Twin Filmmakers With a Single Vision

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When identical twin filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish were little boys, they needed speech therapy to get them to stop finishing each other's sentences. Today, when you hear the 28-year-old brothers' simultaneous talking and pingpong conversation about their feature film debut, "Twin Falls Idaho," you can't help thinking their parents should get their money back.

The slender brothers look less identical in person than in the film in which they portray conjoined, or Siamese, twins, connected side-by-side, who face an uncertain future and a society largely horrified by their appearance. The low-budget independent film, well-received by audiences and critics at this year's Sundance Film Festival, opens in Los Angeles on Friday.

With no budget for computer-generated imagery, the brothers and their crew instead used cost-effective special effects and a little ingenuity to create the illusion of conjoined twins. For Mark and Michael, this meant being held snugly together for hours at a time from shoulders to hips in a custom-made double corset, over which went specially made clothing. With help, it took about 20 minutes to get into the gear and "about 60 seconds flat to get out," Michael said.

"The main pressure for us was keeping the twins believable," said Mark Polish (pronounced like the language), who shares writing credit with his brother.

"We had to be convinced ourselves that it could work," added Michael, who directed the film.

The soft-spoken brothers sat in a Hollywood diner recently and recalled in their rounded-off wordplay the challenges of writing, starring in and selling their $500,000 film, which explores themes of commitment and teamwork--terrain not unfamiliar to them.

Inspired since childhood by a picture of Chang and Eng Bunker, famous 19th century conjoined twins who were born in Siam and lived to age 63, Mark and Michael wanted to present the fictional Blake and Francis Falls as functioning, sensitive people, not physical anomalies to be pitied. ("Twin Falls" is not based on Chang and Eng's story and is set in an anonymous American city--not Twin Falls; the title comes from the twins' names.)

In "Twin Falls," Blake and Francis, who often communicate by whispering, have checked into a bleak hotel inhabited by eccentric residents (including Garrett Morris as their neighbor, Jesus) while they look for a long-lost relative. Blake, the healthier of the two, lovingly cares for the ailing Francis, even while dreaming of being free of the connection and living on his own.

In the hotel, the brothers--who sleep in two single iron-frame beds pushed together--meet Penny (model Michele Hicks), a prostitute who overcomes her shock and takes them under her wing. When Blake becomes attracted to Penny, the brothers' relationship is tested.

"You'd only be half a man to her," Francis says when Blake imagines being on his own and free to pursue the romance.

During some warm shooting days last summer on downtown L.A. sound stages, Mark and Michael spent much of their time in the corset, which was reinforced with metal ribbing and fastened with Velcro. Facing the same direction while bound together, each had to keep his inside arm tucked behind him or around the back of the other and out of sight. The brothers then wiggled together into the outfits worn by the conjoined twins, most often a specially sewn chocolate-brown suit.

For scenes showing the brothers walking on their three legs, Michael folded his right leg up behind Mark's left leg and supported his bended knee in a brace that came up from the middle shoe, so when they stepped together the middle leg appeared singular below the knee. "[Walking] was sheer willpower," Mark said.

The Two Had to Become One to Make It Work

And the brothers wore a fake double chest made for a scene in which Blake and Francis lift their shirt to be examined by a doctor.

The movie's Falls brothers have two arms--Blake's right and Francis' left, and life's most routine tasks often become adventures in logistics. "We wanted to cover every [visual] base," Mark said.

And they come close. After watching Blake and Francis together button their jacket and adjust each other's ties, light birthday candles and eat cake, play guitar, dial a rotary phone, slow dance with Penny at a Halloween party and later kiss her, some at Sundance wondered if Mark and Michael were conjoined themselves.

"People might think we're a one-trick pony, and it was easy for us to do--'Oh, you're twins, you can do that [play conjoined twins],' " Michael said. "But it's still two different people who have to get together. You still have to act. I'm glad it comes off looking easy, but it wasn't."

Being tied to his brother on the set limited his mobility as a director, so Michael depended on detailed storyboarding and the help of M. David Mullen, the film's director of photography and a classmate from California Institute of the Arts. But the combined stress of the harness, directing and acting--he vows to stay behind the camera next time--caused Michael to lose about 20 pounds. "I was starting to get worried about my appearance [changing so much], that it would be noticeable," said Michael of the film's continuity.

"Twin Falls Idaho" got an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, a decision the filmmakers appealed and lost. In addition to profanity, Michael said, the board singled out the scene in which Penny kisses Blake in bed while Francis sleeps. The board said the scene involved a menage a trois, rejecting the brothers' arguments that Francis had no choicein being present, and that conjoined twins are defined as a single entity, not two people.

Finding financing that also allowed them to keep artistic control took about a year and a half. They finally teamed with producer Joyce Schweickert (she's got twin sisters) and a private Seattle investor.

Next was the paperwork, which Michael described as the "mental wear-and-tear of signing our lives away for those 17 days." And then came preproduction and "I was already mentally exhausted. When it came time to create the most beautiful part of it, we were tired."

In the early days of pitching their idea, the brothers heard plot suggestions so memorable they sneaked a few into the script for a character who tries to acquire the brothers' story rights.

"This could be the most famous divorce movie of all time!" Mark recalls an unnamed production company executive saying. "It wouldn't be about who gets the beachfront property. . . . It's who gets the kidneys, who gets the leg."

The brothers hope "Twin Falls Idaho," which also features Oscar nominee Lesley Ann Warren ("Victor/Victoria") in a small but pivotal supporting role, will serve as their industry calling card. The film is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, whose low bid at Sundance was accepted because the brothers were given final cut, marketing control and a firm release date.

The next film for the brothers, from the second of three scripts they've written together, is "North Fork," also privately financed and shooting in the fall.

The brothers, who don't rule out working separately in the future, are anxious about how their mother will react to seeing them on screen, enduring hardships as conjoined twins.

"She's emotional and she's gonna take it hard," Mark said. "I've warned her," Michael added. "I said, 'It's happy, too,' but I think she may cry for two hours."

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