EXCLUSIVE: Jacki Weaver and Jason Schwartzman are set to join Jack Black in The Man Who Would Be Polka King. The feature project is based on Joshua Brown and John Mikulak’s 2009 documentary, which follows the rise and fall of Jan Lewan, a Pennsylvania polka sensation who unwittingly brought a town to its knees in a Ponzi scheme. Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky (Infinitely Polar Bear) write and direct the amazing true story. Permut Presentations, Red Hour Films and Shivhans Pictures start production on the project this month.
Originally from Poland, Lewan — or Lewandowski, as per his birth name — defected to Canada in the early 1970s while performing with a Polish musical group before settling in the U.S., where he became an American citizen by the mid-’80s. In time, he went from playing small Polish clubs and churches at night (while also holding down a day job in a hotel) to setting up his own orchestra and moving on to play venues like the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. He even landed a Grammy nomination.
As his fame grew, he would organize trips to still-communist Poland for his fans. While there he would buy souvenirs at Soviet-era prices and bring them back with him to America, where he would resell at market price in his newly opened store, turning a major profit. To raise money to buy more souvenirs, he started offering unregistered promissory notes at guaranteed 12% interest. Events would begin to spiral out of his control following his wife’s ill-fated bid to win Mrs. Pennsylvania led to accusations of vote tampering.
With suspicion rising against him, Lewan’s businesses began to suffer. He eventually would be declared bankrupt and sent to jail for fleecing millions of dollars from investors in multiple states. Fans were shocked when it was discovered that their hero had committed one of the largest (and possibly only) polka-related financial crimes in history.
David Permut and his banner Permut Presentations produce alongside Black’s Electric Dynamite, Priyanka Mattoo, Ben Stiller’s Red Hour and Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures, which also finances. ShivHans Pictures enjoyed success last year with another true-life story in Bryan Cranston starrer Trumbo and is generating tremendous awards buzz and per-screen averages with Viggo Mortensen-starrer Captain Fantastic. Permut is also on a roll with Mel Gibson’s World War II epic Hacksaw Ridge in post, and the Will Ferrell-Josh Gad starrer Russ & Roger Go Beyond set to go into production shortly.
ICM Partners and WME Global packaged the film and will rep the rights.
Polka King is being produced by Permut, Stuart Cornfeld, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson and Priyanka Mattoo. Permut Presentations’ VP Chris Mangano will exec produce.
Weaver, Oscar nominated for her performances in Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook, has the James Franco-directed and -starring The Masterpiece in the pipeline. She is repped by ICM Partners and Elevate Entertainment.
Schwarzman is repped by WME.