'For Lovers Only:' Michael and Mark Polish's No-Budget Digital Dream Project
Brothers Michael and Mark Polish first gained notoriety in 1999 on the indie circuit when they played conjoined twins in the very odd feature Twin Falls Idaho. The two also collaborated on the script, and Michael directed. Since then, the two have resisted the temptation to go more mainstream. Instead, they continue to work within small budgets so they can retain their unique sensibility in films like Jackpot, Northfork and The Astronaut Farmer.
Michael Polish (with camera) and Mark Polish
Their latest film, the black-and-white nouvelle vague-style romance For Lovers Only, is by far the lowest-budget, lowest-tech project the brothers have created since they were making short films on their own as teenagers. Because it cost nothing (they insist they didn’t spend a dime beyond the cost of hotels, meals and transportation), the reported hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s brought in from its download-only distribution that started last July has made it an unqualified financial success.
The idea to do this sort of retro ’60s art film in Paris goes back to a script Mark had written before Twin Falls Idaho. Mark would play a photographer who runs into an ex-girlfriend in Paris; the two would drop their responsibilities and rekindle their love on a carefree trip through France. They’d considered shooting it on their Bauer Super 8 camera and then later on an ARRI S in 16mm. There were practical reasons making the prospect of either approach difficult, and it was difficult, even for the Polish brothers, to imagine how such a film might find an audience.
After seeing each other for the first time in years while on separate work assignments in Paris, Yves (Mark Polish) and journalist Sophia (Stana Katic) flee together and travel by train, car and motorcycle, as their love affair takes them across France.
But in 2009 there was the relatively tiny, inconspicuous Canon EOS 5D Mk II camera, which gave them cinematic depth of field characteristics they responded to. Another benefit: the 5D allowed a single person to shoot a scene on a busy street while looking like a tourist.
At the same time, streaming and downloading content was really taking off, and with it the option of bypassing the traditional film distribution model. “Before we really knew how it would all work,” Michael recalls, “we thought, ‘This could be one of the first movies made especially for the iPad.’ We’d make a movie people could watch in bed or on a plane.”
After some initial testing of the 5D Mk II, Michael decided he was comfortable shooting and directing. They didn’t want the camera outfitted with a bunch of accessories that would make it unwieldy and attract the attention of authorities while they were under cover as tourists grabbing snapshots. The camera had a Zeiss prime lens (almost always a 50mm) and often a stack of ND filters so Mark could open up and get the shallow depth of field they wanted.
Mark handheld the camera; where possible, a second 5D Mk II would be set on a tripod, unattended, to act as a B-camera. The cameras captured audio to be used as a guide track, and the real audio track was captured to a Zoom H4n recorder with wireless lavs or a shotgun mic and subsequently synced to the guide track using Singular Software PluralEyes.
Mark made use of no artificial light throughout the shoot. “I didn’t even have a bounce card,” he notes. “The only time I brought any light to a scene at all was for a scene where Mark and Stana are making out in a club. I put my iPhone into flashlight mode to get a little light on them.”
“Sunsets give the city a lot of drama. It’s not like some cities. In Manhattan, it can be hard to find light on the street, but Paris is always luminous.” —Michael Polish
Given the production’s stealth approach to shooting, the filmmakers had to show up, work quickly and hope they got the shot. Mark and Katic got very familiar with the script so they could hit the ground running and adapt to change as the environment dictated. Then they would show up at a location and enact their scene as many times as possible as Michael moved around them with his camera.
“One thing I wanted to do as the cinematographer was bring to it the kind of coverage you would have in a regular movie—your masters, mediums, over-the-shoulders, close-ups, chokers—so we would have something we could cut. We still brought a traditional sense of making films to the 5D world,” Michael continues.
The brothers were used to the traditional road for indies: a long period on the festival circuit, an attempt to find an audience in the U.S. and finally some international play. But things were very different with For Lovers Only: When the brothers put their film on Apple iTunes, word quickly spread through social media.
“We were surprised how global the movie became so quickly,” Mark says. “Independent film lovers everywhere became a big, global group and supported it. You used to build a small niche in the U.S. and then take your film from one country to the next to build a global audience. Now you click a button and everybody has access to it all over the world.”