I've said it before and I'm sure it won't be long until I say it again -- the months of January and Feburary are a depressing time to be involved with the film business. With the exception of one or two limited release holdovers that finally expand to Canadian cinemas, there is hardly anything worth seeing in the first two months of the year. After the holiday releases slow down, and a week or so goes by when nothing is screening altogether, the studios begin to subject critics to movies they have little to no faith in and are releasing onto the screen trying to get whatever money they can before throwing them onto the much more lucrative home video market. I've come to accept that the good movies will be few and far between, but this year's crop of early 2005 contenders tried the patience of even this most forgiving of critics. Between January 1st and February 14th, I can only really remember a handful of pleasant movie-going experiences, and most of them were not because of the film itself but because of the company or some other outside factor.
Looking through my date book, the first memorable film experience with a true 2005 release came in the form of Phil the Alien, a sort of quirky, off-beat, totally Canadian comedy which I had been hearing good things about since its premiere at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. So when the opportunity presented itself to sit down with Phil himself (Toronto-based filmmaker/actor Rob Stefaniuk), I jumped at the chance to find out just what sort of mind could come up with such a funny yet decidedly odd piece of motion picture film.
Flash forward to a nippy Vancouver afternoon. I was strangely relaxed, and prepared for once, except for a missing microphone, which meant a quick stop at the Radio Shack in the nearby Pacific Center Mall to find a replacement. I make my way downtown ready to discuss a movie that I know I enjoyed but am really at a loss as to how it could be conceived. All my friends tell me I'm weird, but I'm not the one who came up with a movie about an alien who crash lands in suburban Ontario, befriends and lives with a talking beaver, finds a love for alcohol, then winds up in jail and becomes a born-again Christian with a huge following. So as I head into yet another nice hotel room the likes of which I'd never be able to afford to stay in longer than the duration of a simple interview and wait for Rob to appear, I do a last minute run through of the questions in my mind. Then before long, Rob enters, looking a little tired and out of it, not so unlike myself.
Mark McLeod: Okay, it had to be asked, so I'll just get it out of the way -- how did you come up with the concept and story behind Phil the Alien? I mean, you have to admit it's a tad out there and certainly not like most Canadian films.
Rob Stefaniuk: I knew I needed an idea that would sort of maximize what we had at our disposal and budget. My brother does special effects, so I knew that in his creature shop he had a beaver and a couple of aliens. So I just started thinking beaver, aliens, Canadian aliens, and then what would an alien do in Canada and that was drinking. Based on that, I wrote a screenplay. Why I did that I'll never know, but I did.
MM: There was a script?
RS: Yeah there was a script (laughing). It didn't have much to work with but there was a script.
MM: So are we talking like 5 minutes of work going into the script? No, actually, it was pretty witty, so obviously there was some effort that went into the script.
RS: Umm yeah, as far as there being a concept. It made me laugh and it made my producer laugh. So I dug it.
MM: It's certainly not every day that you have a movie where an alien crashes, gets drunk, lives with a talking beaver, then gets thrown into jail and finds God.
RS: Yeah, it's really a bit of a stereotype. I mean, you do see this sort of thing quite a lot. It's a winning formula. I won't be surprised when there's like Doug the Alien, Bob the Alien, and so on and so forth. I mean, it's an idea that's going to explode. I wish those guys the best of luck though.
MM: In Phil you kept the focus away from grossing out the audience with a lot of bodily fluid jokes and more on the sharp, witty writing. Do you think this was a smart approach, with so many other Canadian comedies like Going the Distance and Intern Academy failing to make much of a splash?
RS: I do think it's fair to say that the alien does pee on someone. So there is a bit of that. I wasn't really trying to do a specific type of comedy. I was really just writing what I thought was funny, writing scenarios that I thought the audience would enjoy. I didn't even really map the script out or say, 'this is what I'm going to do here'. Instead, I just followed it wherever it led and that's how it came about. The things that influence me are not American movies like American Pie, but more like stuff like Kids in the Hall and that sort of comedy sensibility, and I guess that's just sort of reflected in the piece.
MM: You've assembled quite a cast including Nicole DeBoer, Graham Greene, and Joe Flaherty. Did you write any of the characters with these people in mind or did you take the more traditional casting route.
RS: Well Nikki definitely. I've been really good friends with her for years and years so I knew she'd be in it. The part that Boyd Banks played, the part of the father Slim. I wrote that part with him in mind, but I didn't know Graham Greene before the project and had I known he'd actually sign on and do the film then I would have made the part much bigger. He was very cool and supportive. The same thing with Joe, I had never met him and I was of course very honored to have him on board.
MM: The film played the Toronto Film Festival this past September. Do you think film festivals are important to Canadian films?
RS: Well totally, and more specifically low-budget where you don't have the money to do the huge marketing campaigns. A film festival is important and like, take for example us, we got bought (by Lions Gate) at a film festival and we got all of our press that started the ball rolling during it. So yeah, I really can't imagine doing it without a film festival.
MM: You might have to make and release a movie without a film festival in the future. Just so you know.
RS: (Laughs) Now, screw it. Film festivals are a big waste of time. It worked out so good for us and yeah, I do think it's an essential part of getting attention and getting the film out there.
MM: Yeah, because sadly, not too many Canadian films get a theatrical release and even less really get any sort of marketing campaign. Hell, many don't even get trailers. I mean, I saw one for this film which is not bad by Canadian trailer standards -- which are usually pretty boring and look like they were cut on someone's lunch break in between bigger paying clients. So what do you think about trying to get audiences out to see Canadian films?
RS: Well that's the trick, I haven't done it yet. I've just played film festivals.
MM: Did they come out to the festivals?
RS: Oh yeah, we've sold out a bunch of screenings. It's been a really warm reception from the audiences, which has been amazing, and you know I hope that when we're in theaters people come out and see it and support comedy.
MM: Sci-fi and genre films like Phil sort of play well to the internet crowd, with sites like AICN, creature-corner.com, etc. How important do you think the internet is in marketing and promoting a film like Phil the Alien?
RS: I don't know. I mean, I think it's important and it's really sort of changed everything. When I go to see who's reviewed us or who's talking about us, it's always someone from the internet. It's just such a piece of our lives and it's really just a major part of everything. As far as the actual marketing campaign Lions Gate is taking, they actually made a small video game which I thought was pretty cool. It works better for some films, like I remember the Blair Witch Project, that really got a lot of attention through the internet, but you know anything that works is fine by me.
MM: The film just played Slamdance in Utah. How'd that go for you?
RS: It went great. We got an honorable mention down there and we won something at the Sarasota Festival which I was at right after Slamdance. It was wild, great audiences there in Utah. I actually had a short at Sundance as well, so it was a bit crazy going back and forth and they both have talking beavers in them.
MM: Is that a recurring theme with you then?
RS: Not really, it all comes down to puppet availability.
MM: Was it the same beaver then?
RS: Well it wasn't the same voice. Joe Flaherty wasn't the voice. My brother who made the beaver actually did the voice in the short film.
MM: But it was still the same beaver?
RS: Yeah, it was the actual same beaver from Phil.
MM: You going to try and work him into all your projects like Kevin Smith does with Jay and Silent Bob?
RS: Well, he is very difficult to work with. His trailer is pretty well...
MM: He has a pretty big gun. I wouldn't piss him off, man.
RS: He's not afraid to use it, either. From now on, I'm going to work solely with other puppets. I can't be known as the beaver guy.
MM: Describe the character of Phil in one word.
MM: And do you want to expand on that? Why did you pick the word drunk?
RS: He's drunk for 80% of the film, so it's just the first thing that came to mind. Everything else just sounded too serious. Purity, it all just sounded a little weak.
MM: So now the real question. Was that actual drinking going on or were you just acting?
RS: It was all acting... But we've had enough experience that we can remember how to do it.
MM: Describe yourself in one word.
RS: Describe myself in one word... Describe myself in one word... Hmmmmmm... Stumped. Confused. Bewildered. I guess I'll have to go with umm... sexy. Yeah, that's it.
At this point in time the both of us break down into hysterics, as all kidding aside we both know that neither of us are the best looking man in Canada.
RS: How to answer that? One word.
MM: Now that soundtrack is pretty kick ass. Are there any plans to stick out a CD?
RS: I've heard talk about doing a record release. That would certainly be cool. I hope we do it. The music, well 90% of it was done by John Casner from the Doughboys. He's a really good friend of mine, so he wrote most of it. Some of it was just other bands that I've been playing in or one of my friends is in and then John also introduced me to the guys from Rush who let us use Tom Sawyer in the movie, which helped a lot.
MM: What's next for you as a writer/director/actor.
RS: I just finished a new script that we're looking to shoot in the fall, and it's a rock and roll vampire movie.
MM: Any aliens?
RS: No aliens, no...
RS: No beavers. Just blood sucking vampires and drummers.
MM: I don't know if I'm going to like that movie, Rob. I really only like movies with beavers and aliens. You have Ryan Malcolm in the movie in sort of the quintessential cameo scene. How did that come about?
RS: A friend of mine was managing Ryan at the time. He was renting an office at our studio, so I kept seeing him around and just thought it'd be funny, so I asked him if he would do it and he said he would, and I just thought that'd make a funny scene.
MM: Was this filmed before he 'blew up' on Canadian Idol?
RS: He had won at that point. He was the Canadian Idol.
MM: Because you have to admit, he's so big now.
RS: Well when the Americans see that scene, he's just a waiter, but in Canada it gets big laughs.
MM: Lastly, any plans for the DVD release?
RS: We haven't started that stuff yet, but we will be soon and I think we'll do a commentary and there will definitely be some outtakes. We had some very funny material that didn't make it.
And with that, my pre-planned questions were done and the interview window was nearing a close. Usually, I run out of time and have questions left over and unanswered, but for whatever reason (perhaps it was an alien time compression trick) I finished up pretty much on schedule and Rob and I sat back and chatted about the weather, his publicity plans for the rest of the week, and movies in general. Soon the publicist returned, and it was over as quickly as it began. As I headed back out into the brisk Vancouver afternoon to kill a couple hours before yet another screening, I thought about what it might be like to be abducted by an alien and spend life in a spaceship... but then I realized that life on earth isn't all that bad.
Phil the Alien opens in theatres in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto on Friday March 11th from Lions Gate Films. Special thanks to Rob Stefaniuk, Angie Burns at Lions Gate Films, and the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.