MULTI-GENERATIONAL acting families are not uncommon in Hollywood. You've got the Douglas clan, the Bridges, the Howards and the Sheens, to name just a few. But who among them can claim to have 21 family members in a single movie?
That achievement belongs to the Polhemus family of Venice. Writer-director Mack Polhemus and his wife, Ann Boehlke Polhemus -- who produced and acted in the film -- built their movie, "My Bad Dad," around their three young children. Then they invited members of their extended family to fill out the cast and began production in summer 2002. The independent feature premieres tonight at Laemmle's Fairfax as part of the Dances With Films festival.
The movie, shot on digital video and edited over the last four years, centers on unrepentant ex-con biker Joe Barring (played by Mack's brother, Joe), who gets saddled with three towheaded kids (Emma, Mary and Josiah Polhemus, who were then 5, 3 and 1) when his ex-girlfriend dies. He takes them home to the inept care of his parents (played by Mack's mother and stepfather). A battle with a corrupt social worker (Mack's sister) follows, as do custody shenanigans with uptight would-be adoptive parents (Ann plays the wife). Finally, the kids and Barring -- wouldn't you know it? -- realize they make a strange but decidedly happy family and fight to stay together. Extended family members had small parts throughout the film.
Mack, 41, was partly motivated to make "My Bad Dad" by his childhood belief that his family was weird because his parents had divorced and remarried. "I always thought we were so abnormal," he says. Mack, who has a master's in screenwriting from USC, wanted to make a kid-friendly film that would show that a nontraditional family could still be loving and positive.
But mostly, Mack says, he wanted to work on a project that would unite his many family members. Despite the frustrations of working on a $25,000 budget and the constant rewriting required by his children's unexpected actions on camera, Mack says it was empowering to work with so many relatives. "It's like climbing a mountain," he says. "It's the most satisfying thing in the world, to bring the whole family together."
There were times on the set, though, when things weren't so pleasant. During the first day of shooting -- a scene at the dinner table with all of the kids -- Mack realized that getting his children to cooperate was not going to be easy. Josiah wouldn't stay put. The others wouldn't say their lines. "I broke out in a cold sweat," he remembers. "I thought, 'This is a disaster.' "
Ann, who celebrated her 40th birthday during shooting, says that being a parent and a producer was stressful. She felt torn between the two roles. "Your kids are at stake, their serenity," she says. "But you want them to do well and you want the film to do well. So you have like 10 different dimensions to think about."
Mary, now 7, giggles as she remembers Josiah falling asleep on the seat of Joe's motorcycle during one of several scenes in which Joe rides with all three kids on his bike.
At first, Josiah would kick and scream to get off. Then, says Mack, "he liked it so much we were worried he would grow up to be a motorcycle rider. He would push Joe's hand off the handlebars."
In the years since shooting, Mack and Ann have struggled to wrangle as much free post-production assistance as possible. Both have day jobs -- Mack's a tutor for sick children at County-USC hospital, and Ann's an apartment manager. Ann says at one point she thought she'd have a nervous breakdown from the stress.
But neither is ready to give up filmmaking. Mack has been writing four scripts, all of which are nearing completion. Ann is working the business end and hopes to hook up a distribution deal for "My Bad Dad" after Thursday's screening. And the kids' acting careers have started to take off. Emma, now 9, has been featured on episodes of "ER" and "Criminal Minds."
The young acting troupe isn't exactly being raised in the Hollywood child actor mold, though. The family lives in the heart of bohemian Venice, a block from the beach, where the kids swim almost every morning. They're very at home in their funky neighborhood -- Ann and Mack even got everyone in their apartment building to help out in some way with the movie.
On a stroll to the beach, the family walks by the local coffee shop, where a flier for "My Bad Dad" is posted. Ann yells out to a friend passing by in a pickup, "Hey, you gotta come see our movie! I'll give you a flier."