(PARK CITY, Utah) — Based on the true story of Ponzi scheming polka singer Jan Lewan, the writing-directing team of Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky prove that having compassion for your characters can lead to a big emotional payoff.
Lucky for Jan (pronounced Yan or Jan, he says either is fine), the local elderly population adores his oompah act and keep him busy performing when he’s not delivering pizzas. But for Jan, it’s simply not enough.
Jan’s wife Marla, played with blind bliss by Jenny Slate, believes he is truly gifted and encourages him to pursue creating the Polka empire, despite some harsh criticism from her live-in mother, played by Jackie Weaver.
When Jan begins secretly taking thousands of dollars from his octogenarian fans who think their “investment plans” will return a 20 percent interest rate, Jan, needless to say, gets in over his blond head.
Though it seems Jan has a big heart and truly wants to make people happy, he’s still guilty of defrauding hundreds of people out of their life savings. But as a writer, it’s easy to see why Jan makes such a compelling character.
We asked writer/directors (and married couple), Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), how they reconciled Jan’s good intentions with his criminal acts.
“What’s so fascinating to us is that he’s the perfect embodiment of the light and dark side of the American dream – that’s what made the character so compelling to us,” says Forbes.
But still, his actions destroy people’s lives, not to mention his own marriage.
“There’s a line in the movie that the older woman, Anita, says, ‘Wall Street’s rigged, they’re all criminals.’ And it’s true. Those people on Wall Street do a lot worse to everybody and nobody goes to jail, so we felt that was kind of true, too. This was a guy who was bringing joy to the community. He’s doing something that’s very valuable, we think,” adds Forbes.
As I explored the consequences of writing a biopic about a subject who’s still living with Luke Davies, writer of Lion, Jan and ex-wife Marla are still alive and both attended the film’s premiere at Sundance.
Though Forbes and Wolodarksky had no intention of making anything close to a documentary about the Lewans, premiering the film with them in the audience put some pressure on the filmmakers.
“It was only this weekend where we really started to confront this idea of, ‘What is Jan going to think? Is it going to be awkward or unpleasant?” says Wolodarsky.
But he admits that if they thought too much about protecting the real Jan by sugar-coating the story, the movie wouldn’t be successful.
“As a writer, you should always go for it and worry about the results later,” adds Wolokarsky.
According to both filmmakers, the real Jan loved the film.
Surprisingly, his now ex-wife Marla had an even more profound reaction. According to Forbes, the real Marla loved it to and said, “’I feel like I can now look back on that part of my life and not feel so bad about it.’ It’s a gift to her. And to us. I’m being really sincere.”
Both filmmakers agree this reaction was the direct result of treating the characters with compassion.
“We don’t want to make fun of our characters. We have empathy towards them. Ultimately, we just want to make a movie that we want to see,” says Wolodarsky.
But there’s another surprise that came out of the film. Forbes and Wolodarsky say they related to Jan in one very specific way.
“In the film Jan says, ‘I say what will happen and I believe.’ That’s the film industry. To get a movie made, you have to do that. You have to believe and say over and over, ‘I’m making a movie!’ If you say, ‘We might be making a movie then everyone says, ‘Oh, well I’m going to go find someone who’s actually making a movie.’ That really resonated with us as and created an engine toward making things happen,” says Forbes, admitting that it’s like walking a tightrope because, “It’s also somewhat delusional and can backfire.”
And that perfectly sums up both the magic and misfortune of Hollywood.
The Polka King does not yet have a release date.