Phil Joanou's career began with a phone call from no-one other than Steven Spielberg, and his over thirty years in film have included such triumphs as working with Spielberg on 3 O'CLOCK HIGH (1987) and his Amazing Stories TV series, the U2 concert movie/ documentary RATTLE AND HUM (1988), the New York gangster drama STATE OF GRACE (1990), which featured electric performances from Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright and Ed Harris, and his wonderful, underseen autobiographical drama ENTROPY (1999). He has worked on a variety of different projects over the years: the films FINAL ANALYSIS (1992), HEAVEN'S PRISONERS (1996), GRIDIRON GANG (2006) and his current release, the horror film THE VEIL (2016); promo videos with U2, Tom Waits, Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey; Chris Tucker's live TV special (2015); the PUNISHER short DIRTY LAUNDRY (2012), and TV episodes of Fallen Angels, Wild Palms and the documentary series Up. In the final part of a four-part interview I spoke to Phil about HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, ENTROPY, GRIDIRON GANG, THE PUNISHER: DIRTY LAUNDRY, THE VEIL and other TV projects. 


How did you get involved with HEAVEN'S PRISONERS?
FINAL ANALYSIS came out. It opened well and actually got pretty good reviews, but I wasn't satisfied with it all. Looking back, I was being a big baby about it. I was literally going around telling people ''I don't want to direct anymore'' as I was still licking my wounds. Right at that time I got a call from U2 and went back on the road to do two videos for Achtung Baby ('One' and 'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses'). I am not a member of a rock band, although I think at that point in my life I sure wanted to be! I stayed in New York and didn't return to Hollywood for over a year. My career lost its momentum, and so many opportunities came to me that year that I didn't take seriously. In the end I had to go back to Hollywood because that was where the money was, and because I realised I loved directing and that I'd overreacted to things. Alec Baldwin asked me to do HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, and always having wanted to work with him, I said yes. Orion, who had financed STATE OF GRACE, had closed down, so we ended up with a very new company called Savoy. They had only made one movie, which was Robert De Niro's A BRONX TALE (1993), which I liked. I had actually done a video for A BRONX TALE. I had high hopes for HEAVEN'S PRISONERS. I thought I could get back on the noir track I was after ... but it was not to be.

Why was the film so troubled?
It was a total nightmare from the beginning really, because although Alec wanted me for the movie, for whatever reasons, the producers did not want me and the studio was, shall we say, lukewarm on me. The producers did everything they could to push me off the film. They even had another writer I'd never met rewrite the entire script behind my back, and then, a week before shooting, they told me that I had to do their version. Of course, I thought the script wasn't good and I told them ''No.'' So they fired me. But then Alec reminded them that he had director approval and I was his guy, and well, that was that. If it hadn't been for Alec, I would have been gone, which would have been a mutually agreeable outcome as I didn't want to work with these guys any more than they wanted to work with me. But Alec was the reason I was there, so I stayed with the project. But you can imagine what a 64 day shoot in New Orleans, straight through the summer heat was like with the producers and the studio completely against you. I spent almost two full years on that project, and before we could finish it, sure enough, Savoy went bankrupt and New Line picked up the film (in a package with all the other remaining Savoy films), but they refused to spend any money to let us finish the film our way, and it was released in an incomplete state.

What were the problems with the final cut do you feel? 
The film wasn't spare or aggressive enough. The editor, Bill Steinkamp, is an amazing talent. I didn't push the movie hard enough. It was too slow, too languid, too bluesy. That movie really should have been much tougher, ballsier and pulpier. I could make a much, much better movie out of that material today, but of course it wouldn't get made today. It really got away from us because of the behind the scenes battles. I was in a war the whole time. In the end, the movie is about twenty minutes too long. Alec and I wanted to continue cutting it. I loved working with Alec, and it was as great an experience as it was with Sean, Gary, Ed or Kim. There are a lot of things in the film that I'm proud of. The cast and crew on the movie were great, and it was a fantastic personal experience on that level. But I was under fire the entire length of the shoot and it really affected the result. The whole experience made FINAL ANALYSIS look like a picnic. HEAVEN'S PRISONERS was by far my worst Hollywood experience because of Savoy, and it was a real shame as we could have made a really strong movie.

Would you agree that both FINAL ANALYSIS and HEAVEN'S PRISONERS have great qualities but ultimately just don't get there?
Yes. The best thing about HEAVEN'S PRISONERS is Alec. He's very good, especially when he starts drinking again and when he takes on Teri Hatcher at the end. I didn't know Teri Hatcher could do what she did in that film. There are also some moments between Alec and Eric Roberts that are just fantastic. There are cool things in the film but as a whole, yes, the film and also FINAL ANALYSIS never quite get there.

ENTROPY is a very autobiographical film. What areas of your life did you specifically draw from? 
The behind the scenes stories in the film are a combination of FINAL ANALYSIS and HEAVEN'S PRISONERS. On FINAL ANALYSIS I did indeed punch the producer on the backlot at Warner Brothers with Kim Basinger screaming and Richard Gere jumping in the middle, trying to stop me from punching him some more as I had the guy on the ground. That really happened. And yes I did marry a girl I met at a U2 concert, we did get married in Vegas and Bono did steal the video and put it on the screen during a Zoo TV concert. My sister did find out via MTV and Kurt Loder. I even had a cat called Puddytat and I still think he can talk but that is yet to be confirmed. 

What was the impetus to put it all on film? 
I had lunch with Steven Spielberg after HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, and I was telling him about all the problems I had had, and he said ''You know what, you should make a small, personal film. You should go do something about you and your life, and all the experiences you have had. You should do something like Woody Allen would do. Just go and get everything off your chest. '' He was so supportive. So I did it. I went home and started writing ENTROPY the next day. We made it for 3 million dollars. We shot it in LA, New York, Las Vegas, Paris, Dublin and Cape Town, where we did the U2 concert stuff. The band took footage I had shot in Vegas and put it on the screens during the show so we could film it. They were incredibly generous and helpful, to say the least. 

Did Bono and Larry have to be talked into acting in the movie? 
No, not at all. It's funny because when I sent them the script, I had written it for Bono and Edge. And then Bono called me and said ''Guess what! Larry wants to play Edge's part!''

How was the shoot? 
The film was crazy to make but a lot of fun. I had final cut on ENTROPY but I wrote, produced and edited it for free because if I had taken a fee they wouldn't have had enough money to make it. I worked on the film for two years. I edited it in my house. The house where you see Jake with the cat at the end of the movie is where I was living at the time. When he goes downstairs to the living room, that's literally where I edited ENTROPY. 

Did you have any troubles on the film? 
Unfortunately, yes. I was really disappointed in the end. The guy who had financed it made a lot of straight to video deals. There were a lot of studios interested in releasing it at the time, Paramount and Miramax being the two that were most interested, but the guy sold the home video rights in a package with ten other movies without telling me. So when I was trying to get it released theatrically, the home video rights were already gone, so we were dead in the water. No-one was interested without having the DVD rights in the deal too. The film has never been released on DVD in the States. The version on Netflix has booms and dolly tracks in it because they took a widescreen film and opened it up to 16:9 – it looks terrible and embarassing but there's nothing I can do about it. It's frustrating.

 Was there any fallout in Hollywood from openly referencing things that happened behind the scenes on FINAL ANALYSIS and HEAVEN'S PRISONERS? 
Oh, sure. I probably should have thought that through a little better. The only negative of making the film was that it was not well received by some individuals that got referenced - I'm not a conspiracy theorist on any level but I do find it interesting that everything makes it onto DVD in this crazy world ... but not ENTROPY – and I sometimes wonder why. It was not the smartest career move and it did take me another six years to make another film. ENTROPY didn't lead to people being more open to my work in this town at all. I did the film from the heart - I wasn't having many positive feelings about the film business at the time and that's the story that came out. 

Was making it a cathartic experience for you? 
Very much so. The relationship with the girl had haunted me for many years. I really needed to get that ridiculousness over with. I also think looking back on it, once I got away from those experiences and the film, I thought ''Man, what was I thinking during that era of my life?'' Now the movie and the experiences seem so far away from me. That whole period - from FINAL ANALYSIS to ENTROPY - doesn't even seem like a life I lived. It was my 'lost decade' and ENTROPY put a cap on that. 

It must be surreal to cast someone as yourself. How did Stephen Dorff get cast? 
I was very happy to work with Stephen Dorff, and we had a great relationship. He's a very underrated actor and I think he did a nice job in the film. But at the end of the day it was all about who could get the movie financed. Originally Adam Sandler was going to play the role. He had read the script and loved it. THE WEDDING SINGER (1998) had not come out yet, so he hadn't broken out yet in a 'romantic' movie. He didn't 'mean anything foreign' (which means they couldn't raise any money from pre-sales) at the time. He went on to do PUNCHDRUNK LOVE (2002) because he was really interested in doing an offbeat, romantic film. We stayed in touch over the years and he said to me ''Yeah, I went off and did the Paul Thomas Anderson film because at least they would pay me on that movie!'' The next person it was going to be was Matthew Broderick, but GODZILLA (1998) went over. Then Stephen Dorff told me had read it and liked it, and because BLADE (1998) had been a hit, he was a big enough name to get pre-sales and get the film made. So it's always been weird in that people think I 'cast' Stephen Dorff as myself because really it was just a progression of names that could get the film made. It wasn't like I had a list of fifty guys and said ''Hey, Stephen Dorff reminds me of me!'' And that was that. Really it was a progression of names. It wasn't like I set out and I had fifty actors to choose from. 

I have always regarded Sofia Coppola's SOMEWHERE (2010) as kind of a companion piece to ENTROPY. 
That's interesting. I never really thought of that. As kind of a funny coincidence, it was at the Chateau Marmont that I met Stephen and he told me he wanted to do ENTROPY. It's nice she cast Stephen for her film. She also used the cinematographer I used on HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, Harris Savides, who was amazing. I don't know Sofia, but I'd assume she looked at ENTROPY when she cast Stephen. I liked him a lot in her film.

How did you end up doing the voice of the cat at the end? 
That was not what we were going to do. I was going to get someone like Danny De Vito to do it, but we had no money. I did the voice on the day we did the scene, so Stephen would have someone to react to. The animators over at Rhythm and Hues, who did the talking pig in BABE (2006), saw the movie and liked it, and said they'd do the animation of the talking cat for free. They said they loved animating to my performance and wanted to use it. They kept harassing me and they eventually convinced me to keep it. Plus, it didn't cost anything! 

It had to be you when you think about it! 
In terms of the story I guess it was me talking to myself really. It ended up working nicely thematically that way, I suppose. But on the other hand, it was a real cringeworthy moment for me because I hate hearing the sound of my own voice. But yeah, I guess you're right, it had to be me. 

How happy are you with the film? 
I'm proud of it, and in some ways I am embarassed that I did it. I'm not so sure it was such a good idea to reveal so much of myself in the movie. As always I had a great experience with the people I made it with. So on that level, it was worth it. I mean, for instance, George Fenton, who is a world-class composer and had done FINAL ANALYSIS and HEAVEN'S PRISONERS for me, did the score and played every instrument on it, for free. To this day I can't believe that. Carolyn Chen shot the film in a way that gave the film a really nice saturated feeling not typical of my other work. There are things I like about the movie, particularly what others brought to it, but I just feel uncomfortable that I went that far personally. 

Can you talk about the TV pilot that you did, Naked Island (2003)? 
I did it for ABC and Armyan Bernstein (who produced and also wrote the show). It was a classic screwball comedy set inside this crazy Caribbean hotel. You had all these nutty people that worked there, and then the equally nutty guests, and a bunch of plots that intertwined, all set within the hotel. The script was very BRINGING UP BABY (1938) in tone. It was fun because Army let me shoot it in an extremely wide-angle style that I stole from Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). It was very, very different from what anyone was doing on TV. I really enjoyed making it. The show was funny and kinda sexy and had a kind of longing in it. I really enjoyed making it. But in the end, it was way too much for the network. They didn't like it at all. They thought the style I'd shot it in was too 'weird' and 'off-putting'. They kept asking me why it didn't look like The O.C., which was a hit on Fox at the time. They never gave it a chance with the audience and it never saw the light of day. I think if we'd made it ten years later in what is now a more adventurous TV landscape, particualrly on cable, it might have had a shot. But not back in 2003. It had no chance back then. For those that are interested, you can see it on my website. 

How did you get involved with GRIDIRON GANG (2006)? What was attractive about the project? 
It came to me from the producer Neal Moritz. He does all the FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies, but he wanted to try something different with this film. It was based on a documentary of the same name, a completely true story of this counselor at a juvenile detention center (which is a nice way of saying 'a prison for kids'). This guy, Sean Porter, decided to create a football team out of the teenagers that were stuck in this prison. It's an incredible story of what he had to go through to get his team into the California high school football system, and then what he had to do to get these kids (who hated each other) to play together. 

What was the experience of shooting it like? 
We shot it in the same facility where the real story took place – on the same field and in the same prison cells. I can't tell you what an eye-popping experience it was to see these kids – and they really are just kids – thrown into this place where their lives are pretty much over. 75% of them end up back in adult prison or dead. They have no real hope – they're totally demoralised and scared. It's really difficult to see. The counselors are incredible. They devote their lives to try and help these kids. They really do. But once the kids are released and are back on the street, they tend to fall back into their old habits. But this counselor/ coach, he taught these kids something about pride and self-respect, and hard-work, and how it can change your life. All the kids that played for him flipped that statistic and 75% of them did NOT go back to prison. Ever. It's unbelievable what he did. For me, to learn about that, and then witness it happening right where we were actually shooting it, well I just never, ever would have been exposed to that world, and gotten to know it and understand it the way I did. 

How did the film challenge you as a filmmaker? 
The movie was definitely different for me in that I was working with a lot of new actors; kids that had never been in front of the camera before. Most of the central characters in the film were new to the process. So there was a lot of film-education that was going on at the same time as trying to tell the story. Shooting in a working prison was no easy trick either – the security issues are pretty serious, so that took up a lot of our time. Then there's the football. A sports movie is different from any other kind of movie in that it's basically a gigantic, continuous action sequence with stunt men and people (literally) getting hurt, just like in the sport, which is dangerous and time-consuming. And then you need to stage the sport in a way that the audience believes, because they see it in reality all the time on TV, so they know what it looks like. Yet the movie version has to be entertaining and different on the big screen. You want to push it dramatically, but you don't want it to be so unrealistic that it's silly. I looked at a lot of the 'high school football movies' that are out there, and from my perspective the 'kids' in those films looked like they were the size of pros playing in the NFL! It looked exciting, but it also looked like professional football, not high school. And my story was different in that these kids were not good players – they had never played before and were pretty awful, at least for most of the story. So it was a real challenge to make the football visually interesting and exciting without betraying the reality of who these kids were on the field. We ended up shooting six weeks of football with five cameras rolling all day in the middle of summer. Over a million feet of film. It was a very long, hot, difficult shoot, but it was really, really fun. And on top of that – I got to direct the whole thing, basically as you would as a real football coach – which was always a dream of mine! 

What do you like most about the movie? 
What I loved the most about the movie (besides getting to shoot the football) was that it had a very real and honest heart. The movie is pretty much what actually happened, and it felt very gratifying to honor the counselors and kids who had worked so hard to break the pattern of violence and really change their lives. 

Can you talk about the PUNISHER short film you made with Thomas Jane reprising his character, DIRTY LAUNDRY? 
Like you were saying, that was an example of taking something that had been done, and putting our own twist on it. And what was so great about DIRTY LAUNDRY was that it was just the writer Chad St. John, Thomas Jane and myself doing our own thing, with no-one in between us and the process. For better or for worse, it was completely pure from a creative standpoint and I have to say, that's incredibly rare today. We really just got to go and let it rip. We shot it for three days and everyone worked on it for free. We filmed it on a 5D with anamorphic lenses, the same kind we used on THE VEIL. We wanted to have that pulpy feeling. Funnily enough, that was sort of the reason I got THE VEIL. Jason Blum had seen it, and he knew we had done it for almost nothing. He figured I could do the same on one of his films! 

You also directed the comedy special CHRIS TUCKER LIVE. Do you like to do short films, TV episodes and comedy specials to keep yourself motivated? 
Yes, to keep it interesting and fresh, and so I can learn and grow as a filmmaker. Chris and I had been talking about doing a full blown, really wild action comedy set in the Caribbean, but it never happened because Relativity Media went bankrupt. I guess I have a bad habit of getting involved with companies that go bankrupt! Orion went bankrupt after STATE OF GRACE, Savoy went bankrupt, and then Relativity Media. So when that movie fell apart, Chris asked me to do the comedy special, and we ended up selling it to Netflix.

Did you get to exercise a different skill set? I imagine it's all about serving Chris as a performer. 
Yes, even more so than on RATTLE AND HUM, where I could interpret the music with the camera moves and the lighting, and the rhythm of the editing. In a stand-up show, it's all about Chris and the comedy, and just ensuring the camera was in the right spot, and that we got out of the way. We were able to bring it a very 'classic' style though - Mauro Fiore did a beautiful job. We shot it all on Arri Alexas, which is very unusual as most of these things are done with broadcast HD cameras and don't end up looking good. I think the show turned out nicely and I know Chris was really really happy with it, which for me is all that mattered. 

When you took on THE VEIL, how did you go about trying to distinguish it from other modern horror films?                                                             
When I first got the script it was actually a 'found footage' movie, all from the perspective of the 16mm camera from the past and a Canon 5D in the present. When I met with Jason Blum and the writer Ben Garant I said ''It seems to me that the found footage genre has run its course'' and they totally agreed. Ben and I ended up rewriting it as a straight-ahead narrative, which posed a lot of really interesting issues because the kind of tricks you can get away with in a found footage movie, like turning the camera on and off, and therefore withholding information from the audience, versus what you're expected to do in a linear film, are very different. We really had to do a lot of work to bring the movie up to date that way. But then the budget (which was set) had always been for a found footage movie, and although the entire scale of the film changed when we lost that style, the time and money did not. It would have been MUCH easier to execute as a 'found footage' film than the traditional film that we made.

How was filming? 
Really tough. It was the hardest 25 days of shooting I have ever done. It was even harder than ENTROPY, where I had a million less than THE VEIL. I think the big difference was that in a movie like ENTROPY, you usually have one or two people in a given scene. You can get through a lot of work in a day. On THE VEIL I had eight people in every scene in the story set in the present, and in the scenes set in the past we had Thomas Jane and his followers, which are a lot of characters to cover. Covering those scenes in 25 days in a forest in the middle of nowhere was incredibly difficult. 

How did you achieve the distinctive, scuzzy, unnerving look? 
We used Japanese anamorphic lenses from the 70s. The lenses are old and wonky and the colors and coatings are a little bit off. Everybody was afraid of them and didn't want to use them, but the DP and I really liked the feeling they gave off. There were not many sets left but we managed to get five lenses. I thought it really gave the film a unique look. We were going for a Roger Corman, 70s horror kind of style.

Looking back over your career, what conclusions do you come to? 
I very naively had a dream of being a director in the movie business that that was extremely inaccurate to what the movie business is really about, and what it means to be a director in that world. I had a very romanticised, unrealistic vision of what that life would be, and I was in for a very rude awakening when reality set in. I still love filmmaking and it is as powerful within me as when I was in film school, perhaps even more so, and I feel so lucky and grateful that I have gotten to make nine films. I guess in some ways I was not well suited for the politics, the game playing and the power struggles that go on in Hollywood. Yet, if you want to make movies, there's no way to avoid it. If you fight, or if you're too honest or too outspoken, you'll pay a price for that – unless you make people a lot of money! That really is the key to Hollywood – you need to make money on your films more than anything else, more even than the quality of the work you do. Box-office is what allows you to make more films and have a career that is supported by the system. Without that support, it's a really tough road. 

I spoke to Phil by telephone on 26th January 2016 and would like to thank him for his time.
Take a look at Phil's website, where you can watch some of his films, TV episodes and promo videos.

All photos are the copyright of Phil Joanou and cannot be reproduced without permission. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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