December 16, 2009
The Next Moguls?
Bickering brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky bring a literary sensibility — and cash — to Hollywood.
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“They are young men who have a vision, and a certain boldness to pursue a dream, and that makes them different,” director Werner Herzog said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There are people who have money but no vision. I think they have the right spirit, the right courage; they have a vision. Let them experience the world out there in Hollywood — it might be a treacherous terrain. It might be a minefield.”
A week after the film’s release, the Polskys shared a rare moment of agreement while reflecting on the film’s reception: “I have mixed feelings to be honest with you,” Alan said. “We didn’t really end up in as many theaters as I think the film deserves, but as a producer I have a limited amount of power.” On the other hand, he added, “I’m very pleased with the critical response; I really like the one liners that come out of articles — words like ‘hypnotic’ — that’s totally what the movie is.”
“It seems like people who actually go and see the movie really respond to it,” Gabe said. “It was great to see Roger Ebert from Chicago give it four stars,” he added, with a hint of pride for their hometown.
That the Polskys spin their debut as a success suggests that making money is not the only driving force on their agenda. Which is a part of what makes them so incredibly refreshing, let alone something of an anomaly in Hollywood. At a time when studios are favoring megabrand franchises like comic book adaptations and best-sellers, and independent film outfits are evaporating from the playing field, the Polskys are seeking to reinvigorate a dying breed of independent film.
Gabe was the first to move to Los Angeles, after graduating from Yale with a major in political science and relinquishing his dream to play professional hockey. He worked in Endeavor’s literary department and then set off on his own. Alan got his degree in finance from the University of Iowa before going to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business (formerly Chicago GSB) and heading into finance. He worked for Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen, both of which have since gone under, and then followed his brother to Hollywood and crashed on his couch.
Although their idea of themselves as hands-on creative producers is rather high-minded — “We want to make amazing movies and documentaries that are very powerful and original and interesting and commercial,” Gabe said — they deserve credit for their willingness to experiment at a time when others are cutting back. Right now, they’re toying with the idea of developing a “Bad Lieutenant” franchise that pairs known actors and directors in unusual combinations:
“Like Seth Rogen and, who, Gabe, as director?” Alan quipped.
“It could be Judd Apatow or the Coen brothers,” Gabe replied.
Alan: “Adam Sandler could play a good bad lieutenant.”
Gabe: “Yeah, Sandler…. Adam Sandler is such a huge movie star, so if you team him up with the right director,” Gabe said, thinking out loud, and then explained, “With this film, we were able to get financing off the combination of Herzog and Cage.”
Listening to the brothers dream together makes clear why, despite the sibling frictions, their collaborations work. There’s a level of comfort, a casualness with one another that comes from trust — and having spent lots and lots of time together. Of course, they prefer to focus on their differences.
“I don’t think we ever imagined that we would work together, that’s for sure,” Gabe told me the first time we met in their art-filled office on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny Drive. “We had a pretty good relationship growing up; we would beat each other up….”
“It was competitive,” Alan chimed in. “We played all the same sports, so you know ... we have extremely different personalities. You can’t even say ‘Alan is this’ and ‘Gabe is this,’ because if you asked me that, and you asked him that, you’d get different answers.”
What they will tell you without compunction is that both were rebellious and troublemakers as kids. Born to Ukrainian immigrants, the Polskys spent much of their childhood feeling like outsiders. Their parents, Michael and Maya, married in Kiev in 1975 and arrived in the United States a year later. Alan was born in Detroit, and Gabe in St. Cloud, Minn., before the family settled in Chicago, where their father went into the energy business and Maya opened an art gallery.