Kloipy interviews Phil Messerer for Underbelly Blues
Check the jump for the interview!
Kloipy: First off Phil, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I’m a fan of Thicker Than Water. Which was a tale of family coping with a daughter suffering from a severe case of vampirism. Although Thicker than Water had many humorous moments, it was also a very touching family drama. What was it about taking a new look at the now saturated market of vampires that made you want to put a very distinct twist on the genre?
Phil: Just that. It seemed like every vampire flick was the same. Over the top, overly dramatic, and over produced. And none of them really gave the genre a realistic treatment. I mean what would it really be like to have a vampire living in your basement. One that required human blood and consequently human sacrifices for nourishment. I wanted to make a warts and all depiction of the vampire predicament. Chances are there’d be very little room for romance. Unless you consider blood and guts romantic. It’s something I never really understood. What the hell is so romantic about mass murdering creatures of the night? You’re supposed to run from them not spread your legs. But Hollywood has different ideas.
There’s also a healthy dose of satire in TTW, something that I think raises it above pure popcorn fodder. The nice Christian family must grapple with morality. Family values win out at the expense of strangers’ corpses. Hence the title, Thicker Than Water. It’s a fun, challenging little flick. Author and vampire connoisseur, Gabrielle Faust, said that I tread a fine line between reverence and irreverence. This is something I think will permeate most of my work. I choose a genre or subject matter because I love it or am fascinated by it but at the same time, anything that falls under my radar will get the Messerer treatment – I will make fun of it.
Kloipy: Whereas Thicker than Water was a small cast, your newest film Underbelly Blues looks like it has a fairly large cast and scope. How was it to make the transition?
Phil: Actually it was easier, believe it or not. TTW was a very intense, concentrated production. It had a very small cast, whose dedication was paramount, who spent two years developing their characters. There was also a heavily dramatic element to the film that required a great deal of soul searching. It was tough. It was also my first feature and I approached it with a very control heavy brush. The entire film was set in one house, so I would have a controlled environment, the cast would be small, everything would be doable. But the film came out a little constipated for my liking. It had very little room to breathe. With UB, I decided to go in the complete opposite direction. I’ve always felt that ultimately, film is the performers’ craft. You are completely at the mercy of your cast. If they suck, so does your film. So, I decided to let them do their thing. And sometimes I think the best thing for a director to do is just get out of the way. I actually like the results much better this way. I let them improvise and even create their own characters. The only time I stepped in was to curb their craziness occasionally. But mostly, I let them run amok and I think they really appreciated it.
In terms of production, I also found it easier. UB has over 40 speaking parts and almost thirty prominent characters. It’s is easier because no one really has to devote more than a couple of days to the shoot. This is a huge weight off. And in terms sets, I figured we’re going to have to wake up every day, go to a set, pull out our gear and set up anyway. Might as well be a different location every day. We ended having over twenty locations and naturally this really adds to the production value, not to mention much more fun to watch. It’s funny but it turned out that the exact opposite was true, the smaller the production, the harder the shoot.
Kloipy: From the looks of the film it seems to be what Pulp Fiction would have been if it was directed by John Waters. How did the idea come about to you and co-writer Seamus Reed?
Phil: Well, Seamus is a stand up comic and he knows everyone in the Hollywood stand up comedy world. We knew that we wanted to make an adult comedy. We wanted the cast to shine and not feel like they are being constrained or censored in any way. So initially, we approached the funniest comics around and we asked them create their own characters. This was before we had a script or even an outline for a story. The only parameters we gave them was that their characters had to be criminals of some sort. Once we had a cast of suitably colorful characters, we began a weekly improv regimen that lasted a couple of months. I would shoot all these sessions with a little camcorder. After a couple of months, Seamus and I felt that we had enough to put together a little screenplay using some of the best moments that had come out of the improv. And really, I think that if I sat around for three years I could not have come up with the gold that these guys were giving me on the spot. I mean, they were mostly stand up comics anyway, I figured I might as well use their creative abilities. That’s how loose this production was. I encouraged them to contribute content at every turn. Afterwards, Seamus and I locked ourselves in a room for a couple of weeks and churned out a script that would loosely serve as the shooting script. Sure, we tweaked it a little before every shoot, but basically, it was all there. I mean, this is what film is supposed to be – a collaboration. I just took that notion to the extreme.
Kloipy: As an independent director, do you feel you have more freedom to create the original vision you had for a production without the constant direction from focus groups or studio influence?
Phil: Sure, creative freedom is an awesome luxury that studio filmmakers rarely get to enjoy. Both my films probably never would have made it past development stage if a studio was involved. There are parts of UB that completely throw the ratings system for a loop. Hollywood is in the business of making money. And consequently they end up whitewashing most of their products to make them more universally acceptable. And I understand that. When you spend 50 million, you want to see a return. So it’s almost our duty as indies to go places Hollywood wouldn’t dare to tread. I think I’m always going to push the envelope as much as I can and if I do ever make movies under the studio system, I’m sure I’ll butt heads with the best of them. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, I’m almost content making flicks on a budget. I mean, no matter how much money you pump into your special effects or whatever, you’re still not going to be able to beat a good script with a good cast. And those aren’t that expensive. That’s my feeling, anyway.
Another nice luxury that I have is that I don’t have to shoot the entire film on consecutive days. I can shoot on weekends, take a couple weeks off to plan the next shoot, edit what I’ve got, alter the script. I have found this to be very important. We shot UB in thirteen shoot days. But if they were consecutive, the film would have sucked big time. This is something I started with my first film and it’s the one piece of advice I’d want to impart to other aspiring filmmakers. Take your time. You don’t need to finish production in two weeks. Take two or three months with nice breaks in between every shoot day. Treat each shoot as if you’re shooting a series of short films. That is our right as indies.
Kloipy: With the constant barrage of Hollywood drivel and floating in a sea of remakes, do you feel there is still hope for a time where creativity and art can make its way back into the forefront?
Phil: Sure, the right people just need to be put at the helm. My biggest gripe with Hollywood is not even the fact that very little original content is given a chance. I understand that with the amount of money at stake, commercially proven formula is is the only thing getting green-lit. My biggest gripe is that I seem to keep seeing the same tired, untalented faces in every movie. And really, if there’s one thing that we have proven with UB it’s that you cannot throw a rock in this town without hitting some genius performer struggling to pay his or her rent. The real problem with Hollywood is the casting directors with their ten page A-list rolodexes who don’t give anyone new a shot. And I’m sorry but who made these people stars, anyway? One thing I vow to do is to continue to give new kids a try. I don’t want to work with stars. I want to create them.
Kloipy: Could you name a film or two that first made you look at the movies as more than just ‘entertainment’ and what was it that drove you to say ‘I want to do this someday’?
Phil: I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers and Early Tarantino. Why? Because they made character king. Most movies die after the first act because the plot just kinda takes over. There’s nothing to talk about except the bomb or the monster or whatever the film is ‘about’. The Coens never let a little thing like plot get in the way of good character development. Actually that’s not true. Development is not really the right word for a Coen character. As a matter of fact, not a single Coen character has ever ‘evolved’. They leave the film exactly the same as they enter. Something I’ve always found pretty cool. And when you think about it, there’s nothing more phony than character development. Who really changes during the course of two hours. The best characters come fully evolved and the film is just a stage for them to do their dance or whatever. Tarantino liberated dialogue. A huge influence on me.
Kloipy: Phil, again thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Before we go, what is it about Underbelly Blues that you would like audiences to know, and could you please let us know where to go to check out the film?
Phil: It’s just a really fun flick. We set out to make a movie that people can really enjoy and I think that we’ve succeeded. If you have a dark, mischievous sense of humor like mine, I think you’ll be pretty satisfied. It won’t be coming out for a little while. It’ll be doing the festival circuit for the next few months so look out for it at your local indie film fest. We don’t have a distributor yet but hope to find one soon and maybe even have a theatrical release. Who knows. Gotta aim big. Anyway, thanks a lot for spreading the word. Keep the indie dream alive! The technology is now here. There are no more excuses. Just pick up a camera and start shooting!
Thanks again to Phil for taking the time to give us this interview. Look forward to see more features from Phil in the future!
You can find Underbelly Blues at
watch the trailer here NSFW http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5jOkXz29fo