'Astronaut' seems like indie, but blasts off via WB

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"Astronaut" action: The line between independent movies and major studio films is less rigid than it once was.

A case in point is the drama "The Astronaut Farmer," which seems like an independent film but actually is blasting off in wide release Friday from Warner Bros. Although "Astronaut" started out at the studio's Warner Independent Pictures label, it wound up moving to big Warner after the studio decided it seemed mainstream enough in its appeal to go out as a wide release. Directed by Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho"), the Spring Creek Pictures production is a Polish Brothers Construction Prod. Its screenplay is by Michael and his identical twin brother Mark, who co-wrote the indie hit "Idaho" that premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and won the Independent Spirit Award in 2000 for best first feature.

Starring are Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade," which won the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature in 1997), Virginia Madsen (who won the Independent Spirit Award in 2005 for best supporting actress in "Sideways," which also won in five other categories including best feature) and Bruce Dern ("Monster," which won the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature in 2004). Produced by the Polish Brothers and Paula Weinstein and Len Amato, "Astronaut" was executive produced by J. Geyer Kosinski.

The Polish Brothers' screenplay revolves around Charles Farmer, a former Air Force pilot who was training to become an astronaut when family problems forced him to drop out of NASA's program. Not willing to give up his dream of someday orbiting the earth, Farmer devoted the next 10 years and all his money to building his own rocket on his Texas ranch to launch himself into space on his own.

"I was thinking how (it could work) if somebody wanted to go into space by themselves and maybe not be able to do the (NASA) training," Michael Polish told me recently. "It kind of gave me the basic idea of how could somebody do space travel and orbit the earth who didn't have the means to do it. And then from there it kind of grew into this character named Charles Farmer, who actually did have some training, and (tried) to keep his dream going by building a rocket in his barn."

Polish and his writing partner/brother Mark came up with the project, he explained, when "we were finishing our first three independent trilogy films ('Idaho,' 'Jackpot' in 2001 and 'Northfork' in 2003). In between the second and third we came up with this idea of doing something, which we thought would be just another independent film. It just happened that it ended up getting financing through Warner Independent. We came up with this idea and started to explore it, but we put it away for a couple years. We worked on it for a few weeks maybe and finished a really rough first draft and then we put it away and finished 'Northfork.' And after (that) we decided to pull it out (again). We had another project called 'I.D.' with Warner Bros. and it seemed like that was going, but it would be such a big thing to do first with them we decided, 'You know what? We have this other screenplay. Would you like to see this one first?' And they said yeah."

In pitching "Astronaut," he recalled, "We wanted to have a studio read it to see how it felt to (them). We actually only sent it to one place. That was Warner Bros. and they jumped on it quite fast. Even though they felt (at that early point) that it might not be as accessible as we thought it would be, they still wanted it and they still thought it would make a good movie. So we did it with the Warner Independent (label). We gave it to Warner Independent because we thought, 'Let's make this smaller.' I didn't know if the big or proper Warner would be interested even though we had another picture with them that we were writing. We gave it to Warner Independent and they said, 'This would be great.'

"Billy Bob had already expressed interest in it and he was on board. We gave it to him and he read it over the weekend and said yes and the next weekend we were at Warner Bros. where they said, 'Yeah, we'll do it.' Not a bad combination. There was interest from other studios, but we felt aligned to Warner Bros. because we were already working with them. (Warner Bros. Pictures production president) Jeff Robinov has always kept tabs on us ever since ('Idaho')."

What happened next? "They said, 'Do you have a price to make this movie?'" he replied. "It was about 12 million bucks, which is just enough rope to hang yourself because you're dealing with CGI and special effects and you want to build a real scale (model) of a Mercury Atlas (rocket) so you kind of have these big set pieces. For us $12 million's huge, but for them it was not very big. We said we would like to film this in Texas. As we were going down to Texas to location scout there were tax incentives being offered in New Mexico and we said, 'Maybe this will work because we can get some money back because the state's offering great stuff.' So we went to New Mexico. When I first landed in New Mexico, to be honest, I was like, 'I don't know if this is going to work.' But then I drove around the whole state and it offered so many different looks that (we said), 'We'll do it here.' Within three weeks we brought the whole team down there. From them saying yes to doing it, we were already location scouting and then, I would say, about two months after that we were shooting."

Polish was very happy working in New Mexico: "New Mexico seems to be Hollywood Southwest now. The incentives are very hard to beat. It makes it a lot easier for people doing midrange budgets. And the crews there now are two or three people deep so if somebody is working on something else, there's somebody else to replace them now. So they're getting a nice core crew there for all different positions, which is (very helpful)."

Asked how he and his brother work together as co-writers, Polish told me, "Whoever comes up with the basic idea, the initial inspiration, will go do the first draft and hand it to the other one. So we never really write together. We've never really written together. We usually pass our drafts back and forth."

Who wrote "Astronaut's" first draft? "To be honest, I'm not sure who wrote this one," Polish said. "We were in France doing it and I don't remember if he took it or I took it. I think I might have written the first 45 pages and then he took it and wrote the next 60 pages. Our first drafts are quite short because basically you're filling out an outline just to get from point A to point Z as quickly as you can. Then you go back and you can see where does the weight need to be. I'm usually coming from a more visual standpoint and he's coming from a more practical standpoint. That's why I think these movies (we do) are the way they are."

It's easy, of course, to write a line like "The rocket blasts off," but bringing that to life on the screen in an affordable way is much harder. "We carefully storyboard every sequence," Polish pointed out. "The whole film is storyboarded so there's some sense (that) the screenplay's already been translated in one visual sense. So when we go to an effects team we say, 'This is how we see the rocket going off and this is what we think we need to help suspend belief.' So we have a few teams working before we actually shoot these movies. Even going back to 'Twin Falls Idaho,' nobody knew what these twins (Siamese twins who needed to be separated) were going to look like. And a lot of people didn't know what this rocket was going to be like. So it was very parallel to how the twins stuck together -- do they share a leg? How's that going to work? Do they share a torso?

"And then when you say, 'Well, it's a Mercury Atlas rocket,' 90% of the people don't know what that looks like or what that means. And when you say, 'A man builds a rocket,' I'm presuming that people are thinking this guy's just standing and lighting a match like in a Warner Bros. cartoon and he's blasting himself up (into space). They're not really aware of what that program did or what was going on in that (early space travel) era. It's kind of a forgotten era, I believe."

As the Polish Brothers put their cast together, Virginia Madsen, who plays Thornton's wife, was one of their most important hires. "Virginia was mentioned right when we (started thinking about casting)," he said. "She was getting a lot of praise for 'Sideways.' We all knew her work, but we didn't know if she was available or not. We were growing a family and she was really the first actress we spoke to on the phone. She was actually in Hawaii with her son and she was on the beach. She was going to dinner (with some people). Her son met a family on the beach and he happened to be a rocket scientist. So she had somebody to talk to about (the project) right there.

"She said, 'Well, I guess this is meant to be.' She got the script in Hawaii and there was a rocket scientist to explain it to her. She came right over to New Mexico. 'Sideways' was out (already) and she had wrapped a Harrison Ford movie (the 2006 thriller 'Firewall,' directed by Richard Loncraine). That movie was done. And if I'm not mistaken, she had just finished the Robert Altman film 'A Prairie Home Companion.'"

Shooting got underway in early September 2005: "It was 33 days. It's never enough time. You know, for us it's a great (deal of) time. We shot 'Twin Falls' in 17 days and 'Northfork' in 23 or 24 days. So an extra week seemed amazingly massive, but it really wasn't. But you've got to do what you've got to do."

Not having a lot of time in which to shoot is a factor that also affects how Polish works with his actors. "I've never had the (time) to do a rehearsal," he noted. "Usually they get on the set and I'm seeing them (then) for the first time. It's very interesting and exhilarating. There's a real spontaneity. Every actor I've ever worked with, I've never had a rehearsal (with). Maybe a camera rehearsal where they want to know where they're supposed to be. But never a reading. And it's always very exciting. You know, when you work with Billy Bob Thornton and the Nick Noltes and James Woods of the past, those guys are so sharp. They're never if ever very far from the mark."

Looking back at the challenges of production, he observed, "You're always against time. You have a certain amount of days that you're allotted to shoot with a certain amount of money and you just have to make it all fit. In this film you were always shooting three pages or four pages a day, but some days you're shooting five or six and you don't have a lot of time to go back. If something's not working you really can't change it. I guess that's sort of like coaching a football game. You kind of Monday morning quarterback it, but when you're in it you're in it and you try to make the best decisions you can make to win that day. Everything's pretty much on the fly."

With a tight budget and shooting schedule to contend with it helped that the Polish Brothers' background was in the world of indie filmmaking: "Thank God we had the training from independent films. I remember when we signed this deal with Warner Bros. it was going to be a little bit different -- you're going to have money, you're going to have time, you're going to be able to do the things you want to do. And to be honest, it was completely the same as doing an independent film for $500,000. The same problems. So I'm imagining even when you get up into (budgets that are in) the hundred millions you're going to be saying the same things -- you don't have enough time, you don't have enough money. I guess it's all relative. But when you're doing, let's say, emotional scenes or you want somebody to (do something and) they haven't been able to get there in the first two or three takes, there's not a lot of things you can do. There's no electric prod to make these people cry or make them laugh. You kind of just have to move on and, hopefully, (believe that) you got enough. There's a lot of faith-based filmmaking."

Of course, there's always postproduction where, perhaps, you can save what looked like a disaster during shooting. "You can add a tear," he suggested, thinking in terms of digital effects. "Thank God (our actors) knew how to get there really quick. They just do it. I mean, Virginia's just got an amazing instinct to be there all the time. And Billy is the same. Billy has an immense talent to read the page one time and be right there. He could be telling you a joke before the scene, do the scene and then can finish the joke afterwards. Like James Woods, I believe they both have photographic memories. They read them once and that's it."

Obviously time is a big factor in how he works. "I've never had the luxury of (doing) more than three or four takes," Polish pointed out. "I've never really had the luxury of spending time to work out a scene. You know, there are scenes in the hospital that are just one take and there are scenes in hallways that you do a mid-shot from over head and shoulders and that's all we had for the scene and you hope that it lives and breathes in that kind of environment. You shoot it and the editor gets (the footage later on and asks), 'Where's the coverage?' Well, that's kind of it. There's no coverage. Just plop it in there, if it works, it works and if it doesn't, it doesn't. And usually, 90% of the time it works."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Feb. 6, 1989's column: "Since Universal and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Films entertainment entered into a long-term, multiple picture arrangement in late November 1987 there's been great anticipation of the product that would result. Now with the first of those films, 'The 'burbs,' about to be released, there's encouraging advance word circulating.

"'burbs,' which opens Feb. 17 on more than 1,700 screens, was directed by Joe Dante and stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Carrie Fisher...Larry Brezner and Michael Finnell produced the comedy from a screenplay by Dana Olsen, who co-produced the film...

"Is there much difference in "burbs' between what was written and what's actually on the screen? 'Usually you have a real specific vision when (you write),' Olsen explains. 'I sat with this script for four years -- the first draft was 1984 -- so it acquires kind of a life of its own. By the time you've been working on it for that long, you're grateful for a director with his own vision to come along and actually put it up there (on the screen). On the whole I think it's a pretty accurate re-creation of what I did.'

"'I think any director who's worth anything has a vision,' says Brezner. 'It's like a good photographer or a good painter. Give them the same subject and they're going to come out with their interpretation of it. It's not exactly what Dana's is or what mine is, it's what Joe's is. And that's the way it's supposed to be.' To which he adds with a laugh, 'That's why you pay them all that money.'"

Update: "The 'burbs" opened Feb. 17, 1989 to $11.1 million at 1,952 theaters ($5,687 per theater) and went on to gross $36.6 million domestically, ranking 34th in terms of all 1989 releases. Imagine, of course, became a powerhouse production company and is still linked to Universal. Yesterday (20) the two companies announced the start of production in Phoenix on a new comedy -- "Kids in America," directed by Michael Dowse and starring Topher Grace.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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