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Interview: Gabe & Alan Polsky On 'The Motel Life,' Future Projects And Producing For Werner Herzog

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 8, 2013 at 2:14PM

Well, it's been a long time coming, nearly a year in fact since its 2012 Rome Film Festival debut, where it picked up three awards—editing, screenplay and the coveted Audience Award—but "The Motel Life" (our review here) is finally making its way onto screens this week. The debut film from producing-turned-directing brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky, starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff with Dakota Fanning in a small role, the film is based on the 2006 novel by musician and writer Willy Vlautin and tells the story of two brothers who flee their Reno motel after getting involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident.
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Motel Life, Alan & Gabe Polsky

Well, it's been a long time coming, nearly a year in fact since its 2012 Rome Film Festival debut, where it picked up three awards—editing, screenplay and the coveted Audience Award—but "The Motel Life" (our review here) is finally making its way onto screens this week. The debut film from producing-turned-directing brothers Gabe and Alan Polsky, starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff with Dakota Fanning in a small role, the film is based on the 2006 novel by musician and writer Willy Vlautin and tells the story of two brothers who flee their Reno motel after getting involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

While they're new on the scene as directorial talents, the brothers have been around for a while, producing Werner Herzog's lunatic "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call - New Orleans" and the Juno Temple film "Little Birds," and having an in-development slate that currently boasts no fewer than seven titles. After the film's premiere in Rome, we got to talk to the Polskys about brotherly relationships on and off screen, their upcoming slate, and just what it was like to watch Werner Herzog in action. 

"That was our film school, making [The Bad Lieutenant'] with Werner Herzog. The experience that we had with him was insane."

As a duo, how did you divide up the directorial duties?
AP: Gabe and I spent a lot of time in pre-production really making sure we were looking at each scene and each beat the same way, and once we got on set we just tried to work as organically as possible. We tried not to confuse any actors or give them too much, so we'd discuss before each scene to make sure we had concise feedback.

GP: We're not the kind of brothers who finish each others' sentences. I mean, we get each other but we certainly have our own points of view, so we just knew that, especially first time out and we didn't have much time to shoot the film, we knew you couldn't have these long discussions while you were shooting. So we'd do rehearsals and have visual discussions, storyboarding all that stuff, making sure … obviously with room for improvisation, but there can't be different visions.

And did you find yourself mapping your own experiences as brothers onto the brothers' relationship in the film?
GP: Personally, I tried to look at every scene and be like, how I would I feel at my core about this situation. Alan is the only brother I have; I think it's inevitable. You can't not be thinking about your own family relationships the whole time. 

AP: Yeah I think there's something of every character in the movie in me personally, so to make it as honest as possible you try to look within your self to find some similarity. 

That may account for the tremendous feeling of affection for your characters that comes across—even the minor ones.
AP: Yeah, they're pretty much all good guys. Except maybe the cops.

GP: We fell in love with the book, and the fact that it's a story of two brothers … we felt that the relationship between Frank and Jerry Lee was like this idealized version of a brotherly relationship. Even though it's so tragic, they just love each other, they're there for each other 'til the end, unconditionally. We felt that people after the movie would go call their brothers. They'd ask, "am I that good to my brother? Would I sacrifice my life for him?" and I think that's kind of the magic of the story.

It is unusual to see a brotherly relationship that is not in some way fueled by conflict or jealousy or ego.
GP: And yet it's not an unreal version—you can tell that Frank is struggling with having this burden, and he feels guilty, so it's complicated.

The Motel Life

Stephen Dorff mentioned to us that he had a job convincing you to cast him as Jerry Lee. Why was that?
GP: Well, the character's pretty volatile and childlike in a way, it was a very challenging role. 

AP: Jerry Lee has this childlike sensibility that makes him very likable that allows you to empathize with him, he's a guy who is obviously artistic but has a gentler soul that would never want to harm anybody. it's very easy to take this role and go overboard with it, to overact. The real thing that Gabe and I were focussed on was that real fine line between … he's not retarded, but there's a simplicity to him and at the end he has these really profound insights which allow his brother to understand his own reality and their reality together. He has a very real way of looking at their situation that's profound. But he's a little different, a little … off.

GP: He's a guy that you want to root for and he does have energy for life, but he's a tragic character. 

A key feature that lifts the film out of being "just another indie drama" is the animation sequences. Tell us how they came about.
AP: There's storytelling in the novel and when we read that we saw the stories as a great way to understand the characters better. A lot of films in order to give backstory and understand the characters, you need to tell the audience things and what we saw with the animations was a great opportunity to show what these guys are into. There's a lot of sexual stuff in the animations, but these guys grew up in Reno, a place of so many strip clubs … the things that they're influenced by or turned on by or whatever really come out with these animations in a way that you don't have to have Frank telling Jerry Lee or Jerry Lee telling Frank.We really saw the animations as a great way, in a non-didactic way to help the audience learn more about these guys ... We just thought it was a very unique element added to a traditional drama. So we always envisioned them and had them in the screenplay.

GP: And you see in the animations a lot things that happened to them in their real life, how things circle back, how their reality is influenced. You learn a bit about their relationship with their father, or the guy with the used car lot ...

AP: Most people get that on the second watching, the first time you're just taking it all in but the second you see things in the animation that you tie to the live action. And one thing I'm really proud of with this film is that everything ties back in some way, we tried to make it tight in that way.

This article is related to: Gabe and Alan Polsky, Rome Film Festival, Interview, The Motel Life, Stephen Dorff, Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning


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