He is an acclaimed actor, the founder of the internationally acclaimed Tropfest Short Film Festival, and now, John Polson, calls New York home, as he embarks on a career as a major Hollywood director. First up is the teen thriller Swimfan, which hits theatrical shores on September 5. No wonder Mr Polson was in a good mood when he spoke exclusively to Paul Fischer.
John Polson may not be used to doing LA press, but when we chatted in a large ballroom in the coastal Ritz Carlton hotel, Polson was like an old pro. In town to promote his first Hollywood film as a director, the entertaining thriller Swimfan, Polson denied taking on such a clearly commercial venture as his entr’e into Hollywood directing. ‘I took it because I thought it might make a good movie. But I also knew that the added benefit of that, was if I can turn this relatively low budget film into , I thought if I could turn it into kind of a bigger movie, yeah, it’s gonna be great because it means that maybe next time I could get more a budget, you know’ And that’s frankly exactly what’s happened. But it wasn’t quite seriously saying: Hey what’s the best thing I can do to break into America’ It’s more like I was reading a lot of scripts and this was the one that I thought I could do the most with.’
Swimfan revolves around Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford), a high school senior who has just about everything going for him. He has a great girlfriend, Amy, (Shiri Appleby) and a swimming scholarship to Stanford in the works. Ben’s life seems almost perfect. Then Madison (Erika Christensen), the alluring new girl in town, develops a crush on Ben, although she says she just wants to be friends. But it seems that Madison has an odd way of defining “friends.” As Madison’s obsession with Ben grows, his life begins to unravel.
First, he is kicked off the swim team for using steroids that he swears he’s never taken. Then, his best friend runs into troubled times and all clues lead to Ben. Finally, Ben is accused of endangering Amy’s life and putting her in the hospital. Ben suspects that Madison is behind all of it. With no one on his side, Ben dives into investigating her past and finds some incredibly dark secrets. Convinced that Madison will do anything to ruin his life as well as the lives of those around him, Ben decides to set the record straight.
Polson felt that here was a script with which he could do something. ‘Personally, I’d only made a comedy and I thought it’s a great challenge for me to make a thriller, you know’ That was, regardless of the age group, the characters and the audience, it’s just something new for me as a filmmaker it’s something I feel like I am interested in and something I feel like I COULD wanna do more in the future. I don’t just want to make comedies my whole life.’
Swimfan DOES have clear parallels with the all-time classic Fatal Attraction, a comparison Polson finds flattering. ‘I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, it’s a love triangle, you know’ I think the parallels are more obvious because Fatal Attraction was such a big hit and it’s kind of like living in the shadow of a big movie. But at the same time, what people shouldn’t underestimate is that few people in this audience know that movie. We had a test screening the other night, for 10 minutes the girl running the focus group afterwards tried to get them to describe this movie to their friends, and nobody mentioned Fatal Attraction. So there are a whole lot of people out there who haven’t had the fun of watching that film.’
Making Polson’s first Hollywood film has certainly been a learning experience, a ‘baptism of fire’ as he puts it. ‘Going through the whole process from day one. The whole thing of like signing your contract and thinking, ‘Well, that means I’m making a movie.’ And, of course, what I now know, and what anybody should know who is in Hollywood, that doesn’t mean there is going to be a movie taking place. You still have to find the ways of getting people excited enough to put their money into it. When I signed on to this movie that’s all it was: a script. Nobody had put the money up; there was no cast, nothing. So it was a great exercise in me finding the right ways to push the right buttons to make the money happen, to make the cast happen, and to make the movie happen. And then it’s a weird feeling going into a movie day 1 of the shoot, and not have a distributor. I mean, frankly, that’s what happens a lot of the time in Australia. Yet here I was in New York making a film with a kind of a hot cast, but for all we knew we didn’t have a release date, which was very nerve-racking.’
But there’s no need for the actor-now-director to be worried. Early word-of-mouth is positive and US distributor Fox ‘is excited about the picture and is spending a fortune to promote it.’
Polson’s successes have been varied, but he has remained a champion for Australian filmmakers in particular with Tropfest, the internationally renowned short film festival that has attracted celebrity judges from Keanu Reeves to Nicole Kidman. And while Polson calls New York home, he is still very much involved in Tropfest, though day by day. ‘Believe it or not I’m still on the phone with them everyday. Obviously there’s not a lot of responsibility on my shoulders for the day to day stuff but rarely does a day go passed when I don’t get a call from someone just to see what’s going on.’ And no matter what he is doing here in the US, Polson will always attend the Festival, no matter what. ‘I go back three or four times a year usually for two-day intensive meetings of where it’s all at and of course for the actual event. I’m still the guy who chooses the finalists.’
Though Polson began his career as an actor, growing up in his native Sydney, he recalls that ‘from the day I started acting I wanted to be a director, you know.’ He then made his first short film that paved the way for Tropfest, an experience, he says, that ‘has taught me more about producing, than directing. Convincing people to give you half a million or a million dollars to put on a one-night event is a great learning experience, and in some ways, I used that in a sense to kick start Swimfan.’
As an actor, Polson appeared on both the large and small screens in projects such as Sirens, The Sum of Us, Back of Beyond, Kangaroo Palace, The Boys, and of course Mission Impossible 2. It was while working on and then promoting the latter, that Polson moved to New York, where he now lives with his fianc’, a casting director, who in fast cast Swimfan [‘Now I know what they mean by casting couch’, quips Polson. Still close friends with ex Samantha Lang, Polson gives high marks to HER next film, L’Idol, a French-language film which will be screening at the Toronto Film Festival. ‘She’s an amazing talent and we learned a lot from each other, I think.’
Polson is on track at becoming another Australian scoring well in Hollywood. ‘Directing is very much my passion and I love it. It’s going great for me at the moment.’ Shortly after we spoke, it was announced that Polson had signed to direct a new film for DreamWorks. No mission impossible here; John Polson is on his way!