Gabe Polsky ’02: from the Yale Whale to Hollywood

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// Charlotte Lovejoy

Producer and director Gabe Polsky ’02 came to campus this past weekend in order to promote his newest film “The Motel Life,” starring Emile Hirsch and Dakota Fanning. After graduating from Yale, the former Men’s Hockey star’s career in show business has skyrocketed. First, he founded his own production company, Polsky Films, with his brother. In 2009, the company produced “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans,” directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes. The company’s 2011 documentary about Jerry Weintraub, “His Way,” was nominated for an Emmy. Recently, Polsky has begun to focus on directing and, ultimately, writing. While on campus, Polksy sat down with WEEKEND to discuss his life path, his directing style, and the future of Hollywood.

Q. Could you talk a little about what your path has been like since leaving Yale, how you decided to go into production and directing, and what the experience of starting your own company was like?

A. I didn’t have any film background, and I didn’t know anything about film. I wanted to initially see how far I could take hockey career. I played here on the varsity team, and when that started coming to an end, I took a different path. I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I was a political science major, but I didn’t want to be a politician or lawyer. My dad’s a businessman, my mom’s an art dealer, so I had a good, diverse family background in my formative years. I liked entertainment always, but I knew nothing about it.

It was only towards the end of my senior year that I figured out what I wanted to do. My roommate was actually doing a lot of sketch comedy and writing, and that turned me onto the creative life as a profession. So after that, I just started reading everything I could about movies; I got a job as a PA [production assistant], and took some improv classes. I just absorbed everything I could.

It’s not common to start this way — as a producer and then become more creative, but I felt that that was a sort of natural path for me to get my feet wet. I obviously worked odd jobs — I worked at a talent agency, I worked for producers, I worked for a film financier — to absorb all I could.

But when I started a company with my brother, we knew very quickly what we had to do: get the best material we could and work with the best people. About a year and a half after we started Polsky Films, we made “Bad Lieutenant,” which is a property that we developed and found and got a real high level filmmaker to make. To learn from a guy like Werner Herzog was priceless.

Then we just started finding material and developing it. Ultimately, we made three or four movies and decided that it was time to direct because you have more creative input. When you hire a director, they take over from there creatively. Not only did we want to find material and develop it, but we wanted a say in its creative influences.

We found a piece of material called “Motel Life” that was brought in by a couple of writers and had never had anything done with it. We just fell in love with it for obvious reasons: It’s a story about two brothers. It’s a very intimate story that was creative and unique and emotionally powerful. It’s not a big movie. It’s contained and relatively manageable. As two brothers, we could sell the idea of directing this movie. So then we had to cast it, raise the money and get all of that stuff. We had to get the right actors to help us sell it and also deliver a performance that we need. We cast Emile Hirsch, who was our first choice and an excellent actor.

Q. What is it like working with such high profile actors and how did you initially attract them to your piece?

A. It definitely helped that we had worked with some big actors in other movies. It wasn’t like, “oh my god Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning!” By that point it wasn’t intimidating anymore. We had already had projects with Will Smith, Sean Penn and Nick Cage. It is just like anything — you become a professional. You have to work with honor, honesty and class. You work with the actors to create a character; it doesn’t matter who they are. Not all people are the same, and every actor is different, so you have to handle them and their personality in different ways.

Q. How would you characterize your directing style?

A. I’d say we are always about material and preparation. The directing style is obviously get fascinating performances that are powerful however you got to do it. For this specific story about two brothers, my brother and I chose to direct it together, which will probably not happen again in the future. But for this piece, the style is collaborative — let’s do this honestly together.

Q. Given that you and your brother are beginning to go separate ways professionally, what upcoming projects are you working on?

A. I am working on a documentary. I am very interested in documentaries as well as feature films. We made a documentary called “His Way” about Jerry Weintraub that was nominated for an Emmy. The next thing I’m finishing is a documentary about one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time: the “Red Army” hockey team, told through its captain. The story is about how hockey mirrored the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a social and historical tapestry as well as a personal journey for this guy. I haven’t perfected the pitch yet, still finishing the movie, but it’s an amalgamation of a lot of my background because my parents are from the former Soviet Union. I played hockey and I kind of know of this world and story, so it was something I wanted to explore. I’m starting to write the next thing I want to direct.

Q. What do you look for in the material you want to write about? 

A. I am looking for stuff I would like to direct. The company has the rights to the Einstein estate, for instance. If we had gotten that now, I’d like to write it and direct it. At that time, I didn’t know. Very smart, powerful properties have great characters that make you leave the theater feeling as though you’ve just gone through something not only entertaining and interesting but that you can apply to your own life and be inspired in some way or other.

Q. Speaking of inspiration, do you have any advice for students who are interested in entering the show business?

A. There’s a lot of rejection. Those lessons I also learned at Yale. You just have to keep fighting. It’s a tough business — probably every business is tough — but I would say that there are a lot of great moments, even if 90 percent of them aren’t great. You just hope it’s worth it at the end. There’s not a singular “way.” My way is different than their way or whatever. You just have to keep fighting as long as you have that fight in you, you know? Try to listen to people. Take honest feedback and be open. Figure out what it takes, and then do what it takes. It’s complicated, and it takes different things for different people. Just be true to what you’re good at, and go after it.

Q. Who are some of your greatest influences in your work?

A. I think it’s a milieu of performances and just moments — not only in cinema but also from history and life. If you read biographies, people who do innovative things that are able to really reach your souls. Guys like Werner Herzog, because we made a film with him, are a huge influence but also Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O’Russell, the guys who are always making Oscar-contender type movies and pushing the boundaries; but more so it could be anybody that inspires me — like my girlfriend or dad or mom. You grab little things here or there from everybody. I would say that an important thing, like at Yale, is that people can have influence on you unintentionally. People who have rejected you are very influential. Without going into specifics, you shouldn’t take rejection as a negative thing, because it is a powerful fuel.

Q. How do you envision the future of the film industry, especially in light of speculation about the death of the importance of the superstar and the popularity of television?

A. Really good question because I don’t know. All I know is you try to not go with the herd — “we got to go digital,” “we got to get a YouTube channel,” “TV is huge.” You have to try to do what you want. You don’t want to be obsolete, and you do what is profitable at that time as well. If there’s only money in television or digital, you have to know what’s going on. But obviously people are doing really great things for not that much money and a lot of it is really impressive. It’s a very competitive world and you always have to be on your game and know what’s going on and adapt. People are consuming media in a different way and people’s attention spans are lessening. You need to catch them, maybe make your films a bit shorter. I like to pace things a little bit differently.

As for television, there are more shows and fewer movies, and all of the movies that are made are huge. Independent business is sort of weird because no one wants to distribute those films. No one really wants to put money behind them so then a lot of filmmakers are moving into tv, music video, commercials — wherever you can make a living. Some things are going to slowly fade away; other things are going to transform. You have to know what’s going on without chasing everybody.

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