Michael Polish brings a singular visual perspective to his films, such as the black-and-white “For Lovers Only” and latest film “Big Sur,” an adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel.
What’s your directing style when working with actors?
I don’t do rehearsals, and I don’t do readings before the film starts. I like to see what the actor brings to the first day. I like to see what choices they make and the rhythm they’ve picked for the dialogue, or spaces between the words they’re going to amplify, or how they’re going to pronounce the words.
Your films have an intimate feel; how do you achieve that?
Not yelling. It doesn’t work to yell. [Just] trying to make sure that everybody’s connected to what’s going on in front of them. I’m still pretty old-school when it comes to filming. I like to be next to the camera and watch it as it’s happening. I feel that creates an intimacy between me and the actors, so they’re able to be vulnerable and know that I’m there and I’m not watching a monitor from afar.
Your films are so beautiful visually; what’s your trick?
I used to draw quite a bit. When you’re able to draw, you create your own world. So you’re able to draw the characters, the landscape, or whatever you want. In a sense you’re directing the picture. [With movies] you get to create that world in the same way; it just takes a lot more people. I’ve shot a couple movies, and so my knowledge of cinematography was enough that I could have a dialogue with a decent director of photography that felt more hand in hand.
How do you get the best performance from actors when a scene isn’t working initially?
You have to get to a very organic place with somebody to figure out why it’s not working. It’s usually a problem with the scene, or the actor doesn’t feel comfortable with what they’re saying or doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes I’m hearing it different than I just want to hear it. As the director, you pretty much see everything from A to Z, and it’s your job to keep everything [in place]. Actors are focused on what they’re doing at that moment, which is brilliant on their part, but they might not know what is going to happen after or before they got on the set. So sometimes it’s just explaining what it was like before they got there, and what it’s going to be like when they leave.
What inspired you to tell this story in “Big Sur” the way you did, relying so much on the voiceover?
It was very risky to use Jack’s words. I knew it wasn’t going to be a movie that everybody was going to jump onto, because it’s too hard to make a Kerouac novel into a movie. How is this going to work? Because there’s no punctuation, the dialogue’s very sparse between people… He’s got this prose that’s incredibly tricky because he’s a language spinner. How are we going to put this all into one movie? Because the essence of it—of a person going crazy after fame—is very enticing to an artist at any level, to watch somebody go in that downward spiral is fascinating. But how are we going to do this different? And I thought if I stayed true to his inner mind and words from back to front, from beginning to end, at least people would know exactly what he was going through in his head.
I can make up scenes, I can change the dialogue to be more modern, or even easier to speak for the actors, but then that wouldn’t be what made Kerouac Kerouac. It was the way he spun his language that people really got into. If I change that because it needs to be made a typical movie with dialogue, then it’s not a Kerouac piece.