“Totally Immersed in the Witching Hour” Philip Harder on ‘Tuscaloosa’
“I was really influenced by punk bands in the 80s and 90s. I liked that they were screaming about things I had in my head,” declared Philip Harder, who got his start as a music video director.
Working with famous artists like The Cranberries, Foo Fighters, Incubus, Barenaked Ladies, and Prince, he learned how to tell stories and capture emotions in short formats without dialogue. “I joined a band, bought a Super 8 camera, and that led to a music video career.”
So how does a music video director transition into a filmmaking career? “I worked closely with Prince and he wanted to tell a story about racism against Middle Eastern people living in the United States after 9/11,” recalled Harder. “We had to do it, symbolized and summarized, because it is just a three-minute video,” he added.
2004’s Cinnamon Girl shows both sides of the debate, similar to the theme of HBO’s The Night Of. The story follows a victimized Muslim girl who is wrongly persecuted after 9/11, so she starts to debate which side she is really on.
“We’re not dealing with dialogue in music videos, so we’re using visual elements to tell those stories. It was quite an interesting dilemma to take some of those ideas, turn them into a screenplay, and eventually into a movie,” proclaimed the writer-director.
The World of Tuscaloosa
In Harder’s latest film, Tuscaloosa, college graduate Billy Mitchell (Devon Bostick) finds his plans change when he falls in love with an inmate who has multiple personalities (Natalia Dyer), who lives at his father’s mental institution.
Based on the novel by W. Glasgow Phillips, the story stood out to Harder because of the way it “weaved a love story with humor during a pretty intense racial time period in the early 1970s.” He added, “This was something I felt would make a fascinating movie.”
Harder felt a deep connection to the characters and the issues of the time period. As a kid, he a book called The Best of Life, which came out in 1973. “I was really influenced by those photos of war and anti-war protests. Subliminally, I think some of those ideas spoke to me in the novel.”
As a reader, he also felt like he couldn’t really predict what would happen next in the novel, but he was also introduced to the idea of “white privilege,” which wasn’t something he was familiar with when he read the book.
Despite all of the themes within the story – white privilege, racism, sexism, mental disorders – the story was all about character. “I really focused on the character of Virginia. She was a character who was thrown into Tuscaloosa against her will.”
Virginia’s doctor concluded that she’s a nymphomaniac. “This was a medical term that was used at the time to pretty much suppress women for having an independent spirit. Her character was someone I could not predict. She reminded me of Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ She’s wild, but should he be institutionalized?”
Harder felt she was a “badass,” and he felt himself cheering her on while reading the book. “She did what she wanted to do, but then she was yanked out of her youth and thrown into an institutionalization.”
When Virginia met Billy, he fell for her right away. Luckily, he’s able to help her sneak out so she can regain her spirit and personality, which was nearly taken from her. “Right when we started shooting the movie, there was the #MeToo movement, which was smacking us in the face.”
As the story started to be influenced by the headlines, the creators realized they needed to focus more on the female characters in the story. “In some scenes, we realized Natalia was playing a prop, standing next to the lead character. You could already see this was wrong-headed because this character wouldn’t stand there and just listen to these two guys talk. It didn’t make sense.”
The actors also saw the one-sidedness of the screenplay, so the male actors started to give lines to the character Virginia to build a stronger story. “Natalia was all about that. These are young people, who are hyper-aware and hyper-critical of these issues, so they helped us see what was wrong-headed about them.”
Virginia started to interrupt more often and become a real character, rather than a plot pusher. “I’m so glad I listened to these actors because these are real situations and she needed to become much more of a full character.”
Getting the Novel Rights
Harder met the author W. Glasgow Phillips and the duo spent some time on Venice Beach discussing the themes of the story. “We actually didn’t talk about the novel. We just talked about things, which I thought was pretty interesting.”
The next day, the author called and said he enjoyed their conversation and wanted to give Harder the opportunity to make the movie. But, the more they spoke, the more elusive the author seemed. “He wouldn’t answer my questions, but he wanted to see my interpretation. I thought he was clever about that. I think we were just feeling each other out about life.”
In addition to the novel and onset decisions, Harder did a great deal of research on Tuscaloosa. “The novel mentions George Wallace, who was the Alabama Governor at the time, but just in a few lines. But I knew Wallace was this racist Governor, who in 1963, stood on the steps of a University and recited letting in two black students to a white college. This wasn’t in the novel, but we put in vintage footage at the beginning of our film.”
Harder wanted this actual event to ground the story in reality. “That opening leads to 1972 where Wallace is running for President on a racist platform – something he called Law and Order. He was actually shot three times. He didn’t die, but spent his life in a wheelchair.”
After they set the stage, the creators noticed how many other aspects of the film are still relevant today. “This film lands on what is an election year and we didn’t write things that are related to our times. We let the story become an analogy for our current times.”
The Protagonist is Part of the Problem
The writer-director said the ongoing racial issues are mainly a background to Billy’s story, but the movie left Billy to showcase other events in the same world. “It’s a fictional world of Tuscaloosa 1972, but it’s based on what was happening at the time.”
“I tried to tell it through Billy’s eyes to stay true to the novel, but Billy is one of these characters who doesn’t want to deal with everything that is happening, like anti-war movements or guys in their 20s starting to question the non-violent means of getting rights.”
The character Antoine, played by hip-hop artist YG, is a Vietnam veteran who returns to Tuscaloosa to find he’s dealing with worse racial issues than when he left to fight in the war. “He’s upset about having been drafted and he’s taking that fight to the streets. Meanwhile, Billy is oblivious to this. He’s out of college and just wants to smoke pot and mow laws. He’s the eyes of our story, but also our problem.”
Harder created his own version of the story. This meant adding in scenes and characters. In many cases, he would give actors more scenes, literally writing some on the spot or that evening. “I was listening to Vietnam soldiers from 1971 and I just started jotting down what they were saying. I told YG to put these scenes in his own words. In hindsight, I realized I needed these side character backstories to flush out the story.”
After all the prep, however, it was still somewhat of a panic to film everything in two weeks (Dyer had to be on the red carpet for Stranger Things the day after wrap). “We had to drop and add scenes as we went. We discovered techniques while we were filming. We had to shoot oners because we were out of time. I’m in overtime mode and we have another scene to shoot. It worked out great, but I’m lucky I had these experienced actors to help me direct this movie.”
“There’s no way to avoid total immersion,” he added. “Once you start shooting, it’s all out. Spontaneity was put into this movie, whether we wanted it or not. We would get up at 4 am to drive to a location and I had already been up two hours. The cinematographer told me this was the ‘witching hour.’ Every day, I would wake up with new ideas, totally immersed and living and breathing the story.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.
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