‘’This is my chance to kind of exploit myself!’’
Ryan Phillippe has been acting professionally for over twenty years, and he can now add writer and director to his impressive resume with the thrilling Catch Hell that is available on DVD in South Africa from February 5.
The film follows washed up Hollywood actor Reagan Pearce (Phillippe) who is kidnapped by thugs in Shreveport, Louisiana while on location making a movie. Trapped in a swamp hut, his kidnappers (Russ Russo and Stephen Louis Grush) torture and blackmail him, hijacking his twitter account and threatening to upload compromising material. Accused of sleeping with the wife of one of his kidnappers, Pearce must now face his own demons in order to escape his captors and regain his reputation.
40-year-old Phillippe began his career with roles in such films as Crimson Tide, White Squall, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and 54, but it was his performance in Cruel Intentions that made him a household name.
He went on to appear in a string of critically acclaimed films like Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, and the Academy Award-winning Crash, as well as the box office hit The Lincoln Lawyer, and the cult classic MacGruber.
But now Phillippe makes his directorial debut with the new horror thriller Catch Hell, which he also stars in, co-wrote, and produced, and is released on DVD in South Africa on February 5.
How did you come up with the story for Catch Hell?
I was shooting in Louisiana on a small film called Straight A’s with Anna Paquin. When you go on location you talk to coordinators on the ground but you never see them face-to-face. A lot of times celebrities live with all of these cameras outside their house, security systems, and gates. But on location, you get a call saying hop in this van and you blindly do it. So all of those things that you do to protect yourself, you just let fall by the waste side and just hop into this vehicle with strangers. I was being taken out for a horseback lesson for the movie, and we were driving 40 minutes from my hotel into the woods. I thought, what if they are not who they said they were? The possibility of that in an actor’s experience just grabbed me. I thought this could be a movie! I just kept it feeling like something that could happen. One of the benefits about using myself in that regard instead of someone like Brad Bitt or George Clooney is that it would not be a full on media firestorm, the way it would be if Brad Pitt went missing. That guy who is potentially me, so I could keep it more contained and it could be a smaller story even though it was bigger idea. So I had that original idea and I started thinking about the movie Misery. I started thinking that it has been 20 plus years since that movie was made. We were shooting in Louisiana at that time, so I thought about Deliverance and how that part of the world has so much character. Those were the ingredients.
Why was this the right film for you to make your directorial debut?
This is a film that I thought I could simply sell in one line. Which was: an actor kidnapped by a guy whose wife he had an affair with him. So I felt like it was something that would only cost a modest amount of money, which is why I thought I could make it my first film. It was an idea I thought was easily sellable because it fell within the parameters of a genre movie. I was already using myself as the lead so that accounted for some financing. It also allowed for liberties where I could blend reality and fantasy. I could borrow from myself and make fun of myself. I could use my career and substitute titles for other movies, then reference them in a way. If you don’t know my movies I think it still works, and if you do know my films then it is kind of fun. Ultimately what I wanted to do was make a short story and have it portrayed as a modern Misery. I also wanted to tie it to things that have happened in the press over the last few years, be it the nude photo leaks or the situation Mel Gibson went through where you can see how words attributed to a person can be their undoing. It was kind of like using something that is relatively simple, and then complicating it with this notion of it being the blend of a reality movie. Sort of like a hybrid of a genre film and a reality show. That was experimental about it I guess. If I had my choice, I would have cast Ryan Gosling. I would have not been in front of the camera. I would have just made the movie, but that was never going to happen. So I decided to do double duty and exploit myself, which is another meta-element of the film because the companies we work for exploit all actors in some fashion, and the projects they are involved with. So this is my chance to kind of exploit myself.
There was a fair amount of shooting from the hip and trusting those around me. Joe Gossett, who I co-wrote the movie with, was on set all the time. A lot of times I would not even watch playback. I would go based on how I felt about the scene as an actor. We did not have the time to sit there and play. I could not get in and out of the chains over and over again. That would just eat up my production day. I learned this very much from Clint Eastwood in particular because his sets, even when they are big budgets, they operate very efficiently and he does not sit at the monitor and let everybody gather around for playback. He keeps it moving. There are a thousand things I would do differently now, but this is how I had to make this movie. I just kind of had to go for it.
As an actor you’ve worked with some of the greatest directors of all-time including Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, and as you just mentioned, Clint Eastwood. Were you able to draw on your experiences working with them to help you direct this film?
Yes, a hundred percent. Altman and Eastwood in particular because of the lack yelling on their sets. Everyone feels like they are part of the process. Everyone feels validated. I knew that when I made my first movie, it was important to give the crew and the actors a great experience. As much as we were going to have to run and gun because of our constraints, we were going to enjoy it. We were going to have fun, and we would be laughing. We would finish the days relatively painlessly because people come in with enthusiasm. I took all of those production aspects into account before we even started rolling the camera. I was determined because you never know how something is going to turn out, even when you have the amount of control that I did with this film. I was determined that when I look back on making this film as a director, it would be with fondness. I wanted anybody who was there to feel the same way. I am very proud of the fact that that is the case. I had so many people from the crew tell me this was their favorite job they have ever worked on. I think some of that translates into the movie. As dark and as weird as it is, there is a sense of humor. It does not take itself too seriously. There are hints of camp here and there. It is meant to be fun, even the creepy parts. That is why it ends the way it does with this sort of tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement. It is supposed to be a laugh. It is supposed to be a weird little short story. There also was a choice to kind of expose myself and put myself out there. I liked that.
What did you learn from making Catch Hell that will help you the next time you direct a movie?
The amount that I learned I could write a book about. What I know is most important to me and most exciting to me going forward is that I do not want to star in the next one. I want to be able to have the objectivity and the time to focus solely on the filmmaking. This was a unique film in that way because in order for people to sign off on me as a first-time director, I was limited within certain parameters. The next one that I am going to direct, I will not be starring in and it will not be a genre movie. This was very specific to this idea and to getting the first one done. Showing people that I could come in on time, under budget with their money and that I could tell a story. You have got to start somewhere. I think the scariest and most exciting thing about Catch Hell is people are seeing me do something for the first time if they see this movie. I would not want people to go back and watch my first job as an actor. I think I did a little bit better with my first job as a director. I am kind of nervous about it. I do not know what people’s reactions will be. I think I am very proud of the performances in it. I think Stephen Louis Grush who plays Junior is really incredible and stays with you after the movie. He’s an actor who has never had a lead role in a movie before. There is a lot that I feel like I have to be proud of, even knowing there are a thousand things I would do differently.
You filmed in Shreveport last year. Was Catch Hell what you were worried might happen to you?
To some degree! As an actor you go to location, and you’ve only spoken to people on the phone. You’ve never seen anybody face to face. So I was in Shreveport, and I needed to take horseback riding lessons for the movie. These two guys pick me up at my hotel and drive me about 40 minutes away. I knew I was safe, but as we’re driving into these woods, the plausibility of the whole scenario struck me. At home in LA, you might have video cameras and gates, and some people have guards. But you go on location, and when a van pulls up, you just blindly hop in.
We did! Yeah, we had alligators on set—those are not CG. We didn’t have the money for that [laughs]. We did it in 19 days, for under $2 million. There was a little bit of a guerrilla, “let’s go for it and see what happens” mentality.
Reagon Pearce, your character in Catch Hell, has the same publicist as you do in real life.
And my manager, David Schiffer, plays himself too. In no real disguised manner, I’m basically playing myself. Another thread to this movie was the attempt to do something like a reality-genre movie hybrid. I used myself, my career, and there are definitely references made to movies I’ve done under different titles. I just thought that was kind of fun. If I had had a choice I would’ve written this movie around Ryan Gosling and used his movies. But I wasn’t going to get anybody like that [laughs].