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DID YOU READ

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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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