Watching The Pasta Killer was a great experience. Not only did it reassure me of the power a great story can have over its audience, but it was nice to switch perspectives from a supportive friend to a fascinated movie goer.
I met Stefan Phillips through the extra-cirricular drama program shared by Canadore College and Nipissing University. I quickly realized how imaginative Phillips can be, and further proof was provided in his online filmmaking back catalogue. He would take specific subjects (influential philosophers were recurring characters) and drop them in broad, absurd situations only a Monty Python fan could set up.
I explained in my review of The Pasta Killer! that I entered Stefan’s feature film debut knowing how off-the-wall the filmmaker can be, and in return, I was treated to something completely different (Python pun intended).
I truly believe Stefan has made a movie that could propel him into a career of making feature-length films. But, after the long process of developing The Pasta Killer!, was he ready to return to a shorter format? It was one of the questions I was eager to ask him after I picked his brain a bit more.
Addison Wylie: I understand The Pasta Killer! was a labour of love and convenience played a big factor when scheduling the production. But, from pre-production to post, how long did it take to make your movie?
Stefan Phillips: We started filming the movie in May 2013 and finished shooting the very last scene in September 2015, though the film goes farther back than even that.
We (myself along with actors Courtney Bennett and Josh Lambert) started The Pasta Killer! as a YouTube mini-series a full year before in May 2012. We had to stop filming the series before we could finish it because snow hit us early that year, so over the cold winter months I turned our unfinished eight episode series into an eighty-something page script. From the start of the script to the last day of editing, The Pasta Killer! took almost three years.
AW: Coming from a background of making short films, what was it like adapting to a longer format?
SP: I was fortunate in that it was gradual. Adapting a mini-series to a full-length film was a lot of fun – I had the skeleton of the film before me, and all I needed to do was make sure the bones fit into the joints and that flesh on top wasn’t too wrinkled. I think a lot of people have noticed what Brian Cherry (one of our leads) calls an “episodic” feel to the movie – in some places it still very much feels like that mini-series, but in a good way: the movie moves from place to place and person to person fast enough to make it feel like a shorter flick than it is.
AW: The Pasta Killer! also has you branching out in terms of tone and genre. I know you’re a big fan of Monty Python, and that love is apparent in your online work. So, it was a big surprise to see a minimal supply of your brand of style and humour in The Pasta Killer!. What made you want to cover new ground as a filmmaker?
SP: Little known fact: the murderer in The Pasta Killer! was originally going to be the pasta itself. When I wrote the first episode of the mini-series, the end twist was going to be that the pasta was genetically modified to resist heat in a world that was growing ever warmer, but instead of happily being boiled it rebelled against its wheat hungry creators.
After much soul searching, I scrapped the idea when continuing the series and making the movie, but that Pythonesque humour was actually the impetus behind The Pasta Killer!. I switched gears when I saw what Josh Lambert could do – here was an actor who could pull off a very sympathetic, very human Marius M. Quick (originally Marius Quick, or “marry us quick”). With someone as talented as Josh on board, it suddenly seemed a waste to make The Pasta Killer! a lead up to a punchline.
AW: Were you ever experimenting on set with the narrative or the visual style, or was everything in The Pasta Killer! following a deliberate, concrete plan?
SP: We were experimenting all the time. There were definitely transitions and effects that I had planned before filming, but noir was a new genre to me, and the serious style was foreign. I think everything grew more focused towards the end of schedule and that came from experience, but we never stopped trying new things.
My brother Kyler and I actually put together a 25-foot tall camera rig called the “Craneodactyl” which I was hoping to use to film a fight scene with from high above. The idea was to give the audience the feeling that combatants were much like pieces on a chess board. But, in a Spinal Tap like series of events, we found out that we couldn’t actually fit the rig into the parking garage where we were shooting. There were some tears.
AW: Did you watch a lot of classic crime noirs in order to pinpoint your characters and screenplay?
SP: I didn’t. I know that’s probably surprising, but almost all of my research came from reading Raymond Chandler. His novels, like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye were a huge part of Marius’s makeup, as well as the source for archetypal characters like Jo Ranger and Inspector McEachern. Like every P.I. since his creation, Marius has a little Philip Marlowe in him.
I only started watching noirs after the script was done, and even then I only caught a few. Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil are the two I remember best. I recall being a little upset when I watched Double Indemnity for the first time. Just like The Pasta Killer!, it opens with a dying man telling his story. I guess I thought I was being original, but (and I am willing to swear on a whole pile of Raymond Chandler novels) I promise I didn’t rip Indemnity off – it’s just one of those coincidences that movies made 70 years apart can share.
AW: We’ve been in touch since our days of improv at school, and The Pasta Killer! stars many drama folks we’ve worked with. Were you ever secretly casting your movie unbeknownst to them? How did the news of your first feature-length film roll out to the others?
SP: I was totally casting the film secretly. A lot of the actors were survivors from the mini-series, but there were so many new roles that I needed to fill. Some of them were written specifically for the actor – Tom Todd for Blake Cerisano comes to mind, and Sarah Paradis as Jennifer Cisco. But there were more roles that were open for anyone, and we really lucked out by finding amazing actors like Jayson Stewart, Tammy-lynn Wilcox and Brian Cherry.
Everyone I knew and talked to about it seemed very confident that it could be done and most wanted in. There’s something about the film noir genre that sparks the imagination, and I think that the actors were fully willing to pretend that I looked like I knew what I was doing because they wanted to be a part of something a little different. Whether I even know what I’m doing now is another question.
AW: What has the reception been like from your cast and crew, and from audiences who caught the film at the first North Bay screening and at the Massey Winter Carnival?
SP: Very positive. The cinematography gets a lot of praise, and I’d personally like to add that the actors did a pretty decent job of everything too, especially considering who they had to take direction from.
When I was putting the film together, we had four nights over the course of a year where some of the main cast and I would sit down and watch whatever cut I had at the time. It was their insight and criticism that kept me working on the film and kept it on the rails. I still welcome all criticisms of the film – I know it’s not perfect, and any insight into what does and doesn’t work only makes me more prepared for the next project.
Of course, there’s always actors who will complain and who want to be on the screen more, but to them I have to say “stop it Josh, you’re already in 99% of the film.”
AW: Would you be game to make another feature-length film? Or, are you ready to dive back into short films?
SP: You’ve caught me, swimsuit billowing and eyes squinted shut, mid-air in a jump back into short films. I’ve got a very Canadian Monty Python/Power Rangers style comedy called Ghost Beaver Kick waiting for me just over the horizon, and a super secret dramatic short stalking my every footstep and ready to pounce on me either this summer or next.
Would I do a full-length film again? I don’t know. Three years is a long time. If there was a guarantee that the support would be there to have it done in, say, a year and a half, I’d be on board. I think I swore to Courtney and Josh that I would never do another full-length film after The Pasta Killer!, but that seems wrong now.
I don’t know what drives me – maybe it’s the desire to try new creative and challenging things. Or maybe it’s a base drive to expand, innovate and create. Or perhaps its an overwhelming need to craft and hone my own art, striving continuously for ever-greater, ever-finer heights in a headlong pursuit of some unknowable, near-unobtainable level of absolute excellence. Personally though, I think it’s probably that I just want to use the “Craneodactyl”.
The Pasta Killer! screens at North Bay’s Widdifield Secondary School theatre on Friday, June 10 at 7:00 p.m.
Admission is $5.00, and the proceeds will go to Widdifield’s theatre program and a DVD release for the movie.