Phil Leirness: 20 Questions with the Director of THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

GlasgowtotheMovies recently had the chance for an exclusive interview with Phil Leirness, an award-winning director who studied under the tutelage of Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) and whose last film was called “totally original…and often as funny as it gets” by Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs). Leirness’ newest film, The Truth Is Out There, is about the myriad conspiracies that continuously affect our lives, and will be released by Summer 2011. In this long interview, Leirness spoke with GlasgowtotheMovies about The Truth is Out There, the filmmakers that inspire him, his reaction to critics, and much more. Look for an early review of The Truth is Out There on Monday, 3/21.

GlasgowtotheMovies:  You were turned onto directing after seeing Wings of Desire. What spoke to you in that film?

Phil Leirness: Wings of Desire is a film where the more you know about mythology, theology, poetry, popular culture, psychology and art, the richer the experience becomes.   The greater one’s appreciation for cinema and its history, the greater one’s delight in director Wim Wenders’ achievement.  However, what’s more incredible is that Wenders created a film that deeply resonates on an emotional level no matter how little you might know about, or even be interested in, any of the aforementioned subjects.   The film is a love story about the heartbreaking yearnings that bind us all together in the silences of our own individual personal despair and it’s an epic of the human heart full of the most nourishing truths about what it means to be human.   Fellini’s 8 ½ is the only other film I’ve seen that so flawlessly combines a profound understanding of the inner workings of the psyche with a stream of consciousness narrative and pure visual poetry.  When I first saw Wings of Desire on a drizzly night in 1988 in San Jose, California, I knew I had seen a perfect film.   And to this day, I’m motivated to discover whether or not I am capable of such an achievement.

GttM:  As a successful director now yourself, what appeals to you about the craft that makes you excited to work each day?

Leirness: At some point, I realized that the story I am telling with my life is far more important than any story I tell in a film.   It is my responsibility to take the gift of the life I was given and to tell an interesting story with it.  Getting “excited” about things is no more interesting to me than “worrying” about things.  What IS interesting to me is learning to live and create without the need for rules, to embrace the opportunities that have presented themselves for exactly what they are without the need to try to turn them into what I might want them to be.  To me, it’s interesting to make a film because it’s a film that needs to be made and to make that film because it IS me to make it.

In this life, we don’t get what we want.  We get what we are.  I try to embrace those opportunities that will reveal to me what I am made of, that will deepen my relationship to myself and to my humanity.  If I am able to lead a life that is an artfully told story, it will be one that serves to inspire others, that raises the bar for others.

What fills me with joy is the abundance of creative opportunities I have every day to explore, learn and grow.     I used to think that I traveled around showing, promoting and pitching my various projects so that I could keep making films.   Now I understand that I actually make films so that I’ll be allowed to travel around, meet people, share my stories, hear theirs and learn about different people, places and ideas.

Making films is my way of singing for my supper.   And hopefully what I sing is a joyful noise unto the creator.  I have fun doing what I do.  I have fun being me.   What else is there?

GttM:  You’ve just finished your latest film, “The Truth is Out There”. How did you come across this particular project?

Leirness: Neither Dean Haglund nor I can remember how we met, but we have worked together for quite a few years now.  I directed him in Spectres, we co-wrote two screenplays together (both of which have come perilously close to getting financed on multiple occasions) and, of course, we have co-hosted Chillpak Hollywood Hour, a free weekly podcast for almost four years now (http://www.chillpakhollywood.com).  In having had the opportunity to get to know Dean over the course of these several years, it became quite intriguing to me that this improv comic from the frozen plains of Canada, who studied dance and art history in college, would become so closely identified with such an iconic role (“Langly”, one of the computer-hacking trio known as “The Lone Gunmen”) on the seminal television series The X-Files (and their own spin-off series), and would subsequently be so closely identified with the world of conspiracy.  So, my interest in Dean as a person was part of the inspiration for The Truth Is Out There.

Another part of my inspiration was realizing that I enjoy making movies about things that make me angry.   Twenty months ago, when we started principal photography, the public debate over health care was waging and it truly seemed like NO political debate could take place without what should have been a meaningful conversation devolving into conspiracy theories.  For example, Person 1 might say, “Gee, I’d really like a strong public option” and Person 2 would respond, “That’s interesting.  Obama has no birth certificate!”   Of course, I’m exaggerating, though the lack of conversation between people who disagreed, the dogmatic polarization that dominated seemingly every important discussion, and the non-stop litany of conspiracy theories surrounding EVERY topic were things that made me angry.   And when I get angry, I stop myself because it’s very easy to find what’s wrong with something.  What’s more interesting is to ask, “What’s right about this?  How does this serve?”  And so, I thought following Dean Haglund, insider into the world of conspiracy theories and truth-seekers, into that world would make for an entertaining, illuminating and possibly inspiring journey.

From a business standpoint, the genesis of the project was my wanting to make a film that could prove the distribution paradigm I had designed over the prior few years (starting when I was managing director of a consortium of Europe-based film distribution companies).  What we have ended up with is a true epic of comedy, consciousness and conspiracy (the trailer can be viewed at http://truth-is-out-there.com) that we will be self-distributing through the Rational Exuberance banner (the company that Dean founded).

GttM:  What will a general audience enjoy about this film?

Leirness: Where is this “general audience” to which you refer?

As a film that deals substantially with topics ranging from UFOs to aliens to ghosts to the industrialization of our food supply to cancer cures to the New World Order to the events of 9/11 to quantum consciousness to the influence of popular culture, The Truth Is Out There will appeal to people interested in conspiracy theories (and the theory of conspiracy) as well as to many groups of truth-seekers who will see much of themselves in the film.   However, even for people who have no interest in these topics, the film still works as a very funny, smart, globe-trotting adventure.

We live in frightening, confusing times where you can find almost violent disagreement no matter the topic.   I truly believe people who view The Truth Is Out There will be comforted and inspired by the film’s underlying message that our strength is in our diversity, that each of us was given a voice for a purpose, that each of us has something to contribute, and that if we stop fighting over who’s right and who’s wrong, we can draw from each individual’s uniqueness and build something truly glorious together.

Some people who watch The Truth Is Out There may want to judge the people Dean meets and interviews on the basis of whether they agree or disagree with them.   That judgment will prove difficult, however, for the people with whom Dean speaks are real human beings who come across as more than the sum of the information they have to offer, more than the sum of the conclusions they have drawn, more than the sum of the beliefs they espouse.   Truly, I think audiences will love the subjects Dean interviews.   I know I do.

Bottom line:  Dean and I made a film that shows how much fun it can be to search for the truth.

GttM:  From your mind to the screen, how long did it take to get “The Truth is Out There”… out there?

Leirness: The first proposal I sent out in terms of pitching the project to potential investors was dated 8 May 2009.   I finished mastering the film this week (11 March 2011).   We hope to set up one or more screenings in California within the next month or so, though that might not be realistic.   It’s quite possible our first official public screening will be on 30 April when the film is shown at the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre as part of Sci-Fi-London.  If that’s the case, then it will have been almost two years of non-stop work to get The Truth Is Out There to that “general audience” you asked me about!

GttM:  You’ve overseen a lot of documentary films over the course of your career. Do you find any difference in difficulty between creating documentary vs. traditional (fiction) films?

Leirness: Whether the form is narrative or documentary film, the fundamental task remains the same:  creating intimacy between the audience and that film’s subjects.  I think one of the reasons documentaries have been so well-received of late is that increasingly their makers are finding new techniques for creating that intimacy while narrative films, certainly commercial narrative films, seem increasingly to be made in such a way as to actually prevent an audience from experiencing intimacy with the film’s characters (and even with each other!).

Intimacy is our birthright and to experience intimacy, we must be willing to open ourselves to the good, the bad and the so-called “ugly” that makes up a human being.   A storyteller’s responsibility is to immerse the audience in the world experienced by a character.  Whether that character is fictional or the subject of a documentary, if the story is artfully told, the audience will be inclined to move beyond their own personal judgments and find genuine compassion for the people that inhabit the world into which they’ve entered.  And if the storytelling is particularly masterful, then the audience might just come away from the film, be it documentary or narrative, with a more compassionate,  loving and accepting relationship with the full range of aspects that make up their own nature.

Naturally, for a filmmaker there’s a fundamental difference in approach between the traditional documentary and the traditional narrative film.   In a documentary, you are inspired by a question or hypothesis and you proceed to seek answers, hoping to be able to embrace the structure that emerges through your explorations.   In a narrative, you iron out the structure in advance (and if you don’t, odds are that dog will NEVER hunt).   As a director, though, you always want to be open to embracing that which truly wants to come forward (rather than simply sticking to some pre-conceived vision).  And certainly with my last film (Karl Rove, I Love You) I employed documentary techniques and applied them to a fictional narrative.   That’s why we describe it as a “fictional documentary” rather than a “mockumentary.”  On this film, I’ve applied some traditional narrative techniques.   So, I always seem to be interested in a blending between the two.

GttM:  What was the hardest part of getting the movie completed?

Leirness: No one had ever made this film before.   Structurally, thematically, in terms of tone, this film is one of a kind.   That doesn’t mean to say it’s good.  That’s for each individual to decide.   All I know is that I have never seen a film like this before.   That’s thrilling and rewarding, of course, as it does feel good to have done something fresh, something unique.   It’s also really challenging, for being entirely off-map is exhausting.

Physically it was exhausting travelling seemingly non-stop for ten months to shoot the film.   Mentally it was taxing to wrestle with hundreds of hours of footage.   Emotionally it was challenging not to get pulled down any of the darker “rabbit holes” created through our explorations into the unknown and the conspiratorial.

The finished film manages a couple of nifty tricks.  It’s fun without making fun of anyone.  It honors the stories and theories of all our interview subjects while constantly maintaining an effortlessly light-hearted tone.

At least, it seems effortless.  In fact, it was the most challenging work I’ve ever done.

GttM:  I know you were upset with the music used for The Story of O: Untold Pleasures. Do you see the score as vital, and how do you know when an artist is the right match for your work?

Leirness: More accurately, I was upset with the way music was used in The Story of O: Untold Pleasures.   Much of the music is beautiful, evocative score.   The main problem is that there’s way too much of it.   Most movies of the same length would contain 45 minutes of music.  That film has 80 minutes.   Music is meant to serve the film.  We have a film that’s there to serve the music.   At least that’s how it feels.   And when post-production decisions on an English-language film are being made by people for whom English is not their first language and who are not filmmakers, things like that happen.

Of course music is vital, but the way it’s vital and the reasons it’s vital should differ from film to film.  Greg De Belles scored both The Truth Is Out There and Karl Rove, I Love You and he’s wonderful because he thinks editorially, because he’ll be the first to say when music isn’t required, because he’s incredibly versatile and dexterous.

Musically, the biggest challenge we faced in The Truth Is Out There is that we never wanted to comment upon the material.  We had to bundle ideas, and had to create the promise of fun, so that during the film’s long running-time and during some its more intellectually dense sequences an audience would know that if they just stuck with us, there would be great rewards.  And we had to do all that without ever hitting the nail on the head, musically-speaking.

GttM:  We’ve touched on your fondness for “Wings of Desire”, and I know you’re a big fan of Robert Altman. What other directors inspire you?

Leirness: If I were to list my “favorite” directors it would be those whose failures tend to excite me more than most directors’ successes, those whose approach to the craft inspire me as much as what that approach might have created in any particular film.   Robert Altman made several true masterpieces.  He also made some films that are hard work for me to get through.   Still, the greater my familiarity with his entire body of work, the greater my appreciation for his master works, his life and his approach are informed.   The same describes my feelings towards Fellini, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Michael Powell (especially in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger), Werner Herzog and Akira Kurosawa.   Many of my favorite films were made by directors other than these men, but the work of these directors never fails to leave me inspired.

GttM:  Similarly, which documentaries have left you in awe?

Leirness: Where would those of us who are expected to make year-end “Top Ten” lists of the best movies be without documentary filmmakers?   Over the past several years there have been a slew of awe-inspiring documentaries …

Exit Through the Gift Shop, Man on Wire, The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth, Capturing the Friedmans, Grizzly Man, Bowling for Columbine, Hoop Dreams, and The Thin Blue Line all come immediately to mind.

GttM:  You’ve been living in Los Angeles for a long time. Do you think it’s important to live in a place like L.A. in order to build a filmmaking career?

Leirness: Look at my list of favorite directors.  Of those, only Cassavetes lived and worked in Hollywood and there was never a more independent, un-Hollywood filmmaker!   In some ways, living in Los Angeles makes it easier in that you’re surrounded by people, companies, facilities and services interested in motion picture production.  On the other hand, it becomes very easy to get trapped talking about making films, rather than actually making them because there are so many people who would rather discuss than create.   Also, because it’s such a factory town it’s quite easy to become disconnected from the wellspring of your creative impulses and from the very joy of creating in the first place.

It gets back to what I was saying about living the story of your life in as artful a way as possible.  Where do you most deeply connect with your humanity?   Where will your soul be most nourished?   It doesn’t matter where that place is, if an artist lives there, the art will find a way.

GttM:  As a follow-up to the previous question, if you weren’t an award-winning director, where do you envision yourself now?

Leirness: If I couldn’t be who I am, I guess I’d choose being a financially successful filmmaker.

Or a cult leader.

There are so many different professions that live within me … Lawyer, photographer, musician, teacher, psychotherapist, painter, dancer, detective, scientist, graphic designer, journalist … The limitations of time and in some cases, ability, encourage a specific choice.  The thing about directing and, especially about being an independent filmmaker, is that I am called upon to be all of these things, and many more, at various times.

Of course, while actively making films for what has been almost two decades now, I have also taken on a wide variety of other jobs, both within the industry (distribution executive, production executive) and without (certified violence prevention specialist, dream interpreter).

I have always been and always will be a storyteller.   I do believe I would like to be a teacher of some kind, someday.   And I would also like to be given command of a starship.

GttM:  Is there anything that didn’t make it into the finished film that you wish you could have kept?

Leirness: We have so much extraordinary footage.  People were so generous with their time and their stories.  And so many of our interview subjects possess such fascinating perspectives on such a wide variety of topics.   That said, if something belonged in the finished film, it made it into the finished film.   Period.   Our running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes because we did not want to shortchange anyone in the film or in the audience.   And many of the fascinating pieces we edited out will be in the two-disc edition DVD’s bonus features, as well as the Blu-Ray special features.

On the other hand, there is one clip I wish we had thought to license.   It’s something an audience member suggested at our recent “sneak preview” test screening and it was a brilliant idea.  And it’s too late …

GttM:  Your filmography covers a variety of genres. Do you feel compelled to push the boundaries of what you’ve grown comfortable working on previously?

Leirness: I do seem inexorably drawn to mixing genres, to never repeating myself.  Early on, it was by design, a desire never to be pigeonholed.   Now, though, I’m mostly compelled to find, explore and honor the authenticity of the characters through which the story is emerging and unfolding.  When it comes to genre elements or even logistical approaches to filmmaking, I do feel the need to breathe life back into what has become conventional.   All these aspects must serve the story being told.   All too often, we’re subjected to stories that were chosen for production because they served the established conventions of genre or logistics.

GttM:  You’ve had one screening of The Truth is Out There, at the Bay Area UFO X Fest. How was the response?

The response to the sneak preview screening was deeply gratifying and somewhat eye-opening.   It was gratifying to have worked so hard for so long on the film and to have the audience not only refer to it as a “major achievement” but to express genuine gratitude for the film.

It was eye-opening in that I knew the film would play very well on DVD, but I wasn’t sure how it would play as a theatrical event due to its running time and the dense nature of some of the material.  The film does ask a lot from its audience.   What I hadn’t considered was what an emotional communal event seeing this film in a theatre could be for so many people, people who will identify with the film, who will see themselves or those they love embodied by the interview subjects within the film. 

GttM:  On a related note: do you give any thought to critics, and what do you value in film criticism?

Leirness: I love critics.   A long time ago, I was a critic.  I offer up film criticism on my show.  I enjoy friendships and acquaintances with many critics.   Sadly, we live in a society and an era where the art of criticism is eroding and the ability to receive criticism is evaporating.  We all must be mature enough to receive criticism without taking it personally.  To take what we can from it so that it may propel us upwards in our work and in our lives.  By the same token, I also feel it is equally important for critics not to allow their criticism to become personal.  Cleverness passes for insight these days and that often leads to sloppy criticism (as well as to sloppy filmmaking).  Criticism ought to be well-considered before being offered.  Of course, with the intense deadlines critics are under, this is not easy.

All of this is my way of saying that a greater relationship between filmmakers and critics ought to be fostered.   I know that many critics are resistant of becoming too friendly with filmmakers for fear they might become reticent to criticize that filmmaker’s work.  The better you know someone, the better you understand their aims, their interests, their motivations, the more you admire them, the more challenging it becomes to criticize them.   To me, though, increased familiarity would help critics in their difficult task.

After all, part of a critic’s job ought to be assessing the work within context of the filmmaker’s aims.  Did the film accomplish what the makers of it were setting out to achieve.   Too often, we criticize films for what they aren’t, rather than truly assessing them based on what they are.  There are films that fail to please me personally where I can nevertheless have no doubt the finished work is exactly what the makers of it set out to achieve.  Often, in those experiences, I will know that I must re-visit that work again, months, years or even decades later.

Of course, too much emphasis is placed upon how a film plays “right here, right now”.  And much of how it plays is based upon perceptions created through marketing campaigns, critical consensus, box office prospects and more.   In many ways, critic have the most challenging, and therefore deeply important role in terms of a film finding an audience, for critics have to try to take a wider view of a film, free from those perceptions, with at least one eye on how that film fits within the context of what has come before and with where film itself might be heading.

GttM:  Off-topic, but your IMDb page mentions that you are in the process of writing two books – any updates on their progress?

Leirness: At some point in their writing, I realized I was actually writing ONE book that contains non-fiction essays, fictional short stories (there I go blending narrative and documentary again!) and some poetry.   I had hoped to have it completed by now, though finding the time to maintain the necessary momentum for such an undertaking has proven impossible thus far.   This summer, when I take to the road for several weeks at a stretch I plan to make some measurable progress.

GttM:  When can we expect to see The Truth is Out There available for home viewing?

Leirness: Pre-orders of the single disc standard DVD, a two disc special edition loaded with bonus features, as well as a Blu-Ray edition should be available soon.  We’re certainly looking at a “street date” of no later than the start of summer.   It’s important to note that each of these editions will only be available through our web site (http://truth-is-out-there.com) and through personal appearances.   Dean Haglund, Lyle Skosey and I shall also be traveling extensively with the film, having special screenings and theatrical events wherever they’ll have us! 

GttM:  Your last starring role was in The Party Crashers (1998). Will we see you in front of the camera again anytime soon?

Leirness: I appear on-camera (as myself, of course) in The Truth Is Out There. In Karl Rove, I Love You, I narrate the film and appear on-screen in one climactic sequence while playing documentary filmmaker “Phil Leirness”.   After having made numerous appearances promoting my six feature films and after co-hosting a weekly show for four years, I can honestly say I’ve become quite adept at playing “Phil Leirness.”

I do, indeed plan to play a supporting role in my next narrative feature.    And there are two roles I’d love to play on stage:  the emcee in Cabaret and the patriarch of the family in August: Osage County, who begins the show with a fifteen minute monologue, telling a story directly to the audience before disappearing entirely from the proceedings.  That’s my ideal role!  Tell a story, leave, have a leisurely dinner, some wine, catch another show, and just make sure I’m back in time for the curtain call.

GttM: Any plans for a movie starring your girlfriend, actress Lily Holleman?

As you are asking the question, I’m assuming you know what a spectacularly gifted and unique performer Lily Holleman is.   I would be an absolute idiot if I did not plan to work with her.   Lily will play the lead in my next narrative feature (tentatively titled Night Falls Fast), which focuses on what gets visited upon a community in the aftermath of a suicide.  It’s a story about the importance of letting go so that we can better nourish ourselves and others.   In addition, I’m hoping to carve out enough time to write a mystery feature with her that we would make together.   That one promises to be supernatural, shamanic and sexy fun.

2 Responses to “Phil Leirness: 20 Questions with the Director of THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE”

  1. Learning about Phil Leirness is exciting. He seems to know the film business backwards and forwards. I like all the things he says he likes and share the views he expressed. I too believe that one should live their life like a work of art! Telling a story to create intimacy between the audience and the film’s subjects should indeed be the goal and in my opinion can be done regardless of the density or lightness of the material. Interestingly, although he lists numerous professions that live within him, including Psychotherapist, I suspect from this interview that a better understanding of the “unconscious” that resides in all human beings would help him in his professional as well as personal life. After all, even brilliant can still do better, no?
    :):)

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