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THE ASTRONAUT FARMER

The Family Factor
Beyond Charles Farmer's desire to orbit the Earth, "The Astronaut Farmer” is about family, depicted here, as Paula Weinstein points out, "in a very real and loving and sometimes combative familial relationship.” The entire Farmer clan is involved in and supports Charles' one-man rocket program and he, in turn, uses it to teach his three children valuable lessons they might not otherwise learn about determination, courage and integrity. 

This, actually, becomes more important to Farmer than launching the rocket, observes Mark Polish, who says, "He's setting an example for them. That's something we don't often see anymore; we look for role models outside the family rather than within it. Here, Charles' son Shepard is just as involved in the project as he is. He's inspired by his father and aspires to be like him. You see the same level of determination in both father and son.”

"Farmer is absolutely determined to give his children the guidance that he didn't have,” says Weinstein. "His own father was defeated by the world and by the economics of farming, and left a legacy of bitterness and regret. By pursuing his dream to go into space, Farmer is hoping to show his children that you must dare to risk, dare to succeed.”

Michael and Mark Polish drew on personal experience for portions of the story. As much as family dynamics are a focus of "The Astronaut Farmer” onscreen, an integral sense of family is a significant part of the brothers' creative process as well, providing support, inspiration and the humor that threads through their work in myriad ways. 

"Charles Farmer is based on our own father. We grew up watching him do and build anything he wanted,” says Michael. Mark agrees, adding, "He never underestimated what we could do if we set our minds to it. When I started making movies he never said I couldn't. He wasn't in the movie business but that didn't matter. What mattered was that he never once said ‘Hey, you can't do that,' or ‘Don't try that.'” 

In writing the screenplay for "The Astronaut Farmer,” the brothers honored the encouragement their father provided them by giving Charles Farmer a similar relationship with his young son, Shepard, who, at 15, is ready to take on the staggering challenge of helping send his dad into space. Although it seems absurd to everyone, in particular the head of the FAA, that Farmer would trust his fate to a teenager, Farmer never expresses the slightest doubt in his son's abilities—abilities he has been nurturing for years. 

As Weinstein notes, "Shepard's schooling is limited. The curriculum is bound by certain rules. It doesn't allow for dreaming and it doesn't allow for nurturing extraordinary talent. Meanwhile, at home, Shepard is learning how to build a rocket. He's charting orbits, calculating trajectories, stretching his mind. By giving him so much responsibility, Farmer encourages him to rise to a higher level.”

In another example of art imitating life, Mark Polish cites a scene from the film in which Audie Farmer goes to the bank and is stunned to find that her husband has wiped them out financially to fund his rocket project. "Something similar happened to my wife,” he admits. "I had withdrawn all the money because we were using it on a film, and when she went to the bank there was no money in the account. Suddenly I got a phone call: ‘What's going on?!'” He laughs, conceding that making an independent film can sometimes seem as farfetched as building a rocket in your barn. "It's a tough situation to be in, but it happens. My wife was like Audie in the sense that she understood the insanity I was going through at the time and supported me because she would rather have me be that way than have me not doing what I love.”

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