Scott Phillips has been knocking around the movie biz for more than a decade now. Over the years, he’s done everything from fetching coffee to directing features. His latest film, Gimme Skelter was released to glowing reviews. Scott was nice enough to take time to talk to me about the process of writing, surviving in Hollywood and getting off your ass.
Wow, man, you’ve been really busy lately. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. First things first—you’ve just returned from Comic-Con, right? How was that? Were you there pimping anything in particular?
Comic-Con was a blast, as usual—overwhelming, but a lot of fun. Halo-8, the distributor who’s handling Gimme Skelter, had a booth so I was there to sign copies of the DVD, but I was also handing out copies of Drawtard, the mini-comic I did with my buddy John Howard. Beyond that, I was looking for more writing work, but I’m a complete failure when it comes to pimping myself—I even had some snazzy business cards printed and wound up only handing out six of ‘em, all to people I know.
Is this your first time to attend?
Nah, I’ve been going to the Con for 22 years now. It was still in the old convention center back then, when downtown San Diego was a nightmarish landscape populated almost entirely by hookers, drug dealers and winos. In fact, the second or third time I went to the Con, me and my pals ate dinner at some fast-food joint (there weren’t many choices back then) and they had a security guard posted at the door. As we were leaving, he said “Goodnight folks – stay in groups!”
What do you think? Is Comic-Con really being hijacked by Hollywood?
It was hijacked by Hollywood years ago.
Do you think that’s a bad thing? It can be argued that it’s helped push comics into the mainstream and got them some respect. But hell, that can be seen as a bad thing too.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely made it tougher to get through the dealer’s room. One result, however—and it’s one of my pet peeves—is that there are a lot of comics people who aren’t even thinking in terms of coming up with a good comic book, they’re thinking in terms of movie pitches. The notion of trying to do a cool comic first doesn’t seem to be a priority anymore; it’s all about making that Hollywood sale. Not that I don’t understand that approach, mind you—I’d be more than happy to make a big-money deal (Drawtard: The Movie, anyone?), and certainly everybody’s gotta pay their bills. But it seems that comics have lost some of their purity, if that makes any sense. At the same time, though, anything that brings some mainstream attention to Watchmen or Ed Brubaker’s Criminal or Jason Aaron’s Scalped is okay in my book. I’m sure you’ve heard how sales of Watchmen have skyrocketed since the trailer for the movie hit the scene.
At this point, Scott, you’ve been involved in the movie biz for more than a decade, right? Are you starting to feel a little like a veteran? Any shell-shock setting in yet?
I’ve been a professional screenwriter for about 13 years now, yeah. My first paid screenwriting gig came in early 1995, when Jeff Burr hired me to rewrite a script he was trying to get made. Soon after that, I sold the script that became Drive. There have been a lot of ups and downs since then, I can assure you. It’s funny that you asked about shell-shock; last week, I was going through some old pitches and I realized that I have boxes—those big plastic totes—full of scripts, treatments, pitches, short stories and even a novel sitting around here. And while not all of the stuff is anything like very good, a bunch of it is pretty cool, and some of it is damn good indeed. But more than anything, going through that stuff reminded me that I used to write my ass off all the time—I was writing five days a week without fail, just for the pure joy of putting words on paper. I sat there looking through these boxes and wondering why I don’t write like that anymore, and to be honest, I think all the horseshit that comes along with working in Hollywood just kind of beat the fun of writing out of me. That’s not to say that I don’t still enjoy writing—I freaking love writing—but unless I’ve got a gig, I don’t tend to do it much nowadays.
That realization really hit me hard and I want to make an effort to write more, just get all my ideas down on paper, whether they’re scripts, comics or what have you. I miss it. I’m in a weird position right now, though—for the first time since 1999, I don’t have a manager or agent, and even though I have a fair amount of credits, they don’t seem to mean a lot. I almost feel like I’m starting over from scratch, although the credits do help as far as getting people to take me a little more seriously when I hit them up for work. But at the same time, the biggest project of my career is about to hit the airwaves and has the potential to be a big hit. It probably sounds stupid but I feel kind of adrift, in a way.
How has the industry changed since you started?
I don’t really see a lot of difference between 1995 and now—by the time I got to Hollywood, the place was already in a state of blockbuster-mentality stagnation and had been for years. I think it’s gotten worse in recent years, though. I’ve had meetings at every studio in town and everyone talks about how they’re looking for something different, but what they really mean is “different but exactly like whatever topped the box office last weekend.”
It seems to me that you’ve crafted your career “the old-fashioned” way. You climbed the ladder: You broke in doing make-up and effects. Then you got your writing across. Then came directing and producing. Did you just nose your way into the industry and grab on, doing whatever you could to learn the craft of filmmaking?
Pretty much, yeah. I was one of those kids who grew up making Super-8mm shorts in the backyard, of course. My first “real” movie work was as an extra on Red Dawn, and after that I was a production assistant on a movie called Animal Behavior, which starred Armand Assante, Karen Allen and a chimp. After those two, I concentrated on writing and even ran my own video store for a short time. When I moved to L.A. in 1995, my buddy Kenneth J. Hall (Puppetmaster, The Halfway House) helped me get work doing makeup effects. I landed a manager, and before long, the script for Drive sold. As far as directing goes, I’m not sure I really feel like an honest-to-gosh “director” just yet, despite having performed the task several times (and I’m pretty sure there are plenty of folks who have seen my movies that would agree with that assessment).
Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the way it’s usually done anymore. With the rise of film schools, etc., people just kind of say “I’m a director” and go after directing jobs. And that’s really sad to me. Am I off base here?
Probably not, I think a lot of folks get this idea in their heads that they’re one particular thing and then they’re not willing to take any other film work, almost as if they feel like it’s beneath them. Shit, I’ve been thinking about trying to get more work as an extra recently just to bring home some money.
Speaking of directing, I really, really loved Gimme Skelter. To me, it’s one of those perfect ideas. I can’t believe nobody had thought of it before you wrote it. How did the premise come to you?
Thanks, man, I’m glad you enjoyed it. For several years, I’d been kicking around the idea of doing something about the children born to the Manson Family—those crazy hippies were knocking each other up all the time. I could never decide if it should be a horror movie or an “Adam Sandler movie,” though. Then Eli Roth, Scott Spiegel and Boaz Yakin at Raw Nerve saw The Stink of Flesh and dug it, and they asked me to pitch a movie to them. Since I didn’t have another horror idea I really liked, I decided that Gimme Skelter was indeed a horror flick. I went to L.A. and pitched it to Boaz, who really liked it and wanted to make it, but things got crazy with Raw Nerve and it never happened.
Well I guess it worked out, because Gimme Skelter is actually hitting store shelves on August 26 , which is fantastic, man. Congratulations! That’s a major victory for a low-budget film these days. What was it like getting there? I bet it was a long, arduous journey.
To be honest, I was really crushed by what we went through in the course of securing decent distribution for Gimme Skelter. Coming off the small-but-rabid cult following of The Stink of Flesh and having a name like Gunnar Hansen in the movie, I thought we’d be able to make a good deal, put the money back in the investor’s pocket, and maybe even make a meager profit. We got some offers but nothing that I’d consider reasonable—in fact, a couple of distributors acted like we should give them the flick for free! I mean, yeah, the movie didn’t cost jack shit to make, but we all worked our asses off to do it. After several months of this, Kurly Tlapoyawa (who plays “Swan” in Skelter) convinced me to give him a shot at distributing the movie. Meanwhile, Skelter was screened at the Backseat Film Festival, and Doug Sakmann recommended we show it to Matt Pizzolo at Halo-8. Kurly made a deal with Matt to piggyback the movie on his catalog, and thanks to that, Skelter will get a wider release than it might have. The jury’s still out on whether or not we’ll make back the initial investment but I feel better about this deal than any of the others we were offered, that’s for sure.
I so glad people will get a better chance to see this little low-budget gem. Is there any Netflix or Blockbuster action in the works?
Netflix is definitely carrying Skelter, but I still don’t know whether Blockbuster or Hollywood Video will stock it. I thought about driving around and checking some different places to see if it’s out there, but I don’t think I could bear the disappointment if I don’t find it anywhere.
So, what’s next for you? I know you’re doing Drawtard. You’re also doing some writing for television, right?
I’m trying to nose my way back into the comics industry, mostly as a writer. Drawtard is kind of a little muscle-flexing exercise since I haven’t done any artwork for about 15 years and I needed to try and get back up to speed. Meanwhile, I’m working on a four-issue mini-series with Tim Seeley (Hack/Slash), but I can’t say too much about that at this point.
The TV thing is the “big project” I mentioned earlier, it’s called Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, and it begins airing Saturday mornings on the CW Network in February 2009. It’s aimed at kids and teenagers, but it’s got a lot of cool stuff going on. You can see the trailer on YouTube. I wrote 12 episodes.
Is this your first experience with the television part of the industry? Is it as totally insane as I hear it is?
Kamen Rider is my first TV work, so I don’t have any comparison as to how insane working in that part of the biz can be. It’s been a really good experience because a bunch of the people behind Drive are working on it—Steve Wang is a producer/director on the show, my buddy Nathan Long is the story editor—and they’re all great to work with. I’ve really enjoyed working on KRDK, so I’m hoping it’ll be a hit and I’ll get to do more. Plus, I just think it’s gonna be a kickass little show.
That sounds awesome! Okay, Scott, you’ve worked in almost every creative arena it seems—movies, TV, comics, books. Do you have a favorite? Does one area offer more creative fulfillment than another for you, personally?
I don’t know that I have any single favorite—the bottom line is, I love to write and whatever opportunity I have to perform the act is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. That said, I think doing comics – at least “indie” comics—probably allows the most freedom in terms of getting what’s in my head out there in as undiluted a form as possible. Comics aren’t hindered by any lack of ability on the part of actors, or budgetary concerns, or what the weather was like—and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the artistic chops of, say, a Richard Corben or Jack Kirby, or if you can barely draw stick figures. You’re putting your words on paper and setting the stage with your artwork, whether that stage is your living room or outer space. And it only costs as much as some paper, a pencil and a pen. Plus you can sit on the couch with your girlfriend and draw.
However, there’s nothing quite like seeing a script you’ve written brought to life by a bunch of talented folks and projected onto a big screen. Even if someone up the food chain has screwed with your writing, it’s still pretty damn cool to watch a movie with your name on it.
Yeah, the food chain can really chew you up, eh? Okay, based on what you just said, let me close with an old-time favorite: What advice do you have for those crazy kids out there who want a career in the movie biz?
Learn to weld—it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. I’d say my best advice is to simply get out there and do what you can—if there’s a lot of film production going on in your area, try to get work as an extra or a P.A. and make friends with as many people on-set as possible. If you want to direct, don’t wait for things to be “just right.” You can get a very nice three-chip camera that shoots 24p for almost nothing these days, and practically every computer comes with some kind of editing software. Just make a movie. We made The Stink of Flesh for $3,000, so trust me when I say you don’t need a lot of cash. And if you’re one of those people who says things like, “If I just didn’t have to work my day job, I could get so much done,” stop making excuses and start DOING STUFF. When I was younger, I worked a physically exhausting job installing gas pumps and underground tanks, came home, washed the gasoline off myself, then sat down and wrote. Put away the videogames and write a script or make a movie. I know some very talented people who talk all the time about the various projects they want to do, but they never get off their asses and work on anything. Talent is great, but it doesn’t mean as much as determination and discipline, in the long run.