Interview With Jeff Phillips, Director of 'UrFrenz'
Jeff Phillips has a new film called UrFrenz that's playing at the Chesapeake Film Festival. In light of the upcoming release of The Social Network, which focuses on the creation of Facebook, one of the most popular websites where people can connect to each other via the Internet, I believe that Phillips film will be a powerful contrast. I asked him a few questions about his movie and here's what he had to say:
The M eport: First off, tell me about yourself. Where did you go to school? Did you study filmmaking there or was it a late discovery? What is your philosophy for filmmaking... meaning what kind of films do you want to make and what is your preferred method of making movies and in general what do you think about films and filmmaking in our age?
PHILLIPS: I'm a graduate of Loyola Marymount University. I majored in screenwriting and filmmaking. I also have an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. I became interested in films after spending countless hours in movie theaters while a child. My father worked in retail in shopping malls, and I would spend my weekends in the mall based theatres soaking up movies.
My major influences are Woody Allen, John Sayles, Spike Lee and Gus Van Sant. I like independent character based films. I prefer to shoot on digital cameras; I find I'm able to work faster and shoot more than on film. I think contemporary filmmakers are struggling to find a place for their art in the digital age where applications drive everything. If theatre going doesn't fit into the new app-based world, I believe it will get increasingly harder for independent filmmakers to find a platform for release.
The M Report: You said over the phone that this movie was inspired by an experience with your own daughter. How old was your daughter and what happened? What exactly is the origin of this movie? I'm assuming you wrote it, so what made you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard for this particular story?
PHILLIPS: I am the writer-director of the film. It's based on me and my wife's two-year odyssey policing my teenage daughter in the world of cyberspace. It's a narrative feature film. I made it to serve as a talking point for the subject matter of bullying and cyberbullying, the number one hot button issue between parents and teens today. The bullying and related anxiety led my daughter to become a severe self-mutilator, in addition to trying to take her own life by cutting. She is the basis for the lead character of Catharine in the film. She was thirteen at the time the bullying occurred, but for the film I moved the world from junior high to high school. I didn't set out to make a message film, but one that served as a talking point to help bridge the latest generational divide between parents and kids. In writing the script, I tried to remember what it was like to be a teenager. I knew that I wouldn't want to be preached to so I wasn't going to proselytize or speak down to them.
The M Report: So, I haven't seen the movie but have read that it's about cyberbullying. How pervasive is it? How does it compare to regular bullying for example? I know the Megan Meier case obviously resulted in her suicide, but it was reported that Meier was already suicidal prior to the so-called cyberbullying started. Is this really only a huge problem for people with pre-existing mental problems?
PHILLIPS: The film is about the draw and discord between parents and teens over a popular social networking site. It is about a teenage girl who develops an on-line relationship with someone who turns out to be a child predator. In this case, the mother of a classmate who suspects her of spreading malicious gossip about her own daughter.
We're dealing with a generation of children that have never known a world without an internet. As parents, I think that at least subconsciously, we're all a little frustrated because we remember a simpler time when our jobs might have been a little easier. We not only have to parent over our kids in terrestrial space, but cyberspace as well.
Kids have very basic rights. But the internet changed that. It gave them access to a world they shared with grownups. It's a world more in line with their constantly changing attention spans and one in which they develop a sense of entitlement. Also, they have time on their hands, which allows them to master it quickly, often more quickly than adults.
It's a mistake to think that cyberbullying is only a threat to kids with pre-existing conditions. All teens are susceptible to bullying because of their rapidly changing bodies and minds. They often feel like prisoners in their own body, even popular or more socially oriented kids. We live in an image based society, we're bombarded with ads and messages that revolve around physical appearance. Teenagers may be more self-conscious because of this. And due to the nature of puberty, they are especially vulnerable to insults or threats.
The M Report: I know a lot of celebrities are the subject of this, of having people post or email harassing stuff to them. A lot of them say that all they can do is ignore it, but when you're a teenager and you're young and impressionable, does it seem like the end of the world?
PHILLIPS: It very often can because it's so pervasive and fast. A text rumor can spread across a school within minutes thanks to technology.
The M Report: The character of Catherine, what is her state? Does she have pre-existing mental problems? Is she a happy teen, well-adjusted or does she have issues above and beyond normal teen angst? Does she die in the end like Meier?
PHILLIPS: Catharine could be any so-called "normal girl" who is just trying to find her way in the world. She comes from a stable home, which she may not appreciate as fully as she should, but in the end may save her.
The character of Debbie is a mother who is naturally concerned about protecting her own daughter. But in trying to manipulate the life of another teen, she crosses the line and gets lost in a world she only thinks she understands.
Sorry, I won't reveal the ending.
I shot the movie in 3 weeks in July and August last summer. All the actors are Los Angeles based.
Jeff Phillip's film UrFrenz is playing at the Chesapeake Film Festival