This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 322: With Filmmaker Philip Harder.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #322 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Phillip Harder who just did a cool 1970s period piece called Tuscaloosa starring Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things. It’s based on a book which he adapted. Philip goes into great detail about how he wrote the script and eventually got the film produced, so stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated.
Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #322. If you want my free guide-How To Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. So the main thing I’m working on now obviously is The Rideshare Killer, my thriller mystery that we shot in December. We’re still meeting with editors and trying to figure out the best fit for this project. Hopefully another week or so and we’ll have all of that figured out. The other thing I’ve started to do is try and set up my next feature film. I’ve got a film noir thriller with some interest, so I have a little bit of funding in place. We’re aiming and shooting this project for a little over 100,000. We’ll get some name actors like we did with RSK. We’ll get a guy like Eric Roberts, if not Eric Roberts, someone sort of comparable to that.
So we’ll get at least one name actor in this sort of budget range. As I said I do have some interest in this and right now we have about half of the money committed and ready to go so we’re just trying to raise the other half. I’ve been sending out feelers trying to see if I can rustle up the rest of the money. I was thinking it might be helpful to talk about exactly what I’m doing, just to try and demystify the process a little bit. This is not rocket science, it really is just pretty straightforward. So I’ll just kinda go through quickly what I’m doing to try and raise the money. This is sort of the first pass and over the next couple of months, what I’m aiming for is like the next three months, we got March, April, maybe into May, I’ll spend trying to raise the money then hopefully we’ll go into preproduction towards the summer.
So let me just as I said, talk about kinda what I’ve been doing to try and raise the money. And again, maybe this can be valuable to you, you can see my approach. And just seeing someone else’s approach, maybe that will just demystify it a little bit and give you the confidence to go out there and maybe potentially raise some money. So I have some producer friends who work in the low budget space. I reached out to one of them specifically, we had a long phone conversation with him. He’s actually shooting something now or at least in the next week or so. He’s doing some pickups for a film that he did. So he actually had some questions for me, some logistical stuff on insurance, just stuff that I had gone through with The Rideshare Killer in December. So he actually had some questions for me.
We talked briefly about this new noir thriller, mystery thriller that I’m working on. He’s always cultivating actors who want to invest in films in order to get a lead role. We talked on the phone at great length about that. He was very polite and as I said, I’ve helped him out, he’s helped me out over the years, but I’m skeptical that that will actually pan out. Raising the money is so tough. Producers really covet their investors, so it’s unlikely that a producer would give me one of his investor contacts. But we’re pretty good friends, so you never know. And you’re gonna see a lot of what I’m doing at this sort of first pass at trying to raise this money.
This is sort of the level that I’m at. When I send these emails out, when I send these texts and when I make these phone calls there are always… I always go into it sort of with that mindset. I doubt it will work out, but you never know. And eventually if you hit enough of those, doubt it’ll work out but you never know, if you hit enough of those, hopefully eventually one of them actually does work out. So again, these are kinda just big blind swipes at getting this thing going. I reached out to several other producers as well. Again, typically people that are sort of working in the low budget space. Now these folks are definitely people that I’ve met primarily through my own email and fax blast sending them scripts.
Most of these producers I’ve gotten to know by optioning them scripts or at the very least they’ve really liked something I wrote. I think everybody that I reached out to in terms of these first level producers, I think they’ve all optioned or bought one of my scripts. Don’t quote me on that, but I think so. Just to give you some idea of the relationship. A lot of these people I’ve never met in person, some of them I have met in person. And when I say a lot of these people, it’s not like I have this huge list. I would say I’ve probably gone out to about six people that are pretty close contacts. As I said, the producer I just mentioned and then a number of other producers.
One of the other producers is also an actor, so I’m offering him a good role in the film. He actually optioned this script several years ago and he’s a producer and an actor himself, so I know he knows how to raise money. Got on a phone call with him. Again, he doesn’t really wanna raise money for my project, he wants to raise money for his projects, so of course he’s happy to do the role. So again, there’s another one I don’t think it will work out, but we had a nice phone conversation and we’re definitely still in touch. So that is progressing a little bit. Another producer, and this is a producer I have dealt with over the years, he bought a script of mine several years ago. It was actually a film noir thriller, somewhat similar to this project.
He’s a producer and his wife is an actress, so he produces films, gets involved with film projects, really to try and get his wife some good lead roles. That’s kind of where we’re going with this as well. Just trying to see if they liked the script and potentially want to invest. I reached out to a number of other producers, again these are producers who invest, executive producer type producers. And when I say executive producer type producer, typically on a feature film especially like an indie feature like this, when you see an executive producer more often than not, that typically means that they are one of the investors, or at the very least they are one of the people that helped raise the money.
So some of these other producers, I would say they’re more executive producers. And when I sort of qualify that this, for instance, this guy, this first producer that I mentioned, he’s a real producer. Obviously he does raise money, so he… potentially you could kind of… and he has executive producer credits actually on other films where he’s just raised money for them. But he’s a real producer where he’s sort of a line producer as well. Nuts and bolts, logistics. He can get the insurance and hire the camera guy and just all that sort of stuff. That’s more of like a producer type of a job than say just like an executive producer who just brings in money.
Anyways, again, just going out to some of these other people, probably five, six, I’d say a handful of these contacts, just trying to kinda see what they’re up to and if they have any interest. Basically all I’m doing when I reach out to them is kinda what I’m describing here, is I tell them a little bit about the project, typically send them the script, give them a very basic budget. I haven’t done like a super detailed budget. I made sort of a preliminary budget just to see where I think… where this thing is. This script is a little more complicated than The Rideshare Killer just in terms of it has a lot more locations. It’s not bigger really in terms of the scope with actors or story, but it has a lot more locations, so that’s gonna make it a little more of a challenge.
And as I said, we’re gonna have to spend a little bit more money to get some of those locations. So that’s kinda what I’m pitching to these people. Again, the idea is to raise money for about three months, pre-production about three months and then shoot in about six months. And that’s really all I’m pitching to these people when I pitch them, whether it be phone call or text. Mostly what I do is I email them first and then that will hopefully lead to a phone call or texting. Now again, keep in mind who these folks are. These are not people that I don’t have a fairly close relationship with. These are producers that I have dealt with before. As I said, I’ve either sold or optioned something to them, but even more importantly than that, obviously it’s good that they’ve read something of mine that they like, they think I’m a quality writer or whatever.
Obviously that’s very, very important. And that’s really the cornerstone I say to relationship, if they don’t think you’re a good writer obviously they’re not gonna invest in your film. But the other thing is, is these are people that I know potentially could help invest in films. So when I was putting The Rideshare Killer together, for the most part, I reached out to all of these people with that as well, that project as well. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to invest, but they knew I was working on it. So these are sort of regular people that I stay in contact with. So now when I get back to them with this project, again, I’m pitching them this new project, but I’m also telling them, “Oh, by the way, we ended up doing The Rideshare Killer.”
And a lot of investors in films, because there’s so many flaky people in this business, a lot of people, “Oh yeah, can you invest in my movie, blah, blah, blah,” and then they just, “No, I’m not gonna invest in your movie,” and the movie never gets done. I wanted to show that sort of momentum and that consistency. And if they were on the fence with The Rideshare Killer, I’m hoping that if they see that, hey, I’m out there actually making movies, I’m making things happen, I’m getting these things done, hopefully that will be enough to kinda push them just over the edge and potentially invest in this film. But we’ll see. What’s funny too is as I was going through and just preparing… and when I do these podcasts, I just kind of cook up… I mean you can tell it’s not… I’m not writing a script for the podcast.
But I do kind of come up with an outline, just sort of the basic points of what I’m gonna say. And what’s interesting is today as I was coming up with kinda just outlining what I was gonna say for this section and talking about these producers, so, I reached out to that producer, I was trying to remember who I had actually reached out to. And as I said, it’s probably like five or six pretty close producer contacts, but I started to think of other producers that I’ve dealt with over the years. and I said, “I should reach out to him, well I should reach out to him.” So probably by next week I’ll probably have another four, five, six producers that I’ve reached out to as well in a similar manner.
Now these, again, these are guys that are less familiar with me. Let’s put it to you like that. The relationships are probably a little bit less than these first pass. For the most part, this first pass are people I’ve dealt with quite a bit. I mean, they know who I am, it’s not like I’m gonna send them an email. This next pass, as I said, some of these other producers I’m thinking of and executive producers and actors, some of these other people that I’m thinking of, even maybe a director, there’s one director I know, there’s some other people, but as I said, those relationships are a little bit more tenuous. So I wanted to start obviously with the closest relationships and kinda branch out to that.
Anyway, that’s the main thing that I am working on this week. If anyone that’s listening to this podcast has any interest in investing and potentially wants to learn how to produce a film, please email me. We’re happy to take that sort of an investment. And as I said we’re producing films, I’m producing these films at a pretty low budget and if someone has an interest in really learning how to do this and potentially putting in some investment money, I’d be more than happy to bring someone on as a producer and as I said, really show them exactly what they do. And hopefully they can help out and they’ll be doing some of the actual producing as well if they wanted.
Anyways, that’s the main thing I’m working on for this week and probably the foreseeable future. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer director Philip Harder. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Philip to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show today.
Philip: Well, thanks for having me.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Philip: I started in the entertainment business, the film business through music, through some early unknown punk bands, screaming on stage, screaming our hearts out just trying to describe some of the things that were maybe screaming in my head. So I started filming these bands Super 8, Super 8 camera in the early days of that era and getting a crash course in filmmaking and music and we were jumping in beat up bands and traveling around touring. Some of those music videos taught me a lot about filmmaking. I started doing a lot more music videos, some major label music videos, which quickly led to making this film Tuscaloosa which is my first feature film.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about that just briefly and then we’ll get into Tuscaloosa. You were a musician and then you started filming your own band and then ultimately started branching out and filming other bands as well.
Philip: Yeah, I started as just an unknown band playing in some alternative punk bands, putting out our own records, but I carried a Super 8 camera with me. It’s a crash course in filmmaking, like filmmaking bootcamp, doing that kind of thing. Then I read the novel Tuscaloosa, wrote the screenplay based on it and became obsessed with it ever since. Fast forward to the day where we finally put this novel onto the screen, which I’m so proud of. And it’s coming out this year, 2020 during the election year, so I’m really pleased with that.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about that process a little bit. How did you come in contact with the novel? Did you option the novel before you wrote the screenplay? Maybe talk about that process a little bit of approaching the novelist and getting the rights and that sort of stuff.
Philip: Well Glasgow Phillips, he wrote the novel and over quite a few years when I first had read the novel, it just haunted me. It was in my mind all the time. I couldn’t seem to shake it. It seemed like a strong story that aged very well and it kept catching up to the political times. In maybe four years ago or so, we optioned the novel and I got some seed money through the producer, Patrick Riley and we started developing it. I had already taken some stabs through fits and starts at writing the screenplay, but we really honed it much more just before shooting. And actually, the writing continued right through shooting because I realized I wanted to develop some certain characters, YG who played a side character.
YG is a rapper from Compton, he plays a side character. When I got to meet him on set I started writing him scenes which could develop his character a lot. I thought he was a fascinating person in life with his rap career. I let him… I quoted some Vietnam soldiers at the time, recorded in the early seventies and I let YG put it into his own words. I’m so glad I did that because it really started to develop some of those characters that were more or less side characters in the novel. And I wanted to just show that side of what it was like to be a young African American who’s just come out of the Vietnam war where they’ve been drafted and thrown into the world of Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1972.
Those are hinted at in the novel and I think the novel does a really great job telling that story, but when we see the characters on screen I just wanted to develop that a lot more. I was just fascinated by some of these actors who could put these things into their own words with their own experiences and allow that to dig deeper into what that world must’ve been like in 1972.
Ashley: Yeah. So maybe you could give us a quick pitch or a log line. What is the log line for Tuscaloosa?
Philip: Well, I have been saying to people Tuscaloosa stars Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things. It takes place in 1972 Alabama. And right away people go, “Oh, I think I get it.” I’m not sure what the log line is. I know we wrote it, sorry. But I just think it’s an allegory for political times, even though it takes place in 1972 Alabama, I think a lot of those things are the same today in our current political times. I think that’s where the attraction is. I mean, Virginia is a woman thrown into an institution against her will. She’s a young woman who is brought to Tuscaloosa. She’s diagnosed as quote unquote a nymphomaniac, which is, it’s a term that they use to oppress women at the time. Billy on the other hand, he plays [inaudible 00:17:47] college grad, he just got a temporary job mowing lawns at this institution. He falls for her.
His father happens to be the psychiatrist and his best friend Nigel grew up on the other side of the tracks. He’s a young black man who’s growing apart from his childhood friend Billy. And he’s starting to fight the white power [inaudible 00:18:07]. So all these things. We follow Virginia as she is thrown into an insane world of Tuscaloosa. She may be the only sane person in Billy’s world. She’s trying to escape, she wants out and she’s gonna use Billy one way or another, she’s gonna leave with or without him. Billy has to hang on for the ride. Billy, he’s the cool guy, smokes pot, but he doesn’t want anything to do with politics. He wants to avoid it at all costs.
And as YG’s character Antoine says in the movie, you’re the part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. And he’s pointing at Billy. He is the problem. Something we now [inaudible 00:18:49] and call that [inaudible 00:18:54] creates generations of racism whether we know it or not.
Ashley: I’m curious, you mentioned one of the alterations you made, you sort of tried to bring in some of the characters and develop them further. What were some other challenges with adapting this material from book to screenplay? Where there’s some things, it sounds like there’s some things that you try to fill out, but were there some other things that you had to really pull back where he spent a lot of time in the book but you didn’t necessarily think that it would be cinematic, so maybe you cut some of that stuff out?
Philip: Well, that’s an interesting question. I’m trying to think back now based on that Ashley. One thing I recall is in the book they had an entire backstory of Billy and his best friend Nigel. Billy was a privileged white kid, grew up on this institution. Nigel is his best friend. Both their mothers ran away in a lesbian love affair in 1950s and they were told they burned up in an oil fire. But by this time they’re in their early twenties, they question what really happened. That’s kind of a backstory, but also a novel. The novel went through all these different ages as they grew up. They were like four years old, six years old, eight, 13 [inaudible 00:20:21] and so on.
That was a really big story to tell, especially on an independent film budget. So when I decided just to let that all go and some of that back story, I was able to write into 1972 dialogue when these guys are in their early twenties, just to try to tell people what their connection was. And when I let those flashbacks go, I realized we had a contemporary story, contemporary as in 1972. It really honed the ideas down to what the heart of the story was as these young people are coming of age and doing different things based on this fictional story that takes place in a certain town in Alabama. That made the stories seem like we could actually make them. It was like a light at the end of the tunnel. We refined it.
Maybe it allows the viewer, I hope, to refine the ideas a little bit more too and get a better understanding. Maybe if I had unlimited budget, if I were Steven Spielberg or something, all that would be in there and it’d be a three-hour movie, but we made a tight 90-minute movie. And by letting that go it just freed me up to concentrate on the ideas that I think really counted.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk just about the writing of the screenplay a little bit. How much time did you spend outlining it, just reading the book, making notes versus how much time did you spend actually in final draft cranking out script pages?
Philip: Well, I don’t remember exactly how much time, but I did kind of outline the entire novel. It was a bedded novel, which was amazing. I thought that Glasgow Phillip’s writing was beautiful, some of the dialogue was just fascinating. So I really latched onto that. Then I told you the process where I dropped the backstory. That allowed the movie to really take off. I think some of my early version [inaudible 00:22:22] were just kind of identical to the book, but they kind of plotted along and it was really getting wordy. It was like pages and pages and pages. But when I got rid of that backstory, it started to get to like about a hundred-page script. And I really could concentrate on these characters and what their feelings were in this contemporary time of 1972 Alabama.
But then I thought, “Man, we have a tight script. This is amazing. The actors like it, they’re reading the page.” But while we’re shooting, I started to realize there were a few holes. I realized, like I said about this character, Antoine played by YG, he needed more of a backstory, he can’t be a just a side character. So I developed more of his back story with his experience of being drafted into Vietnam. I even made something up for him just as a motivation. I told YG just off the top of my head, “You had a flamethrower and you had to burn people in Vietnam and this stuff. It’s not in the script, but this is what you dealt with and now you’re entering back into society in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and you’re being attacked by police and looked at with suspicion and all these things and this is really upsetting you.”
It’s a call to action. Virginia, her story was pretty similar to the entire novel, but I did find out like right at this time of shooting, the Me Too movement was really hot and heavy and it was very, very apparent that we have to really be aware of how we present Virginia. I remember there was one scene where Virginia was a prop in a scene. She was just standing there while the guys were doing the talking. Devon Bostick, young actor, Natalia Dyer, they brought this up right away. They said, “Come on, I can’t be a prop. This scene’s fault.” I totally listened to them. I was like, “Oh my God, why didn’t I see this? This is so apparent right now.” We threw a bunch of Devon’s lines over to Natalia where she could chime in and express her feelings about the same situation.
I’m so glad we did that. So those are some of the things we changed along the way. And then again, we changed more things in the edit. We dropped scenes that we shot that we thought were amazing and it just was not working in the edit. So that was the third rewrite of the script, so to speak. The first screenplay, the shoot while we were writing certain scenes and developing characters and adjusting, things were happening so fast at the time and politically as well. And then in the edit we almost did another major rewrite and I learned so much from doing that. I came in thinking this script is airtight and by the end of it I’m like, “Wow, that was a whirlwind of education in filmmaking.”
Ashley: Perfect. Philip, I really appreciate your coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and of course good luck with all your future films as well. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
Ashley: I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a logline, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre, and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. There have been a number of success stories come out of this service, you can find out about all the SYS Select successes by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also on SYS podcast Episode #222, I talk with Steve Deering who was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database.
When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. These services include the newsletter, the monthly newsletter goes out to a list of over 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also provide screenwriting leads, we have partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads services, so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner, recently we’ve been getting five to 10 high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the gamut.
There’s producers looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties. They are looking for shorts, features, TV and web series, pilots all types of projects. If you sign up for SYS Select, you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also, you get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your logline and query letter and answer any screenwriting related questions that you might have. We also have a number of screenwriting classes that are recorded and available in the SYS Select forum. These are all the classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to those whenever you want once you join.
The classes cover every part of writing your screenplay from concept to outlining, to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
So quick first let me just apologize. Phil got cut off when we were doing the interview and I couldn’t get him back. I thought it was a really good interview so I didn’t wanna just scrap the interview. We were pretty much done, but I didn’t get my closing comments, so sorry about that. It wasn’t in the edit, it was in the recording of the interview. So you didn’t miss anything, I just didn’t get the end of the interview. Again, sorry about that again, hopefully you got some value out of it even though it got cut a little bit short. On the next episode of the podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Jon Adler. He’s a screenwriter who turned a horrific life experience into a screenplay which eventually got turned into the film called Dead Sound.
I’ll be talking to him next week about exactly how he built his career and really how he got this film produced. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.