It’s not too often we find a filmmaker achieving his goals at such a young age. We’ve heard all of the clichés about perseverance and never giving up in this industry, but rarely do we understand exactly what that means until we’ve been through the mill for many years. This was not the case for writer and director Philip Dorling. At the young age of twenty-five, and fresh out of film school at New York Film Academy, Philip found himself on set of a feature film, directing award-winning actors like Tracy Morgan, Jesse Eisenberg, and Melissa Leo. His film, Why Stop Now?, was just released On-Demand and will be in theaters August 17th. Not a bad start for what promises to be a bright filmmaking career.
While there were many questions on my mind as to how Philip was able to put together a major film, practically right out of film school, we decided to open the floor to the world of social media. Philip and I allowed aspiring filmmakers to wirelessly pick his brain. Although, I couldn’t help but squeeze in a few of my own.
When did you realize film was the career you wanted to pursue?
In high school I was really consumed with skateboarding and making skate videos with my friends. We had a couple of cameras and my friend bought iMovie to edit on. It was all we really did, film stuff and edit it. At fourteen I realized I probably wouldn’t be a pro skater, so I had to figure out another way to get attention.
Later in high school, there was a program called IndieLab. It was an effort to expose students to mixed media courses. It opened the door to other avenues of learning, rather than traditional classes and curricular style. We learned about film, photography, music, art, and really took a hands-on approach in learning to produce these mediums. It was an amazing program that literally saved my life, and kept me in school and motivated. This program changed a lot of other students’ lives, many having gone on to succeed in different media venues. I knew I wanted to go to film school, and I knew I wanted to move from simple videos to narrative storytelling.
How many years did you spend at NYFA?
I went to the one-year filmmaking program at NYFA. I heard about NYFA from a family member actually. It seemed right up my alley; only hands-on classes, no grades, no Math, no Science, just film. I enrolled immediately for the next semester and was on a mission from there. NYFA opened up my mind, my hustle, and gave me the training and confidence I needed to reach for my dreams. The technical and craft oriented classes made me a well-rounded filmmaker.
Did you have any experience prior to enrolling at NYFA?
I had gone to one semester of college and decided it wasn’t for me. Luckily, in upstate New York where I am from, there are a lot of film productions. I got a job as an Art Department intern on a feature called Racing Daylight, starring Melissa Leo, David Strathairn, and Giancarlo Esposito. Having some video experience and carpentry skills, I moved up from an intern to a set dresser. I made my connection with Melissa, and many other filmmakers. I was an art director on a few shorts, and then was Phillipe Petit’s assistant on Man On Wire. This was one of the most amazing privileges of my life.
How long did it take you to direct a film after graduating from NYFA?
I took NYFA seriously and wanted to make my feature by the time I turned 25. That was always the goal, and it worked out just like that. I graduated in ’08, and in June ‘11 we started shooting Why Stop Now? All of those years in between, I worked on getting people around my project. Slowly but surely they came on the journey with me.
What do you think has been your biggest strength or advantage in your career?
It starts with a strong work ethic. A good idea is only the beginning. Having the ability to take the step into the unknown and try something is a daunting task. My strongest quality is that I get s**t done and I work hard. That is what separates the filmmakers who move to the professional level from those who keep it as a hobby. I think I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of serious filmmakers early on in my life. I had great mentors who were long time film veterans who, for whatever reason, gave me a chance. When people believe in you, you have to show them they are making the right decision. You have to prove to them you are smart, hungry, and ready to put in the work.
How do you go about directing dramatic actors like Eisenberg and Leo into a soft-comedy like Why Stop Now?
All of the comedy is driven from a truthful place. I wanted it to be ironic and somewhat ridiculous, while always being grounded in the story. Melissa has been the character Penny since we made the short, and Jesse was the first actor I ever spoke to in depth about the role of Eli. This gave us all a lot of time to live with the characters, develop them, and let time tell us where to go with the story. They are both great actors in any respect, and they are indeed funny. It wasn’t a stretch to bring out the comedy, we just had this darkly lit story that I wanted to turn on its head and look at it in a different light. I think what works in the film is the idea that as soon as things get really funny, we check the audience and remind them there is a serious underlying issue. I mean, isn’t having to get your mother high so you can get her into rehab a funny concept? It’s ridiculously true.
How did you get the ball rolling on this script? Can you break down how this went from an idea, to a script, to attaching Tracy, Jesse, Melissa, and ultimately you directing a film with hardly any feature directing experience?
My mentor, Ron Nyswaner and I had always wanted to collaborate on a feature. When the short went to Sundance I had already drafted the script. I guess it starts with an idea or a concept, and then comes the part where you decide to venture down the rabbit hole or just stay on the ground you know. Melissa was a friend from the upstate film community, and she was in the short, so we always stuck together. She’s the great champion of this project, and she really dove into everything head first.
Jesse was the first actor I wanted to go to for Eli. I flew to meet him in Georgia while he was filming Zombieland. We spent about three hours in a hotel room talking about the characters and the story. We immediately shared the same affection and desire to take this journey together. So for years they were both attached to the project. Along the way, I had some great producers come on and give the project life and credibility in the professional. We went to so many companies trying to raise money, but it never fully came together.
We decided to try and attach an actor to play the role of Sprinkles, a drug dealer who got caught on the wrong side of the tracks. I heard an interview with Tracy Morgan on NPR while promoting his book. I was always a huge fan of his comedy, but hearing this interview about his life, and the hardships of trying to break the cycle of poverty, brought me to tears. He starts to weep in the interview and Terry Gross asks him, “What are people going to think about you crying? You’re this funny, wild comedian.” Tracy replies something like, “There is a whole bus load of funny downstairs, but this is me being real. People have feelings.”
I was just blown away, so I immediately talked to my agent and asked how I could get in touch with Tracy. To my surprise he was at the same agency as me. So, I wrote him a personal letter, talking about the film and how he fits this role. There are so many similarities between his life and Sprinkles. It honestly felt like fate. I was even more interested in putting him in a role outside of the realm of what he usually does. I knew he had the emotion inside of him, and he could be funny when he needed, but still bring a lot of truth to the role.
Maybe six months after attaching Tracy, we finally had financing come into place. You always feel that at any moment this could all fall apart. I did everything I could to be well prepared for the shoot. The actors and myself all spent a lot of time together. My key department heads were supportive of the vision, and everyone was on the same page. It was a great shoot, and I’m forever grateful for all the people who took the trip down the rabbit hole with me.
Philip has another script about love and revenge that he’s looking to direct as his next feature. His goal is to continue to come up with stories worth telling, that will remind us how we are all connected in some way.
See Philip’s feature film debut, Why Stop Now?, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo, and Tracy Morgan, On-Demand, iTunes, and Amazon. The film will open in theaters August 17, 2012.