Phillips blazes way to career in filmmaking

by Rebecca Leffler | 10/23/03 5:00am

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles profiling College alums working in film and television.Dartmouth didn't have a film major in 1971. So Bill Phillips '71 created one. Combining courses in Comparative Literature, English, Drama, French, Russian, Art, Music and Independent Study, Phillips was the first film studies major to graduate from Dartmouth in 1971. Thirty-three years later, Phillips is still sitting in Film Studies classroom at Dartmouth, but this time, he is the one calling the shots.

After receiving a Masters of Fine Arts degree from USC in 1973, Phillips has completed almost thirty feature-length scripts, which have been translated to both television and the big screen. Some of his more well-known films include "Summer Solstice" (1980), "Rising Son" (1990), "Christine" (1983), "El Diablo" (1990), "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" (1994) and "There Goes the Neighborhood" (1992).

He won the Cable Ace Award for "El Diablo" in addition to an Emmy Nomination for Best Miniseries for an adaptation of Peter Maas' "In a Child's Name" and a nomination for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for "Shadow of a Doubt." Despite his Hollywood success, Phillips returned to Hanover in 1984 and began to teach Screenwriting in 1989, sharing his cinematic knowledge with aspiring Dartmouth writers.

Phillips' time at Dartmouth has influenced his work a great deal: "I usually say, when asked about various schools, that 'Dartmouth taught me how to think; USC film school taught me what buttons to push.' Both are important in filmmaking." Though clearly self-motivated ever since he created his own major in 1971, Phillips cites a series of mentors as being partially responsible for his success including Paddy Chayevsky ("The Hospital," "Network"), Ernest Lehman ("North by Northwest," "West Side Story"), Errol Hill, Frank Pierson ("Cool Hand Luke," "Dog Day Afternoon."), Maury Rapf, who passed away earlier this year, and Blair Watson (head of Dartmouth Films, now Instructional Services) who would teach film splicing and technique to anyone who wanted to learn. According to Phillips, Professor Arthur Mayer (importer of "The Bicycle Thief" and "Open City" and former publicity executive for Mae West), was "the kind of guy who, if he had been a botanist, 200 of us would have gone into botany."

Phillips cites "On the Waterfront" (1954) as his favorite film of all-time, but also highlights "Jaws," "The English Patient," "Some Like it Hot" and "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" as among his list of great movies. As far as his own features go, Phillips says he is proud of "Summer Solstice" "because it was first, starred Henry Fonda and got me established. It was also the closest to my heart."

Phillips feels that Hollywood has changed a lot since he first began writing. "When I started, the film director called the shots. Now it's 'the Suits.' Films have become so expensive to produce that the money men have lots more power now. I hope and trust that this is a cycle that will eventually end."

While they say that the only way to sell a script is to take it to the source, Bill Phillips has proven that, even in the bucolic hills of New Hampshire, one can be successful in the film industry. "My agent says living in Hanover has cost me some jobs, because I wasn't in L.A. to be kicked around by the hiring producer. But it has also gotten me some jobs, because there's the illusion that anyone choosing not to live in L.A. is sane."

Despite his distance from the excitement and glamour of L.A., Phillips finds that there is always something to do in Hanover. "Sad to say, but the most relaxing thing for me is writing. I'd rather write than swim, play tennis, watch TV or movies, play baseball, although I enjoy all that, too.

Phillips has written for both television " "Seduction in a Small Town" for ABC, the "Jack Reed" series for NBC and "El Diablo" for HBO to name a few " and film, and finds that the two differ in many ways. "The main difference between network TV and features is the act breaks...The network programmers have a different priority than the creative community. Writers, directors and actors just want to tell a good story. Network programmers want good ratings."

Currently, Phillips is teaching Film Studies 33 and 34 (both screenwriting courses) in addition to working on "spec scripts," which he describes as follows: "You spend six months to six years on something, then try and sell it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you just chalk it up to experience." His current projects include: "Atchafalaya," a big-budget New Orleans project which he has been working on for the past three years and has written 38 drafts thus far, an adaptation of Michael Hornburg's "Downers Grove," an adaptation of Archer Mayer's "The Dark Root," an untitled project about a girl who lives in a New York City subway, and a multimedia project for NASA.

Though many film professors warn students of the evils of the brutal entertainment industry, Phillips urges his students to pursue their love of writing.

Phillips added: "90 percent of the things I've done, I'm pretty happy with. If there were no such thing as film, I'd probably be a street person, selling pencils on a corner somewhere. It's the only thing I know."