Phil Leirness was a film critic, a television host in his
native San Francisco Bay Area, and a stand-up comic before
attending the UCLA Film School. He made his feature film debut
as a writer-director with Til Death Do Us Part. Since
July 2002, he has directed 15 behind-the-scenes documentaries
examining the making of various movies, and his third feature
film The Story of O is released this autumn. Darren
Rea caught up with Leirness recently to talk about his time
directing Spectres - an independent movie starring
numerous actors known for their roles in sci-fi TV shows and
films including Star Trek, Stargate: SG-1 and The
Rea: How did you get involved in directing in the first place?
Was it something that you'd always wanted to do?
Leirness: When I was a little kid, playing "soldiers" or "spies"
or "cops and robbers" with the other kids, I was always the
one directing the action and the storyline. When there were
no other kids with whom to play, I'd direct my Star Trek
or Super Hero action figures through elaborate scenarios.
I was 11 or so, my grandmother, who lived with us, began giving
my older sister and me a "movie allowance" and that's when
I fell in love with film.
to that time, I always enjoyed playacting and writing and
reading, but I wasn't that into film. Still, it wasn't until
1988, when I saw Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire that
I realized I had to become a director. I started film school
at UCLA that fall.
DR: How did you get involved with the
production company Shadowland? And how did you get involved
Robert Ballo, the president of Pasadena, California-based
GOAL Productions, Inc., a production company with a more than
30 year track record in broadcast, corporate and documentary
work, brought me in to help him and Bud Robertson start up
a feature film division. That became Shadowland.
vision was to create films that not only entertain, but that
uplift the human spirit, films that deal with universal core
emotions and the struggles associated with them. Our first
production is Spectres. Bud Robertson came up with the original
story concept and when the entire Shadowland staff approved
of that concept, he set about writing the first draft.
Were you involved from the very beginning? Did you have any
creative input in the casting? Or was that already established
when you came on board?
As soon as Bud finished the first draft, he gave it to us
for feedback and both Robert and I were intimately involved
from that time forward, helping to usher Bud through the various
terms of casting, I was blessed with tremendous support from
Robert and Bud, who were the producers. Bud was friends with
the delightful Loanne Bishop [pictured left] and wanted to
give her a role in the film, but he never forced or coerced
me to cast her. And, he didn't need to because she's great!
I think from the very beginning, Bud knew that I connected
with the characters he had created on page and therefore trusted
my instincts when it came to casting.
Cruz, who's truly an amazing performer, was a friend of the
film's line producer, Brian Dillingham. So, that's how he
came to the project, and the young boy in the film, Alexander
Agate, came to us through a casting director, Susie Mains.
The other ten performers in the film were people I brought
to the project. That's why, in the end credits it reads "Principal
Casting by Shadowland, LLC".
Were you surprised that so many established actors were prepared
to jump onboard an independent production?
was only surprised by those rare instances when someone turned
the project down! I have a background in casting, I have acted,
and I know how to communicate with performers. Beyond that,
there's nothing I enjoy more as an audience member than to
see a recognizable performer getting to do something he or
she hasn't done before and we were offering many such opportunities
in this film. So, I knew that would be intriguing for performers.
Also, the story is interesting, dealing with the supernatural
elements in a way most people haven't seen before, while never
losing sight of the film's heart, which is a poignant exploration
of this beautiful teenage girl's isolation and the estranged
relationship she has with her mother. So, I knew that the
quality of the material would appeal to performers.
both Bud and I encouraged the performers to bring their knowledge,
experience and advice to us so that their ideas could be incorporated
into the rewrites. That kind of input may not be rare - you'd
have to ask them - but I know actors usually appreciate having
What was the mood like on set? Did everyone gel well?
After we shot one scene between Lauren Birkell, who plays
the girl, and Marina Sirtis, who plays the mother, our key
grip came up to me, with mist in his eyes, having been deeply
moved by what he witnessed. What's amazing about that is that
on most sets, the crews do their work, but they're not really
watching. It's usually just a job. On this set, everyone wanted
the film to be good. That's a testament to the atmosphere
Robert, Bud and I created, and it's a testament to the passion
and dedication of our crew, but it's also a testament to the
very human nature of this cast and the respect with which
they treated everybody.
major challenge for me as a director was that I always try
to respect an actor's process, but I'd never before been confronted
by so many different processes and sometimes those different
processes don't gel. In those instances, the mood can get
tense, especially when you're dealing with such profoundly
emotional material. Add to that 12, 14, 16-hour workdays,
100 plus degree heat (Fahrenheit, of course), a tight shooting
schedule AND the fact that people don't always get along and
no, not everyone gels well! But that's okay!
Does your background in stand-up comedy help you get through
the day when you are directing. Is having a good sense of
To me, a good sense of humour (or as we spell it on this side
of the pond - "humor") is defined by being able to laugh at
what's funny, not by being funny. To me, a good sense of humour
is essential if you're going to get through life, let alone
a day on the set.
set, a director's job is, in part, to be a good audience and
how can you be that if you've got no sense of humour? Still,
as to whether a good sense of humour is essential to directing,
I can't answer. All I know is that I take the work very seriously,
but I try not to ever take myself seriously. I believe people
respond to this in me. Also, I'm damn funny. And did I mention
Where you worried that the fact there are so many actors in
Spectres, who are known for other Sci-Fi roles, might
mean that it would only attract the anorak brigade? Were you
worried that it wouldn't be taken seriously?
I wasn't worried until you brought it up. Now that you mention
it... Damn, we're screwed! Actually, here's what a geek I
am - I don't even know what the "anorak brigade" in your question
all seriousness, people are either open or they're not. And
it seems to me that fans of speculative fiction (be that literature,
movies, television shows or stained glass windows) are the
most open people one's likely to find. So, no, having a cast
with a wealth of science-fiction experience didn't scare me
in the least, but neither was it by design.
were all actors with whom I wanted to work. I'd been friends
with Dean Haglund and Tucker Smallwood for some time and was
it was great fun giving them the opportunity to show sides
of themselves their fans might not have seen before. Marina
Sirtis was the only actress I ever wanted to play "Laura Lee"
in the film and she's the first performer we approached. I
wasn't even thinking "sci-fi". I was thinking about a mother-daughter
drama and who would be the right person for the role on an
DOES concern me is a belief that many distributors seem to
have that sci-fi fans won't be willing to accept their favorite
(excuse me, "favourite" - I forgot the "u") performers in
something so different, especially an "art house" film. To
me, that's utter nonsense. Sci-fi fans are truly loyal, which
means they want their favorite performers to succeed and to
be doing meaningful work. If we only appeal to those fans,
we've got a hit on our hands, but I truly believe that there's
something for everyone in this film - there's ghosts, metaphysics,
drama and even a lot of laughs.
If you could work with any one of the actors that you worked
with on Spectres again, who would it be and why?
So, this would be the question where I piss off 12 people,
right? Except that I won't. You see, if I could work with
ANY of these performers again, provided they're right for
their roles and I feel an emotional connection to the material,
I'd do it in a heartbeat.
specifically, I have written a script with Dean Haglund that
we're going to produce together and that we hope will involve
Dean, Linda Park, David Hedison, Alexander Agate, Neil Dickson
and Tucker Smallwood from the Spectres cast. I would
love to see Marina star in a huge, ensemble romantic comedy,
which means I'll probably write one! I can't say enough about
Alexis Cruz and how easy and rewarding it is to work with
there's Chris Hardwick, Joe Smith and Lillian Lehman - none
of whom I've yet mentioned in this interview, but all of whom
I thoroughly enjoyed working with and hope to do so again.
Finally, it would be an honour to get to direct Lauren Birkell
I also understand that you interpret dreams? I have this recurring
dream that I am trapped on a desert island with Marina Sirtis.
is that normal? What
does that say about me?
First of all, it says that you've spent too much time researching
my background! I know that you're joking, but "is that normal"
is a question a lot of my clients ask and the truth is ALL
dreams are normal. No one should ever feel bad because of
a dream they have. I believe with all my soul that the voice
that comes through in our dreams (or in our meditations) is
that of our inner teacher, who wants us to have a fantastic,
joyous, abundant life.
you really did have that dream (and I object to the term "trapped",
because who wouldn't WANT to be alone on that island with
Marina?), I would ask you to describe Marina - not what she
looks like, but who she is to you (for example, to me Marina
is a really intimidating combination of vulnerability and
In your dream, she would represent those parts of yourself
(people in our dreams always represent parts of ourselves),
and because you're trapped on a desert island with her, my
immediate read would be that your dream is telling you that
you're not going to get anywhere in your life until you form
a relationship with those parts of yourself.
Is there anything on the movie that you wish you'd had more
time to do? Something that you are not happy with?
PL: I'm never one to complain about the amount of time. You
do the best you can with what you have where you are. That's
the job. Besides, on Spectres when it was clear we
had made a good film, a few additional shooting days were
authorized so that we could add a couple of scenes that truly
enhance and deepen both the film's sense of mystery and its
terms of things I'm not happy with, there were some post-production
decisions, things relating to the music and the effects, with
which I did not agree, but ultimately, it wasn't my call.
So, I don't let it bother me. What does bother me is that
as haunting and affecting as the visual style of the film
is, it's nowhere near as powerful as it should have been and
would have been had Robert Ballo (who, in addition to producing,
was the film's cinematographer) and I been allowed to pursue,
without interference, the strategy we had designed. Unfortunately,
there are sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen. Still,
the film works. So, I have no complaints.
Is there any news on Spectres finding a distributor
and being released theatrically to a wider audience?
If there was news, do you really think I'd share it with you?!?
Oh, wait, of course I would. Never mind.
fact, Spectres DOES have a distributor for all territories
outside the U.S. and English-speaking Canada. Creative Light
Worldwide seems to be getting good feedback from buyers, but
I don't think they're really pursuing theatrical deals anywhere.
terms of the U.S., given the good reviews, the fact that audiences
really like the film, and that cinematographer Robert Ballo
and actress Lauren Birkell, in my opinion, stand really good
chances to earn Independent Spirit Award nominations (the
independent film "Oscars"), if we remain patient there's every
reason to expect that the film will get a theatrical release.
For an independent film, it's critical to position it with
a theatrical release in the U.S. as that will exponentially
increase its value on DVD and cable television. For independent
filmmakers and production companies, it's critically important
because it makes the task of securing financing for your next
project so much easier.
Will the movie eventually make its way onto DVD? And if so,
what extras would you like to see included on the release?
A DVD release would seem a certainty in most territories,
including the U.S. and the U.K. We have a pretty cool behind-the-scenes
"making of" special that will be featured as an extra. Also,
the house we shot at is truly haunted, and there was one take
we did where we captured, on high definition, a floating orb
of light that could not have been a reflection. I want that
take and perhaps a documentary piece on the real-life house
to be included on the DVD, but I have no say in such things.
What has been the reaction, so far, of the audiences that
have seen the movie? And what has been the most positive feedback
As I mentioned earlier, I believe there's something for everyone
in this film, and audience reaction has born that out. The
marketing challenge will be not to emphasize any one of the
film's elements, however, for anyone who comes for one specific
thing might feel short-changed ("I came for a ghost story,
not a powerful family drama! How dare you!").
most positive feedback we've received might have come from
a reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area who championed the
film at the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival. In an interview
she said that if she were to win the lottery tomorrow, she
would pay to release Spectres into theatres herself.
As far as I'm concerned, she's the most brilliant reviewer
to ever walk the planet!
If you weren't in this business, what would your ideal job
I'd like to be the bass player for Paul Weller, but I don't
play bass. I'd like to be a starting pitcher for the San Francisco
Giants, but I don't play baseball. Perhaps a teacher... perhaps
one day I will become a therapist. If I hadn't gotten into
film school, I might have become a lawyer.
What have you got next in the pipeline?
Right now, I'm anticipating a vodka gimlet. After that, I'll
probably get back to work developing the project Dean Haglund
and I wrote together and that I'll direct. It's not going
to be produced through Shadowland, but I'm excited because
it's an important story and we've already attracted an amazing
cast, including my all time favorite actor (and personal hero),
are for Shadowland to produce two films in 2004. It's still
up in the air as to which project will go before the cameras
this summer, but Bud Robertson is working on a script called
Inside Straight for a fall shoot, that based on the
premise and his ability, should be crackerjack, absolutely
film I directed, a modern-day, English-language remake of
The Story of O, is hitting theatres in the U.S. this
August. It's being released through Pathfinder Pictures.
Thank you for you time.