Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
[Photos: Brad Balfour}
Don’t do it; don’t let publicists put actress Tea Leoni together with any of her co-stars because it prompts such an assault on serious answers. But there she was, with her co-star Kyle MacLachlan gabbing about their comic turns in the Polish Brothers' surreal, absurdist comedy, Manure which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Leoni has proven to be a new generation's Lucille Ball--beautiful and funny, having paid her dues in various sit-coms and films that have exploited both her comic talents and otherwise.
For MacLachlan, this role fits into his idiosyncratic career path having gone from matinee idol with square jaw and dimple to the mysterious, oblique and sometimes invidious character who has made his mark starring in several films by perverse director David Lynch. More recently he has starred in Desperate Housewives, a TV series with a tone not dissimilar to this film.
Though the film wasn't exactly praised for its "clean" performances nor did it get, well, sweet-smelling reviews, it caught me by the nose and I could sense a story in this film by fiercely independent filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish.
When Mr. Rose, the genius behind Rose's Manure Company, dies suddenly, the jobs of its loyal fleet of salesmen are threatened, as they say, to be flushed down the toilet. Rose's stranged daughter Rosemary (Leoni), a classy cosmetics salesgirl, takes control. Though not sure she has a nose for the family business, she is determined to make foul into profit. Whether she likes it or not, she must trust her top salesman, Patrick Fitzpatrick (Billy Bob Thornton), to regain Rose's rightful position on top of the heap when a ruthless chemical fertilizer company sends in its slick-talking, insidious sales manager (Kyle MacLachlan) and Matrix-styled black-clad team to take over their clients.
Sassy dialogue gives Manure flair, but it's the period design with sepia-toned painted backdrops that conjures up the feel of scaffolds and wind machines just off camera from films of the '30s, '40s and '50s. The Polish bros are off-beat originals, conjuring up a weird tale that stylishly matches their all-star cast with campy hijinks. Thornton masters the right tone, while Leoni's nostalgic throwback performance showcases her own brand of physical comedy. In these brothers' capable hands, "Manure" fills the screen not just with shit—despite the critical reaction at Sundance (it didn't get great reviews)—but with a uniquely shaped cinematic vision.
These twins have wrecked havoc on our expectations before with such films as Northfork, The Astronaut Farmer and Twin Falls, Idaho. With Mark as the writer and sometimes actor (he plays Thaddeus, one of the manure salesman) and Michael as the director, the Polish brothers have created an original, irreverent, and sometimes infuriating, comic adventure set in the early 1960s.
Q: Tea, Billy Bob Thorton, your co-star, says you're naturally funny. Is that’s true?
KM: I agree with Billy. You are naturally funny.
TL: Oh well. Check's cleared.
Q: If it were true, what is it about you—do you look at the world in a different way?
KM: This clam shell [referring to one of the recorder cases] is very funny.
TL: That is funny. Is this a hygienic thing?
Q: It's called extending the mic range.
KM: That's three inches on your carrot, right there [referring to scene showing a box with a huge carrot altered by use of chemical fertilizer].
TL: That's three inches on the carrot. There it is. Oh, Lord. There were lots of little [funny]…
Q: Well, you use lots of little gestures and weird physical stuff to make a scene work...
TL: I was behind the box [containing the carrot] during that scene. I didn't see how far that thing went. We took golf right before it became a whole cable channel thing. Really.
This is the kind of movie-making it was. If you turned away and left a scene, all hell could break loose and you'd never know about it. Until last night when you see the film for the first time, and you're on your ass laughing. I could not believe how far you boys went with that character.
KM: Well David Shackelford [who played the carrot farmer] was great. That was the carrot scene where we were talking about its girth, and we just kept going... He's brilliant. We just kept going.
TL: Yeah. You did keep going.
KM: It got worse and worse and very, very ribald.
Q: So that was really you throwing in those lines?
KM: Yeah. We were all just throwing it in.
Q: You did a bit of improvisation as well in a few scenes...
TL: If I could remember where it was and wasn't. I don't think of it specifically as improv. I always think when you talk about that in the press it's sort of understood to be, "Oh, that line was mine [laughs]."
In this [film], we had a couple of instances where we were shooting and things came up. Specifically, I remember shooting in the diner, and we began to see that there was something happening in the kitchen part that we could start playing with. And we just started playing. I think at that point, I remember Billy [Bob Thornton] had wrapped. We just had this idea that we'd get him in, and have him be the chef back there with that hat on.
KM: That's what you were doing back there...
TL: Right. I remember, literally, hopping on this turbo golf cart and peeling out. Where were we? North bumfuck California or some strange place, and I was running into Billy's trailer. His pants were on. I'll say that.
I was saying, "Get your tie back on. Come back." It was that sort of a thing where something would come up, and people would be wrapped, and nobody was fleeing the set because maybe we'd have a thought. Maybe we'd want to go on with something. So that was really fun.
KM: It was a very creative environment.
TL: It was a really creative environment. To think we probably could have guessed going in—Manure, the Polish brothers [Mark and Michael], and all that.
KM: Very fertile [laughs].
TL: This is what Kyle nails on this one.
KM: I'm just here. Pay no attention to me for about 10 minutes. I'll come in with a little 15 second thing, and then I'm back out again.
Q: When you got asked to do a movie about manure, how did they phrase it to you – "it's a movie about shit"?
KM: Listen, I've done movies that are really shit. This isn't really shit. Been there. This was nothing. This was the sweet smell of success. These guys are so good. I've known them for a while. Any opportunity any actor might have to work with them, they should take. They're just the best. The environment they create is very fertile and fun, creative, really low key. Sometime I couldn't even hear what they were saying. They were directing, but I couldn't even hear them.
TL: And then you'd say, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you," and they would say, "It doesn't matter."
KM: Yeah. They'd say, "We're just going to go again."
Q: They said they really wanted you for Hollywoodland a long time ago.
KM: Oh, yeah. That was another story.
Q: Is that how you became friendly with them?
KM: Yeah. They said, "You should [play] George Reeves" and I said, "Oh." They showed me a picture of [him] and I said, "My God. Okay, I could be George Reeves [the actor who played Superman in the 1950s TV series]. That's very scary."
Then we started to research doing Truth, Justice, and the American Way—which is what it was originally titled. We got kind of excited, and then it fell off the tracks and became something else [Hollywoodland--an examination of Reeves' mysterious shotgun death]. But that's how we met.
Q: When the idea of Manure was proposed to you, how did you hear about it, and how did you react?
TL: The script came. It said Manure and underneath it said "Mike and Mark Polish", and I said, "Okay." That was it.
Q: Even though it is such an un-glamorous topic, you were glammed out the whole time.
TL: Well then after I said, "Yes, please. Can I do it?" We met and decided to talk about it. I'd just wanted to work with them for a long time. It got exciting because they talked about this Tippi Hedren kind of look. I don't really get to clean up in films much. I'm usually covered in, I don't know, dinosaur mess or some child's spit-up or something like that.
Q: You managed that pretty well on this one, too.
TL: I did. They didn't tell me about that. This sounds insignificant maybe, but the costumer, Bic [Owen], had us all in completely authentic costumes from our heels to the scarves or hats on our head. Nothing was really produced for the movie. There wasn't the budget for that. So they were going in and scavenging everything out of costume houses.
Q: So it was vintage?
TL: Yes, but not just the vintage coat or a copy of it. It was also the stockings that are very difficult to find that come out looking like a leg, you know? Creepy. And the shoes and all this, so it was fun to step into this every morning. It's a great hand up. It's like a prosthetic. I never thought I was Tippi Hedren. I'm not talking about being sociopathic or anything, I just mean that I had her stockings on. They probably were her stockings.
Q: Did you have fun getting them all messed up?
TL: Yes. I did. Let me tell you about those stockings, though. Here's the thing with them, and why they moved away from them; all you have to do is burp, and there's a run in those things. It's unbelievable. What these women must have gone through, it's terrible.
KM: A lot of stockings.
TL: A lot of stockings. You know after a couple of days of press you can really get side tracked on the smallest shit. Isn't that something?
Q: Well speaking of shit, you had to crawl in a bit of it. What was it like to do those dirty, messy scenes?
TL: Really, truly, the dirtier, the messier, the more banana peels, the more problem staircases, pianos falling on top of you, I love it. I was happy to dive right into the shit.
Q: And Kyle looked like he stepped right out of The Matrix all dressed in black...
TL: Or The Exorcist.
KM: That's pretty good. Well I was going to say about Tea, one of the things watching the movie last night that was a great discovery, I didn't know she was so great at physical comedy. I saw a little bit of it, that she was doing certain things when we were filming. But I was blown away by how good you were.
It's not an easy thing to do, to do a prat fall and make it look like it's just happening, like "Whoops!" "Oh. Is she okay?" You planned the whole thing. Going over suitcases and stuff like that was incredible. That's really a skill.
TL: Thank you. That's very sweet.
Q: Walking through that cornfield in all that muck looked like a tough one.
TL: That's actually incredibly hard to do. I did see a playback on that because we were talking about whether or not we needed to do a different shot, longer and all this. And I'd seen it and I thought, 'I was really trying to walk', but with Tippi Hedren's shoes on, that were about a size and a half too small and that cornfield and everything else, it was really hard. I thought, 'You look so over the top.' And I was like, "God damn it! I'm trying to walk! I'm trying here!"
KM: Well it had pretty heavy furrows. Everyday we'd come to work and there'd be a new crop planted. I came in one day and was like, 'Oh, it's a cornfield today.' They only had two sound stages so it wasn't like they could build one cornfield here, and then they could build radishes over here, and then cauliflower over here. They had to change it out every day.
TL: It was fun to see what we were growing every day, wasn't it?
KM: Yeah, it was neat. It changed. It was pretty cool.
TL: It was a very prolific farm.
Q: You're good at being Mister Over-the-Top too.
KM: They had to tone me down. I started in this business 25 years ago being so subtle people were like, "God, is he doing anything at all?" And what's happened is over the years, I've gotten to the point where I actually just love to like, throw things, and just do tantrums. They brought me back down again.
TL: I was just saying that what's so particularly creepy about this character, is that it's so not Kyle. It's like, "Let's see. Let's get the nicest guy in the world and make him an absolute prick." I think that was a wise choice because you're looking at this guys and there's something. It creates this incredible creepiness because there's something off. You can't figure out why he's so creepy. And then when we did that scene where we were...
KM: That was a good scene.
TL: We were like this. I don't even think you could tell in the film. Do you remember? We ended up this close. Talking like this [she leans forward, very close]. He was scary.
KM: I remember. That was in the room when they come in and everyone has surrounded her and she's like, "Oh my God!," and they run to Billy. It was good.
TL: Oh, we had so much fun.
Q: Did you enjoy playing the prick?
KM: [Laughs] It's a lot of fun because I'm not like that in life, and it makes me very uncomfortable, but there you have a safety net. You can kind of do whatever you want because you know there's going to be a cut. Then you're like, "Hey!" and you can joke around again. But in those moments, it is fun to kind of explore that. I borrow a lot from things that I see and I watch. I watch something and go, 'That's kind of cool'. The idea of sniffing and breathing and just personal space is so interesting. People that are good villains, I watch them and I go, "Oh." I store it away. I borrow a lot.
Q: Do you feel this film has deep ecological significance conveying the issue of natural fertilizer vs. unnatural chemicals?
KM: Potentially so.
TL: But I think you could have fun with the idea right now, in particular the small company, the one that was built on a dream. The David and Goliath aspect going up against, I don't know, [something like] General Foods. That's just what I'm going call the Milagro guys.
KM: Like the chemical guys.
TL: But I don't know if we're really making an ecological statement.
KM: There are some educational elements to the film. I learned quite a bit about different types of manure and actually some chemicals. I was thinking, they could show this film in school...
TL: Well how brilliant did you think—the ship high in transit—that whole story [about the origin of the word S.H.I.T.]?
KM: Fantastic. It was great. That's what I'm saying. You learn stuff.
Q: I really liked the little cartoon bits.
TL: They were really well done.
KM: I was in junior high school in the '70s and that was when they had things like, "Hemo the Magnificent." They'd show these films in science class about blood and where it comes from, and they would always be these crazy cartoon things that they would animate. They pretty much hit in on the head.
TL: [Laughing] "Hemo the Magnificent"?!
KM: Yeah. It was the "Sol," or something, about the sun guy. And "Hemo was...
TL: The blood guy? [laughs]
KM: He was flashing around and pumping blood.
Q: There were definitely some tributes in this film to certain periods and certain characters.
KM: Yeah. I related to that immediately.
TL: It was very funny.
Q: Can you elaborate on which bad guys you've stolen things from?
TL: No. He can't. That's like asking someone else's grandmother what she puts in her spaghetti sauce.
KM: Or her cookies.
Q: I feel bad now asking that.
TL: No, no!
TL: Don't you ask other people's grandmothers? You hope that maybe they're a little senile, they're a little tired, they're going to tell you what's actually in there?
KM: They'll give it away.Where you grab stuff from is wherever you can find it.
TL: But I can tell you that if you put grape jelly, a big scoop of grape jelly in like meat sauce – that's the secret.
Q: Are you just saying that to ruin our dinner?
TL: No, I'm not! I swear to God.
KM: Is that like a Bolognese thing?
TL: Yes. Any kind of meat sauce, just a scoop of grape jelly.
KM: Sweet stuff is good.
Q: In light of that, I'd like to know what kind of projects would you direct yourselves?
KM: That's a lot of work, man. You've got to go to work everyday.
TL: He's got a baby coming.
KM: I like going to work, working a couple hours, and then going home.
Q: And Tea, do you ever think about directing?
TL: Yes, I do actually, to be fair. And then I don't. I think that it takes a real incredible commitment. With a six and a nine year-old, I don't want to make that commitment. Maybe later.
Q: So what do you guys do next? I know that you're in suspension at the moment with the kids.
TL: I am. I'm taking a little time. We just moved to New York and we're getting them adjusted to new schools. I might be a monkey.
TL: It's not Planet of the Apes Number 7.
KM: I keep encouraging her to go on stage. We were talking about that.
TL: Having seen how beautifully I handled the Q & A, I was admitting to an extraordinary stage fright that is really so ridiculous.
KM: I see it as something to overcome. Immediately I'm taking that and going...
Q: You are directing her already.
TL: I know. If this guy is the director, by the way, I'd take his teeth out.
Q: What is next for you?
KM: Desperate Housewives. I go back on Desperate Housewives tomorrow.
TL: Tomorrow?! Are you kidding me?
KM: You're solid. You're like all muscle.
TL: Well thank you, darlin', I think.
Q: Do they tell you anything about what's happening on Desperate Housewives?
KM: No. They give you a script and then you know what your life is like for eight days.
TL: He's lying. You've got to sleep with him, and then he'll tell you.
KM: They kind of write you [in], so now that I'm back on I'm starting to steal things. That's their next plan. This is going to be fun. This is good. Orson needs to get a little bit twisted again.