Imagine you’re a Manhattan copywriter who’s sick of the advertising game and longing to return to his first love: Moviemaking.
So you quit your job and move out to the mountains of Pennsylvania to clear your head and work on screenplays and spec spots for your reel. While rediscovering trees and fresh air, you cross paths with a flamboyant, Grammy-nominated Pennsylvania polka entertainer named Jan Lewan. Next thing you know, he comps you tickets to his over-the-top show at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and approaches you with the idea of writing his life story.
What do you do? Well, I can tell you what I did.
At first, I turned him down. Sure, his story was colorful—a young Polish entertainer escapes the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and works like mad to build a multi-million dollar polka music empire in America—but it just wasn’t enough for me to commit to writing an autobiography. After all, it was another classic “immigrant makes good” tale. And to be honest, I had little to no interest in the polka music scene. I mean, I like beer and pierogies as much as the next guy, but as for the music… it just wasn’t my bag.
So imagine my surprise when Lewan reappeared a year later, dangling an amazing plot twist before me. “What if I told you I was going to prison?” he asked. “Would you reconsider writing my story?”
Ah ha! Now here was an incredible hook and the makings of a classic tragedy full of hubris and hamartia. Was I interested? Hell yeah! But forget writing a book. I thought it’d make a great documentary. To his credit, the polka king agreed to cooperate in an unbiased look at his amazing rise and fall.
And, thus began the next five years of my life.
At his height, Jan Lewan was on top of the world and worth millions of dollars. To his legion of adoring fans, this sequined polka phenomenon was a thrilling mixture of Bobby Vinton and Liberace—with a little Las Vegas-era Elvis thrown for good measure. He had his own radio and TV show. He played concerts up and down the East Coast and enjoyed a regular 10-year stint at Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Lewan even took his act overseas, playing gigs throughout Europe and leading vacation groups to Italy for private audiences with his personal friend, Pope John Paul II.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Lewan’s incredible rags-to-riches tale had a dark side. It was fueled by the high-octane boost of an illegal $10 million Ponzi scheme. Yep, Lewan was basically the Bernie Madoff of the polka world, selling unregistered investments in his polka business and promising naïve fans that they could double their investments in as little as five years. Sure, it all looked great on paper. But in reality, Lewan spent or lost all of their money.
For his sins, Lewan was sentenced to state and federal prison. The timing of this left me with very little opportunity to grab footage of him as a free man. Of course, there were other challenges as well. I had no outside source of funding, for example. No crew or equipment either. And this was my first documentary.
So I did what any self-respecting indie moviemaker would do: I began financing the documentary myself. I paid the rent through regional advertising work and started shooting with borrowed equipment from a local ad agency. But I soon realized I had to bite the bullet, pull out the plastic and buy thousands of dollars in camera, lighting and sound equipment.
I then put a patchwork of crew members together (mainly friends who agreed to work for low or deferred payment) and began the long production process.
For the next three years, I continued researching the story—tracking down decades of documents and archival video footage featuring Jan Lewan, his fellow band members and their wild ride to polka stardom. During this time I shot over 100 hours of footage while cajoling and begging friends, relatives, enemies and victims of the polka king to appear on camera.
This is where you learn that one of the most important qualities when doing a documentary is tenacity. You simply cannot waiver in your commitment to soldiering through and finishing your project—even with no outside financial support and no guarantee that your film will ever be seen by more than a few friends and family members.
This never-say-die attitude will come in handy when trying to score key interviews—especially those that deal with an emotionally charged and polarizing subject matter. In my case, I had to gain the confidence of upset and angry characters on both sides of the fence. Supporters of Lewan resented his fate and were wary of attacks, while victims who had lost their life’s savings were understandably angry and worried of further exploitation. The uniting factor between victims and supporters was an overriding suspicion of my motives.
That’s when you must become a trapeze artist of sorts, able to walk a tightrope between the two camps. You need to stay true to yourself and your goals while convincing your subjects that you’ll give them a fair shake and represent their side of the story as objectively as possible. For the most part, people can tell when you are being honest and you’d be surprised how cooperative they can be.
That being said, I had numerous prize interview subjects turn me down, and many victims hated me for contacting them and bringing up a painful subject they would rather forget. I even had a jailhouse interview with the polka king himself fall through due to the arbitrary whims of his lawyers.
But one of the documentary’s crucial interviews shows how dogged persistence can pay off. Lewan’s former best friend and fellow band member had turned Benedict Arnold on the polka king. Over the years he served as a key source of information for me. In fact, I jokingly referred to him as “Deep Throat.” Unfortunately, while he was willing to talk for hours on the phone, he consistently refused an on-camera interview.
Finally, after three years of begging and one last heartfelt plea on my part, he relented. The documentary would have been much weaker without his participation, and I’m thankful to this day that he summoned the courage to appear on camera and face the wrath of former friends and bandmates.
So, how did I end up finishing the film and getting a TV and indie distribution deal? Well, no matter how headstrong and independent you think you are, you’re probably going to need some help. In this case I got a lot of it from a friend and former film school buddy, Joshua von Brown, who ended up partnering with me during the post-production phase.
Josh had been involved in editing, producing and directing a number of shows for cable networks over the years. He had been following my progress and approached me about pitching the documentary to Turner Network’s TruTV. Badly in need of some completion funding to fuel the post-production process, I agreed. TruTV liked the project and offered us a deal to broadcast a TV version of the documentary, while letting us retain rights to a longer feature version for festivals and worldwide DVD/online release.
It was basically an offer I couldn’t refuse. I gained the funding I needed to finish the film. And I also gained an invaluable partner in Josh, who was essential in crafting the film’s structure out of hundreds of hours of footage. Josh became a creative equal on the project and earned a co-director credit.
So… it’s been a long ride, but totally worth it. Today, The Man Who Would Be Polka King has completed a successful domestic and international festival run and can be viewed online at Hulu. The special release DVD, with extra archival and performance footage, can be ordered from Amazon.com. The film is also now available on Netflix. MM
Check out http://www.polkakingmovie.com for the latest news on The Man Who Would Be Polka King. (Image via Foggy Notion)