Auteur Dax Phelan and his latest project ‘Kirkwood’
Sometimes the best stories are the ones told at home. Indie auteur Dax Phelan is going back to his hometown St. Louis for his followup film Kirkwood. The writer-director-producer made his debut film Jasmine halfway across the world in Hong Kong, but is ready to tell a more personal story.
Phelan grew up loving movies but never gave into his creative side until college. After getting his hands on a copy of the Reservoir Dogs screenplay, Phelan knew he wanted to write screenplays and switched majors from pre-med to film. From there, he’s been involved in various jobs within the film industry and never looked back.
Though he only has two films under his director belt, Phelan is no stranger to successful films. Phelan was lucky enough to work on legendary director Orson Welles’s final film The Other Side of the Wind as co-producer with Frank Marshall. He also served as an associate producer on the Lindsey Lohan-led Bret Easton Ellis thriller The Canyons back in 2013.
Sticking within the thriller genre, Phelan is mastering the “edge of your seat” aspect that all great thriller movies possess. Jasmine took a twist on the revenge thriller and was exciting from start to finish. Phelan has been blowing up; Jasmine earned over 17 Best Picture awards at various festivals and Phelan himself has been named one of LA Film Awards’s 30 Filmmakers to Watch in 2018.
Phelan’s new film Kirkwood is a Hitchcockian thriller focusing on a former police detective working with his estranged son to cover up an accidental murder and trying to stay sane while keeping their lie alive. Shooting begins this fall and winter right outside his hometown in St. Louis, Missouri.
We were lucky enough to talk with Dax Phelan about his creative process and get a behind-the-scenes look at Kirkwood.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Well, I grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can get. My mom was a secretary and my dad was a policeman. My mom loved movies and we used to go a lot, so I think I got that from her.
I went to Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School where, looking back, I spent most of my time staring out the window. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great school and I’m very glad my parents made the sacrifices that enabled me to go there, but I simply wasn’t interested in most of what I was being taught.
However, there was this one offbeat English teacher named Brian Taylor, who was a published poet from England and taught a cinema class. I think it was called Film and Literature or something.
Anyway, he screened films on laser disc and we’d discuss them. Straw Dogs, The Thing True West. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Etc. He opened my eyes to various filmmaking techniques and I began to watch films in a completely different way.
Mr. Taylor also taught a creative writing class and I remember being surprised by both how easily writing came to me and by the good grades I received. I was never deeply involved in theater, and I suppose that’s because I wasn’t really interested in acting or singing or building sets.
Once, in an English class, we were given the option of writing an essay on Great Expectations or making a film on the subject. My friends Bill McMahon and Mike Paone and I decided to make a film, and shot it one day after school with Bill’s parents’ camcorder. The film was terrible, of course, but we had a lot of fun making it.
We even made fake trailers to play at the beginning. I remember having a natural instinct for camera placement, in-camera editing, and so forth. Unfortunately, at that time, I never realized that one could pursue filmmaking as a career. It just wasn’t something that was encouraged or even considered as a possibility.
Because I was interested in mental illness and abnormal behavior, I decided to pursue pre-med at Southern Methodist University with an eye towards becoming a psychiatrist. Then, at a poster sale, I happened upon a copy of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Reservoir Dogs.
It seems funny now, but I had no idea what a screenplay was at that time. I’d read plays, sure. But this was different. It was like a play, but with strange formatting, lots of mysterious acronyms, etc. As I flipped through it, it was kind of like that moment in 2001 when Moon-Watcher picks up the bone and realizes he can use it as a weapon. I thought to myself, “I can do this.”
So, I began writing my first screenplay. It, too, was terrible, but I fell in love with the process. Writing screenplays was all I wanted to do. Naturally, my grades suffered as a result and I was placed on academic probation. Fortunately, my advisor was paying attention and recommended that I take some film and creative writing courses. I did so and it was like a miracle had occurred.
For the first time in my life, school didn’t feel like school anymore. I couldn’t get enough of it. I double-majored, went to school year-round, and wound up graduating early – quite a turnaround, to say the least. Anyway, after that, I still felt like I had more to learn, so I went to graduate school at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to study screenwriting.
Who were your early influences?
As a child, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Weir probably had the greatest impact on me. As a young film student, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, Steven Zaillian, Michael Mann, Lodge Kerrigan, Paul Schrader, and David Fincher picked up the baton and ran with it. I’ve had the great fortune to work with a couple of the names on that list.
Tell us about your career before film.
I didn’t really have a career before film. During the summer of 1999, between my first and second years at the American Film Institute, I worked as a development intern at Mace Neufeld Productions on the Paramount lot. I was very fortunate in that it was a paid internship. So that was my first real job in the business.
At that time, AFI had a policy where they could cut you from the program at any time if they felt like your work wasn’t up to snuff. You wouldn’t even get your money back! And they made good on it, too.
One day, a student would be in class next to you. The next day, they’d be gone. It was a hell of a motivator and I worked every day as if it could be my last. I brought this mindset with me to my internship as well. I believe it was this work ethic that led to them extending what was originally supposed to be a summer internship into a yearlong internship.
Then, when I graduated from AFI in 2000, Mace hired me as his Story Editor under his new first-look deal at Sony Pictures. It was a fairly seamless transition between the two worlds. I also picked up extra work as a story analyst for Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michael Mann.
In 2001, Mace promoted me to Creative Executive. And, of course, I was always working nights and weekends on my own screenplays. In 2003, I finally sold a script and was able to become a writer full-time. It would be several years before I branched out into producing and directing.
Tell us about working on your feature directorial debut, Jasmine.
Jasmine was a very brutal, but ultimately very rewarding experience. I mean, as writer, producer, director, and main investor, I really had no one to blame but myself if things turned out badly. So I was under a great deal of pressure. Fortunately, I had an excellent team. Unfortunately, we ran into a lot of problems that were beyond our control.
Every time a film gets made, it’s a bit of a miracle because of the difficulties involved, but Jasmine was ridiculous. We were on location in Hong Kong and we lost an investor at the eleventh hour. I got the flu right before shooting began. We lost a couple of precious days due to rain. Our Red camera crashed. My mom, grandmother, and dog died during post-production. It was just awful.
Thankfully, none of these behind-the-scenes challenges are apparent when you watch Jasmine and I’m very pleased with how it ultimately turned out. The fact that it went on to have its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, enjoyed a long festival run, picked up so many awards, and landed distribution with Lionsgate was just icing on the cake.
Every time we receive an earnings report, I shake my head in amazement that this crazy little idea I had for a movie is out there earning money from all these different revenue streams throughout the world.
What did you learn from your experience with Jasmine?
Looking back on Jasmine, what I think I learned more than anything is that there’s no substitute for single-minded focus when it comes to getting films made. You have to be obsessed, willing to put in long hours; you can’t put things off and you need a team just as obsessed as you are.
If you’re doing it part-time and not out there hustling every day, forget it. Movies are the result of sustained progress by a single-minded group of people over time.
Where did the concept come from for Kirkwood?
In 2004, I had a terrible nightmare. In the dream, I killed an attacker in self-defense and, afterward, feared that the police wouldn’t believe I’d acted in self-defense, that I’d be convicted of murder, and that I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. And so, feeling as if I had no other choice, I began the long, agonizing, meticulous process of trying to cover everything up.
When I eventually woke up from the dream, I felt exhausted and my mind continued to race with thoughts of all of the evidence I’d missed during the coverup and which I was sure would one day come back to haunt me. It was awful and it wouldn’t leave me alone.
I suffered from the same nightmare off and on for years. (According to my research, this particular nightmare is actually a fairly typical anxiety dream that people – from all over the world and from many different cultures – have.)
Then, in the fall of 2010, I had the dream again and, on that particular night, the dream presented itself in an oddly semi-autobiographical way. In this version, I was 15 years old again and living with my father in the house I grew up in.
I was a troubled kid and killed a truancy officer in self-defense during a home visit gone awry and my father, a former policeman, helped me cover everything up. The dream played out like a movie with a beginning, middle, and end.
When I woke up the next morning, I completely forgot about the dream. Then, as I was doing some grocery shopping, fragments of the nightmare started flashing through my mind and I had the strangest feeling that maybe I’d gotten up and written down some ideas in the middle of the night.
But, I honestly couldn’t remember if I had actually gotten up and written anything down or if I had simply dreamed that I had gotten up and done so. I rushed home, sat down at my computer, checked my recent documents, and found a four-page, single-spaced brain-dump titled “The Body.” It was really eerie. I was almost afraid to read it.
Now, usually, when I read something I scribbled down in my sleep, it’s either terrible or just plain nonsensical. But on this occasion it was a gift from my subconscious. The concept had great irony, primal stakes, complex themes, compelling characters, moral ambiguity, etc. I felt very strongly that I had the beginnings of my next film.
Tell us about your creative process.
In general, I’m an early riser and work every day, including Saturday and Sunday. I usually begin my day around 4 a.m. and work until about 9 or 10 p.m. I like the feeling of getting a bunch of work done before others are even awake. To avoid burnout, I’ll go to the gym or for a walk, or head up to Santa Barbara County for a change of scenery.
When I’m writing, I do a lot of research first. I prefer to know the truth before I start making things up. I also do a great deal of outlining. Outlining takes time, but it also saves on the backend in my opinion because it enables me to knock out a script in a draft or two rather than twenty.
When I’m brought in to doctor a script, I find that – most of the time – the producers are trying to fix on a micro level what they don’t realize is actually a macro-level problem. The problem could have been avoided if the original writer had spent more time outlining and figuring out the structure in the early goings. I’m also a big believer in putting scripts in a drawer for a while in order to gain objectivity.
When I’m directing, I like to have a clear plan, but I also like to leave myself open to whatever might be happening on the day. I also like to experiment and do a lot of takes because I like to have as many options later in the editing room as I can possibly get.
Actors are fond of saying that they like certain directors because they know exactly what they want. I’m fond of saying that I don’t always know what I want, but I definitely know what I don’t want – and I don’t often know that until I’ve tried a few things. That’s the fun part for me – I really love the magical little accidents which unexpectedly take a scene to a whole new level.
When I’m producing, my focus is on selecting the “right” projects and figuring out how to execute my vision or, if I’m not directing, the director’s vision with as few compromises as humanly possible. My creativity really comes into play during the problem-solving the job requires.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Although films have become significantly cheaper to produce over the last twenty years or so, you still need money to make films at a professional level. In other words, if you don’t have at least some money, you can’t make films.
I recommend that every filmmaker embrace the art of raising money. It’s the least fun part of the process for most artists, but you have to force yourself to get good at it. Also: be obsessed, work hard, hustle every day, accept that life isn’t fair, never quit learning, surround yourself with “A” players, don’t hear the word “no,” and, most importantly, never give up.
If you can find a healthy way to cope with the inevitable frustration, that wouldn’t go amiss either. This is a tough business and it doesn’t want you. Accept it and get to work.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
It’s hard, but it also affords me the greatest amount of creative control, and that’s the most important thing in the world to me.
What’s your next project?
On the producing side, Lodge Kerrigan (The Girlfriend Experience) and I are executive-producing Andrew Stanley’s directorial debut, Flowers of the Field. It’s a terrific project and I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of it.
On the writing side, I’m also adapting record-setting aviatrix Jennifer Murray’s book, Broken Journey. Set in 2003, the story is about Murray’s attempt to become the first woman to circle the globe via the North and South Poles in a helicopter at age 63 and her near-fatal crash in Antarctica. I plan to direct that as well.
I recently acquired the film rights to two-time James Beard Award-winning author Todd Kliman’s book, The Wild Vine, and am shopping that around. The uniquely American true story is about a transgender multi-millionaire winemaker on an obsessive quest to redeem the legacy of a brilliant antebellum doctor and restore a little-known American grape – which rocked the fine-wine world of the 19th century – to its former glory.
And Chinese producer James Su (The Other Side of the Wind) has hired me to write an original historical screenplay, Footprints of the Dragon, about Chinese immigrants’ contribution to the construction of America’s first Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s – the single greatest feat of engineering in U.S. history.
Different projects happen at different times for different reasons, so it’ll be interesting to see which one goes first. Until then, Kirkwood is the low-hanging fruit. $1 to 3 million thrillers are some of the safest bets you can make.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I’ve had many mentors over the years. Some I met in college. Some I met at AFI. Some I met while working in development. Some I met via the “third door.” If you want advice from a particular person, don’t be afraid to seek him or her out.
Send a handwritten letter, call their offices, offer to buy them lunch, whatever. As long as you’re determined and respectful, most people will at least speak to you on the phone. That’s been my experience. Go for it. He who dares, wins.
What’s your filmmaking mission?
My mission is simple: I want to continue making films I love with people I like, on a frequent basis and at progressively larger budgets, all while making my investors’ money back and then some.
What’s the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies?
I want the members of my audience to feel like they’re in good hands.
Can we expect to see any television from you anytime soon?
I have two limited-series projects currently in development and another on the horizon. It’s still a bit early to discuss them. I also have a docuseries titled Life with Orson Welles: The Man Behind the Legend that I’m developing with Beatrice Welles, Orson Welles’s daughter and the manager of the Welles Estate.
What’s your five-year plan?
In terms of my film work, my five-year plan is to continue doing what I’m doing but at a higher level, and to continue building my team.
Sadly and quite unexpectedly, my executive producer, Len Kloosman, with whom I worked on a number of projects, passed away recently. Finding someone to follow in Len’s footsteps for the long haul will enable me to spend a little less time focusing on raising money and a little more time focusing on writing, directing, and building my slate.
In terms of my non-film work, I’d love to start my own wine label dedicated to the Norton grape. That’s on my bucket list, too.
What filmmakers should be on our radar?
I’m really looking forward to seeing what Anja Marquardt does with The Girlfriend Experience season 3. I worked with her on her feature directorial debut, She’s Lost Control and thought she did a terrific job.
Andrew Stanley’s feature directorial debut, Flowers of the Field, is coming down the pike. As I said, I executive-produced the film with Lodge Kerrigan and I can’t wait to see the final version on the big screen.
Chris Chan Lee, who edited Jasmine for me, just finished shooting his third feature, Silent River. I know next to nothing about the story even though I played a minor role in it, but knowing Chris and his sensibilities, it won’t disappoint.
Brian Padian is working on a new film titled Sister/Brother. I really liked his feature directorial debut, The Black Sea, and love his taste in general.
Oh, and director Ice Mrozek and producer Independence Hall are finishing a new feature, titled About Him & Her – The Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which I’ve been hearing great things about. So, yeah, there are definitely some interesting filmmakers out there with fascinating projects in the works. It’s an exciting time. We’re lucky.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
I really don’t think I have a favorite film. I enjoy many films of all genres for different reasons. It just sort of depends on my mood at any given moment. If I’m looking for inspiration, I might watch something by David Fincher, Andrew Dominik, Orson Welles, or Francis Ford Coppola.
If it’s been a rough day and I want to decompress, my go-to film is Step Brothers. Like I said, it depends. Anyway, all films are instructive in their own ways, including bad ones.
Tell us about working on The Other Side of the Wind.
That’s an awfully big subject. What can I say? Hmm. I’ll just say that to be a part of the team that finished Orson Welles’s final film was a bucket-list moment for me for sure.
How did your inclusion in LA Film Awards’s 30 Filmmakers to Watch list help your career?
In the past, it was the money I made as a writer and as a producer that subsidized my directing habit. Thanks to the success of Jasmine and organizations like the LA Film Awards, I’ve been getting a lot more directing work – commercials, especially – and that’s been very satisfying.