Polka King is the latest film by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarksy, the team behind 2014’s Infinitely Polar Bear. Based on the 2009 documentary by John Mikulak and Joshua Brown, Polka King tells the remarkable, surreal tale of Jan Lewan, Pennsylvanian polka professional and Ponzi schemer extraordinaire. With a kinetic, infectious performance by Jack Black the film is a delightful mix of songs and the surreal actions of the titular character, a tale that’s simply too messed up to be made up.
We began our exclusive discussion, like any professional would, by this writer kvetching to the filmmakers about the premiere screening.
I saw your film beside a person who despite being asked a dozen times would not shut up. Halfway through I realized he was the subject of your film.
Maya Forbes: You sat next to Jan?!
Yes, while I watch Jack Black play him on screen, Jan won’t shut the hell up. He kept pointing out stuff and talking to his entourage. Sure, he may have stolen money from old people and served time on federal charges, but this is his true crime.
Wally Wolodarsky: That is incredible.
So, Polka King. First of all, if we could talk about your introduction to the story, I know the producers help shepherd the project but had you connected with the doc?
WW: No, it really starts with producers David Permut and Chris Mangano, the two people who found the doc. They got involved with Stuart Cornfeld over at Red Hour, which is Ben Stiller's company.
MF: …And Ben knew Jack Black.
WW: …So Jack gets involved. Then we get sent this thing, like hey, Jack Black wants to play this guy, is this interesting to you? And within 40 seconds we said yes.
MF: So Jack was already involved, that was a big thing.
I don't mean to be weirdly political, but I understand that there's some drama DGA stuff.
WW: Yes. Yes. YES.
Just for the record, you guys are crediting yourselves as co-directors?
To that end, because of the politics, how does one co-direct a film? How does one have two people in charge?
WW: Well it really grows out of our writing partnership. We've been writing partners for many years and so it's a natural extension of that.
MF: You co-direct via your shot list together, and you're on set together, and you discuss every decision, and you work with all the department heads together, and talk about your vision of how it's going to look, and how it's going to feel, the tone. We have a shared sensibility, tone-wise. We don't really talk about tone, we just write. I mean I guess we just write scenes that we like. [Laughs] We worry about the tone later. The editing is always when you get into tonal issues.
WW: Yeah but it's a funny thing because that's the thing we've been asked a lot-how do you set the tone for this movie? Or any movie. And it's not a conversation that we've ever had until somebody asks us that question.
MF: I'll say one thing - When we have something we don't agree on, if one of us feels really, really strongly, then the other one usually stands down. It's very rare for us both to be very strongly feeling about something that we're disagreeing about.
Is that more like TV than film? That at some point in the writers' room you are going over and over and you become less precious the more you do this.
WW: Yeah but the writers' room is a little bit different because somebody, either a single person or a team, will run the room and have the last say. From that perspective it's a little different because we're just the last say. So it's just she and I in a constant dialogue. And that's just happening all day by the monitor, let's put the camera here...
MF: ...And the editing.
WW: Yeah. Editing is a very, very important part of that too, of course.
I meant in terms of the primacy of the idea and not being precious about your own contribution.
MF: Yeah, and something like, "I love that line. I don't want to cut it." Or "I hate that line. I want to cut it,” and the other person's like, "That line, I can take it or leave it!”
WW: Right. Exactly.
MF: But for the most part we're pretty much on the same page.
WW: We know, aside from us, at least three other married couple directing teams. I know a lot of people say, "I can never work with my spouse; we'd kill each other!" but this is just a more visible version of what millions of people do, except they do it at a dry cleaner or they run a restaurant or something like that. It's much more normal than people think it is.
We've also been taught to think of the director as a completely fascist position.
MF: It's very macho.
WW: Right. Maya supplies that.
Despite being Jan’s story it feels not simply like the tale of an individual who clearly is mildly lunatic and sociopathic, but also those around him. I mean, when you cast a force of nature…
MF: Oh, you mean Jacki Weaver?
WW: She's a treat. She's a real treat.
MF: She's amazing.
But it’s clear that a film is made better by surrounding someone as energetic as Jack Black with people who can keep up with his energy.
WW: Go all the way back, with a filmmaker like Preston Sturges who filled out roles all the way down to the waiter with three lines, that had a huge impact on me as a kid and I've always carried that with me and I think Maya has the same feeling. That idea of community, we want that whole world to feel real, not just Jack, not just the lead. So that's important to us…
MF: ...that not everyone is just a foil for Jack.
WW: Right. Exactly.
MF: They have to have their own things. Their own desires and reality and lives.
WW: On Infinitely Polar Bear that was also very much a part of the story. You create this father and the daughters but they're existing in this bigger world of people who live in the building and the Mom and the family and they all add up to what the life is.
How did you choose the other ingredients - Jason Schwartzman, Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver
MF: We've known Jason since he was 17. He was in Rushmore and we love him.
WW: I mean Jack, is just his own planet. He captures the orbits of other people just because people want to be around him. They admire him.
MF: He's so talented. He's such a great artist but he's such a sweetheart. He's great to work with.
It sounds like you could have this incredibly charismatic person who, whatever the hell he's doing, you just kind of want to be around him.
MF: And he's not a criminal!
WW: What Jack was attracted to was this performer's desire to entertain, stage craft, give people an experience, and that's...
MF: ...get the love from the crowd.
WW: Yes, exactly. Get love.
MF: Feed on that love.
I think the difference between Jack and Jan is the self-awareness is slightly higher in Jack.
MF: Yes. Jan has a little bit of delusion, but that's what helped him do so much. All the power to him. I have a lot of respect for that guy.
Had you met Jan when you started writing? Or was the doc the sole basis?
MF: We met Jan way later.
MF: We just worked with the documentary and Jack.
WW: And, you know, there's the Internet! It's just a bananas place to go to find every little tendril. I will say that the documentarians, the filmmakers, did an amazing job because we went through so many hours of footage. They did an incredible job of teasing out the essence of who this guy was because he was obsessively having himself filmed. The guy that filmed everything was here last night too, filming everything. It's still going on!
It’s an amazing thing, somewhere between vaudeville and the delusions of a dictator. There's a Ghaddafi-ness to what he does.
WW: Totally. And Jan saved everything. When Jack's character walks out of prison at the end of the movie, he's holding a plastic bag, and in that plastic bag is all the stuff that Jan, the real Jan, carried out of prison, because he saved everything. So there's these crummy sandals...
MF: A little mug.
WW: An arts and crafts wood puppet of a prisoner with a black and white striped prison outfit. He saved everything. So for us, as filmmakers, it was phenomenal.
MF: Yeah, at one point Jack is holding a phone that looks like the American flag - That's Jan's phone!
How do you deal with trying to make a film truthful but not necessary locked to the truth?
MF: You try to get to the essence of things We really looked at it as the rise and fall. He wants to keep his band members so they can keep playing this music for people, and the economics of that was really interesting to us. Why are artists who create these great experiences, why can't they make any money?
Well the line seems very present when you talk about how I'll spend three dollars on a sausage but I don't want to pay for music; music should come for free. This is also much of how contemporary society feels about film and television.
MF: …And art. And the things you enjoy, that enrich your life. You can't just expect people to do that stuff and live in a shoebox! I have a lot of sympathy for that.
WW: You know most artists don't live subsistence living. Even people who are well known, many of them are not making the fortunes you think they are. I mean, of course Beyoncé flies on a diamond studded private jet but that's the extreme.
There's this thing going on now where people don't expect to pay for content and that of course, for us creators, means something. It's a little bit frightening. But the drive to create it is just too strong.
Did it matter to you about whether Jan would like the film?
MF: Not until two days ago!
WW: Yeah. Not until we landed in Park City and thought, "What if he hates it? That would be really awkward."
MF: I said, "Oh my God, what if he hates it? They're both coming." I advise anyone on a creative project not to think about it because it's really hard to move forward.
What trumps? The truth of the situation or the needs of a satisfying narrative?
WW: I don't think you have any duty to stick to the truth at all. When you go to the movies, you're going to a movie, you're not going to a history lesson. You're trying to see an entertainment that has a beginning, middle, and end. We're following a pretty traditional act structure so that's where we put our energy.
There's something energizing in the fact that the truth remains more absurd than even the broadest fiction.
MF: That's what really appealed to us about the story. As storytellers, it is refreshing to find a story that takes very unexpected twists and turns. And I do think you can't have that unless it's true,
WW: That's why the headlines at the end are so important. As you can see, every headline is in the movie, and they're from newspapers that are real things-reports on real events. That's where the truth of the movie is, in the broad strokes.