For regionally-based filmmaker John Mikulak, great stories and characters can be found anywhere. And one story that he found in Hazleton has taken him all the way to the premier independent film festival in the country – Sundance – and beyond.
That was the story of the rise and fall of polka impresario Jan Lewan. Mikulak captured it in his documentary “The Man Who Would Be Polka King,” which has been given a Hollywood makeover as “The Polka King,” and an A-list lead in Jack Black. The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and has recently been picked up for distribution by Netflix. Mikulak has a producer credit on the new film.
“I’m thrilled the film will be on Netflix,” Mikulak states. “The big question nowadays is will (a smaller film like this) get a theatrical release. Unless it’s a comic book movie, theatrical is never a guarantee. The fact is, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are the big players now, and they are buying rights to premiere films exclusively.”
Mikulak and his filmmaking partner Joshua Brown were lucky enough to gain access to Lewan as his polka empire was crumbing, and the resultant documentary paints a complex but sympathetic portrait of the man. Having played the film festival circuit, it wasn’t long before the film attracted attention from Hollywood. Although Mikulak received a couple of inquiries about the rights to the story as they told it in the documentary, it was producer David Permut who finally was able to make the project a reality.
“David Permut came to us because he thinks real life is stranger than fiction,” Mikulak states.
Permut’s most recent film, the World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge,” earned six Academy Award nominations.
“He’s doing these films based on real stories. ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ was something that took him 17 years to make. But this, relatively, was a short time, only three years from the time of him optioning it to when they were shooting.”
Mikulak says he didn’t have much input into the production of the film itself, but was kept abreast of things by the producers. When the film shot in Rhode Island, with the Providence suburbs of Pawtucket and Cranston subbing for Hazleton, he spent a few days visiting the set.
“Jack Black stays in character the whole time,” Mikulak reports. “I don’t know if that’s his method for every film, but for here, it definitely was. I think it was for the accent, so he wasn’t going in and out of it all the time. As he was talking to me, he was like” — and here Mikulak chuckles as he slides into an approximation of Black’s accent — “’John, when I see your documentary I know within fifteen minutes I want to do.’”
Despite all the attention being focused on his documentary about Lewan, Mikulak is quick to point out that there are plenty of other stories worth telling in the area, both real and fictional.
As an NYU Film School student, Mikulak brought a student crew to Hazleton to shoot his senior thesis, the comedy “The Deviants,” in 1994. Although it came close to getting a release during the mid-1990s indie film boom, it wouldn’t be until 2014 that cult film distributor Troma Pictures finally picked up the film and released it on home video.
Mikulak has also mined Northeastern Pennsylvania for additional real-life stories. In 2011, he made “’Caio!’ A Day in the Life of Chef Lou,” a documentary short about the Hazleton-based WYLN television cooking show host Lou Giovanni.
“He had a show and became so popular,” Mikulak said. “He had books. He’s just a fun character, and I love characters like that.”
“’Ciao!’” is the first in a planned trilogy of short documentaries about “local characters, local celebrities.” The middle installment of the series is Mikulak’s 2013 documentary “All Hail Chief Mooney,” which profiles the titular longtime Waverly police chief, Daniel Mooney. Both of these short films can be found on YouTube.
Currently, Mikulak is working with WVIA television, producing a number of short films that will serve as supplemental material to the premier of Ken Burns’ new 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War,” premiering on PBS this fall. The short films will also appear online at WVIA’s website.
With much of his material having connections to online availability, Mikulak views the Internet as the distribution method of the future for filmmakers.
“Look at the Vice model,” he continues, referencing the Canadian music and culture magazine which launched an online news and documentary division in 2006. “They started with these short docs, and now they’re on HBO. I would love to set up a model like that that explores our region.”