Phil Leirness

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 X-Files...

Darren Rea: How did you get involved in directing in the first place? Was it something that you'd always wanted to do?

Phil 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. When 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.

Prior 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 with Spectres?

PL: 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.

Robert's 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.

DR: 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?

PL: 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 drafts.

In 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.

Alexis 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".

DR: Were you surprised that so many established actors were prepared to jump onboard an independent production?

I 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.

Finally, 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 that opportunity.

DR: What was the mood like on set? Did everyone gel well?

PL: 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.

The 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!

DR: Does your background in stand-up comedy help you get through the day when you are directing. Is having a good sense of humour essential?

PL: 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.

On 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 handsome?

DR: 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?

PL: 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 means!

In 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.

These 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 emotional level.

What 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.

DR: If you could work with any one of the actors that you worked with on Spectres again, who would it be and why?

PL: 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.

More 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 him.

Then 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 again.

DR: 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?

PL: 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.

If 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 power).

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.

DR: 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 emotional impact.

In 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.

DR: Is there any news on Spectres finding a distributor and being released theatrically to a wider audience?

PL: If there was news, do you really think I'd share it with you?!? Oh, wait, of course I would. Never mind.

In 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.

In 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.

DR: Will the movie eventually make its way onto DVD? And if so, what extras would you like to see included on the release?

PL: 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.

DR: What has been the reaction, so far, of the audiences that have seen the movie? And what has been the most positive feedback you've received?

PL: 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!").

The 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!

DR: If you weren't in this business, what would your ideal job be?

PL: 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.

DR: What have you got next in the pipeline?

PL: 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), Patrick McGoohan.

Plans 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 crackerjack.

Another 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.

DR: Thank you for you time.

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