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Swan Lake's Polish brothers celebrate the power of a dream in first major-studio release

Del Polish might not have seen himself on the big screen in "The Astronaut Farmer."

But Billy Bob Thornton's character, Charles Farmer, was in part inspired by Polish, a Kalispell native now living on Swan Lake.

He is also the father of Mark and Michael Polish, the creative team behind the current Warner Bros. release.

The family film is the story of a Texas farmer and former astronaut-in-training whose dream is to build his own rocket. He has to overcome financial, legal, governmental and societal hurdles to follow through on his pursuit to send the rocket into space.

"Everyone has their rocket," Mark Polish said during a phone interview from Los Angeles. "It's basically the metaphor for your dream."

Mark and Michael Polish say that while they were growing up, their father possessed the innovative, hard-working and independent spirit that drives Thornton's character.

"He led by example in that whatever we wanted, he made," Michael Polish said from Los Angeles. "He brought an old truck home; we took out the engine and rebuilt it. He converted a bus into a motor home."

"His advice was that hard work would never kill you," Mark Polish said. "He didn't talk a lot or preach about the right way to do things; he'd just show us."

The Polish brothers are identical twins who grew up in Sacramento, Calif., but spent a great deal of their childhoods in Northwest Montana visiting family, which has roots in Montana back to the 1800s.

Mark and Michael Polish still consider Montana their place of refuge, and recently purchased a house next to their father's on Swan Lake. Both brothers bring their families to Montana as often as possible.

"My family loves it," Mark Polish said. "My wife, and my daughter and dog - it's free range, and here (Los Angeles) everything has to be on a leash."

They occasionally are recognized locally from their movie careers, Michael Polish said, especially from their starring roles in "Twin Falls Idaho," a film about conjoined twins.

"After seeing it for years on DVDs and cable, that one spooks people when they see us together," he said.

They co-produced and co-wrote "Astronaut Farmer," which Michael directed and in which Mark took a role as an FBI agent. Michael's daughter, Jasper, and Mark's daughter, Logan, are in the roles of the two girls in the Farmer family.

The film has some autobiographical substance. Mark and Michael Polish know a little bit about achieving dreams.

"Basically, we just picked up a camera and started filming," Mark Polish said of the brothers' film career. "We tried to go the traditional route of submitting screenplays, but that was a hard door to knock down. So we did our own screenplays, and compared to staying within the system, we got a lot of on-the-job learning."

The Polish brothers started out with three independent films - "Twin Falls Idaho," "Jackpot" and "Northfork."

Each of the films scored its own independent-circuit success: "Twin Falls Idaho" and "Northfork" were shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and "Jackpot" received the 2001 Independent Spirit Award's John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for less than $500,000.

The most recent, "Northfork," was filmed in the spring near Great Falls and Augusta, capturing a bleak but beautiful Montana landscape, washed in shades of gray. The 1993 release featured a cast of well-known actors - Nick Nolte, James Woods, Daryl Hannah and Kyle MacLachlan among them.

Thornton, Bruce Willis and Virginia Madsen are the biggest names in "Astronaut Farmer," shot in New Mexico. The stars were lured not by a big budget, Mark Polish said, but by the material.

Michael Polish said Warner Bros. also was attracted to the story enough to move the film out of its independent division and give it major-release status.

"They liked the crossover appeal," he said. "It's unique for them to see a family movie that's not just for kids. Usually as a parent you take your kids to a movie and you're just trying to get through it."

Although Thornton has played his share of rough-edged characters, it wasn't a stretch for him to step into the role of the family-oriented Charles Farmer, Michael Polish said.

"Billy Bob Thornton is an immense talent, but as a director, we got to see a side to him that's not talked about," he said. "We did a three-week press tour with him, and learned what a family man he is. He was on the phone to his mother or his kids every night.

"Those portrayals of moral families don't get the public's attention any more."

As filmmakers, the Polish brothers are attracted to intriguing, original stories. The story of Charles Farmer stands out among the other offerings at the multiplex, Michael Polish said, because "it's a character piece with a strong family, not the way family movies have been in recent years."

"The dream doesn't fracture the family."

"Astronaut Farmer" is rated PG. It is currently playing at the Gateway Cinemas in Kalispell.

Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4431 or by e-mail at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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