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'Northfork' twins cast a spell in indie-film land

PARK CITY, Utah--"Northfork" is about a Montana town that is buried forever beneath a lake, and about the agents who clear out the residents, and the angels who come to console those who linger behind. But that does not evoke it, it only describes it.

I am sitting in a coffee shop at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival with the Polish twins, Mark and Michael, who made it, and Daryl Hannah, who stars in it. She has known them so long they wrote the screenplay on the porch of her house in Telluride, Colo., when being filmmakers was only their dream. I ask her how she would describe the film.

"You know like when you hear Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon' for the first time, and you have to just sit there and let it sink in?" she said."I have the Radiohead version," Mark said.

"There really is a town in Montana that is now underwater," Michael said. "Our dad took us out to dams our grandfather built, and told us about the beautiful houses that were underwater. And there was a lake in Texas where the church steeple came up out of the water."

"The bodies in the cemeteries have to be exhumed," Mark said, "because otherwise, the coffins will rise up out of the ground and float to the surface."

The first image of the film shows that happening: the drowned dead returning to the surface. The film stars Daryl Hannah as an angel of indeterminate gender, Nick Nolte as the parish priest, James Woods as one of the government agents who are ordering people out of their homes, and Claire Forlani, Peter Coyote, Anthony Edwards, Jon Gries and Kyle MacLachlan.

"The first day," Michael said, "Jimmy wanted to know, what the f--- is this movie about? Then it got to him. He came to the set every day he wasn't shooting. He said it was the best movie he'd ever been in."

"Nick Nolte has seen the film 25 times," Mark said. "He's the only one with a copy of the tape."

The movie, which looks as visually elegant and expensive as a big budget epic, was made for next to nothing.

"Nobody really wanted to make this film," the twins said. Their first film (Sundance, class of 1999) was the haunting "Twin Falls, Idaho," in which they played Siamese twins who try to deal with the fact that one is dying. Then they made "Jackpot" (2001), about an itinerant karaoke contestant.

Now comes "Northfork," their first screenplay, financed with maxed-out credit cards, loans from friends, actors who deferred their paychecks, and...

"Our dad Del built all of the things you see," Mark said. "He's not a true production designer, and there were no sets and no blueprints, just those buildings."

Del isn't a production designer, but you couldn't guess that from the buildings he created, so lonely and odd on the empty plains. Nolte preaches a sermon from a church without a back wall, because half the church has already been carted away. A local resident refuses to move, and turns his house into a replica of Noah's Ark. Hannah, who hangs out with Sundance types and supports indie films with her acting and encouragement, remembers the summer that the brothers sat on her Colorado porch writing the screenplay.

"They were always so quiet," she said. "I said, 'They're really going to be filmmakers!'"

They were. The twins, who are 24, divide the labors: Michael directs, Mark acts (sometimes with Michael), they write and produce together. "Our strength is the way we bounce stuff off each other," Mark said.

"We never fight," said Michael. Their father's side is Austrian, their mother's side is Mexican; they were born in El Centro, Texas, where their dad worked for the DEA. They were taken to Montana at every opportunity because that was Del's country, where he was born and raised. There's a lot of their family in the movie. The six federal agents, dressed in dark suits and fedoras, driving fat, dark 1940s sedans, are named after their six uncles: Walter, Willis, Marvin, Matt, Eddie and Arnold.

"Eddie Arnold is a pun," Mark observes. A kid named Duel Farnes plays Irwin, a dying orphan whose adoptive parents (Claire Forlani and Clark Gregg) return him to the priest, presumably because he is defective: "You gave us a sick child, Father!" The brothers wanted to cast Duel, who was completely inexperienced, but no one else did. "He had zero support," Michael said.

"Even the cinematographer didn't want him. I knew he was perfect for the role. I knew I had really good actors, and they would surround him and not let him fail."

"When Nolte arrived in Montana," Mark said, "he had just gotten off 'Hulk.' He has a lot of important scenes with Duel. He said, 'I don't want to meet, see or play with the kid.' That's because the kid has to feel friendless at the end. The kid has to be able to look in his eyes and know that."

"There is a scene," Hannah said, "where he's laying on the bed and he asks, 'Where did my parents go?' He kept his head on the pillow and only moves his eyes. It was ... amazing."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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