Move over King of Rock ‘n’ Roll because there’s new royalty in town—at least in Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival. “The Polka King” will premiere to tell audiences the bizarre yet hilarious story about Jan Lewan, the “King of Pennsylvania Polka” starring Jack Black. The film is based upon the 1990’s true story about a Polish immigrant who creates a Polka Ponzi scheme in order to support his love of Polka playing, and as the prolific producer, David Permut explains, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
I had the opportunity to talk with Permut not only about his new film and his other widely talked about film vying for Oscar’s attention, “Hacksaw Ridge,” but also about how he finds these “gold nuggets” and the other unique films currently in production. Permut’s energetic and upbeat vocal cadence had me on the edge of my seat as I hung on every word.
Permut attends the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals every year possible, seeing upward of 45 films in 10 days, and says it’s all about discovery. “If I don’t have a film in a festival, I’m just going as you are, watching movies…I’m just discovering new talents.” While casting Jack Black to play the role of Jan Lewan in “The Polka King” doesn’t seem like a discovery in its outward appearance, the story behind it certainly is.
Permut recalls, “I saw this documentary called ‘The Man Who Would Be Polka King,’ and I’m laughing! I’m just hysterical! I can’t believe what I’m watching!” The documentary captures the life story of Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant who owns a chain of gift stores. He also lives for playing and traveling with his band, but financially is in over his head. His solution is the creation of a Polka ponzi scheme. Permut explains that he and his team acquired the rights from Jan Lewan and the documentary filmmakers three years ago. Permut then sent the documentary to Ben Stiller’s company and to Jack Black. Permut, laughing aloud as he reminisces, says, “Jack called up a few days later and said, ‘I was born to play Jan Lewan.’” Black, a major star, was on board before a word of the script had been written.
Permut’s discovery process continued as he brought on writers Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarksy, a husband and wife team who created the brilliant film “Infinitely Polar Bear,” from Sundance in 2014. Permut loved their first film and ultimately they not only wrote “The Polka King,” they directed it. While “The Polka King” and “Infinitely Polar Bear” are very different movies, “…they are both inspired by true stories.” He continued, “What I loved about it was the humanity of it. The humanity needed to be there and I knew that Wally and Maya were the people to do that.”
Permut confided that he and Stuart Cornfeld, a co-producer, along with Black, were all very hands-on in the development of the script for “The Polka King.” He said, “We honed the script, working hand in hand with Maya and Wally [and] tailored the script for [Black]” since he was on board before it was even written.
Permut promised me that it’ll be “…the craziest ride you’ve ever seen…” He continued to express the need for not only original content in films, but the need for films to keep the audience guessing. “I think we underestimate audiences. I think that most audiences know where they’re going in the third act. This is a movie that you’re always in back of the story, not in front of it. You’re on this journey and you have no idea where you’re going,” he said.
“The Polka King” is more than just a comedy, however. Permut feels that, “It’s fun and hugely funny, but I think there’s humanity to it. There’s a redemption quality, and a quality of his humanity.” Permut finds that the character fits Black “like a glove” as he “embraced the character musically and in every other way too. There’s a heartfelt nature as Jack portrayed him.”
Jenny Slate portrays Jan’s wife and Jackie Weaver is the mother-in-law who moves in with them. Jason Schwartzman rounds out this comedically talented cast as Jan’s best friend and bandmate. Given the creative cast and the financial backing of executive producers Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson who gave us such stellar films as “Captain Fantastic” and “Trumbo”, “The Polka King” has all the markings of a Sundance hit.
Permut and I discussed festivals (and favorite seats at theaters), but how does he discern what will make a great story within a film as Permut is responsible for beautiful and unique movies such as “Juno,” “Struck By Lightning,” and “Charlie Bartlett” coming to film life. Permut reiterates that he loves true stories “…because truth is stranger than fiction. To me, it’s usually what hits me emotionally. If it’s supposed to be funny, am I laughing out loud? If it’s dramatic and heartfelt, am I moved emotionally?” But it has to have “ a hook” much like the unusual story-line of “Hacksaw Ridge,” the medic without a gun. He says, “The Polka King is such an original idea [and] I thought it had an inherent hook…but how do you rise above every weekend with 10 movies opening at the box office? Casting a major star and a true story helps to elevate a movie, [but] I think it’s originality, making something distinctly different.”
Permut can’t wait to be surrounded by the beauty of Park City’s ski slopes and walk through the doors at the Eccles theater, finding his favorite seat (and perhaps mine) and to show his film to an audience. Until this film is picked up for distribution for all to see, which I am going to bet will be very soon, you can look forward to seeing “Punching Henry,” a sequel to the off-beat Slamdance Film Festival discovery “Punching the Clown” opening in March, 2017. Permut is also working on “Russ and Roger Go Beyond,” a story about a young critic whose name you might recognize, Roger Ebert, and his relationship with the “maverick rogue filmmaker Russ Meyers.” Will Farrell is set to star in this film.
I’m sure Permut will be discovering even more new great talents at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’ll be sure to save that aisle seat for him. For more information about the film and how to see it at Sundance go to www.sundance.org/projects/the-polka-king