Bill Phillips ’71 film “Sabra” to be shown at Loew Auditorium

by Kaina Chen | 2/8/15 6:10pm

Film professor Bill Phillips, who is a member of the Class of 1971, started his career with an interest in playwriting and several appearances in the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival before shifting to filmmaking. His upcoming film “Sabra” about Vermont printmaker Sabra Fields will be played in Loew Auditorium today and Feb. 16 at 6:30 p.m.

What are the roots of your interest in filmmaking?

BP: I didn’t really like film growing up, but I did like playwriting. I wrote a play in junior high, and that went well. I wrote one during my junior year in high school, and it went to the Massachusetts [High School] Drama Festival in Cape Cod. I wrote again during my senior year, and it also went to the Massachusetts [High School] Drama Festival. I came to Dartmouth and I convinced my abnormal psychology professor to allow me to write a play instead of a term paper. It was a play about a man who felt that baboons had a supreme life form, and he was locked up in a mental institution. I got a B in the course — D for psychological content, A for enthusiasm.

When did writing for movies come into play?

BP: There’s an incumbent on the playwright to create something that has to be reproducible. How are you going to show a guy dying in front of a subway? If there was a movie, they can figure it out. As a writer, you don’t have to worry about the budget. And that’s when I learned about the freedom of writing for a movie.

What about the gratification of writing for an audience?

BP: I’ve had millions of people see what I’ve written, but I have to say the play which sold out three nights was every bit as enjoyable, in terms of my own gratification. While we were doing the movie of Breaking Up [a movie about two people whose relationship was stymied by cellphones], they sent the prop man out to get some cards [for a love note scene]. One of them was a Sabra Field card.

“Oh, I know her — she used to be my neighbor,” I said. “I’ll call her up to get permission to use her card in the movie” — and I did that, then kind of put her back in my mind. A couple of years later, I phoned her and said, “Sabra, how would you like to have a movie done on you?”

“That would be great. I have an art show next month and it would be great to have a movie with it,” she said. And this was three years ago, probably four now.

That’s such an incredible start to this movie. How did you know Sabra?

BP: In fact, I lived in Sabra’s town in 1975. It took me three times of her telling me this story, and I began to remember. The day I moved in, I had a two-year-old son, and he was playing with our kitten on our porch. Sabra had a dog that had “run deer” — “running deer” is if a dog kills a deer, he has the taste of blood and, in Vermont, at least in rural Vermont, everyone understands that the dog has to be killed. Anyway, Sabra kept her dog in the house the whole winter because he had been running deer. When he came out, he came to our house, up to our porch, grabbed our little kitten by the nape of the neck and shook our little kitten dead.

I ran down the street, but Paul, Sabra’s son, said, “There’s a crazy man outside of our window.” Anyway, she told me this, and she was too embarrassed to meet us face to face. That day, she put her dog down. After this, I said to Sabra, “I’m sorry about your dog.” And she said, “Well, I’m sorry about your kitten.”

Do you think this movie would have been possible without your unique relationship with Sabra?

BP: I found that Sabra’s aesthetic in printmaking is identical to mine in filmmaking. We both want to simplify, beautify and make order out of chaos.

It would have been a different story [without my relationship with Sabra]. There was a review of this film that said that I sort of did for Sabra what Sabra does for landscape. If that’s true, than what I did is let her talk.

How is filming a movie about a real person different than creating a movie about fictional characters?

BP: It’s much easier to tell a story if it’s not a true story. Sabra is a really nice person. She has had a very interesting life. In fact, I think some of the sadness of her life she didn’t really want to talk about. After a couple of years, she grew to trust me, and I think she opened up and decided to tell her story. I think you’re very responsible to a person when you’re telling their story. If you tell anyone’s story, truthfully, you know its right when you see it.

You describe an entire summer of 15-to-16-hour workdays. Is there ever a point you hit a ceiling and think, “No, this is no longer enjoyable?”

BP: When a director watches a movie, they don’t enjoy the movie. They see all of the mistakes they wish they had done differently. I look at this movie, and I’ve seen it 500 times or more. I’m constantly looking for a misspelling, something I’ve cropped wrong. I often times have just sighed out of utter fatigue.

I have never regretted doing it, but I have frequently said to myself, “If I had known then what I know now, I don’t know if I would have done it.” But, I’m really glad I did it.