adorned the lockers of so many high school girls in 1999. Fresh off the successful “Cruel Intentions,” a Gen-X incarnation of “Dangerous Liaisons” that featured Sarah Michelle Gellar (at the height of Buffy’s popularity), the film offered just enough licentious behavior to tweak teens’ attentions. The film thrust Phillippe into the spotlight and certified his heart throb status. But, save for a few ensemble pieces here and there (“Crash,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Stop-Loss”), Phillippe has been under the radar in recent years, focusing instead on being a father (he has two children with ex-wife Reese Witherspoon, and one with model Alexis Knapp).
Now 40, the actor has turned his sights on the director’s chair. “Catch Hell,” his low-budget debut feature, depicts an actor trying to mend his career who is abruptly kidnapped by a pair of Louisiana swamp people. Phillippe plays the actor Reagan Pearce, and also co-wrote the film. We sat down to wax philosophical with Phillippe about his directorial aspirations and all the “bull shit” of being a celebrity.
How are you doing, man?
It’s a pretty brutal film. You put yourself through some torture.
In some regards it can be considered a psychological minefield as a film. The film functionally is relatively simple. That’s why I chose this as my first one. It was an easy sell to a potential financier. Actor gets kidnapped by a guy whose wife had an affair, on the surface that’s what the movie is. But within that I started to experiment and play with this idea of blending reality and a genre thriller, so I’m essentially playing myself. When we wrote it, we wrote it in my voice, so the things Reagan says are things I would theoretically say in that same situation. There’s an allegorical element to the movie. It’s a little bit about what’s it like to be a celebrity, when you’re built up and you’re laid bare, you know, your character is assassinated and the ups and downs of being in this industry, I think that fed the through-line to the heart of the story.
There are myriad nods and allusions to your life and your career within the film. Was it a personal film for you?
Yes and no. I’ve had a few people say, “This is your passion project,” and it’s not. It’s a simple thriller. What I plan to do next as a filmmaker will be more representative of where I want to go. This idea had its own parameters and strengths, so when I come up with an idea, it was based on something real that was happening to me, and once the plausibility of this scenario struck me so deeply, I thought I really want to make this movie. I started thinking about “Misery” — the movie “Misery” — and “Deliverance” and trying to modernize some of the themes in those movies, and that’s why there’s the whole threat of social media and using that to sort of tear down my character’s reputation. I like the idea of the juxtaposition of this rudimentary swamp shack and these guys are using a computer to destroy this guy’s life. And also it makes you think about how anyone has access and can use a computer. I don’t care what their educational level is, what their social background is, anything. Those comments you read at the bottom of a YouTube video that can get so nasty, but who are they attributed to? They actually end up hurting someone’s feelings, but if you could see the person who’s writing it you wouldn’t care what that person thinks. There’s a lot of those different ideas in play within this simple story.
From the very beginning I didn’t want it to take itself too seriously. I wanted to have provocative elements, but I wanted it to feel like a short story. The reason why the film ends the way it does is just tipping the hat that this was meant to be a wild ride. A wild, 90-minute window into…I tried to find dialog for the characters that was unique, and we had so much fun writing it. We had so much fun writing the Junior character in particular. We would just laugh thinking about what we could have this guy say and do. I love his performance. Those two guys, the kidnappers, never had lead roles before.
For a while anyway, the Junior character is much more empathetic than the other one…
Yeah, Mike. I just referred to him as “Bearded Man” in my notes. That beard is very prominent.
[Laughing] Yeah it is!
Is there a reason why Junior is way more likable?
The idea was Junior almost doesn’t exist. Mike uses him. I doubt Junior is even registered with the census bureau. He’s like a swamp creature more than a person. He has no identity. I like the idea that he’s like a fallen leaf off a tree, he’s not a total person. His growth was stunted somehow. When you find out that he loves cinema, I think it’s unexpected. He became the soul of the movie. I want the audience to know it’s okay to like him.
You likened the film to a short story. Do you have any literary influences?
In terms of literary, I don’t know. As a filmmaker going forward, not necessarily. I think the movies I wanna make are closer to what the Coens do, and what Tarantino does and Alexander Payne. I like that dark comedy, and I like desperation, and I like stories based on some element of truth. The way “Fargo” was an idea based on a real situation, and they built an entire story around it. They took the genesis from an actual crime, and I like that. I like having roots and anchors to reality in the material. But in guess in terms of literary, it would have to be Stephen King, because “Misery” is what I inspired to once we started writing this.
I have “Dans Macabre” in my bag right behind you. It’s like his history of horror up to 1980. Are you a horror fan?
Yes and no. It’s not really my favorite cinematic realm, but I enjoy. I tend to like things that are a little more grounded. Having had no experience as a director, we wrote this efficiently by design. We couldn’t have a ton of locations or characters. I had 19 days and under $2 million, and that’s what I did with it.
Did you learn anything about the craft of filmmaking?
So much, man, so much! I’ve spent two decades on movie sets and I thought I’d seen and knew it all, man. And it wasn’t until I started putting this together that I realized how wrong I was. In retrospect there’s a thousand things I can do better, and I can’t wait to do them next time. I start shooting this spring, and I won’t be either one of the leads. I want to focus on directing. The fact that I starred in this, I was literally chained up almost the entire time. I directed from shackles on the ground. It was time consuming to unshackle me, so I had to trust the DP (Director of Photography) and the people around me. I didn’t wanna sit and micromanage and get bogged down in finding the perfect take, which doesn’t really exist. This movie was down and dirty. We shot from the hip. 19 days is short. We shot digitally, but I told the DP that I wanted it to look like Roger Deakins’ work. I wanted it to have a Coens look to it. The thing I love about digital is the dynamic range, of the Sony F1.
Your character mentions a film that’s clearly supposed to be “Cruel Intentions,” and he sort of laments that people still love that film because he was pretty in it but his aspirations are heftier than that now. Are you still trying to change perceptions that you’re just a good-looking guy who gets naked in “Cruel Intentions?”
I think what I’m speaking to, in that moment, is sort of where I used to be, in some regards. It’s not a vanity project cause I’m not looking to it to service or advance my career as an actor. In fact I want to act less and less. I’ll continue to do it here and there, but what I’ve come to realize about myself as I’ve gotten older is that I’m not innately a performer. I don’t love the stage, I don’t like attention, I’m terrible at talk shows and with the press. I can sit here on the floor with you because I’m comfortable with you, and I can be myself. Red carpets and the dance and the talk shows, it’s all set up, it’s pattern, it’s just bull shit. I hate that shit. I don’t have that ability to be fake without judging myself so harshly that it brings me down. The only thing I selfishly hope that people get from this is the idea that I can make another movie. That’s it. I would love to see Stephen Louis Grush, who plays Junior, get some liftoff from this. Or Ian Barford, who teaches at Steppenwolf but who’s never been in a movie before. He’s the guy with the beard. That excites me.
The best thing about becoming 40 is that I just stopped caring what people think. The beginning of that happened when I had children. The things you thought were important suddenly don’t matter. I decided I didn’t want to be away as much, or chase the acting thing and be at the mercy of booking a job. Where’s it gonna send me? For how long? Joe (Gossett) and I have written three scripts in the last two years, and we’ve had a great creative time. Whether it’s a maturation, or an evolution, or a new knowledge of self, I think that’s what I want.
But to answer the question more succinctly, I was speaking to older perceptions of what my goals used to be, back then. If I could have made this movie about Ryan Gosling, and had him play the lead, I would have done it. I could have used the movies he’s done and subjugated the titles, but that’s a lot to ask of somebody for a number of reasons, the largest of which is this is my first movie and who’s gonna take that chance? What I can do is take those liberties and make fun of myself. I can have the main character say, yeah you worked with Clint Eastwood but you’re a pussy, you’re not a real man. I can do that stuff to me because it’s self-exploitation. I can use titles from movies I’ve done, and I thought that was a way of saying, here I am, lay myself bare. I wanted to have a raw personal quality within what’s kind of a silly thriller. I have no notions of this being the ultimate in cinema. This is my chance, you’re seeing me do something for the first time and it’s my chance to show people what I can do. I need to be responsible with the money I’m given, and I’m in great standing with the bond company, which is very important. I came in on time, under budget, working 11-hour days. Everyone had a good time. I want to build on that. The next one will cost twice as much, I want to have a third more days to shoot, and I won’t be in every scene so I’m excited about where I can go from here.
“Catch Hell” is now playing in select theaters and available to watch on video on demand platforms.
READ MORE: Elle Fanning on ‘The Young Ones’ and Sharing Intimate Moments with Nicholas Hoult
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.