One-on-One Q&A: Director/Screenwriter, Phillip Van
A scene from Phillip Van's She Stares Longingly At What She Has Lost.
She Stares Longingly At What She Has Lost is the title of Phillip Van’s segment of Little Minx, a new web film series produced by Rhea Scott and based on the French parlor game of the same name where the last line of the previous film's script starts the first line of the next film's script. The Film Panel Notetaker conducted a One-on-One Q&A with Van who explains what it was like contributing to the Exquisite Corpse process. He also talks about his new feature-length screenplay Darkland that is in the Tribeca All-Access program at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Van also has a number of acclaimed short films to his credit including the Student Academy Award-winning High Maintenance, Dunny, Flight, and the PSA Lone State for MetLife.
TFPN: How would you characterize the entire Exquisite Corpse process and how did you conceptualize your particular segment for Little Minx?
Van: I wanted to define something that I don’t think there’s a word for in the English language, maybe the closest one is ‘nostalgia.’ But it’s more fatal and meaningful. Other cultures have descriptions of this kind of mood or feeling. In Portuguese, it’s called ‘saudade.’ There’s a type of music called ‘fado’ that they dedicate to it. There’s a cultural movement surrounding it that has been going on for generations. It’s a very visceral sort of feeling, which I know well, but it’s not a major source of art in western culture. It usually relates to a loss of home or a loss of some form or incarnation of yourself. I devised a story around it. I was really into Carl Jung growing up. A lot of his ideas influenced the ideas in the story, especially the idea of the “Animus,” an unconscious conception of a man in the mind of a woman before she knows man and a kind of ideal that she projects onto man. The gender reverse is the anima. Jung had all these accounts of patients he worked with that said things like “I’ve been married to my wife for 10 years and I realized yesterday that I actually don’t know who she is.” Those accounts influenced the Water Man, who is essentially an illustrated version of the Animus in the mind of the little girl in my story.
TFPN: It seems that Jung’s philosophies also come into play in your short film High Maintenance. Can you talk about that?
Van: I made High Maintenance to touch upon behaviors that I see in excess today among friends and in society; things like rampant consumerism, serial monogamy, lives predicated entirely on connections through technology or some sort of networking platform, and a real, new kind of loneliness. We’re more connected now than we’ve ever been before but somehow, also more disconnected. I think this relates directly to the filters that we use to reach out and connect to one another. The film was a way for me to turn those themes into a story and I did it through the characters of Jane and Paul. Jane is looking for a man by ordering designer robotic men online, tweaking them to accommodate her desires, and making sure the upgrade is better than the first version of the husband she bought. In that process, she tests the degree to which men are interchangeable. In one respect, the film comments on how programmatic love can be in human lives. We’re susceptible to a series of stimuli that induce chemical reactions. When we’re told what we want to hear, our response is mechanical on a certain level. In another respect, by attempting to demonstrate that love is replaceable, the film becomes a strong argument for the opposing truth. It pinpoints a kind of alienation, depravity and need for companionship that is all too human.
TFPN: What is your screenplay Darkland about? How does it differ from your shorts and where did the idea come from?
Van: Darkland bares similarities to my other work, but it’s also very different. All my shorts deal with themes of alienation. To some extent, they also all deal with interchangeability: the degree to which we can be made irrelevant or redundant in the modern world and the fears, anxieties and, at times, comedy surrounding that.
Darkland has political overtones but is ultimately very human. It’s the real love story of my mother and father and the things they went through together in Laos before the entire area fell with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It’s also very much a dark thriller. It centers on Thanh, a Vietnamese man raised in Laos, and his conflicted relationship with Lauren, an American woman who works for the USAID and gives resources to starving Lao villages whose trade routes have been cut off by the war. Thanh is in charge of a dam building operation designed to generate money and power. He believes it will fortify the country against communism and the threat of the war next door. But as he tries to put together his workforce, he discovers that all of the Lao workers have already secretly turned to the communist regime. The only way to get the job done is to hire these people and keep quiet. In doing so, he ends up inadvertently funding communist attacks on his own country. Working on the frontlines, Lauren bears witness to the murder that he’s unleashing on his own people, and upon discovering his secret, has to weigh her love for him and ability to keep it covered up against his path of destruction. It’s a story that plots grand dreams of freedom and salvation against the ugly realities of murder, corruption and egomania. As Thanh’s love for his country and Lauren’s love for Thanh become engines for complacent destruction, the story forges a central opposition between love and morality.
TFPN: This seems really relevant with current events.
Van: Absolutely. That’s great that you’ve said that. I’ve stopped saying that. I don’t want to force it down people’s throats. The speeches that Nixon gave at that time with regard to withdrawal from Vietnam, which in a cursory way addressed Laos, were very similar to Bush’s speeches now. I’m sure Bush’s speechwriters are aware of the overlap, but I don’t know why they would be paraphrasing Nixon given his track record. The way that the technocrats in Iraq were disempowered because of misguided decisions on the part of our government is pretty incredible. When you use the government to fire the intelligent working forces in a country they will turn to the anti-establishment, because it’s best game in town. And they have to feed their families. They also have all this knowledge and they have to use it somewhere. The dam Thanh is building is a way to actually show these dynamics at play in a visceral, physical manner.
TFPN: Is Darkland fictionalization or a completely true story?
Van: It’s safe to say that it’s based on a true story, but I’ve changed certain elements around and taken a few, reasonable dramatic liberties.
TFPN: What was the process of being accepted into Tribeca All Access and what does it mean to you to be selected?
Van: It was very much like applying to the festival itself. I turned in the first draft of the script, treatment, synopsis, logline – all of the written material they required. Also a personal statement on why the script and the film are relevant to me. Then it went through a pretty rigorous period. They called me and we had a lengthy interview. I think there were four or five people from Tribeca All-Access on the phone asking me questions. It reminded me of getting into NYU. My script and others in the program aren’t conventional, maybe because of the strong multi-ethnic contingent or subject matter. Prior to writing Darkland, I’d been working on a featurization of High Maintenance that I’m still working on with the writer of the short, Simon Biggs, who’s a great partner. And then this idea for Darkland came up and really took over for a spell.
TFPN: Can you talk more about some of your earlier film influences and inspirations?
Van: I grew up on films in the 1980s before I found any arthouse work. Films from Donner, Spielberg and Zemeckis, like Back to the Future, The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark – all the movies that were completely ubiquitous and still hold up today. There were a few exceptions to the popcorn cinema. I saw 2001 when I was in 3rd grade and Scanners even earlier. I watched the Twilight Zone and all the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street films at my babysitters. It’s amazing what kids are exposed to by diffusion. When my brain formed out more I sought out Bergman, Godard, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, neo-realism, the new wave. These redefined why I wanted to be in film. I realized what a peripheral knowledge I had through my primary lens and how much I could do with the medium.