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MAVERICK MOVES

Years on indie pics taught director street smarts

By James Linhardt

Many directors have an indie past. For Todd Phillips, that meant dropping out of NYU film school to finish working on his first documentary. In that first feature, the 1993 documentary “Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies,” an in-your-face portrait of punk’s most reprehensible icon, the budding writer-director was already breaching the porous divide between irreverence and madness. The film opens with a “message to a sick society.” A moment later, it’s revealed the quote is from a serial killer.

Knowing distributors might balk at his cinematic effort, Phillips took a low-paying data-entry job at Miramax in its early days to find the names of every independent theater and theater manager in the U.S. That took three weeks; then he quit and spent a year getting “Hated” booked across America. Eventually, it grossed $1 million.
In 1994, Phillips formed the New York Underground Film Festival, which five years later Variety called “notorious” for its devotion “to the strangest images to be found on celluloid or videotape.”

His follow-up documentary, 1998’s “Frat House,” an exposé of campus culture’s underside made with directing partner and fellow festival founder Andrew Gurland, tied for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries.
By the time he made his narrative directorial debut with “Road Trip” in 2000 and followed that with “Old School,” Phillips had established himself as an indispensable chronicler of young-adult subculture, from the sick and twisted to the merely offbeat.

Nearly two decades later, there’s the astringent cultural commentary of his magnum opus, “Joker,” which delves deeper than the director has gone but is perfectly suited to his psychologically acute lens. “What ‘Joker’ has in common with my other movies is the idea of chaos,” Phillips says. “If ‘Joker’ is an agent of chaos, how do we get there? Is he made that way? Society made him? Is it a combination of events?”
Incisive questions, indeed — ones Phillips’ films continue to mine.

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