Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ryan Gregory Phillips

Filmmaker Ryan Gregory Phillips at El Cid Restaurant 


At El Cid Restaurant
4212 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (Silver Lake)

It’s astonishing how often characteristics of the location an artist chooses to have his Jigsaw interview at so perfectly aligns with attributes of his own personality because, most of the time, picking a venue is as simple as naming the first place that pops into his head. It’s obvious a filmmaker like Ryan Gregory Phillips would select a a place with ties to Los Angeles’ rich cinematic history such as El Cid, which stands next the former site of cornfields used in scenes from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. However, the commonalities between Ryan and El Cid go much deeper than that.

Designed to resemble a prison with a long stone wall guarding an entrance that resembles the facade of the Alamo, El Cid originally opened in 1925 as Jail Cafe, a speakeasy complete with VIP cells and waiters dressed in jail guard uniforms. Seven years later it was converted to a playhouse, hence the stage adorned with velvet red curtains that sits in the heart of the building, and in 1963 it was transformed into the supper club, music venue and bar it is today. Now if you ask most Angelenos where to catch a live flamenco show, the top answer is El Cid.

Passionate is the adjective that is commonly used to describe flamenco, and after getting to know Ryan, it’s the one word I would say encapsulates him most.

“I just got a house in the hills right behind the Hollywood Bowl, but when I first moved to L.A. six years ago I lived in Downtown and used to come here and drink all of the time,” he shares. “I’ve been in Hollywood or West Hollywood so much the last four years that it’s cool to get over here. My buddy had a film shown here the other night, and I was like, ‘I totally forgot about this place!’ I came here again the other night, posted up at a spot over there on the patio to break down the script for a movie that I’m doing and ended up watching people. I like to study couples on first dates, what they’re talking about because their crazy scenarios often help script breakdowns.”

El Cid’s stone-paved patio is indeed inviting. There’s usually an old black-and-white movie being projected on a wall, it’s easy to just slip into a booth with a glass of their famous sangria and just chill or people watch beneath the canopy of trees. As we sit and watch the patio bartender in action, I ask Ryan – who used to tend bar himself – what ingredients would go into his own signature cocktail.
Ryan's Bloody Mary concoction

“When I was bartending, I used to do this chili-infused Herradura tequila, so maybe it would be a shot of that with some sugar and Sriracha on the rim of the glass and garnished with a slice of lemon. It would be sweet and spicy, like a Lemon Drop on crack,” he replies with a grin. “My favorite drink is a Bloody Mary though, so maybe my signature cocktail would be a Bloody Mary with some ridiculous garnish like a mini hamburger or bacon. I actually won a contest at Open Air Kitchen + Bar in West Hollywood. I have to show you a picture because I’m so proud of this thing. There’s a taquito and a mini burger in it.” 

After Ryan shows me the photo of his creation, he shares that he is actually working on a memoir that weaves his ratings for Bloody Marys at different bars with stories about his crazy adventures in the city. All of those Hollywood nights are a far cry from the rural upbringing Ryan experienced on his family’s dairy farm in Upstate New York.

“All of my family’s from the farm; I’m the only one that has left. Growing up, my mom had a hair salon that they built onto the side of the farm. My dad would be working on the farm or for the state, my mom would be doing hairdressing and I stayed at home, watching movies 24-7. When my parents would go out, they would drop me off at my grandparents’ house next door, and my grandfather would put on crazy horror movies like Child’s Play and this one where a man is in the kitchen, and he turns around and a mummy is there. The mummy grabs him by the throat and sticks a clothes hanger with an end bent like a hook up his nose, and brains go everywhere [I think it might be the "Lot 249" segment from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990).]. I’m still so fucked up from this!” he shares. “My grandma on the other side of the family was hilarious. I would give her lame excuses so she would let me rent R-rated videos, crazy dinosaur movies where people would get their heads bitten off. I thank them all for letting me be so uncensored at such a young age, it really got my imagination turning.”

After his parents bought a golf cart for the farm and Jurassic Park came out, Ryan transformed the cart into a ‘jeep’ and began his first business venture: charging his mom’s salon customers’ children $1 to go on a 'Jurassic Park Tour.' He built a giant raptor dinosaur in the barn, threw ketchup everywhere and terrorized the kids, who would end up screaming and crying. Eventually his parents got a little handheld camera that he would use to film stories using toy dinosaurs and Barbies.

“Looking back, film always been there. Without my family, I don’t know where I would be. My parents were always super supportive of what I wanted to do, but I was never given anything, I had to work for it,” he recalls. “If I wanted something, the only way to get it was to work. So I mowed on the farm, helped with the cows or sold sweet corn during the summer. I was raised with a very good moral mindset that if you want something done, you have to work for it.”

A film playing on the patio at El Cid
Pursuing film as a career wasn’t something Ryan ever even imagined, until a high-school teacher set him on that path. Grammar has never been his thing, so when his English teacher, Keith Childs, encouraged him to submit a short to local film festival to better his grade in the class, Ryan jumped at the opportunity. He teamed with a friend, Tony Mancilla, and their film ended up winning the fest. The experience led to Ryan earning a scholarship to Long Island University’s film program.

“After that I decided I wanted to be a personal trainer and enrolled at the University of South Carolina. Film’s such a hard thing to put on not only yourself, but on your family and friends. Everybody else had businesses they were going to start or were a part of already, so I was going to do a ‘real’ job,” he remembers. ”Six months later I realized it wasn’t me. Eventually I received my second degree at South Carolina, in media arts.”

It just so happened that as he was finding his way back to film, David O’Russell began shooting a film in South Carolina. Ryan started interning on the set as a PA in Props for the Art Department, having to do things like guard equipment in a park for nine hours straight, not exactly his cup of tea. Then he encountered O’Russell one day, and after a quick exchange of “you want to be a director, then why the fuck are you in the art department,” Ryan found himself getting to observe the director up close and personal and the mechanics of making a film for the rest his days on that set.

“[O’Russell] is known for fighting George Clooney on Three Kings, [during the filming of I Heart Huckabees O'Russell] and Lily Tomlin got into a screaming match and the same thing happened on this set with [O’Russell] and Jake Gyllenhaal going at it, but he’s a genius. I realize more and more that I am like him: I have a crazy temper. I’m out of my mind, but it’s because I care too much about getting my point across ,making sure everything goes right, and that’s how he is. He’s very under appreciated in that way,” Ryan says. “You don’t have to be liked by everyone, you probably aren’t going to be. For a man who was so badly talked about, when he got in that groove and directed, magic happened. I saw that and was knew that’s what I wanted for myself.”

Once his romance with filmmaking was rekindled, there was no stopping Ryan’s quest to make magic of his own. Over the next few years, his short films picked up awards and accolades at over 15 national and international festivals, and he eventually decided to move to Los Angeles.

“When I first moved here, I despised L.A. Coming off a stint of short films that won so many awards and recognition, having earned two degrees, to come here and have people toss it all aside and say, ‘Well, who do you know?’ There were points when I sat on the subway back home, bawling my eyes out, ‘Don’t make me go back to L.A.!’ I’ve been to the point where I’ve had bags packed, but something always stopped me. Then I remember I was flying back from Christmas my third year out here, seeing the city lights of L.A. and saying, ‘This is amazing.’ It’s one of those places where it’s such a melting pot that you’re free to be whatever you want, and people don’t care. I rocked sweatpants for six months just because I wanted to,” he laughs. “You’re free to be who you want here. You can also jump forward years in just a matter of days in terms of your career, and age has no restriction. If you have the talent, drive and motivation, people will get involved.”

While his first few years in the city were full of struggle: bartending, personal assisting, working at deli and taking bit parts in shows like “90210” and “Cougartown” and films such as Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar just to shop at the dollar store. His third year in Los Angeles was definitely a pivotal one, though. It was the year that he filmed his first feature, a romantic comedy called Southern Comfort. The film, which was picked up for international distribution by Green Apple Entertainment, is set for release next summer. 

Ryan helmed a commercial for Kahlua, featuring Jeff Bridges, and also began directing and producing music videos for artists like Neon Hitch, Radical Something and Eriel Indigo. Throughout this time he was developing an idea for an artist collective, one he eventually founded with entertainment lawyer Robert N. Klieger and dubbed the Paradise Collective.

“Every good idea I have comes to me in the shower, to the point that I keep a notebook wrapped in plastic in there, and the collective came to me in the shower. I wanted to create a place where people could bring their talents and grow together,” he begins. “I get so angry when I see young artists getting taken advantage of, being paid such small amounts. Yes, they do it for the love of their art, but there is a way to do it and make enough to live comfortably. If you don’t understand how, the collective can help you understand. Also, maybe you’re a writer and could come partner with a musician in the collective to help them with lyrics. They in turn could help you score a short film you’ve written. It’s all about reciprocation. We own all of our production equipment, so everything on a production can be done in-house. Everyone gives a certain percentage from a project back to the collective, and the money is used in different areas to help everyone. If you can make one artist blow up, everyone else is going to succeed along the way. At the core, it’s a safe place for artists to create.”

The Paradise Collective is based out of the house Ryan is renting in the Hollywood Hills, and it has really become a haven for everyone to create.

“I go home every night thinking, ‘I don’t know who’s going to be at the house, but I know something cool is going to be happening. Filming happens there, we throw parties and impromptu concerts with our music artists like Kyle Bradley, it’s definitely a creative sanctuary and paradise,” he says. “I haven’t had a vacation in six years, but eventually I’ll find an actual paradise. Right now paradise to me is wherever I can create, and that place is the house.”

When he speaks of Kyle Bradley, he admits that he’s always had the desire to learn music – to be a country singer in specific.

“Country music keeps me grounded, brings me back to my roots,” he admits. “One of these days I’ll sit down with a guitar and do it so that I can at least get up on a stage and play. My goal is to play an open-mic night.”

It’s fitting that the night of our interview just happens to be open-mic night at El Cid. I don’t have a hard time picturing Ryan up on stage at the same place in the next year or so because it seems that everything he puts his mind to – whether it be learning how to play the guitar, perfecting his own Bloody Mary recipe or taking Hollywood by storm – he achieves.

Next up for Ryan is beginning production on his second feature, a psychological thriller/horror film that they’re filming at the Hollywood Hills house, of course. He’s planning to finish the film in time to submit it to the 2016 South By Southwest Film Festival.

“As soon as we’re done with that, I have another film to finish that I wrote and actually acted in,” he concludes. “By my birthday in December, we’ll have two features cut – and then I can take an actual vacation.”

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