Maya Forbes and Wallace “Wally” Wolodarsky got their start writing separately for The Larry Sanders Show and The Simpsons, but when they started working together making the hilarious but little-known indie comedy Seeing Other People (featuring Bryan Cranston, and not to be confused with the more recent Sleeping with Other People), it was obvious that collaboration was one worth continuing.
The duo then began to write a series of studio films including Rainn Wilson’s The Rocker and DreamWorks Animation’s hit Monsters vs. Aliens. Their return to independent filmmaking led to the more personal and semi-autobiographical Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana, which really turned a lot of heads.
The married couple are back with their new movie The Polka King, which stars Jack Black as Jan Lewan (pronounced like “Yawn Luh-Vahn”), a Polish immigrant whose dreams of fame and success in America lead him to become known as the “Polka King of Pennsylvania,” and they also lead to a Ponzi scheme that gets him thrown into jail.
Jan’s beauty queen wife, Marla, is played Jenny Slate, while her mother is played by Jacki Weaver, who takes her role in Silver Linings Playbook to a whole new level of shouting. Jason Schwartzman plays one of Jan’s more loyal musical partners.
This interview with the filmmakers actually took place at Sundance last year when The Polka King premiered, but is just now being released by Netflix.
Your last movie was very personal and semi-autobiographical, so what drove you into making a movie about Jan Lewan? Had you seen the doc?
Maya Forbes: Yes. I do think one thing was that it was intriguing to do something very different and something that wasn’t as personal. That’s a whole other animal in terms of how you talk about it and everything—it’s treacherous.
Wally Wolodarsky: Yes, of course. We like to change gears.
Maya: We saw this documentary, it was sent to us, and Jack Black was attached to it. He was already involved. We saw it, and we’re always looking for great characters. The thing about this great character was that he had this amazing story, because in his crazy brain or his dynamic mind, he came up with all these adventures and plans and schemes and everything. He just kind of created this world and this story. That was just all very appealing to us. And also, we felt it was about America and the subculture of this polka world, we were intrigued by that. Visually, it was fun—everything was fun.
That footage at the end is so great, because you say that this really happened, but I was in New York during that time and I never heard of this guy. I guess you’re East Coast as well?
Wally: No, we’re Los Angeles.
Maya: I grew up in Massachusetts, he grew up on Long Island, but we have lived in California for a long time.
Wally: But there was a life to this story that you just didn’t know about, because there was a Dateline segment on it, there was National Enquirer coverage of it. Because it’s sensational in its way.
Maya: It’s one of those crazy true stories about a larger than life character, so yeah, there was awareness of it.
Was there a script at all when you came on board or did you start from scratch?
Maya: No, no, no.. just the documentary.
Wally: We saw the documentary, and we understood very quickly how we would want to shape a story. We worked with Jack very closely on the script, and we went from there.
So you could write the movie knowing Jack’s voice?
Wally: Absolutely. When we watched the documentary, within a minute we knew that Jack was born to play this part. It was so obvious. We really made Jack a real collaborator.
Maya: Jack did something very unexpected. We were working on the script. We said, “Why don’t you come over, we’ll talk about the script.” We had probably written 40 pages or something, and we were testing it out. We said, “Come on over,” and he came to the house and said, “Guys, I didn’t read it, but I’m going to read it right now,” and he sat down and just read it aloud.
So was he already developing the character and accent at that time, too?
Maya: Yeah, he was working on it.
Wally: I mean, it evolved, but he was working on it.
Maya: So that was amazing. So here we are, we’re hearing it. He’s reading everything. It took us a while to catch up to it.
Wally: Yeah, I mean, he read everything – the stage directions. We started to understand what was happening and started reading parts against him.
Maya: It was pretty playful.
Wally: Yeah, it was really fun. We really could hear the voice early on.
Maya: And I’d say that 25 of those 40 pages are not in the movie. It was like backstory, because when you write a script, you often start with “Here’s when you were born,” and then you take 30 pages of all the stuff, but then you don’t want to see that. That’s not the story you’re telling, but I think for all of us, it was very helpful, because we got into Jan Levan from the beginning, and we knew where he’d come from, and then we could start from where we started. Having him read everything aloud was amazing.
Wally: We did that in thirds, so every third of the script that we completed, we got Jack over and we had this experience and started to hear the character and could really shape it specifically to Jack and how he was interpreting the character.
You also had the footage of the real Jan Lewan from the doc, so how much did you want Jack to look or sound like him? I assume you didn’t want him to do an impression or change too much physically.
Maya: No, we knew we’d do the blonde hair. We were interested in his creating a physical character as well as his accent and everything else, and he has all these great dance moves, but he also has all these great businessman moves. He moves in the movie in a way that Jack Black doesn’t move. It’s very distinct to this Jan Lewan character. “We’re going to be #1,” and it’s very elemental I guess I’d say. He watched Jan and he watched polka videos, and he did have his own process. All of our actors, we encouraged them to create the character from themselves. That was the core. They had to really empathize and connect with the character from who they are, and then they did their other things on top of it. They all created those characters.
Jan’s still alive, right?
Maya: Yeah, he was there last night.
Wally: He actually was able to hop up on stage.
Maya: He leapt up on stage—he’s 75. He was sitting in the very front row. Someone in the audience said, “Can Jan sing a song?” And Jan Levan is not going to say “No.” (laughs) He leapt up on stage and he and Jack did the polka rap together, and then he leapt off stage.
Wally: He was very supervised, I’ll say that.
Maya: And people asked, “How much of this is true?” and Jan was like…
Wally: “It’s all true!”
Did he get any new investors while in Park City?
Wally: He’s launching a new fund.
Maya: No, he still wants to pay his restitution back, so we’ll see.
How did you end up with Jacki Weaver as Jan’s mother-in-law? She’s pretty amazing in this. I don’t know how she gets her voice to that level of loud shrillness, but it’s still kind of beautiful, in a way.
Maya: Yeah, and her real voice is very sweet and high.
I’ve met her before but thankfully, she didn’t yell at me.
Maya: But we wanted that growl. We said we wanted it low and tough, and she had her accent from that region that she used in Silver Linings Playbook. She can do a million accents. She’s incredibly versatile. We went shopping with her, and she found that wig, and it was like a revelation.
Wally: It was, because we kept gravitating towards sort of a grey…
Maya: We had sort of a more conservative…
Wally: And Jacki kept pointing to this other wig, and we kept saying “No”…
Maya: She said, “That’s Barb.”
Wally: And then we said, “Okay, we can try it,” and the second she slipped it on, we agreed.
Maya: That character is a little unexpected, she’s crazy. You don’t know what you’re going to get from her. That character is a little unexpected, she’s crazy. You don’t know what you’re going to get from her, and that’s what that hair expressed, so that was really fun.
What about Jenny Slate? She’s really well-paired with Jack Black.
Wally: Well, they knew each other, which is helpful, so they had an immediate chemistry that was helpful.
Maya: And a deep, mutual respect. I’ll say that she thinks he’s a wonderful actor. He thinks she is just so talented, and he’s so delighted by her, and he was really excited. She thinks he’s really funny and creative and she’s great. Just that chemistry that they have such respect for each other is really important.
Wally: Obvious Child really opened our eyes to what a really versatile performer she is. That really sealed the deal for us.
Maya: But there’s a reason she does all that voice-over work. She has this amazing voice, so she can really create characters, and we knew that we wanted Marla to be… we wanted all of them to feel very distinct from what they’ve done before.
What was involved with creating Jan’s strip mall gift shop? Was that all on a set or did you have an empty retail space you could dress up?
Wally: We worked with a production designer named Carl Spragg, who had worked on Infinitely Polar Bear, and we knew and really respected him. He transformed this strip mall in Tran??, Rhode Island, that was half businesses and half empty, so he shaped this environment from existing spaces and raw spaces.
Maya: ‘Cause we knew we wanted a little universe for them, so he created the Froyo stop and the dry cleaners and obviously our gift shop. He really loved the polka tchotchkes. It’s a very colorful world.
I’m sure you’re asked this a lot but you’re both writers, you’ve both directed movies and share credits but how does that work as far as when you get on set. Do you have different roles when directing?
Wally: No, we have a very intimate working relationship. Our fingers are just in everything together.
Maya: We do a lot of preparation before we come to set, so we’ve done our shot listing, and we know what we’re going to do so we’re pretty unified. Obviously, you have dialogue all the time, but nobody has their one area where they’re the captain of. We do it all together.
I’ve spoken to a lot of filmmaking duos and sometimes one is better with actors and the other is better with cameras. There’s always a reason why they’re working together.
Wally: Well, it’s very fluid for us.
I was a fan of Seeing Other People (especially Julianne Nicholson), but then you wrote a few studio movies before returning with the smaller indie Infinitely Polar Bear, which was really nice. How did you make the decision to do another indie film after having such success at the studios?
Maya: It’s funny. I think that was how I imagined my career being, making that kind of movie, because that’s the kind of movie I always loved.
Wally: We’ve always had our toe in both worlds.
Maya: Seeing Other People was an independent.
Wally: Yeah, my first feature was an independent feature. We’ve always done two businesses, and as Burt Lancaster used to say: “One for me and one for the Pope.”
Maya: I think with Infinitely Polar Bear for us was like let’s try to make stuff that we really believe in. Even though The Polka King is very different than Infinitely Polar Bear, but we like the kind of comedy that is rooted in real people and their flaws. But we also like big, silly jokes. We like silliness. I’d say in Infinitely Polar Bear, Ruffalo had some really silly moments, too. We really like that kind of lightness, and we like the kind of tone that can go to a dark place and also to a happy place. We just decided that we wanted to try and start expressing our vision.
Wally: And make the movie that we’d like to see.
Maya: Yeah, yeah.
The first time I saw Infinitely Polar Bear, I didn’t know about its background or that it was based on your own childhood or even that your daughter was in the movie. I literally didn’t know anything as I watched it. Do you have more stories like that from your own lives you’d like to explore?
Wally: Oh, yeah, of course.
Maya: Yeah, I definitely do, and he does, too, but it did feel like it would be hard to go through life always going back. That would be very emotionally exhausting, and in some ways, you need to get some space from things. I think we’ll certainly make more movies in that vein.
Wally: Yeah, certainly.
Maya: But we like a very wide variety of movies, and we feel like people so often are like, “You’re the something…you’re the emotion person or you can only write thrillers.” But we do like all kinds of movies.
The Polka King is currently streaming on Netflix.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor