Jason Phillips: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Come Up for Air — Your mental health matters. Sometimes it is okay to admit to yourself that you are lost in the sauce and you need to take a break. You’ll be surprised to see what creative ideas can come from taking a walk outside, touching the grass, and smelling the flowers. There have been points of my life where I felt like if I kept barreling through then I’ll get through it and be happy at the end. However, I’ve eventually come to leave that coming up for air and allowing myself to breathe will actually make my work better.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jason Phillips.

Jason Phillips is a writer, director, and producer. In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter interview, Gary Baum lauded Jason as “the next gen romantic” and his works reflect this praise.

Phillips’ first film, Black Knuckle and Deputy Maltese, a hybrid romantic comedy/western, premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival and won the audience choice award at the Boston Wicked Queer Film Festival. Subsequently, the film was picked up for distribution by Dekkoo. A first of its kind, Black Knuckle and Deputy Maltese explores the romance between two cowboys, and exemplifies Jason’s uncanny ability to combine outlandish comedy with a message that tugs at the heart. All the reviews agree: “the film manages to be radically subversive in the most charming, easy breezy, non-confrontational way possible.”

Jason’s film, Man Drops Dead, chronicles the origin story of a successful mortician who, while working in the local grocery store, is confronted with the untimely death of a customer. The film was a selected work by Dances with Films among others.

As a producer, Phillips most notably produced the feature film Voodoo Macbeth, which has been shown at over 20 film festivals, winning fifteen awards including Best Ensemble Cast at the San Diego International Film Festival, Best of Festival at the Sedona International Film Festival, and Best Narrative Feature at Dances with Films. Voodoo Macbeth was picked up for distribution by Lightyear Entertainment and will release in select cities starting on October 21st, 2022.

Jason is also the co-producer of the Oscar-qualifying documentary Team Maryland, which was released by the New Yorker Magazine, and was the season finale of the POV Shorts series on PBS in January 2022. Additionally, Phillips is the Co-Producer for Safer at Home which was released theatrically in select cities and later acquired by Hulu.

Jason holds a BFA in Film Production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he received numerous awards, including the prestigious Malcolm and Berman Family Fund Scholarship for undergraduate producers. He was also featured in The Hollywood Reporter article “Hollywood Needs Us,” which profiled the top five most promising new voices to emerge and reshape show business.

Jason is a triplet, he loves mud, and his work is dedicated to expressing the breadth and diversity that exists within the LGBTQIA+ communities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in San Diego, CA, alongside my triplet siblings. The three of us, while competitive, have always pushed each other to be the best versions of ourselves. I contribute a lot of who I’ve become to the two of them and I’ve been privileged to share every minute of life with them so far. My parents encouraged the three of us to find our own interests, separate from one another.

As a kid, I was the one that wanted to put on shows at home or make videos with our cousins to present to our extended family. I took these projects very seriously. My cousins and siblings were my actors and I was the director. Looking back, I probably should have loosened up because I’d always get mad when my brother and sister’s ridiculous comedy short would be the crowd pleaser over my action-based drama. Regardless, my passion for film and for the performing arts has been a part of me from the beginning. Film was also my introduction to my own queer identity.

Like many filmmakers, I began as an actor and would perform in community theater shows. In my late teenage years, I transitioned into film to write roles for myself. What started out as a way to become an actor, became the pulling back of the curtain of a new passion. Filmmaking became and still is a place for me to immerse myself in story and better understand who I am through the characters and stories that I write. I decided to pursue film full time, applied to film school, got in and went to USC, worked at a movie theater, interned at several production companies, and then started working full time post graduation. My main focus is writing, directing, and producing but I still always sneak in a cameo in most of the films that I make.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

From an early age, I was always interested in hearing other peoples stories. I would sit with my Poppy with a brush hand, in lieu of a microphone, and listen to his experiences as an ophthalmologist in the navy. At the grocery store, I would talk with every employee and ask them about their life. My mom would always say that she couldn’t take me anywhere without me finding someone to talk to. It was never a short affair if I was there. It was these types of moments that propelled me into wanting to become a storyteller.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

One of the most interesting moments that affected my personal life happened while producing my first feature film, Voodoo Macbeth. The film follows the first all-Black cast to perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1936 Harlem NY which was directed by a twenty-year-old Orson Welles. We were working with a very tight budget and I desperately needed to figure out how to get a car for free for our Costume Designer. I asked my dad for help and he told me that I could only borrow his car if I allowed my mom to work on set as a Costume PA. I was silent, unsure how to respond. My mom had never worked on set before and I didn’t know how the designer would feel being told she had to have my mom on her team. I thought of all the ways this could go wrong and it filled me with nerves. In truth, I tried to contest but he held firm. I knew I needed the car, so I said yes. In the end, the Costume Designer loved working with my mom; my mom fell in love with a new passion, and is now working consistently in the costume department. Having her on set brought us closer than I could have expected it to and it allowed me to share my passion for film with her. She told me that this experience helped her find her second act. This was a reminder to me that sometimes you have to put aside your nerves and fears to allow for the beautiful moments in life to occur. It also taught me that regardless of what age you are, a new life calling might present itself.

Fun fact, in two weeks she’ll be the Key Costumer on the feature I’m co-producing next.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am certainly grateful for my parents. I couldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have their support. My parents have helped me on my film sets, acted in my first films, and have always supported me in pursuing my dreams.

With that said, Julia Cameron if you are reading this — thank you for writing the Artist Way. During the pandemic, my friends and I did the twelve week Artist Way program that the book leads you through. This process completely changed my outlook on my own creativity and helped me reconnect to my inner artist. I highly recommend this book for anyone out there that is feeling blocked creatively and/or wants to learn more about themselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Leap and the net will appear.” There have been many instances where I was attempting to do something that I had never done before. Rather than letting this stop me from even trying, I took the leap of faith and am now better for it. I have taken this motto to every film set that I have been a part of to achieve heights that others didn’t think were possible.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Picture a young kid walking through the aisles of Blockbuster with wide eyes trying to take in every movie on the shelves. It was there that I first saw the word gay on the DVD cover of a Another Gay Movie. I remember trying to discreetly stare at the movie without anyone seeing me. While I didn’t fully understand what it meant at the time, I remember feeling a sense of connection to a larger community. It was a part of myself that I was beginning to discover. Diversity in film and televsion helps people see themselves on screen and know that they are not alone and, for me, helped me discover who I am.

Later in life, LGBTQIA+ film and television, allowed my parents to better understand the queer experience which helped our relationship. While all the stories they watched weren’t exactly my experience, it did help educate them on something that they previously didn’t understand. Showing stories of characters from various walks of life, helps build empathy for others.

The latest film that I produced, Voodoo Macbeth, follows an event that I had never been taught before. The sad reality is that many people that worked on the film and have seen the movie have expressed the same sentiment. It is important and necessary that we start exposing stories that have been hidden from mainstream media. By doing so, the richness of the cultures that have been wrongfully underrepresented can be celebrated, shared, and brought to the screen.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are so many things that I am excited about!

As a producer, I have a feature, Voodoo Macbeth coming out in select theaters on October 21st. I’m also developing a feature, Disintegrate, written by Aubtin Heydari, which is a psychological cyberpunk thriller.

I’m co-writing a series with Theo Poling based off of a LGBTQIA+ Romantic Comedy Western short, Black Knuckle and Deputy Maltese, that I directed. It follows a Deputy and his ex-lover-former-criminal, Black Knuckle, and their journey to try and save the town of Coal Ridge.

I’m also working on a stage musical with Jewell Wilson Bridges, Snip Snip Sing Sing, which explores the true meaning of love, faith, and our current society’s relationship with fame.

I’m also planning to direct a proof of concept for a pilot I wrote called The Hopeless Romantic which delves into the world of modern dating, specifically my dating woes, and the harsh reality of intrinsic homophobia within the gay community.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I feel like every day I learn things that I wish I knew before but here are a few that I can think of:

  1. Finish Your Projects — A past teacher of mine once told me that in order to learn everything you can from the project you are working on, you have to finish it. When he told me that, I sighed (internally) because I had an unfinished project sitting on my computer and I knew he was right. I was afraid to pick this film up again because I had lost track of my vision and questioned it. I worried if people would understand the story, laugh at the jokes, or even enjoy the characters. I was consumed with doubt. Yet, because of my teacher’s advice, I forged ahead. By the time I finished, it had become one of my favorite films that I’ve made and taught me to trust my voice. I now tell myself, “the voice that I have is the voice that I’ve got, trust it and move on.”
  2. Come Up for Air — Your mental health matters. Sometimes it is okay to admit to yourself that you are lost in the sauce and you need to take a break. You’ll be surprised to see what creative ideas can come from taking a walk outside, touching the grass, and smelling the flowers. There have been points of my life where I felt like if I kept barreling through then I’ll get through it and be happy at the end. However, I’ve eventually come to leave that coming up for air and allowing myself to breathe will actually make my work better.
  3. Give notes that help the artist’s intended vision rather than insert your own — There was a moment in film school where all I wanted to do was crawl into my shell and disappear from the view of my teacher. I’d just finished giving comments on my friend’s experimental short film. Without batting an eye, my teacher told me that the notes I had given were to serve what my vision would have been rather than to elevate hers. I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond. It took me a while to understand what he was saying but eventually I realized the embarrassment I felt was because he was right. Now when I approach notes, I begin by asking myself “How can I constructively elevate the story presented that is in line with the vision that they are trying to execute?”
  4. You don’t need to be in pain to write — There was a long period of my life where I had the belief that my best writing only came from moments of sadness. I would tell myself that I didn’t have the creative surge to write or I wasn’t going through something strong enough to put on the page. This created a false truth in mind about my own creative process. After I did the Artist Way, this belief was completely debunked. For me now, writing is about consistency. If I show up to the page, regardless of how I am feeling, I am giving the space for the story to come out of me. A great friend of mine once told me, “If you want to write, start with five sentences a day.” Writing from places of pain can be incredibly cathartic and helpful but it doesn’t always need to be the place to start.
  5. You can be more then one thing — I wish someone had told me that I could be more than one thing at once. You can direct, you can act, you can show in a major art gallery, you can produce, you can write a book, you can start a business, you can heal yourself and those around you. In Shakespeare’s words from Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

When I start a movie, whether it be as a producer, writer, or director, I like to write out one or two sentences of what the film is about. What does each scene, character arc, and the plot truly boil down to? I then use this as my compass for every decision that I make throughout the process. If I get the core of the story right and never lose sight of it, then I have done my job.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to be a part of championing an educational movement to bring LGBTQIA+ history and sex-ed into the classroom for students and parents alike. I think it is important to educate people of all ages about the vast spectrum of sexuality and gender. In doing this, it could help young people better understand themselves at an early age, make them feel less alone, and promote more inclusive and safe environments on school campuses. In addition, I think programs aimed for parents should be created in tandem with the students curriculum. This would hopefully inspire positive and healthier conversations between parent and child revolving around LGBTQIA+ topics and potentially help adults understand their own identity in a new way.

Down the line, I’d also love to start a company that focuses on lifting up LGBTQIA+ creators across all types of art forms.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Oh gosh! I mean, there are so many people that I’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with.

Okay, I know this is cheating to name four, but I’m really inspired right now by David Jenkins, Stephen Dunn, Matthew Lopez, and Pedro Almodóvar. Each has a very different style and approach but makes me excited to watch their work. Not to mention, I love what they each independently have done to further progress LGBTQIA+ content in film, television, and/or on stage.

I also love the show The Other Two and would be thrilled to talk with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Feel free to follow me on Instagram at jasonleephillips_film and say hello!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Jason Phillips: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.