Unsung Auteurs: Maya Forbes

February 2, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: American filmmaker Maya Forbes, who helmed Infinitely Polar Bear and The Polka King.

A singular voice in cinema mixing bent humour with genuine warmth and humanity, criminally under-celebrated writer/director Maya Forbes took a long time to finally get her vision on the big screen.

“Well…it’s felt like thirty years!” Forbes laughed when FilmInk asked the filmmaker how long the screenplay for her 2014 debut feature Infinitely Polar Bear had been forming in her mind. There were a number of factors behind the acclaimed indie’s three-decade journey. Forbes spent the years prior to the film’s production working on other people’s projects, having written for The Larry Sanders Show and co-scripted a handful of films including The Rocker and Monsters Vs. Aliens. It was also a long road to pull together funding, though Forbes was aided when cinema and TV powerhouse J.J. Abrams boarded the film as executive producer (“I actually knew him from my local park. It’s a dream, right? I sent him the script, and he said that he wanted to be involved”). But perhaps the chief reason the script lingered for so long is that Infinitely Polar Bear was pulled straight from Forbes’ own tumultuous childhood, during which she and her sister were raised by their bipolar father.

Maya Forbes with Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo on the set of Infinitely Polar Bear. 

Was there any fear in delving back into these memories for Forbes? “I don’t know that I was fearful, but it was difficult. I had to process it both as a child and as a parent. It was definitely being a parent that allowed me to have a greater understanding of the total picture. But I wanted to make a film that felt like a memory. Hopefully when other people see it, it connects them to their own childhood memories. I felt like I was swimming through my memories in a way.”

Given how attached she was to the screenplay, was Forbes certain from the outset that she would also direct it? “I always wanted to direct a film, but I was afraid, because if it’s terrible, there’s no one to blame,” she laughed. “But there were a couple of things that pushed me. I have two daughters and a little boy, and I wanted them to see that their mother could be a leader. I’m always telling my daughters not to be afraid of being a leader or taking creative risks, but I wasn’t doing those things myself. And I also just felt, what if someone else directs this and it’s cold, or you don’t feel that the family really loves each other? It would be heartbreaking for me if someone else were to take this and not put the love and warmth into it.”

A scene from Infinitely Polar Bear.

There’s love and warmth in spades here as we watch Mark Ruffalo’s emotionally volatile but deeply loving father struggle to raise his two daughters while the girls’ mother (Zoe Saldana) makes the tough decision to go to business school for the sake of the family. “It was important to me to tell the story of what it’s like to love somebody who is mentally ill, and how painful that can be. They can sometimes be their own worst enemy, and it’s hard to watch. You feel hopeless and frustrated. It’s a lot of conflicting emotions. I would say that balancing the happiness and sadness, the love and the pain and the anger, was definitely a challenging feat to pull off.”

Helping her navigate this jumble of emotions was her leading man, with Mark Ruffalo delivering one of his richest performances. That’s saying something for an actor whose resume is littered with inspired and varied turns. “I was excited for Mark to do this because he’s got the warmth and the humanity, but he hasn’t played a Waspy character. My father was from a very New England family, and for Mark, it was a whole different way of carrying himself. I gave him videos of my father, and lots of letters, and we’d get together and talk about the diction, and the way that the character moves. At the core, you need to know that this man is a loving father, even though he’s very fraught like most humans. Mark has that core goodness to him.”

Jack Black in The Polka King.

The emotional experience of being on set and witnessing her personal memories being literally re-created was elevated by the fact that Forbes cast her own daughter, Imogene, in the role of the elder sister. “It felt risky to cast her, but I also felt like she understands the context of this story,” Forbes explained. “There were a couple of things that were wonderful about having her, which was that I could get her to cry without feeling too guilty! If there was a sad scene, I’d start to cry. She’d see me crying, and then she’d start crying, and we’d do the scene. So that was good! The other thing was that my father died in 1998, so my children never met him, but through this movie, Imogene felt like she got to know her grandfather. That was a wonderful thing.”

While Infinitely Polar Bear remains Forbes’ key work due to its very personal nature and cogent, deeply intelligent storytelling, the director has also directed two other features, both in collaboration with her husband and fellow filmmaker Wally Wolodarsky, who helmed Sorority Boys and was a producer on his wife’s debut. The pair had previously created the 2004 TV series Seeing Other People, and co-wrote the screenplay for 2017’s Netflix comedy-drama The Polka King. Based on a true story and pre-existing documentary, the film stars Jack Black as real life figure Jan Lewan, a Pennsylvania polka performer who develops an unlikely get-rich scheme. “It was intriguing to do something very different and something that wasn’t as personal,” Forbes told The Tracking Board. “That’s a whole other animal in terms of how you talk about it and everything…it’s treacherous!”

Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in The Good House.

Funny and authentic, The Polka King again showcased Forbes’ gift for unconventional characterisation and tight scripting. The director did it again with her 2021 film The Good House, which she co-helmed with Wally Wolodarsky. Adapted from Ann Leary’s novel, the film boasts a superb turn from Sigourney Weaver as Hildy Goody, a real estate agent who gets bounced by her family for her excessive drinking. Pithy, funny and plagued by inner demons, Hildy is a great character, and she’s even better teamed with Kevin Kline, who plays an old flame. “We felt like that story of older women and their whole lives, their work, their family, and their romance, their relationships with themselves just weren’t something that we’ve seen very often,” Maya Forbes told Movieweb. “And it was funny. The book was funny.”

Wonderfully skilled at charting the dark, strange, funny and wholly relatable corners of the human experience, Maya Forbes is a directorial talent to be cherished.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Steven Kastrissios, Talya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.