Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro on “Body of War”

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03242008_bodyofwar1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

“My gold standard for the length of the movie was 85 minutes, which, by the way, is the length of ‘March of the Penguins’…and I missed it by two,” muses Phil Donahue, a day before his first film, “Body of War” starts its national theatrical run. “But we have longer credits, I think.”

Donahue can’t be faulted for thinking big. After a career spent in the homes of millions of Americans on his groundbreaking talk show, he’s hoping that just as many will see his first documentary, “Body of War,” in theaters — and not because of the box office. It’s the former television host’s first time working in the medium, his first time working with a partner (in co-director and Austin-based documentarian Ellen Spiro), and his first time on the road raising awareness for the film. But it’s all been worth it to Donahue, who was compelled to find a way to tell the story of Tomas Young, a young man who enlisted in the military shortly after 9/11 and came home from Iraq paralyzed. Instead of letting his disability ground him, Young becames an anti-war activist, but as Donahue and Spiro will tell you, this isn’t just another anti-Iraq war doc — “Body of War” is an examination of courage, from the average American citizen to within the highest levels of government. While in Austin for SXSW, Donahue and Spiro spoke about the response to the film, getting Eddie Vedder on board to write a song, and how Michael Moore ruined the ending of their movie.

What has the film festival circuit been like?

Phil Donahue: It’s been a rush, as you can imagine. This is an odyssey that all of us have embarked on. We had no idea where this film was going to go. I knew that, when I met [Tomas] at Walter Reed, I didn’t want to just pat him on the head and say goodbye. I just got very, very lucky with this ridiculous idea that I would make a movie. I got lucky in the choice of Ellen Spiro — she’s been fabulous. I got lucky with Eddie Vedder. Eddie jumped out of the cake — “Phil!” “Eddie!” “Eddie, I’m doing an anti-Iraq war documentary.” He says, “You want a song?” And I just…”Are you kidding?” And [Tomas’s] family was good luck for us. It’s a heartland family split in the middle: red and blue [Tomas’s parents are of different political persuasions]. The reception that we’ve been getting has been very encouraging.

Ellen Spiro: You never really know what it is until you share it with an audience, so we never tire of that. I guess we never tire of it because the response has been good. [laughs] We’re dealing with this stigma of people thinking they know our story before they see it because there have been so many Iraq docs. They don’t get how different it is and that it’s really a human story that happens to be an Iraq story too. It’s a great feeling to see people be very genuinely moved and touched and want then to do something. That’s the experience I had meeting Tomas.

03242008_bodyofwar2.jpgPD: I took the film to Bob Graham of Florida, two-term governor, three-term senator, recently retired. He’s a “no” voter [against the war resolution] in our film. And he turned around after it was over and said, “This film should be seen by every college and university in this country.” That’s when we said, maybe we’ve got a chance here.

We’re all intimidated by the fabulous work that’s out there. In a lot of ways, I feel a little green watching some of these films — they’re so well done, well cut, compelling. We’re not saying we’re better, we’re saying we’re different. Nothing in our film goes boom. There’s no archival [footage], no moderator. It’s a story. I had said to [Ellen], “Show the pain. Let’s not sanitize this war.” What you see in our film is a drama that’s happening in thousands of homes in this country, and nobody sees it. This administration thought they were going to have a merry little war. And we now have thousands [wounded] — almost 30,000 people — many of them with hideous injuries.

Rage is the obvious emotion when seeing someone come home in the condition that Tomas did, but that doesn’t always translate into an effective film. How did you not let the rage take over?

PD: First of all, we had a responsibility to the family to tell their truth. Their truth, not ours. And we’re very pleased that we did. There’s no pretense in our film. No hotdogging. It is what it is and you see it. And Ellen and I, co-directors? Can you imagine me a co-director? All my life, I’ve worked alone. But a lot of the disagreements that we had, the creative collisions that we had, resulted in a better film. I knew even before I embarked on this that one person can’t make a film. You need the collaborative creative process and we exploited that notion to the fullest because Ellen was firm and I was firm. All the 29 years I was on the air, I was surrounded by producers who often disagreed with me and talked back, and that was always fine with me. Because I knew their motive was a better program and the same thing [was true] here.

ES: [Phil] was very involved in all aspects of it. He watched every second of footage I shot, which was really scary to me at first. [laughs] It’s like somebody going through your underwear drawer or something — “Wait! Nobody watches all the raw footage. Especially not Phil Donahue. The assistant editor does that!” But he was entirely hands-on and committed to the process. He spent more time in the editing room than I did. And I would go off to Kansas City alone, usually, and try to capture the real intimacies of Tomas’s story because I knew that the film had to be different to stand out, but I also knew that in order to reach people, you have to get intimate, so that’s what we did.

PD: It isn’t preachy. It isn’t a rant. I showed the film to Sy Hersh and he said, “This film makes me angry.” And I said, “Well, you flatter us. We hope it does the same to other people.”

Ellen, in the Q & A that followed the film’s premiere here at SXSW, Tomas had mentioned you were hesitant to “jump on the anti-war documentary bandwagon.” What was it about Tomas’ story that you found so compelling?

EP: I was so transfixed by Tomas that for a while, I just wanted the focus to be on Tomas’ story and not to bring in the congressional debate. I changed my mind on that when we found a creative solution for how to blend the two elements because Tomas was a big fan of Robert Byrd. He was the main spokesperson against the war. He was the main guy in this footage of the congressional debate. So when we found a way for Tomas to actually meet Robert Byrd and Robert Byrd came off of the TV footage of CSPAN and into our story, that’s when we all kind of united behind these elements in the film and that’s where I realized well, it’s going to be a better film for this.

03242008_bodyofwar3.jpgHow did Sen. Byrd get involved in the project?

PD: I asked him. I saw what he was doing. [In the film, Byrd screams on the Senate floor] “The life of your son may depend upon it.” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This guy is begging his colleagues, begging, [to admit] this is not constitutional. So I was on the phone with that office for a long time. I had a hard time getting in. Finally, I got in and I showed him some of the choruses of the congressional stuff we had cut. I said, “I want you to meet Tomas.” My idea was to film Tomas and Senator Byrd going across the floor of the atrium of the National Archive building in Washington in which chamber is located the real Constitution, the actual, original document. And the next morning, it was canceled because of the Michael Moore effect. If you’re the GS controlling the government facility and you permit the filming of a scene that winds up in a movie that embarrasses the administration, you may be looking for work. People were burned in Washington by “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and Michael Moore, to his credit, I think certainly has been the single most hated person in the White House. Not only did he do this film that embarrassed the administration, but people went to see it. So the legacy of Michael Moore lives in Washington and I was burned by it. [Ultimately, the end of the film takes place in Sen. Byrd’s office.]

Even before the national release of the film, do you get a sense of where the country is from being on tour?

PD: We’re popular now. We’re in the majority. The protesters have to get used to this. The majority of people in America now see this [war] as a mistake. I think a drawdown can happen in six months. We’re not sure what will happen if we leave, but we do know what will happen if we stay. More Americans will be killed and our movie features a mother and a son who believe that another death in Iraq is morally indefensible. What’s it going to take to rattle us here? It takes six minutes to get into a war and 60 years to get out. The aircraft carrier stunt gave them away.

[Photos: Directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro; Tomas Young visits Ground Zero; Tomas Young and Robert Byrd; “Body of War,” Film Sales Company, 2007]

“Body of War” is now open in limited release.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.