- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2016

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILLINOIS | Filmmaker Michael Polish related to the Ebertfest audience Thursday afternoon that it was Roger Ebert’s belief in him and his abilities that pushed he and his filmmaking twin brother, Mark, to stretch their artistry in their movies.

“We had just wrapped ‘Twin Falls, Idaho,’ and we were still doing prints. Roger was doing ‘At the Movies,’ and [I thought], ‘One day maybe they’ll review my movie,’” Mr. ‘Polish told the audience at the Virginia Theatre.

Then he got a call from Ebert’s people in Chicago, saying the venerated critic had requested a copy to review of “Twin Falls, Idaho,” which Mr. Polish made with his twin in 1999.

He recalled the anxiety that followed, as well as the whir of the fax machine when Ebert’s letterhead came in.

“I go up there and it says: ‘Roger Ebert: One of the best films of the year,’ and he wrote the most beautiful, glowing review.”

It was appropriate, then, that Mr. Polish’s 2003 film, “Northfork,” would screen at the critic’s festival. “Northfork,” co-written by the Polish brothers, was introduced by Ebert’s widow, Chaz Ebert, who said her late husband called the film “a masterpiece.”

“Northfork” is a quasi-surreal film about a Montana community due to be flooded when a dam is deconstructed. A team of government agents led by Walter O’Brien (James Woods) is charged with removing the final stragglers who refuse to leave their homes. From there the film becomes a tale of magical realism and spirituality that mixes dreams with reality.

Roger said that the Polish brothers made movies that were like fairy tales that gave you a vision of what life could be for some people or what life was like for someone in an alternate reality,” Ms. Ebert told the crowd.

Mr. Polish said “Northfork” was a family affair, with his father building sets and tales his grandfather related about building dams informing the story.

“I based it on my dad and my grandmother talking me to [about] these towns in Montana. It’s that desolate and rough,” Mr. Polish said.

Following its initial screening at Sundance, Ebert made a beeline for the director.

“He says, ‘I haven’t seen anything like that before. Let’s have breakfast tomorrow,’” Mr. Polish told the audience.

Mr. Polish said his family’s religious traditions informed his views as an artist. His mother was a strict Catholic, and the towns he knew as a young man were heavily Amish, which influenced the formality of the costumes Mr. Woods and his G-men cronies wear in the film.

The coming flood in the film, Mr. Polish said, is not only a biblical reference but also a metaphor for mortality, “the idea that the flood waters are rising for all of us.” The spiritual center of “Northfork” is a priest played by Nick Nolte, who is caring for a young boy (Duel Farnes) stricken with illness.

Mr. Nolte based his performance on the caretaking he did for his own mother in the twilight of her life.

“Nick Nolte moved her into his house so she could die in his presence,” Mr. Polish said. “He taught me a lot about how to witness and go through that transition.”

For the role of Walter, the G-man who brings his son along on the mission of evicting Montanans from their homes, Mr. Polish said that Mr. Woods was his man, even if the revered thespian refused to get on an airplane.

“James Woods said he does not fly, and he said that if I can drive there, I’ll be in it,” Mr. Polish said of the Oscar nominee. “I said it’s Montana, and he said, ‘Great, I’ll be there in three days.’ And he came up without a deal in place or anything.”

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