Manure (2009): Polish Brothers’ Screwball Comedy

There have been all kinds of iconic American salesman in cinematic history—encyclopedia salesmen, bible salesmen, vacuum cleaner salesman, insurance salesmen, aluminum siding salesmen, real estate salesmen–and the list goes on.  But never before has the salesman been seen in the quite way that the irascible Polish Brothers present him in their twist on the screwball comedy, MANURE.


These salesmen are chasing the American Dream one door knock at a time, but their product is nothing less than the most ubiquitous, detested, inescapable stuff on earth:  animal manure of all make and kinds. Part parable of predatory corporatism, part sparking tale of old-fashioned, American grit, their uproarious story centers around a greedy, corrupt new competitor and an eye-catching female outsider who discovers the sweetness that can still be found in a world full of it.


For the Polish Brothers, who grew up in the farmlands of Central California, MANURE was a chance to go back to their roots, their deepest, darkest roots, and the memories of acrid odors rising from the fecund land throughout their childhoods.  “We were born in El Centro, California,” points out director Michael Polish, “where the scent of manure is always in the air.”


From there, of course, the identical twin Polish Brothers moved on and proved to have truly fertile imaginations — becoming a filmmaking duo celebrated for their maverick creativity and visionary style. Ever since they first burst onto the indie scene with their acclaimed tale of conjoined twins, Twin Falls, Idaho, they’ve become known for forging richly conceived, eye-popping worlds full of humor and humanity.


In films such as Jackpot, about the quest of a would-be singer at a karaoke contest; and the award-winning Northfork, the surreal tale of a Montana town doomed to be flooded by a new dam, they expanded on the notion of distinctly American dreams in all their drama and doom, boldness and beauty. 


They most recently made their first big studio picture, The Astronaut Farmer, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a failed NASA astronaut who tries to build his own rocket on his family farm.  Drawing comparisons to the likes of Frank Capra and the Coen Brothers all at once, the film went on to garner widespread critical praise, with Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice summarizing:  “The Astronaut Farmer possesses both the skill and sincerity to break a grown man’s heart and make a little kid dream a little bigger.”


With MANURE, the brothers make another departure – putting their own earthy stamp on the screwball comedy, setting it amidst Nebraska’s farmlands, where soil is king, animal waste is precious and the Roses Manure Company offers the vastest selection of exotic excrement in the lower 48 – all in the name of serious potential for growth. 


The Roses Company has long been a leader in manure, nurtured by the immigrant ambitions of Mr. Rose, the company’s ambitious scientist founder.  But when Mr. Rose suddenly passes away, the company suddenly falls into the hands of his only heir:  his embittered daughter, Rosemary Rose, who soon finds herself deep in dung . . . and much to her surprise, ready to battle for the dignity of her father’s devoted salesmen. 


Crackling with Marx Brothers-like repartee and brought to life via an epic soundstage design – what Michael Polish calls “heightened reality” — that echoes the Golden Age of Hollywood with indie flair, MANURE takes an retro look at very current themes.  As Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the film’s lead, notes:  “There hasn’t been a film like this made since the 40s in terms of its design and its comic repartee, but MANURE is also quite a modern story about the war between small, personal Ma and Pa-style businesses and the indifferent corporations who threaten a way of life.” 


The Polish Brothers’ “men of manure” join a long tradition of American salesman – from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s peddlers to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman – who have represented the effects of changing times on the nation’s most fundamental and human business:  face-to-face selling.   “We’ve always wanted to do a movie about the American salesman,” says Mark Polish, who co-wrote and takes a major role as Thaddeus in the picture.  Adds Michael:  “And once we began talking about it, we realized the manure salesman is the end all and be all of the American salesman.”  


Naturally, the Polish Brothers also recognized that a subject as loaded as manure could only be approached with playful wit, and the screenplay would compel them into an exuberant style of comedy as rife with puns, wordplay and cutting repartee as it is with character.  When asked to describe the tone of the film, Michael deadpans, “Brown.”  But then he continues to note its many influences:  “There’s a Looney Tunes element and there’s a physicality to the comedy that’s sort of like a rural version of Buster Keaton.  And it’s also very Marx Brothers.” 


A lot of the comedy is sparked by the forbidden nature of the bodily product that dare not speak its time.  “There isn’t really a better word than shit to play with,” says Mark. “It’s a very expressive word.  We think of it as a contemporary word, but it really isn’t.  It’s been a part of American lexicon for a long time and it’s something that has so many associations it can take you in a lot of different directions.” 


As they wrote, the brothers brought a whiff of something unexpected to their story of excrement entrepreneurs:  feminine wiles.  They always knew they wanted an outsider to drop into this unusual world, but it wasn’t until they hit upon the idea of Rosemary Rose – the polished New York City perfume salesgirl who is horrified to learn her seemingly unaffectionate father has died and left her all his manure – that the screenplay really started to bloom.


“The character actually started out as a man,” recalls Mark.  “But we kept thinking, we’ve all seen the boys club of salesman before, so let’s throw a wrench in it.  Let’s bring a woman in there and see what happens – and that brought everything to life.”  Continues Michael: “What we loved about Rosemary is that she is the very last character you would expect to see in this heartland story of manure:  a very feminine New Yorker who just doesn’t get it.  She’s not so much a fish out of water as a fish in manure!” 


However, once Rosemary takes over Roses Manure Company it leads her on an odyssey that will clear up long-held family secrets. “Ultimately it boils down to a father-daughter story,” comments Mark.  “In the end, it’s about the idea that the one thing a father wants to do for his children is be able to turn crap into perfume.” 


The metaphors piled high in layers throughout MANURE, adding depth while always staying light-hearted.  In the fine distinction between Roses Manure and the pre-packaged Milagro “fertilizer” of Jimmy St. James lies an entire theme about the organic versus the synthetic.  The battle that ensues, notes Mark, further “gets into the idea that war is shit.”  Another sub-theme delves into the immigrant spirit in America.  Explains Michael:  “It also important to us that Mr. Rose be an immigrant because we wanted to explore the idea that the American Dream is to sell whatever you can, to make money even from shit if you have to.”


It took the brothers about six months to write the screenplay in a close collaboration.  “Every screenplay we do together is different and it’s sort of a mystery how they’re written.  We don’t know really know how they come about,” admits Mark, “but they do.”  “And you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out until you’re shooting,” continues  Michael.  “A lot of MANURE’s humor worked much better than I had anticipated it would when we were writing.”


This, the brothers agree, was due in large part to the skill and verve of their accomplished ensemble cast, an area where they have always focused a lot of time and care.  “We like to work with the same core group of people whenever we can, but we add to it every time.  It’s a wonderful family that we create with our crew and cast – and that makes the long hours easier and the battles of filmmaking much more pleasant to fight,” says Michael.


The brothers also brought on board their long-time associate Jonathan Sheldon, a partner in their new Prohibition Pictures who also co-wrote the book The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking with them, as a producer.  Sheldon knows the brothers’ work intimately, but even he was blown away by the richness of MANURE.  “When I first heard them talking about it as an idea during THE ASTRONAUT FARMER, I thought ‘that’s a real Polish Brothers concept’ and it sounded very funny,” Sheldon recalls. “But when I read the script, I was amazed at how completely and beautifully they had realized this concept on the page, how they created such a full world and how the wit worked on so many different levels.  It was clear that this was going to be a very exciting film to make.” 


It was clear that the film was going to be a serious challenge to make.  Yet Sheldon knew it would come together – especially once financier-producers Ken Johnson, Janet DuBois and Nick Byassee joined the project with hands-on enthusiasm.  “The one thing I knew having worked with the Polish Brothers for awhile is that they have this faith that if you bring your ‘A’ game to the process every single day that great things will happen, and we all came to trust in that,” Sheldon summarizes.