Doug Phillips is a Christian filmmaker tackling adult themes with films that are geared for horror and hard drama audiences rather than church crowds. His films include Not Quite Lyin’ Eyes, Remake, Lightning Strikes Twice, and Lucky Day.
When did you first develop an interest in films?
I started working for Eden Communications / Films for Christ / Christian Spotlight as an online film reviewer in 1998 (under a pseudonym, because some of the church networks I was a part of didn’t approve of movies or TV at all).
As an outworking of that activity and what I learned from it, in 2000 I began to try my hand at screenwriting for the sales market. My initial screenplay was for the first Damon / Affleck “Project Greenlight” contest. A couple years later, I finally got an option on an improved version of that script. I also wrote other material, multiple genres. Got options or option offers, but no actual sales. It’s a hard market to break into. So, in order to see my work onscreen the way I wrote it, within my own lifetime, I wrote simpler scripts and started producing them myself.
How did your work as a film reviewer influence your work as a filmmaker?
Doing review work forced me to watch films in a new, professional way. To think about how films were structured for maximum effect. Open with an exterior shot, to give the film “presence.” Have a grabber scene in the first few minutes, to make the audience stop running for popcorn and pay attention. Use the three-act setup, and keep raising the stakes or multiplying the challenges being thrown at the hero. All of that is standard procedure, regardless of genre, MPAA rating or Dove status. It’s just good narrative fiction.
So I was mentally prepared to write, and eventually produce and direct, films that put story and entertainment first… and yet could be structured to have a social effect.
What feature films have you worked on?
As a Producer / Director, I have five feature films that are completed and released. Hurt, Lucky Day, Lightning Strikes Twice, Remake, and Not Quite Lyin’ Eyes. All of those, plus many of my short films, are available on Amazon. I have one other feature currently in production, and one in postproduction. My films tend to be straight hard drama, usually not much different from anything else you might see except for my specific content code and the conservative, evangelical worldview that I write from. Sometimes a character in my films will experience supernatural Christian conversion (that occurs in Lightning Strikes Twice and in my never-released film Zero Hour), or people who are already Christians but are messed up will get back on track. Such material is included only if it’s germane to the story I’m telling.
I’ve also worked as an actor in other people’s films (from small Indies such as Katie Heigl’s Side Effects to Disney’s Mr. 3000), TV shows and industrial and commercial shoots. Being on the other side of things is enjoyable. I see how various producer and directors work. How they treat actors. And that reminds my how I should treat my actors in my own shoots.
As a filmmaker, what do you strive to accomplish with your films?
For one thing, raise awareness to issues that are seldom talked about in ANY films, or that are normally dismissed with only the liberal worldview-take on them.
What led to your decision to make mass market movies rather than traditional faith-based films?
I do the same thing in my films that I’ve done in novels, short stories. The difference is that I’m working in a visual medium. With the issues I tackle and the fair degree of realism that I need to employ, my films are not viable in a safe Christian / Family market. Nor do I feel called to that. I’m happy for people who meet the needs of that market, but I’m doing something else.
Remake, which criticizes the pornography industry and all forms of exploitation, is my most-award-winning and best-selling film. By the nature of the plot, which includes the topic of snuff films, its primary genre is horror. I made it in such a way that horror fans would see enough of what they expect to see so that they wouldn’t feel cheated out of their money. But after watching it, they come away with their thinking challenged in a way that they didn’t expect. Many horror fans also watch exploitative films. And those folks deserve to hear a practical presentation of the Gospel, the same as anyone else. Many of them will never watch an explicitly Christian film. So, I’m going to them where they are.
There’s a common mentality that “weird churchy” stuff should stay inside the church walls and not escape out into the everyday world. I totally disagree. The outworking of the Gospel affects every area of our lives. Therefore, I agree with Siobhan Fallon Hogan’s character in the movie New In Town that “speaking about Jesus in casual conversation” is perfectly normal.
What has been the response to your movies?
Some people are very thankful for what I’m doing. That includes those who approve, even though they may not personally be able to sit through some of my films. Of course there are other folks who condemn my work. I had a young minister friend who unfriended me and blocked me on Facebook just because of the poster art for Remake. Did I expect that sort of thing? Yes.
My response is: “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10) I’m doing what I believe in. And as long as I stay the course, I try to be immune to the distracting praise or criticism of men. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nathan, the unnamed prophet in I Kings 20, and many other spokesmen for God, used fiction and even acted-out dramatic illustration to reach people with their message. Some of those illustrations would not be rated, even today, as family-friendly. Nonetheless, they were of God and were necessary.
What has been the greatest challenge as a filmmaker?
To learn all aspects of the business and find a way to make a decent-quality film with what I could afford out-of-pocket. With advances in technology, that’s easier now than it’s ever been, but it’s still formidable. If I want good actors who can actually “sell” their characters, it usually costs money (unless they believe so strongly in the project that they’ll work at a loss). A good Director of Photography with good equipment costs money. Food, special effects, makeup, location rights, music, editing systems, DVD duplication, festival entry fees, distribution inquiries… everything costs money. And time. time to learn new skills, and time to actually make the film.
What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers?
First of all, you can’t do this stuff, and stay with it, unless it’s in your blood. You either have the Bug or you don’t.
Start by observing effective films of all budget ranges, see how they’re structured. Mentally pretend that you’re a film reviewer, and note the strong and weak points and learn from them. Find jobs on an indie set; work with other filmmakers. See how each job is done, and don’t try to learn everything at once. If you’re not a natural storyteller, and you don’t write believable-sounding dialogue, then you need to partner with someone who can fill that gap. Find a high-quality Director of Photography, and create and maintain a workable partnership. Network with actors, crew people, anyone in your local indie community whom you may need to work with. Count the cost (money) and don’t start anything you can’t finish.
I’m thankful that, even in the Minneapolis market, there are great actors who’ve helped bring my stories to life. Some actors, including HT Altman, Joel Thingvall and Donna Marie Beard, have appeared in all three of my most recently released features (Lightning Strikes Twice, Remake, and Not Quite Lyin’ Eyes), playing either positive or negative characters as needed. HT Altman can be seen in other Redemptive films including Into the Void and Christmas Ride, and in the mini-series The Sacred Eternal where he plays across from Jenn Gotzon.
Also worthy of note: Kelly Barry-Miller, who plays my character’s wife with a secret past in Remake and illustrates courage, faith and self-sacrifice; and SAG actress Dani Palmer, a leader in an anti-trafficking organization, who agreed to play my character’s kidnapped daughter in Remake as a logical extension of her other endeavors. Both of those ladies considered their work in my film to be a ministry. And for that, I’m thankful.