Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Phil Joanou, Oct. 9, 1987

Standard-Examiner staff

For a first-time feature film director, Phil Joanou has been getting more than his share of attention. His "Three O'Clock High" is being released today, but already the 25-year-old has been called one of the "hottest" young directors in the business by magazines like American Film and Premiere.

So, why- all the hubbub? Well, first off, Joanou was "discovered" by Steven Spielberg, the hottest of the hot directors in a town where everything is measured in terms of heat -- hot directors, hot pictures, hot actors, hot scripts, hot, hot, hot.

It all started with a phone call. The day after Joanou's student film "Last Chance Dance" was shown at the annual University of Southern California film-school screening -- where student films are screened for industry professionals -- Spielberg phoned Joanou at home, asking if he'd like to direct an episode of "Amazing Stories."

Joanou's reply was yes -- or probably more like "Yes!" -- and he ended up directing two episodes: "Santa '85" and "The Doll," the latter of which won a best actor Emmy for John Lithgow. Then Spielberg hooked him up with the "Three O'Clock High" script, which was known then as "After School." That's where all the "hot" talk came from.

"I never thought of myself as a quote-unquote hot director," Joanou said by phone from his office at Amblin Entertainment in August. (Amblin is Spielberg's production company on the Universal Studios lot.) "In fact, I think the whole concept behind who's hot and who's not is ridiculous. It's just a way of saying someone's new, I think. And, certainly, I'm a new director -- I haven't even done anything."

Still, Joanou said he's proud of "Three O'Clock High," a dark comedy about a high school journalism student run afoul of the campus bully. It features the cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld, whose distinctive style previously benefited Joeland Ethan Coen's "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona."

"It's particularly unusual for a teen comedy," explained Joanou, who turned 25 while directing the movie. "It's different, clearly a lot of people have felt that, and that was something I absolutely tried to do with the film. I felt that the genre had been so worked over by the time I got this project given to me by Universal, that I needed to do something a little bit different or I was just going to be -- and the film was just going to be -- another in a long series of youth comedies.

"But in the end, it really is up to audiences and, I suppose, critics and the entertainment media to decide whether or not I've actually accomplished that. I feel I gave it a good shot, but, you know, I've lived with the film now for 14 months, so it's kind of like trying to look at your 14-month-old baby and be objective about how it looks."

At first encounter, it's easy to become distracted by Joanou's youth. At 25, he's one of the youngest feature film directors around. He looks so young, in fact, that while shooting the film at Ogden High School last fall -- while school was in session -- a teacher approached him in the hall to ask what he was doing out of class. And, actually, Joanou looks as young or younger than many of the actors he cast to play teens in the movie.

"Working over at Amblin, I'm in the same office as Bob Zemeckis, who did 'Back to the Future'," Joanou said in an interview on the set of "Three O'Clock High" in November 1986. "And he told me something when we started casting. He said, 'Don't cast any major lead under 18.' Now, that's a real general statement and I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe. Maybe not.'"

The director said he'd heard horror stories about young actors' inexperience causing delays on other films -- most notably on "The Breakfast Club" -- and the thought of having similar problems worried him. He needed actors who could plug into a performance level at a moment's notice, and that meant experience was required.

"That's hard to find with younger actors," he explained, "because how many movies can you have made by the time you're 18?"

And sure enough, Joanou ended up hiring older actors to play the teens. "Zemeckis' comment ended up being completely prophetic," he said.

The marriage of Joanou to the "Three O'Clock High" project was accomplished after Spielberg read a script that producer Aaron Spelling ("Mr. Mom," " 'night, Mother") was shopping around the studio. Spielberg told Joanou he thought it would make a good first film, and approached Spelling and Universal Pictures executives, convincing them to let Joanou take the helm.

So Joanou, then 24, wrote the final draft of the script for "Three O'Clock High" -- he's also got a development deal at Walt Disney Pictures, in which he's been writing, and rewriting scripts -- and began the long search for a high school at which to shoot the movie.

After looking at more than 200 schools across the country, Joanou and crew settled on Ogden High. Its distinctive art deco architecture was just too beautiful to resist, he said. And the uniqueness of the school, he said, jibed with what he had envisioned "Three O'Clock High" would be.

"I don't want this to be your average everyday high school movie that you've seen on after-
school specials," Joanou explained during a lunch break on the set in November 1986, reclining on a cot in the producer's office.

"It's like making a different western in the late '50s, right? How do you do it? You try and go  as far as you can go, and that's what we're trying to do. It'll either really work or it'll really stink."

Sonnenfeld was also critical to the "look" Joanou was after. The cinematographer is another up-and-comer who has benefited from lots of positive ink and industry respect for his work on "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona," films that probably owe as much of their success to innovative camera angles and motion as anything else.

"I like to move the camera a lot," Joanou said, bolting to an upright, seated position on the cot. "And I like to do kind of strange angles. 'Three O'Clock High' is a nightmare, and this kind of movie warrants it. If you're making 'Ordinary People,' it ruins it.

"But this movie's about a nightmare, and when you make 'a nightmare you gotta go for it. You gotta make it weird and wild and energetic and jumping around and visuals that are wide and long and short and quick and moving and rapid and energetic."

Joanou's arms are flailing and he's up walking back and forth in front of the cot. "This movie has a pace that should be a sprint. This isn't a marathon like maybe 'Ghandi.' This is a machine-gun fire of energy, hopefully, and that's how I'm trying to shoot it."

Some scenes, he explained, will have as many as 45 "cuts" (edits from one camera angle to another) per minute. "This'll make 'Psycho' look like a slowly cut film," he said with a smile.

The nightmarish aspects of "Three O'Clock High" have to do with how the main character -- Jerry Mitchell -- can avoid having to battle the bully after school. It takes him from normalcy to the end of his rope in 90 minutes -- from a kid who has never ditched a class in his life to someone who's stealing money, hiring other students to beat up the bully and getting himself kicked out of school.

The actor Joanou selected to play the role of Jerry -- Casey Siemaszko -- beat out nearly 3,200 aspiring actors for the part. And Siemaszko, who's appeared in the films "Stand by Me" and "Gardens of Stone," had high praise for his director.

"This last three or four years I've been sort of learning and watching and observing and understanding," said the 25-year-old actor in an interview in November 1986. "Most directors don't explain (things in detail).

"But Phil is very good about filling us in on that, where I will forget or space-out on something he'll be there to explain why. And that's very good to work with a director that allows the actor to be more a part of it than just being an actor."

Joanou's directorial style is praise-winning. John Lithgow, when he was accepting his Emmy for "The Doll," lauded Joanou, saying his name was one to watch for in the future. Working with the actors and the crew, and not becoming a tyrant on the set, Joanou explained, has its rewards.

"For me, it's a lot more fun to involve people because it becomes a team effort. Everyone wants it to be good," he said. "And I think on a lot of productions, basically, after a while, the crew says, 'Fine. Forget it. It's the director's film. H'e's sinking the ship. He's steering us into the harbor.'

"But I think on this picture, all the time, people come up and say, 'Do you think we could do this? It might be better.' They don't just say, 'Hey, it's Phil's problem if the lights and the projector's cockeyed.' ... I've tried to -- and I think everyone's tried to -- cross some lines and make it a group and a team and a family more than just, 'You do your work and I'll do mine and let's hope it gambles out to something good.' "

Universal executives evidently thought their $6 million investment was money well-spent. After Joanou returned to California to edit "Three O'Clock High," they gave him more money to shoot additional scenes. A few Utah residents who played bit parts in the film were flown to Los Angeles to complete the scenes.

"When I got back here and the studio saw the first cut of the movie they were very pleased," Joanou said during a phone interview in August."And I had always wanted to shoot an opening-credit sequence, so I kind of struck while the iron was hot."

The opening-credit sequence, which was shot over the course of two days in Southern California, takes Jerry's character from the time he wakes up in the morning until he arrives at school.

"Right now -- literally as we speak -- I'm in the last two days of the final (sound) dub of 'Three O'Clock High,''' the director said. "It's amazing how long it takes.

"I'm also working on another feature here at Amblin Entertainment that I'm supposed to direct for them. But unfortunately, you know how Amblin is, I can't really talk about what it is right now."

Informed that American Film magazine has already spilled the beans on the film -- "All Shook Up" -- calling it "It's a Wonderful Life" with rock 'n' roll music, Joanou's voice betrayed exasperation.

"Oh, gosh," he said after a long sigh. "Who mentioned that? I really hate how these people find out these things. They get me in so much trouble. Oh, well, it's not like I'm doing the next 'Indiana Jones,' ya know what I mean? That is the film I'm working on with them. And I also am, right now, discussing doing a feature film with U2, the band -- in the very near future."

But while those projects are in the works, the matter at hand is whether "Three O'Clock High" will fly or fall flat. Joanou, who received his first professional screen credit as a "special visual consultant" on the original "Star Trek" motion picture, said he's looking forward to the reviews.

"I'll read every single one of them -- you kidding me? -- good or bad," he shouted into the phone. "I'm eagerly awaiting the response, and not because I think it's all going to be positive. I think there are a lot of critics out there who are sick and tired of this kind of movie -- no matter what I've done with it -- and that are, rightly so, calling for a move away from this kind of product and a move toward the kind of filmmaking of the early '70s, when we got films like 'Chinatown' and 'The Godfather' and 'Cuckoo's Nest.' 

"I think you can grow from criticism and I think the critics in this country are one of the very
few groups -- and I believe this, because I read reviews, I read everything -- critics are like the only assemblage of people in this country who are calling for better films."

Joanou said he believes the success of the independent film movement has spurred a new interest in quality films made outside the Hollywood mainstream. He said he hopes to start doing some work independent of the studios, too. In this vein, Jaonou refers often to Joel and Ethan Coen, who he says are "terrific filmmakers," and he added he hopes to make interesting films like theirs someday soon. At that point, he said nearly two months before his first film was released, his career was in transition.

"Unfortunately, don't think this film -- because it's a Universal picture and Aaron Spelling's the executive producer and because it's a teen dark comedy -- I don't think I'm going to be thought of in the way, in fact I know I won't, be thought of in the way the Coens were, because I didn't go out and make it for $500,000," Joanou lamented.

"I made it for $6 million with a studio, which has its own set of problems -- believe me -- in dealing with that world. There's a certain amount of luxury to being out there on your own, even if it's not with the most money in the world. At least you're making every decision. With the studio, they tend to make decisions for you or with you, quite often.

"I think (independent filmmaking) is a direction I would like to go in the future," he said "I'll give an analogy, and unfortunately it happens to be with some of the great filmmakers alive today: Martin Scorcese had to make 'Boxcar Bertha,' ya know? Francis Coppola made 'Dimentia 13.' Steven Spielberg directed 'Marcus Welby' for a year.

"This is only the third thing I've done professionally, and I still feel I'm in my 'Marcus Welby' stage, and that's not to put down this movie at all. But do you know what I mean? I feel like I'm still trying to work toward the kinds of films I want to make. When you're young and you get a break, you gotta take it. And I've tried to make the best of my break."