In 1942, twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein were struggling to find an ending for their latest screenwriting assignment: "Casablanca."
Legend has it that as the siblings drove through Los Angeles one day, they suddenly turned to each other and simultaneously spoke the same, plot-solving sentence: "Round up the usual suspects!" By recalling a line they'd written for an early scene, each brother realized how to keep Humphrey Bogart's character out of the clutches of the Nazis.
Telepathy? Twin intuition?
Not according to Hollywood's latest twin success story, the writer-director team of Josh and Jonas Pate.
"If you have the same genetic code, and you spend a lot of time in the same place, it's not unlikely that thoughts would occur to you at the same time, and therefore be mistaken as telepathy," says Josh, 27, who with identical brother Jonas made the new thriller "Deceiver" (it opens Jan. 30).
So much for twins' supernatural powers. But even minus telepathy, the North Carolina-born Pates are getting by just fine: "Deceiver"--their second feature, which stars Tim Roth and Renee Zellweger--isn't yet on screens, but they're already set to film the $50-million sci-fi action thriller "Earl Watt," and an epic drama of Southern politics tentatively titled "Providence Falls."
"They have all the makings of a media frenzy," enthuses Peter Glatzer, producer of "Deceiver" and the Pates' first effort, the Sundance hit "The Grave."
"They're bright, articulate, good-looking, they're identical twins . . . and the talent is there. They write rich dialogue. Their interests are much more mature than dare I say the Ed Burnses and their contemporaries."
"Deceiver" is the story of a wealthy eccentric who may have killed a Charleston prostitute. It was made for less than $4 million, but the Pates' script managed to hook Roth and Zellweger for the leads, as well as Chris Penn, Ellen Burstyn, and fabled cinematographer Bill Butler ("Jaws," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest").
"We were shooting, like, six pages a day," Jonas says (the industry average is closer to two). "It was a full-blown TV schedule, and that cripples you cinematically. But I'd rather make a strong mess than play it safe."
As a result, the Pates shot scenes in a risky single take, or with a minimum of coverage. Recalls Josh: "There's a 15-minute section where there was literally no alternate coverage of any of it. We were praying in the edit room!"
Divine intervention or luck has been on their side ever since the Pates moved to L.A. two years ago, determined to make films. Josh "got a sub-dungeon job at Miramax cleaning Harvey Weinstein's VCR"; since Josh had also just been hired at a law office, twin Jonas walked into the firm, told the secretary she'd made a mistake on the name, and took that job.
Jonas also appeared as a contestant on a game show pilot, winning big in an unexpected way.
"I didn't get anything--no Rice-A-Roni, no vacuum bags. But there was a lie detector on the show. You told a lie, and at the end they brought an actual polygraphist out with a lie detector. That got us thinking about [using] that." The result was the script of "Deceiver," which focuses on the lie detector tests given to Roth's character--and later to his police interrogators.
"Most people aren't really sure what its capabilities are, so police use it as a confessional device," says Josh. "They slap it on you and say, 'Whoa, these graphs look real bad, you might as well just come clean.' And more often than not, people just confess."
Although Josh handled directing chores solo on "The Grave," the Pates found co-directing a natural next step on "Deceiver." It was also a plus for producer Peter Glatzer: "Josh would rehearse with the actors in Los Angeles for two weeks; simultaneously, Jonas was with me in Charleston doing business. As a producer you definitely got a two for one."
The pairing also enabled the Pates to play good cop/bad cop. "We doubled our sound design budget because of a well-timed tantrum," Jonas smiles. "The suits said no and I went, 'That's it, man, I'm out of here!' I threw down all my [expletive], and Josh'd go, 'My God, I've never seen him like this!' Of course, it was totally rehearsed."
A different kind of double act emerged early in the shoot, when Josh and Zellweger began dating. (They are still together.)
"It was the classic young director mistake--fall in love with the leading lady," says Josh with a grin. "That's what Tim [Roth] would say every day--'Young man's mistake!'
"We were trying to be professional until Renee wrapped; we tried to keep it secret, but everyone knew, all the way down to craft services."
Glatzer says the chemistry was apparent "after the second time Josh and I met Renee. They're both from tiny towns, both coming into their own at the same time . . . Someone said, 'It's great to see two hillbillies in love.' "
Zellweger created a different kind of commotion the night before shooting began, when she and Roth "went out and got completely hammered," according to Jonas. "There was a big flash flood in Charleston, they were driving, and they literally sank their rental car.
"They came in the next day, bleary eyed, and told us the story of how their car floated off. Josh and I thought, 'Oh my God, we have Aerosmith on the set!' But it was a totally random incident."
Bigger challenges almost certainly lie ahead on "Earl Watt" and "Providence Falls"--each larger in scale than anything the Pates have tackled so far.
"We're still learning," Jonas admits, his syntax turning the duo into a single entity. "Early on we decided we'd rather take stylistic chances and say either 'I hated that' or 'I loved that' and make people choose a side. In a movie, you don't want people to say, 'That was competent.'
"We might work apart down the road, but right now there are a lot of pluses. And since day one we've been working creatively together--making comic books, putting on puppet shows.
"Two heads really are better than one."