Learn from the older generation of filmmakers. Interview them and get to know them. They may have the knowledge and film history that a young filmmaker can use to advance the art of film. The further you go back the further you go forward.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Harder.
Philip Harder is the director of TUSCALOOSA (2020) starring Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) Devon Bostick (The 100, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) Tate Donovan (Rocketman, Argo) Marchant Davis (The Day Shall Come) and YG (Rap Star, White Boy Rick). He has directed commercials for iPod, Sprint, The Gap, Target, and Hewlett Packard and videos for Prince, Foo Fighters, Incubus, The Script, CSS, Nada Surf, Rob Thomas, Liz Phair, Babes in Toyland, Macy Gray, Hilary Duff, Low, Cornershop, Trampled By Turtles, Pulp, The Cranberries, Barenaked Ladies, Matchbox Twenty, and the Afghan Whigs — all feature his visual experimentation and energetic style.
He has earned an MVPA award for Best Alternative Video, MTV Awards video nomination, SXSW short film award, and a nomination for MVPA’s Director of the Year. His dance shorts have won the Jury Award at the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center and Best Experimental Film Award at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Minneapolis at the height of the exploding Minneapolis independent music scene of the 1980s. I joined a band called Breaking Circus, toured the U.S and began making punk rock music videos. Over the next two decades I went on to direct hundreds of music videos for bands like Babes in Toyland, Afghan Whigs, Big Black and Naked Raygun, and eventually for artists like Prince and Foo Fighters. I also directed commercials for Gap, Target and the Apple iPod spots with dancing silhouettes. I’ve lived in LA, London and New York and then settled back in Minneapolis to focus on narrative film projects, including TUSCALOOSA released this year and available now on streaming like Amazon Prime.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
When I was starting out as a musician and music video director, I met my local hero, Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü. Bob had a record label in a one-room office above Twin Tone Records in Minneapolis. I traveled with a friend from Wisconsin to an uninvited meeting with Bob — we brought a cassette of our punk band that sounded like Hüsker Dü, only not good.
Bob took the time right then and there to listen to our crappy six-song demo as I nervously waited in his office doorway with my hands in my pockets. When we shook hands goodbye I realized a pen in my pocket had exploded in my hand and I got blue ink all over Bob Mould’s hands.
He laughed and invited us over to his house to listen to a new demo of his own, Zen Arcade, which remains one of my favorite records — he was testing his new music on a massive Hüsker fan. I’m not sure I gave him any useful advice. I just gushed about how great it was. Later, I became good friends with Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, and we made a music video and did some multimedia events together.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Working with Prince on his “Cinnamon Girl” music video was probably the most interesting filmmaking experience I’ve had. One of Prince’s strengths was the ability to inspire other artists to help him create his own art. I learned a lot from his process. He was very clear with ideas and he had a logical reason for every decision we made. If he rejected an idea he always voiced a clear reason.
With “Cinnamon Girl,” Prince wanted to make a statement about Middle Eastern racism after 9/11 by depicting a Middle Eastern young woman driven to commit “Jihad” as a response to Muslim racism in the U.S. We agreed it would likely be banned (it was). He wanted me to go for it with no creative or budget limitations — he was more concerned about stirring up press around this issue.
We worked together for a summer, writing the story and experimenting with film and animation techniques. His clarity stuck with me., and I tried to use that same influence and clarity when we made TUSCALOOSA — feature filmmaking is such a collaborative process with talented artists and craftspeople. I tried to inspire all our artists in the same way, as I studied their talents and pushed them to go further.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We (along with my partner, producer Patrick Riley) recently shot a documentary called THE CLAW which we are now editing, about legendary wrestler Baron von Rashke and the pre-glitzy WWE era of wrestling in the 60s and 70s. It’s sort of a punk rock version of this insane business, back when pro wrestlers toured in cars and wrote their own material.
Our team is also developing a dramatic period feature about a Japanese-American gangster, tentatively titled JOE, with writer Daniel Nevitt (who grew up in Japan and lives in Queens). Danny was on our TUSCALOOSA team and has been my confidant on all my feature movies.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m inspired by troublemakers, disrupters, visionaries, and highly principled and ethical leaders. This includes, in no particular order: Jean Luc Goddard, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Steve Albini, Prince, Terrence Malick, Malcolm X, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Ralph Nader, Paul Wellstone, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Recently we helped shut down a major polluter — a large metal shredder spewing lead and other heavy metals into Minneapolis neighborhoods. After years of protest we considered a different approach — awareness through art — and staged multimedia art and music performances across the Mississippi River. One highlight was a concert on the roof of a houseboat — we gathered a group of artists, musicians and volunteers, and used projectors and a sound system to cast pollution statistics and art on the side of the shredder, attracting the attention of political leaders. Last fall a judge ordered a permanent shutdown of the shredder — vastly improving our air quality.
During the George Floyd demonstrations in our city, we focused on protesting outside the Minneapolis Police Union building in our neighborhood. The story of TUSCALOOSA seems an accidental analogy for the George Floyd events. Although the film takes place in a fictional 1972 Alabama and of course was shot much earlier, the movie’s subject matter relates to our times — which we hope will have some small influence during this critical election.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
My producing partner Patrick Riley and I were both inspired to make TUSCALOOSA after the presidential election of 2016. We asked ourselves: How do we respond to the cultural and political turbulence our country is going through? The answer was through the power of this great story with timely themes about white privilege and institutional racism.
I had the script for TUSCALOOSA ready to go in the summer of 2017 and I shared it with Patrick. After a few months of planning, we attached veteran producer Scott Franklin (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) as an executive producer, as well as executive producers Brian and Josh Etting, Erik Helgeson, Dan Riley, Jenny Daly, and Glasgow Phillips (the author of the novel the film is based on). Within a few weeks, Tate Donovan (Argo), Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things), Devon Bostick (Okja), Marchant Davis (The Day Will Come), and the rapper YG were attached to the film. We ended up shooting TUSCALOOSA in Minnesota between October 2017 and August 2018, then it premiered at the Nashville International Film Festival in 2019.
TUSCALOOSA was acquired by Cinedigm in early 2020 and was scheduled for a March 13, 2020 national theatrical release in ten cities, the very week the COVID-19 shutdown took effect and most theaters closed. Our team was able to pivot to a successful VOD release.
In May 2020, George Floyd was killed in our hometown of Minneapolis. Suddenly and eerily, our film TUSCALOOSA directly mirrored the racial injustices of Minneapolis in 2020.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We’ve heard time and time again how TUSCALOOSA is a conversation starter for hard conversations about white privilege. I was genuinely moved and my eyes were opened when I first read the novel by Glasgow Phillips in the ‘90s — his story put the issue of white privilege into focus for me, a term that was not as well known as it is today. I learned about white privilege from the novel, and I hope others can do the same by reading the novel and checking out the film.
During festival screening Q&As over the last year it has been interesting to hear from others (for better or for worse) about this topic. At our Nashville Film Festival premiere, young filmmakers were discussing and debating the issues, much like I was influenced when I first read the novel. We took the conversation to the lobby after the Q&A, and the debates continued in the bar. I hope some of these young filmmakers will be influenced, not only by the issues in the film, but by gaining the confidence to voice issues they feel strongly about through filmmaking.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
ONE: Support BIPOC filmmakers and writers to enable new stories to get told that help us better understand each other.
TWO: More states should offer film production tax credits for filmmakers and producers, and they should prioritize filmmakers and content that addresses social and environmental justice.
THREE: Spread the word about TUSCALOOSA! We believe it is the most important and relevant indie movie of 2020!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Include different types of people in your filmmaking efforts. The more the merrier. They will influence a better story.
- This answer may be the opposite of your question but I’m glad I learned filmmaking using real film. It honed my filmmaking because film is expensive. Every shot counts which made me a better filmmaker, perhaps compared to unlimited digital footage.
- Travel, bring a camera, make a reel, take it to LA or NYC and sell it. Learn by rejection and failure.
- Learn from the older generation of filmmakers. Interview them and get to know them. They may have the knowledge and film history that a young filmmaker can use to advance the art of film. The further you go back the further you go forward.
- Leave home, move to a place like New York. Throw yourself into what’s going on. Live poor and enjoy being a starving artist before you get bogged down by life.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Seek education, even if it’s outside an official educational system. Gain the basics of logical, rational thinking and be incredibly open-minded. I went to a local college to learn a bit more about the world outside my farm upbringing. But I really learned about filmmaking by watching the poets of cinema, reading books about cinema and shooting no-budget Super 8 music videos during the indie rock scene of the 80s. It was great to throw myself into progressive views and try to create videos about it.
Once you gain any kind of voice as an artist you might as well use it for good. I get bored with filmmaking that seems to go nowhere, that has no issue or impact. Those types of films are just as much work to get made and distributed — so you may as well apply your art to something good, to make the experience more rewarding.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
It’s a tough question. Off the top of my head I’m going to say I’d like to collaborate with Bjork. Maybe this is a knee jerk reaction because I was watching some of her music videos lately and listening to her music, and I’m a fan of Dancer in the Dark. There’s something about her that seems so free, which must be why she creates unique art. I’m not thinking of a music video but more of an art film of some sort. I’d just be happy to be a small part of a filmmaking experiment with her. Who knows?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Punk rock saved my life!” The attitude that is. As a young adult the music and social subject matter of the punk rock scene was screaming about ideas I had in my head. I still do films DIY. The attitude remains.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!