While shooting Straight A’s in Shreveport, Louisiana back in 2012, Ryan Phillippe went on a horseback riding trip and came back to his hotel with an idea for a film of his own. Inspired by his and friends’ experiences as actors, insecurities while shooting on location, and the tropes of the classic tight-knit thriller, Phillippe wrote the script for Shreveport with Joe Gossett about an actor who’s kidnapped and tortured by two men from the bayou. Phillippe describes the film, now titled Catch Hell, as having been initially inspired by Misery and Deliverance, and he not only stars in the lead role, but it marks his first time behind the camera as a director. I sat down with the actor turned filmmaker to discuss his directorial debut, the ups and downs of the film’s production, the freedom of directing himself, and how actors actually do read Internet comments.
How is it promoting your passion project?
Well, my first film. I think “passion project” is a slight misnomer because I don’t know if this is 100% representative of what I want to do as a filmmaker. It was a specific contained idea that I felt like I could execute, that I felt I could finance, and within certain parameters because I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of money on my first movie and I kind of used myself. I would have preferred to cast another actor, but it would have been difficult to talk them into that.
Did you envision yourself in the lead when you first started working on the script?
I think I did because of the nature of the business, and I knew that in order to accelerate the film’s path toward production, having a lead who could also generate some of the financing could only help. If I had gone and cast another actor, the process would have taken a lot longer. With myself in the lead, I could take whatever liberties I wanted to. [Laughs] I could make fun of myself. I could use my career as inspiration. As much as this is a relatively simple genre movie, actor kidnapped by a guy whose wife he had an affair with, there’s also allegorical stuff to it. There’s a little bit of social commentary. And I’m laying myself a little bit bare in the film. I first thought of it as modern-day version of Misery or Deliverance, then I kind of got into this experimental notion of a reality movie—a hybrid of using someone’s one life and then putting them in this context that’s heightened.
The film integrates the Internet into the story so well.
Yeah, it’s become so relevant now. I mean, the way careers can be undone by the wrong word being attributed to someone. The idea of the invasion of privacy that comes along with the release of people’s private photos.
It’s actually one of the more realistic uses of the Internet I’ve seen in film, how it incorporates Twitter and gossip sites.
It’s cool that you picked up on that. I like the seemingly contrary elements of people in a rudimentary shack in the middle of the swamp having a Wi-Fi card. They’re destroying this guy’s life through social media. So the juxtaposition of the modernity, the modern nature of that, against this—that was fun for me to play with. Anyone can use the Internet, regardless of their level of education and mental faculties. Just look at the comments left at the bottom of videos. And look at Mike and Junior, who’s this disenfranchised meth head who knows the Internet. Many famous people, who we think have it all, get really wounded by some of the shit people like this say about them. So maybe I’m asking audiences to consider the lives of the people saying that stuff. Does it really matter that this person, who is a complete loon and has hate in their heart, or has a disgusting worldview, is saying something bad about you? Maybe if we knew exactly who this person was, their opinions of you might not hurt so much.
In this stage of your career, how did you think of turning to directing?
I’ve thought about it forever. I was just waiting for the right time, or the right simple idea. I have loftier goals as a filmmaker, but out of the box I’d have to do way too much work to make those come to pass. This one I knew I could take into a room of potential producers or financiers and sell as a thriller, which is what they always want.
You were shooting in Shreveport when you came up with the idea for the film?
Right. These guys picked me up to take me horseback riding. We’re driving into the woods. We’re 40 minutes from my hotel. And I thought, “What if they weren’t who they said they were?” That seemed plausible. I don’t care if you’re me or Gerard Butler, if you’re George Clooney, when you get on the ground in a new location, you’ve never met anybody face to face. A phone call comes to your room, car’s downstairs, and you just get in. Now, back in L.A., Clooney would have gates, maybe a guard, cameras, security, but in a location like this you just drop all of that. And so I thought the realistic component to that was what drove me to say, “Let’s make this a movie because this could happen.” And the fact that I was basically playing myself, who isn’t Brad Pitt or the biggest star in the world, allowed the story to stay contained, because there wouldn’t be helicopters and search parties and there wouldn’t be a Dateline special about me. If this happened to someone of larger stature, it would require the movie to be bigger than I would have been able to make.
As a director, who were your greatest influences going into this?
Eastwood and Altman are the two.
Did they give you any advice when you worked with them on Flags of Our Fathers and Gosford Park?
It’s more about what I watched them do. The way I watched Altman interact with the crew. How everyone felt validated. How everyone felt like they were making a contribution. How there was no yelling. The efficiency and minimal amount of takes. You hear sometimes about filmmakers who won’t move on until they’ve done 90 takes. With Eastwood, it’s one, two at the most, which I prefer. And that also allows you to get more done in a day. It’s the process. The idea that I learned from Eastwood, too, was that he loves the vitality of the first take and the mistakes that come along with it because that’s more real. If you fine-tune and micromanage what you think is perfect, it becomes artificial. And the experience of being on set with both of them was just so pleasant, like a family. I don’t care what they were doing, if they were a P.A., if they were in wardrobe. I wanted everyone to enjoy it, because who knows what’s going to happen once it’s done. I’m proud that everyone loved working with me on it. As a director, that was important to me.
While making the film, what did you learn as a director directing himself?
I learned so much. I did literally and figuratively handcuff myself to being the lead in it. And I wouldn’t get out of the restraints because it would take too much time, so I would watch playback from my chained-up position. Or sometimes I would just say to my crew, “Did we get it?” And I felt it from the scene acting and [snapping his fingers] I’d just go. There was a lot of shooting from the hip and being cavalier and going for it and seeing what we had come up with, because I had 19 days and under $2 million. It was, like, let’s jam and get as much as we can and let’s have fun and see how it ends up.
How was the pre-production process?
It was the most up-and-down, emotional process. Getting a film financed and made is so, so difficult. To get people to agree to give you money to tell a story is next to impossible. Our money would get taken away. We had it set up and then the person pulled out. We’d get another financier and then that went away. It was such a roller coaster, and then at a certain point, I decided I was going to Louisiana and I wasn’t going to leave until I got to make this movie. So I went down there and started bankrolling pre-production on my credit cards. I would get loans. I would get my own personal money and pay for people’s flights and put them up and buy their dinners. Until financing kicked in, I paid for all of pre-production. I was determined. I really took a risk, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there’s a chance that it might have never shown up. That’s a part of my personality, I guess, a certain commitment and fortitude. The belief in “you can make this happen if you don’t give up.”
What future projects are you considering to direct? Would you do a thriller again?
As a director, probably not. This was very specific to an idea that I thought I was able to execute. The next one I’m directing is a dark comedy, true crime in the vein of Raising Arizona, and I won’t star in it, which I’m very excited about. But I think that’s more my territory: dark comedy.