Interview: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant Producer Alan Polsky
by Alex Billington
November 18, 2009
If you go see Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans this weekend and walk out of it thinking, how the hell did this movie get made and come together this way, well, here's the story. A few weeks ago I met up with producer Alan Polsky (seen to the left with Herzog) at a lunch joint in Beverly Hills to talk about how he got into the business (Alan and his brother Gabe recently started producing) and how this version of Bad Lieutenant got made with such heavyweights as Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog. Not only is the Bad Lieutenant story great to hear, but he's got big aspirations for the future. So read on!
And before we start, I saw Herzog's Bad Lieutenant at Telluride (read my review) and absolutely loved it. Despite hating the promo trailer, I actually loved the movie, it was crazy and hilarious and insane. Cage, despite being a goofball, does actually do a good job. So with that, let's dive into this interview with Alan.
Obviously starting at the very top, can you talk about how you got into this, how you got to where you are today?
Alan Polsky: I've got a pretty non-traditional background. I was an investment banker for a few years and got involved in finance. I got a CFA designation, which is a three year exam you have to take. And I ended up going to business school, and I was always good at math and numbers, so I was able to excel at that, in the finance [side of things]. But I always sort of knew that it wasn't enough for me, and there was really no creative outlet for me, and so I-- after business school, my brother was actually already out in Los Angeles, and I joined him. After business school, I just said, alright, I'm going to give it a shot. And that was it, and then we just started developing projects together. And that brings us to today.
Has it always been your interest to get into film and be creative in that sense?
Alan: You know, I never thought it was a realistic business. Growing up in Chicago, you don't really think about the film business like it's a business. It's some weird Hollywood thing, you know. And my brother and I are the child of immigrants, so I didn't really think about Hollywood. I mean, I grew up, obviously, loving movies and television, and being really into it, and being really moved by great movies. And my mom, in particular, has always had a lot of movies around, we've always been going to them.
How did you end up getting on Bad Lieutenant? How did that come about?
Alan: Basically, Ed Pressman had made the original, and he was thinking about, either remaking the original, or doing a television show. And I know a guy that works with Ed, this guy, Stephen [Belafonte] brought us the project. And we said, "Yeah, we like it." So we ended up saying, "Let's get a script for a new Bad Lieutenant." So we hired Billy Finkelstein and my brother and I financed the screenplay, and then we produced it with Ed.
Does it come from your interest in the original film? Are you a big fan of the original?
Alan: You know, when I heard the title, I'd never seen the original. And then I saw the original and became a fan immediately, and was just so drawn to that character. It was like, [Harvey] Keitel was so electric, you know, and yeah, we immediately were like, "Alright, we're in."
Why Werner Herzog? Why was he the right choice for this?
Alan: We actually developed the screenplay, and we weren't sure what to do with it, and it was actually lagging for a little bit. And my brother actually had the idea. He goes, "Well, what do you think about Herzog?" And both of us loved Grizzly Man. And I said, "Yeah, hell, that's worth a shot." And so we called him up, and we talked about Nic Cage in the past, like Nic Cage or Brad Pitt or something, and Werner had always wanted to work with Nic, and they almost worked together once in the past, and he said, "I'd love to do it with Nick." And then he called Nic, and it was put together.
I remember at the Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival, when Werner Herzog introduced the film and said, "This isn't a remake. This has almost nothing to do with Bad Lieutenant." So did it eventually become a whole separate project, because you said it started with the original producer saying he wanted it to be a remake, or he wanted it to be--
Alan: Right, exactly.
So when Werner got on board, did he turn it into his own thing entirely?
Alan: Well, we had a screenplay, and there were certain things about the screenplay that were a lot different than the original. We tried to make it slightly more commercial and actually have a plot. There was very, very little plot in the original. Now Bad Lieutenant is not about plot, but this one, it has more of a story, and the other thing we wanted to do to make it a little bit more commercial, is to make it a little less dark. And when I say dark, I mean nuns getting raped, I mean injection of heroin into the skin. And so we said we don't feel like if we were going to get the spirit of Bad Lieutenant across, you have to do that.
So we wrote a script that was a little bit more commercial, and when Werner ended up getting on board, he added a lot of those little elements that really make it -- the iguanas and a lot of the little awkward things, like him picking up the fish, and reading the poem. All of that stuff is all Werner just saying, "Okay, we need something here." But that's why it worked, and I think that one of the reasons why this movie is so successful, critically -- because it hasn't come out yet -- is Werner tends to write his own stuff, and that's great. He wrote My Son, My Son, and it came out at the festival at the same time. I think we gave Werner a little bit more of a commercial script, and he was able to sort of make it artsy and cool Herzog, but there was some structure to it that he had to follow, which gives you a movie that's easier to sell as a producer.
Why did you guys choose to, from a marketing and distribution perspective, go the festival route? Because I think, with something like this, you could obviously go the studio route and turn it into a bigger film.
Alan: Well, it's funny. The reason why it's an independent film in the first place, was because we were [making it] during the actors' strike, and we couldn't make the movie at a studio, because studios couldn't make movies. So we were making it independently so we could get Nic [Cage] to have a waiver to make the movie. So we ended up making the movie that way, and then what happened was, we actually didn't get that much interest from any of the major distributors. So we decided to enter it in the festivals and try to generate buzz that way, and that's really what happened.
And moving forward, marketing-wise, what is your plan? Are you aiming for the younger demographic, or are you going for the people who know the original?
Alan: I'm totally going for everyone. I'm going for the younger demographic. I think it's so cool. It's like, Scarface, or American Psycho. And it's a great character that Nic lets you into, just so pop culture. And I feel like males in particular are going to really respond to it. So I definitely want, like, college kids on up. I think that Eva Mendes brings women into the movie a little bit, and I think it's good filmmaking, so I think women will find the comedy pretty funny. And then as far as classic Herzog fans, yeah, of course they're going to see this movie. We don't really have to target them, they're already going.
You mentioned an interesting thing about the cult status of it, or the potential for cult status. And in Hollywood, the success of your film is usually based on opening weekend numbers, but for this one, I feel like you could open it and let it grow into that cult status, as opposed to, having a larger opening weekend. And I think that's what makes this unique.
Alan: That's what we're doing. We're starting really small. It's a five city platform opening, and I'm working really hard right now with my brother and the studio to maximize. We're very limited in our capital, so we're really trying to do lots of grassroots marketing that is going to really push it in those cities. I come from a business school background, so I find this really fun and creative.
Moving forward, what does your future look like? As in, what do you currently have in development and would do you want to see in the future in terms of the films you'd like to make?
Alan: I think my brother and I were always drawn to dramas. I would say that's what I was even drawn to as a younger kid. I always loved those movies, like, a great drama. So I would say we have a lot of drama, as I think a lot of Oscar-caliber type material. We have a project that hasn't been announced yet. We've got the rights to Flowers for Algernon, we have a major movie star, a movie star that can win Oscars. [It was announced after this interview that Will Smith is attached.] We have the Albert Einstein life rights, we have the Sigmund Freud life rights. We have a movie with Sam Mendes over at Focus Features, which is a beautiful drama. We're working with Henry Selick on a movie. You know, we've got a lot of things in development.
I think that we're just really drawn to powerful stories, and it's not-- we're really not in this to try and make as much money as possible. If I get a great franchise out of Bad Lieutenant, that's amazing, and I'm really happy about that. But you know what I'm more happy about? It's that we're creating a franchise that's unlike every other franchise. We're taking an amazing filmmaker, artist, and with a great actor -- Abel Ferrara, Harvey Keitel / Werner Herzog, Nicholas Cage. I'm more excited about having Aronofsky and Brad Pitt in the next one, or whoever, than making a fortune. So I'm really excited about the fact that, potentially we have something that could really be great, and I think it's something people really respond to. So I just want to make good movies, I'm not somebody who's a snob, like I only want to do this or that, whatever.
I think that mindset, actually, is what could really help the independent marketplace. Because so much of the independent marketplace has the mentality that they just want their movie to be a huge success and make money. And yet so many of us, when we go to festivals, see films that never get distributed, yet we love them for what they are, which is a powerful piece of film, and everything in that. And as long as that heart of the independent community strives, and lives on…
Alan: Well I think it's up to producers, though, honestly, and directors, and writers. I do think that, as a storyteller, you have a certain responsibility to tell stories that get to people, and I think that -- this could get me in trouble for saying this, but I think that having a little bit of a commercial mindset, even with independent movies, is very important. And that's something we're really trying to do. Have you read the book, Butcher's Crossing, that we're doing with Mendes, you'd be like, there's no way this could get made into a movie. In fact that's what I said to my brother. But, Mendes wants to do it, and it's a movie, and it's bigger, and the way you tell the story…
And you need to be realistic, because I think it's kind of unfortunate that so many movies get made, and you see them seen in festivals, and they don't see the light of day. I feel like it's a lot of effort for an unfortunate thing, that people don't get to see the piece of art that was created. And that's what we're doing here. I think that there's a certain level of creating art for yourself, and I think that that is more true, for a painter and things like that, it's a little more personal. When you have so many more people involved with a film, I think, you need to think about people seeing it, and I don't think you need to make every movie massively commercial, but going into it, a smart producer, thinks, "Alright, when I have this thing in my hand, and it turns out exactly like I wanted it to, what am I going to do with it?"
I think that's the perfect place to wrap this up. Thank you to Alan Polsky for this interview as well as ID PR for arranging it. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans hits limited theaters this weekend and expands throughout December. Go see it, it's absolutely frickin' awesome!