level coarse language)
94 minutes (1:34 houars)
Not for public release in Australia before date
Film: Undated 2004
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Northfork is a film that indeed depends on how one looks at it. Rooted in magical realism, it is a unique American fairy tale about roots to the land, fear of change, saying goodbye, the fragility of angels and faith, the nature of storytelling, about individualism and, most of all, about the many ways Americans dream about the future. With both its tongue in its cheek and its heart on its sleeve, Northfork mixes absurdist comedy and visual inventiveness with stark poignancy to forge an entertainment that boldly stands apart.
Set in 1955 on the Montana Plains, the story takes place two days before the town of Northfork will be wiped off the map forever by a new dam. How do people leave the only place they've ever known? Whether it's moving across the country or departing this earth forever, Northfork ponders the strange and unsettling nature of making big transitions and mans ability to cope with them.
Sums up Mark Polish, who co-wrote the screenplay with his twin brother Michael: "Northfork is really three types of movie all intertwined: it's part Gothic, part surreal fantasy and part tender coming-of-age story. It throws all of the genres into the mix that influenced us as kids. But to me, what it is really about is how we each get ready for the major changes in our lives - whether physical, emotional or spiritual departures - and what kind of faith or belief structures are needed to make it all right."
Directed by Michael Polish from a script by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, the film completes the acclaimed and award-winning Polish Brothers' debut trilogy, which began with Twin Falls, Idaho and continued with Jackpot. These films are connected by themes of identity and loss - of the individual as well as the towns of this country. The films are also connected by the fact that they are all named after Northwest towns. The entire trilogy was shot in just 45 days (Northfork's production was by far the longest and most complex at 24 days), making it a true American Indie epic.
Every script must have an "ark": about the plot
"The State understands your difficulty in moving on."
The tale of Northfork unravels in a fictional Great Plains town that mirrors many real small towns of the 40s and 50s that were destroyed when massive hydroelectric projects flooded great swaths of farmland across the American West. Northfork, like many of those towns, is inhabited by families who have lived and toiled there for generations and whose hard-scrabble hopes and dreams are entwined with the very landscape, harsh and rugged as it is. Now that the town must be moved, a few of the town's most die-hard citizens just don't feel that they can leave.
Some are too young to understand - like the Youngs. Others are stalling for time - like Mr Stalling (Marshall Bell), who has built an ark and is preparing two by two (with Mrs Stalling and Mrs Stalling) for the coming flood. Then, there is the man who has literally nailed down his boots with his feet in them.
Helping these folks make the transition is the Evacuation Committee, an eerily bureaucratic group of trench-coated, fedora-wearing men, who all drive the same spit-polished black Fords. Nevertheless these dark disciplined men, seemingly cogs in the government's wheel, carry out their own form of angel's work by trying to save lives, knowing that all those they don't remove from Northfork will drown. Among the Evacuators is the father and son team of Walter (James Woods) and Willis (Mark Polish), who have their own quandary about how to leave Northfork: whether or not to take their dead wife and mother with them when they go.
In an effort to move things along, the Evacuation Committee offers to each of the remaining citizens of Northfork a set of clipped baby "angel wings," in a velvet- lined guitar case, as a parting gift - perhaps as a ruse, perhaps as a marketing metaphor, or perhaps as a real invitation to fly to higher ground.
And then there is Irwin (Duel Farnes), an orphaned child too ill to make the journey from Northfork, who is being cared for by the town's crusty yet fiercely compassionate priest, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte). As Irwin lies in bed, trapped in feverish dreams, he turns the objects in his room into an extraordinary fantasy about a group of eccentric, wingless, earthbound Angels who are roaming the Plains looking for a lost member of their flock. Although these Angels are wounded, troubled and downright incompetent at times, Irwin believes this rag-tag herd might be his new family and he sets out to convince them that he is their relation.
Among the Angels is the blind, double-amputee Happy (Anthony Edwards); the androgynous, childless Flower Hercules (Daryl Hannah); the mute, stoical Cod (Ben Foster) and the drunken, cynical Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs). Each appears to have brought into the after-life the very same problems that plagued them in life and they are still trying to resolve them. They also have a mission: to find the unknown missing member of their group.
Like the Evacuation Committee, Irwin brings to the Angels a set of child-sized white wings he claims were once attached to his back and traumatically removed when he was a toddler. Are the feathers duck, are they goose, or are they real? The Angels try to decide Irwin's fate even as, back in Northfork, he gets one last earthly hope with Mr and Mrs Hope (Kyle MacLachlan and Michele Hicks), a couple hoping to take a child with them when they leave, unaware that Irwin is teetering on the brink of death.
As the flood draws near, it becomes clear that it is time for each character to make his or her final decision: to stay or go, to fight or make their peace, to reconcile or change. In the end, there will be death and destruction across the land that was once Northfork but also rebirth and the beginning of new dreams. It all depends on how you look at it.
As Michael Polish summarises about this vast and open-ended fable: "How you see Northfork depends on how you interpret dreams and death and the after-life, whether you are interested in the physical or the metaphysical, the straight reality or the fantastical myths. There is no right or wrong about it."
And now for the "back" story: the genesis of Northfork
"There's nothing fowl about these wings."
Northfork was conceived by the Polish Brothers as a fairy tale, complete with comedy and fantasy, as well as room for many different interpretations. The brothers liken the style of the film to an American version of Magical Realism, a mode of literature invented by Latin American writers that blends real moments and surreal moments as if they are one and the same. Magical Realism has been defined as making dreams seem like reality and reality seem like dreams. Jorge Luis Borges defined Magical Realism more poetically, saying: "It is a labyrinth of labyrinths, one sinuous spreading labyrinth that encompasses past and future." Rarely used in Hollywood films (one example is Terry Gilliam's Brazil), the Polish Brothers chose to take this labyrinthine, magical storytelling style and give it their own touch, weaving in distinctly American myths about rootedness and roaming, heaven and hell, state and individual, life and death.
"Northfork is meant to seem like a dream," explains Mark Polish. " It's grounded in reality and history but we give it magical twists. That dreaminess is also the way that, often, in America we look at the past - we make parts of it up, turn parts of it into myth and the things that really stand out are the things that tell us the most about ourselves."
The film's magic comes in large part from the rag-tag band of Angels that the orphan Irwin dreams up as he lies in bed near death. The Polish Brothers had been rethinking the common view of Angels as cherubic, flawless religious icons at the time they began writing Northfork. Instead of helium-light, otherworldly creatures who float around on wings, they wanted to write about earthbound Angels, who are perhaps too heavy of body, or heart, to fly.
"The traditional images of Angels were never really comforting to me as a child," comments Mark Polish. "They just seemed entirely made up. The omnipresence of certain religious images has always seemed stifling to me and I have always wondered why no one ever plays with them. I was more interested in a folk tale I heard that when God finished creating the earth he took a bunch of Angels back with him to Heaven and the ones he left on earth became human. That's why the Angels in Northfork are written as having utterly human hopes and despairs."
The brothers wanted to write about Angels but they also wanted to write a story about the Great Plains: and thus came the notion of Angels who had once roamed the plains like buffalo before they lost their wings. "We became intrigued by this idea that we are all angels but we've all lost our wings in one way or another," recalls Michael Polish. "Maybe we cut them off at some point or they were wrenched from our backs or they're no longer deemed necessary, kind of like your appendix. Or maybe we're still looking for them. But the point is, without your wings, you can't leave. And the idea of being unable to leave, or to change, is another big part of Northfork."
In addition to Angels, the inspiration for Northfork lay in the Polish Brothers' own family history, which has its roots in the hard-scrabble Montana frontier which their ancestors helped to pioneer. Their homesteading grandfather built dams (such as the Hungry Horse and Libby dams) in Montana and, growing up, they had been told frightening and fascinating stories of towns that disappeared overnight under millions of pounds of water, stories that fired their imaginations.
"I remember visiting several dams as a kid and seeing these black and white photographs of towns that were now underwater and it really stuck with me," says Mark. "It was a very powerful thing to think about - a whole American town just disappearing. I became fascinated by dams. Dams disrupt the flow of nature and in this era they disrupted the flow of the American Dream. It was a time when certain things came to a stop and other things were born anew, and that really Drew us to this time and place."
Adds Michael: "We wanted to write a story about death and rebirth in America so this very real history of disappearing towns, of people who had to say goodbye, of attachment to the land, seemed to fit. In America, when you build your home, you build roots to the land just like the roots you have to your brothers, sisters and children. To lose those roots is pretty unbearable to a lot of people, but it is also the nature of things. We were interested in how different people face transition."
Northfork also became about the nature of dreams, as the brothers decided that their Angels would visit Irwin while he was in a twilight state of illness. As with most dreams, the Angels are each inspired in appearance and personality by real objects in Irwin's room - for example, the spectacled, handless Happy is inspired by a compass and a hand-shaped flower vase; and Flower Hercules comes from a comic book on Irwin's night stand. Irwin even dreams of a magical dog on stilts, a fantasy version of Father Harlan's carved, wooden dog-head cane. In Irwin's dreams, the real world is blurred into something entirely new and only partly recognisable.
"To me, Irwin is dying in part because he is unloved, and he dreams about all that is being lost from lack of love," says Mark. "What you see in the film is Irwin's creative imagination dealing with what's happening to him. The images might be strange and weird at times but that's because dreams and inner feelings are always a little strange and weird."
The Angels themselves shatter typical Western images of the after-life. Explains Michael Polish: "Each angel has his or her own problem or need. They have heartbreak and pain and desires that have never been met. In fact, whatever plagued them on earth continues to plague them, has followed them into the beyond. This was an interesting idea to us: that you better work on your problems now because there's no guarantee they won't be with you forever. The Angels are also inspiring in that although they are a band apart, they are a gang together. We saw this as: united they stand, divided they fall. They are truly dependent on one another, and while individually they are kind of fun and interesting, it is only together that they get anywhere."
Another unique creation in the magical reality world of Northfork is the Evacuation Committee: six men, dressed alike, who walk around in dark flocks, partly tied to an uncaring system, yet partly driven by their own inner compassion. "When I thought of the Evacuation Committee, I always thought of the way flocks of birds all travel together in synch as one unit," notes Michael Polish. "But, although you can see the Evacuation Committee as part of a bureaucratic system, they are also on the side of the Angels, as it were, because they are trying to get people to higher ground. They are perhaps the right side of angelic-ness while Happy and that gang are the left side."
Four of the five members of the Evacuation Committee are named after Mark and Michael's Montana Uncles. "We wanted authentic Western names," explains Mark. "For me, the inspiration for the men was also the legendary Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry, with his trademark fedora and coat and his very American attitude about what it takes to win."
Throughout writing the script, the Polish Brothers also wanted to address the very nature of screenwriting - its confining, formulaic rules as well as their own mischievous intentions to break them. That's why the script is peppered with such puns as having an "ark," a "back" story, a cane that becomes a filmic "crutch" and an admission that the dream-like style doesn't try to be everyone's "cup of tea." "We come up against these phrases all the time and our point is this: we're trying to do it differently," says Michael.
Adds Mark: "Obviously, we don't write the typical three-act structure with a hero and conflict and resolution. We feel you can go see that any time you want to at the movies and we're very lucky to have found an arena in which we can do something completely different. Still, we decided that if people want an ‘arc', we'll give them one, so we wrote in Mr Stalling's ark, and if people want a ‘back story', we'll have a whole story attached to Irwin's back about his lost wings."
The script's unique mix of biting humour and tender moments is another key element of the film's style. "A fairy tale will make you laugh and make you wonder at the same time and that's the feeling we wanted," says Michael Polish. "We like the idea that it's not always clear-cut in Northfork how you should feel, that the film keeps you guessing on an emotional level. That's what also happens in fairy tales - one minute things are very serious, and the next a joker comes in and makes you laugh. It's a case of hitting you with one hand and rubbing you with the other and the effect can be to make be to make you stop and reflect."
Although Northfork is the final episode of the Polish Brothers' trilogy, it was written first, some eight years ago. At the time, the twins knew it was way too ambitious and unconventional to get financing, so they made Twin Falls, Idaho, a film ostensibly about conjoined twins that was also about the universal human condition, instead. Shot for just $500,000, the film went on to win international accolades and was hailed by Roger Ebert as "one of the best films of the year." They followed that up with Jackpot, also set in North-western American, which garnered the Independent Spirit Award's John Cassavetes Best Independent Film Award and the Seattle International Film Festival's New American Cinema Award. Jackpot also had the distinction of being one of the first feature films entirely shot in high-definition video.
At last, with their reputations as American film renegades sealed, the Polish Brothers were ready to revisit Northfork, bringing to the production everything they'd learned about independent filmmaking in the ensuing years. Although the three films do not share characters nor even direct story parallels, the Brothers consider them connected both geographically and emotionally. "The theme is the Heartland," notes Michael Polish. "There is a journey in each film for the authentic and sometimes disappearing American heart."
All in the same boat: the Montana production
"This country is being divided into two types of people: Ford People and Chevy People."
Northfork was shot in just 24 days on location in the frost-bitten wilds of Northern Montana, filming mostly around Great Falls and Augusta. In fact, it was the very first film the Polish Brothers have made on location. Though still made in the down-and-dirty Indie style for which the Brothers are known, the film was intended to have an epic feel, which was afforded by Michael Polish's imagination-driven visual design and the dramatic, open-sky landscape of Montana.
"When Mother Nature is one of your art directors, you can't go wrong," says Michael Polish. Yet others put the credit for the film's look - which meshes lyrical, dreamlike moods with pure Americana - squarely back on Michael, who sketched most of the film's inventive visuals and forged its painterly images (perhaps part Edward Hopper, part Salvador Dali) with anamorphic lenses and wide-screen techniques.
Says the film's props and costume designer Gary Tunnicliffe: "The Polish Brothers have the most surreal imaginations of anyone I've ever met. It's not just a cliché to say they bring dreams to life. They really take the mind's wildest possible ideas and fleeting visions and turn them into a reality you can experience."
Adding to the film's illusory nature is its palette. The question arises quickly into the film: is Northfork filmed in colour or black and white? At first glance, it's hard to tell, causing the eye to question everything it sees, an intentional design on the part of Michael Polish. "First of all, we didn't want to shoot in black and white because the stock these days just isn't rich enough and it doesn't have the latitude we needed," he says. "But we also were certain that the film had to have a grey pallor. I mean death and change are a grey zone and that's where the film takes place."
To achieve a desaturated effect throughout the entire film, Michael decided to shoot using colour film but to have everything that appears on screen fit within ten shades of greyscale. Buildings, clothing, accessories, anything and everything that was brought onto the set, had to fit somewhere in the grey spectrum. The film's designers and builders were each given a card with the grey scale on it and expected to never stray.
"This turned out to be much more challenging than I thought at first," admits Michael. "I suddenly became aware of just how much colour there is in the world. We even had to design grey Ketchup bottles!" In fact, in the entire film there is but one splash of true colour - among Irwin's dream Angels, Cup of Tea is wearing an eye-popping maroon scarf. Similarly, the colour white is only seen on the clipped angel wings. "The entire film became an advanced study in grey," sums up Michael. "I learned so much about it, about it how can become warm or cool under different circumstances. You learn that a ‘grey area' can mean many different things."
One of the most unusual and inventive sights in Northfork is the teetering dream dog, named Flaco by the Polish Brothers, that guides Irwin to the band of Angels. The dog was designed to be at once expressive and rickety, haunting and irresistible. Flaco's inspiration came from a streetwalker that Michael Polish saw in Brazil while publicising Twin Falls, Idaho. "He was this extraordinary creature made out of leather and balanced on stilts and I just loved the way he moved," says Michael. Using his memory as a guide, Michael had designer Gary Tunnicliffe create a costume that is meant to look "like a scraggly Buddhist Temple Dog made out of wood." The costume was created from Styrofoam dyed to resemble antique wood and the entire thing was hung over a man wearing stilts. The effect is of a fragile, tender creature spun out of a wild imagination.
"Most of all, Flaco is something that would catch the eye of a little boy, a kind of lost puppy who Irwin and the audiences can relate to," says Mark.
Flaco was created entirely by hand without the use of any special effects. In fact, the film is utterly devoid of effects, making it stand out in today's cinema. "One of the things that the crew on our films gets used to is that we're constantly asking them to do things they've never done before," says Michael. "People today are so used to doing everything digitally, but for us, it has to be real. We want everything done by hand, and it's a way of keeping that tradition of filmmaking alive."
The Polish Brother's father, Del Polish, who once built houses for a living, headed up the construction team that created the town of Northfork, complete with its eccentric touches. The crew literally dug its own graves, shovelling out 40-odd holes to form the cemetery. They also erected from scratch the 28 metre ark that contains the Stallings' house, as well as the church and the outhouse that serves as an unexpected Confessional. Later, the roof of the Stallings' house was removed and, in one of the film's most complex surreal sequences, set afloat in the Willow Creek Reservoir for scene in which James Woods makes his point about God giving the Stallings a sign.
The orphanage where Father Harlan watches over the fading Irwin was forged from an abandoned elementary school the production team discovered in rural Montana. "The school already had that eerie feeling of a place that was vacated, empty and run-down, so it felt natural to shoot there," notes Mark.
For the dam scenes, cast and crew journeyed to Eastern Montana and the dam at Fort Peck, which was featured on the cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine. "We loved the irony that in our film about death, we used the dam that was first in Life," comments Michael Polish. "It's also a really amazing dam that very few people ever visit because it is so remote." In fact, Fort Peck Dam is still the largest hydraulic earth filled dam in the world. Constructed in the 30s and 40s under President Roosevelt's New Deal, the huge project created shantytowns, some of which were later drowned, like Northfork, when the dam was completed.
Production initially began with the Evacuation Committee's scenes then moved on to those involving the Angels. "It felt like we were making two very different movies," admits Michael Polish. "For the first two weeks, we had all this macho energy and then we took a complete turnabout into Angels and a more fantastical kind of view. It was as if the left side and the right side of the story just collided."
The extremes of the film were echoed in Montana's extremes of landscape: it's remoteness yet hugeness, its overwhelming beauty yet intimidating quiet. For the Polish Brothers, it was exactly the right atmosphere. Having spent part of their youth in Montana, the Brothers also already knew how to fit in with close-knit rural communities. "We felt comfortable," explains Michael Polish. "It's Manners Country up there and there's a certain way you have to speak to lumberjack and ranchers which we get."
But one thing no one can ever be prepared for is the Montana weather. Although the film was shot in Spring, the weather ranged from searing heat to blizzards, sometimes all in the same day. "The conditions in Montana can be exhausting for the cast and crew," notes Michael. "But adversity can also have a good effect. It got to the point were we were kind of like the Donner Party all trying to survive together, although fortunately we didn't end up eating each other. On the contrary, the cast, being who they were, brought everyone's spirits up and there was a real sense of being united."
He continues: "In fact, during the scene where we floated the Stallings house in the lake, it was absolutely freezing and snowing heavily and these big Montana locals in huge coats came over to us and said "Obviously, you're not going to shoot in this." But we did and that was a real turning point in the production. We proved to these guys just how serious and committed we were and that brought the whole crew even more together." On other days, the notorious, howling Eastern Montana winds blew so hard that the cameras literally could not be kept on the ground. "There were times we had to crawl to our trailers, it was so windy," recalls Mark Polish. "I do believe we were hit with every element in American weather, so we felt that Mother Nature gave us her all."
Adds Nick Nolte: "The wind blew so hard during production that it would have blown a larger production across the State."
No matter what the weather or the world of filmmaking threw at them, throughout production the Polish Brothers had one underlying motto: "Getting bang for the buck". They whole-heartedly believe that bloated budgets are unnecessary to get extraordinary visuals on screen. "In the same way that Happy says ‘Don't let your mothering nature get in the way of your manhood,' we say ‘Don't let your budget get in the way of your vision,'" says Michael Polish. "We've shown that films that are epic in size and scope can be made on smaller budgets. You can still be thrifty if you use your imagination."
While Michael Polish concentrated on using his imagination, Mark Polish continued to chase down financing while making Northfork, often maxing out his own credit cards just to keep the cameras rolling. "We were literally finding enough money each day in order to be able to shoot the next day," he explains. "It's a tough way to make movies, and often I was being advised to just pull the plug, but I wouldn't. I felt my job was always to protect Michael from all of this and just let him make the movie we had written in the best possible way."
A town that's been "dammed": the cast and characters
"The Unknown doesn't just come knocking on your door."
Northfork's unconventional storytelling style and surreal mood attracted a cast of some of the finest actors working in Hollywood today, despite the fact that they worked for scale in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances in the middle of some of America's most remote country. The Polish Brothers believe the draw came down to this: "People will go far and wide and work really hard for good material."
As production neared, the Polish Brothers found themselves with a long list of actors who had expressed interest in appearing in Northfork and began juggling them, a task that fell to Mark Polish. "It felt a bit like the NFL draft," he jokes. "I had a big roster of names and a bunch of schedules and I just had to make it all fit together."
Among those most committed to the project were two of Hollywood's most talented actors: James Woods and Nick Nolte. Woods had never worked with the Polish Brothers before but was drawn to the script for Northfork, and wound up taking the role of Walter, a key member of the Evacuation Committee. "He really liked Walter," recalls Mark Polish. "I think he was drawn to this stalwart man who's very much in limbo. It's his kind of character."
Woods himself says: "I liked that the emotions of this role are very suppressed and yet a constant undercurrent. And I also liked that it's a movie in which my biggest, most emotional scene takes place in an outhouse. Walter's very stoic on the surface but turbulence flows underneath. His inner world is, indeed, dammed up. Still, like all the characters in Northfork, he has to come to terms with the transition from life to death and he and Willis do it through moving the grave of Walter's wife. To me, it's a story about the power of loss, whether personal, historical or loss of the natural world." As for his first exposure to working with the Polish Brother, he observes: "They have imaginations as huge as Montana and working with them was a great experience."
Nick Nolte had met the Polish Brothers in Nice, France, where all three were part of the cast of Neil Jordan's The good thief. Although originally considered for the role of Walter, once Nolte read the script of Northfork, he decided he most wanted to be Father Harlan.
"Father Harlan is the kind of emotional and moral weight of Northfork," he observes. "He knows he's going to be the last one out of town and it's up to him to make sure everything is taken care of. I see him as a man of faith, both in the Biblical sense and not in the Biblical sense. He maintains a positive view of life which is based on constant acts of forgiveness. But now he is stuck in a situation which is not his covenant. He's used to helping children through the transition to a new life, not towards death and he isn't quite comfortable with that."
Nolte came to the set of Northfork from the set of Ang Lee's Hulk, where he was playing a different sort of father - the forbear of that film's mythic creature - yet he sees the two characters as somewhat related. "To me, Father Harlan is the other side of the father of the Hulk. One is devious, and the other is selfless in their quests. They are shadows of one another."
For Nolte, moving from a big-budget production to Northfork's bare-bones labour-of-love atmosphere was also a yin and yang experience. He notes: "In low-budget movies, you do that which you love. You're really following your passion and I have found over the last ten years that they are usually wonderful experiences like Northfork. Bigger budget productions tend to be more conflicted and full of strife, and you have to be very careful they don't damage the passion you have for your work."
Just getting Nolte to the set turned out to be one of the film's biggest cruces. "I'd have to say that getting Nick was the greatest challenge of the entire, incredibly challenging production," says Mark Polish. "He was still filming Hulk when we began and he was obligated to them but still wanted to be in this film. We went back and forth for a long time trying to find a way for him to get to Montana. Finally, I just put a private jet on my American Express card and flew him out. It was the ultimate irony: we were the lowest-budget production you can imagine yet we were flying him out on a private jet! And thank God they took American Express."
Working with Woods and Nolte was an exciting experience for the Polish Brothers, who have a vast knowledge of American film. At one point, the two actors went bowling together (one of the few things they found to do in remote Montana) and even that was entertaining, recalls Mark Polish. "Even while bowling, you could really see their individual natures as actors," notes Mark. "James bowled straight down the pipe while Nick was completely unconventional, yet they both had an equal amount of style."
Although the Polish Brothers always knew that Mark Polish would play one of the film's characters, no particular role was written for him. Instead, it naturally evolved that he would play Willis because of a plausible physical relation between James Woods and him. Still, Mark was drawn to the role's comedy, poignancy and ambiguities. "Willis and Walter have issues that are never going to be entirely resolved," explains Mark. "For one thing, Willis has a lot of anger at his mother for leaving them that he really hasn't dealt with. But the thing about the 50s is that they often covered up sadness and anger with religion. There was this idea that you didn't have to grieve a loved one because the dead were all flying around somewhere like Angels, but I'm not sure Willis really believes that. He's coming to terms with what makes sense to him."
Working with Woods is one of the admitted high points of Mark Polish's acting career. "It was a dream come true for me because I had admired him for so long and Once upon a time in America is one of my favourite movies of all time," Mark notes. "He taught me a lot, especially about working with the camera because he has so much technical knowledge and intelligence." Mark also realised that the more they worked together as a father-and-son team, the more paternal Woods became. "He was always straightening my tie and fixing my hat, the same way a Dad will do, almost unconsciously, and I never could quite tell if he was doing it purposefully or not," he remembers. "It just seemed that he always wanted me to be my best."
Still, it was a slightly schizophrenic atmosphere for Mark, who moved back and forth between his roles as writer, producer and actor. Recalls Michael: "While playing Willis, Mark always had a cell phone in his suit pocket and the minute I would call ‘cut' he'd be right back on the phone producing."
One of the most challenging aspects of casting was finding a child to play Irwin. From the start, the Brothers knew they wanted a child who hailed from Montana. "We didn't feel we needed an actor so much as someone who comes from this place," says Michael Polish. "And we definitely needed someone who could deal with the cold and the tough conditions." The filmmakers auditioned hundreds of local children and the second-to-last young boy they saw was 8-year-old Duel Farnes from Ennis. "I was immediately struck by his childish speech impediment. He drops his "R's" which caught our attention because my brother and I both did that as children," Michael notes. "It makes him sound a bit odd and otherworldly which we thought was perfect."
Michael continues: "For Irwin, what we most wanted was a combination of someone sympathetic and strong. You have to believe that Irwin would stand up to the band of Angels and Duel makes that work. From the minute he got on the set, he evaporated all of our doubts. One of the most amazing things about him is that he had perfect eye contact with all of the adult actors. He was so intimate with Nick Nolte that we almost felt like we were eavesdropping on their scenes together. He has a kind of fearlessness and directness that is almost never seen in children that age."
On the set, Michael asked his brother Mark, who was also a child actor, to serve as Duel's coach and help him through some of the more complex scenes involving the Angels. "The hardest part for Duel was that for him it really was like visiting this alternate world and he was so excited that it could be distracting. He was really just like Irwin because he saw these characters, one of whom didn't have hands, one of whom was playing a music box and it just transported him," says Mark. "But he was always so natural in his mannerisms that he needed very little help."
Initially, the Polish Brothers only intended to explain the basics of the part to Duel, merely telling him that he was a boy who had no mother and father and was very sick. But the more Duel found out about the story, the more he wanted to know. "He ended up talking to us about death and the after-life, and we realised that he really got was Northfork was about," says Michael. "He's definitely a rare child. He gave us the kind of performance you can only hope for from an 8-year-old." As for Duel Farnes, he says that hardest thing he had to do on the set was be kissed by Daryl Hannah. "Boys aren't supposed to like girls," he explains.
To play the Angels, the Polish Brother cast a group of actors as individual and quirky as the rag-tag herd of celestial seekers in the film: Anthony Edwards as Happy; Daryl Hannah as Flower Hercules; Ben Foster as Cod; and Robin Sachs as Cup of Tea. "What was interesting to me is that none of these actors had ever met before so they really did have to come together in spite of their uniqueness just as this quartet would have had to in the after-life," says Michael.
Anthony Edwards had previously appeared briefly in Jackpot and had a strong desire to work with the Polish Brothers again. "This film was filled with ironies, but one was that the day Anthony Edwards started on the set was the same day his character on ER died," recalls Michael Polish. "And then there was the fact that in his best known role, he is known as a surgeon who relies on his hands and eyes and here he is almost blind and has no hands."
Edwards says: "I approached Happy as one element of a whole person; he brings reason, science and knowledge into the equation." The actor was immediately drawn to Northfork not in spite of, but because of, its unconventional nature. "I saw it as a miraculous and mystical picture that avoids being heavy-handed and at the same time is incredibly funny," he notes. "It's a film that deals in metaphors and you could take it as reality or as fantasy because it works in both realms. The film takes on very big subjects - death, history and change - but in a skewed and offbeat way, with a constant subterranean humour, and feels almost like great literature as much as a movie."
But Edwards also put his faith in the Polish Brothers. "This is a world that only the Polish Brothers know how to bring to life," he notes. "It's bizarre but it's also extremely personal. It emerges from their own original inner vision and the landscape and history that they come from. It's a film that, ultimately, you can't describe to another person. You just have to experience it for yourself. I think the importance will resonate differently for each person who sees it."
Daryl Hannah also appeared in Jackpot and had read an early version of Northfork, finding Flower Hercules a character she could not get out of her mind. "Every now and then, Daryl would call me up and say ‘Are you still making that movie with Flower?'" says Michael Polish. "She was always with us."
As the mute Angel Cod (a name which can also be interpreted as COD, or Certificate of Death), the Polish Brothers cast rising actor Ben Foster. Foster found himself going back in time as he learned how to act on film silently. "It's a very new experience for me: not talking," he jokes. "But it was fascinating. Cod is really the observer of the group, and the trick as an actor was to never get caught up in the conversation at all but just sit back and listen."
Foster had a powerful reaction to the screenplay. "To me, Northfork is a poem," he comments. "It's a wonderfully impossible story about being in limbo and searching for family." And, once he got on the set, Foster found himself equally compelled by the Polish Brothers' filmmaking style. "They feel completely free creatively because they don't have to answer to studio heads," he notes. "They keep the environment for everyone to be very creative and very relaxed, as well as always open to new ideas. I've never experienced such openness to play and create before."
Completing the wingless Angel quartet is British actor Robin Sachs as the somewhat acrid and bitter Cup of Tea. Sachs loved the idea of playing an Angel so cynical, he barely believes in his own existence. "Cup of Tea is not inclined towards faith, so he's quite sarcastic about ending up as an Angel," he explains. "I found this quite interesting." Sachs also found the film's many intertwined themes fascinating. His own phrase for what it's all about is: "Middle America on the run."
For the entire cast, part of the fun of participating in Northfork was figuring out just what film was about for them personally. Kyle MacLachlan, who appears as Mr Hope, explains: "To me, Northfork is a state of mind. As an actor, it was also a chance to do something a little bit different and do it for the love of work." Sums up Marshall Bell, who plays Mr Stallings: "Sometimes in order to tell the truth, you have to bend reality. It's up to each person to see their own truth in Northfork."