Gabe Polsky as a filmmaker is continuing to prove adept at illuminating life's inherent mysteries and enigmas. He produced Werner Herzog's wildly entertaining "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" and Douglas McGrath's Emmy-nominated documentary "His Way" before teaming with his brother Alan to co-direct their first feature, 2012's "The Motel Life," which we had the pleasure of welcoming to Ebertfest in 2016 (you can watch Sheila O'Malley and Sam Fragoso's Q&A with Alan Polsky here). Gabe's first solo directing effort was 2014's acclaimed documentary, "Red Army," an eye-opening exploration of the Soviet Union's titular hockey team and how it became used for the purposes of government propaganda. Following "Red Army," Polsky made "In Search of Greatness," exploring with top athletes like Wayne Gretzky, Pele and Jerry Rice the importance of nature versus nurture in determining outstanding athletic ability (read Nell Minow's review of the film here).
In the following conversation I spoke with Gabe (both by Zoom and email) about his latest movie, "Red Penguins," a shocking follow-up to "Red Army" that illustrates how the American investors in Russia's struggling new hockey team—formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union—found themselves well in over their heads. In his review of the film, RogerEbert.com Assistant Editor Matt Fagerholm wrote that while the picture is frequently hilarious, the urgency of Polsky's message is disquieting and inarguable.
After the success of your film "Red Army," about the differences between hockey Soviet-style, American-style and Canadian-style, what was it about the "Red Penguins" narrative that attracted you to make this film?
When I first learned of the Red Penguins story and looked through the archival material, I knew right away that the tone would be wild, funny, weird and dark—tonally dynamic—more to my natural sensibility, but something I haven’t done. This story had something to say and it had little to do with sports—which I liked. It was a US/Russian cultural and psychological study or exploration that happened to be a highly entertaining story. Also, I like working with unique characters, and this story had plenty…I always thought like “The Big Lebowski.”
What safety precautions must be taken when making a documentary like this to prepare for such moments as when the unidentified man disrupts an interview? And, were you ever afraid while you were in Russia making this film?
At the beginning I didn’t have financing and for the entire project, I flew by the seat of my pants. I got a travelers visa and landed in Russia without a single interview booked. But I had faith that if I just went with it, something unbelievable would happen and it did. I had confidence. Every interview was spontaneous. For example, one morning I woke up and I learned that we secured a KGB prosecutor that day. Hours later, we met him and looked around for a location in real time. I had little time to prepare anything formal and improvised, trusting my intuition about his contribution to the story. When the guy spoke negatively about Russia, someone behind us was listening. The cops showed up and “alleged” that a bomb had been placed in our vicinity.
So yes, there were more than a few moments when I was afraid. Unlike when I shot "Red Army" this time the atmosphere was not as welcoming. Something felt off and a little creepy. Politically American sanctions were being put in place and I had to look over my shoulder. But I was already there and I did not want to leave before getting my story. In an odd sense some of the mystery took me into a reality that added to the richness of the story.
As a producer on "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," what struck you about Werner Herzog's approach to storytelling as well as his sense of humor? To what extent has it served as an influence for you as a filmmaker?
On “Bad Lieutenant,” Werner never set out to make a funny film. It wasn’t until he showed it to people that he realized it was a kind of comedy. I find that absolutely fascinating. He didn’t think “Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans” was funny while he was doing it. We saw it but he didn't see it at first. How immensely interesting is that? Werner and I have a similar sensibility, maybe that’s why I was drawn to having him direct “Bad Lieutenant.” He made a very mediocre script something wild, entertaining, and mysterious. In my work, I understand that every character can have something mysterious and interesting about them, even if they don’t look like it on the surface.
As far as whether I was influenced by Werner, I would say that the greatest influence he can have on a person is just being in conversation with him. He has a hypnotic way of speaking, a certain cadence that mirrors his way of thinking. He draws you into his world. Totally fascinating. You get his soul, so of course there is some influence. But our styles as directors are totally different.
How do the events portrayed in "Red Penguins" serve as a cautionary microcosm for America's current relationship with Putin-led Russia?
How can we get along? Do we really know Russians? Do we understand the culture? How many films are there out there that take us into Russia and the culture, their history and world? Almost none/ Americans don’t know Russia—the culture, history, and how that shapes their mentality. Russia is very diverse and like America, there are so many kinds and beliefs. We will never get along if we don’t reach a mutual understanding.
For instance, I don't know whether this film will ever be shown in Russia because the material may be deemed too political by the State. I was told that the executives at the State-owned Channel 2, their biggest station, loved the film. But it was rejected to be bought or exhibited commercially. On the other hand we have received good feedback from the non-State owned operators, and the film has been requested for exhibition in artistic venues.
Would you say that both "Red Army" and "Red Penguins" are personal films in how they reflect the experiences of immigrants, and if yes, how so?
They explore two cultures that I know well, and that are constantly at odds. I am an observer and psychologist in a way of these two peoples. My folks are Soviet immigrants.
What is the key to making a film like this funny without undermining the seriousness of the subject matter?
Great question. I rely 100% on my gut—my natural way/personality—and what I think is interesting and compelling. I screen my film as I’m progressing to see if it’s working for people. I screen the film for people not in the target audience for the film. A film is essentially the author who makes or approves every creative choice, unless the director has no control.
You made a film about how athletes develop their excellence in the ability to play their sport. What other subject matters would you like to explore as a filmmaker? And how has the pandemic affected your ability to do so?
I like anything that feels original and/or has something powerful to say. I like opportunities to use my creative and improvisational ability as a filmmaker, something new I haven’t done. I want people to be surprised after they watch my work. For example, I adapted the novels Flowers For Algernon and Butcher’s Crossing—both of which I’m passionate about and trying to make. I have many interests. You may be surprised to know that I don’t really watch sports.
What do you want the viewer to take away when they watch your film? And where can they see it?
The viewer will experience the full range of emotions, be entertained and will walk away with a better sense of Russia and America. “Red Penguins” can be found on all VOD Digital platforms—Apple TV, Amazon—and Cable On Demand.
For more information on "Red Penguins," visit the film's official site.