Phil Spencer stepped into creativity via The Royal Marines. And the route to his film House Hunting began as a poem. We caught up with him to chat about the Exeter Phoenix bursary film, his experience as a filmmaker and what feeds his imagination…
D&CFilm: What’s your background and how did you come to apply for the Exeter Phoenix bursary?
Phil Spencer: The Royal Marines has been my life for the past 11 years, but this month saw me medically discharged from injuries I sustained in Afghanistan. Throughout my career, I found ways to channel my creativity by way of learning languages, writing poetry and creating short videos from our travels around the globe. When I learned that I was to be medically discharged from the marines, I plunged head first into the Arts.
It was a strange time for me having been stripped of my identity, but through it I discovered my real passions in life and have made a point of just going for it in true Jerry McGuire fashion. I have found that through my words I can create powerful images and tell stories that people can connect to.
On this journey I discovered the Soldiers’ Arts Academy, a platform for veterans to access the Arts. Before I knew it, I was performing in a West End play (Soldier On) and having my work performed at Shakespeare’s Globe. The young thespian in me had been reawakened and this fuelled my curiosity for film, so, I set about writing my first screen play, Big Brother. This was a great challenge and fantastic film to be able to write and direct and starred the lovely Imogen Stubbs.
A little later, I came across an advert for the Exeter commission a few days before the closing date. I set myself a challenge of taking a poem I had written and developed it into a screenplay and submitted my application.
D&CFilm: Tell us about your cast and crew – how did all that come together and where did you shoot the film?
Phil Spencer: We were very fortunate to have a talented cast and crew. I cast Tom Leigh for the lead role because I felt confident he could deliver. Tom is also an ex Royal Marine, this proved invaluable on the day as he could tap into real life experiences of combat and what it is like to endure what the film is trying to depict. I cast Lily Howkins for similar reasons. Lily has worked very closely with the veteran community and understands the various issues that many of them deal with. Tom and Lilly are also good friends which made for a great natural chemistry on set. Our two extras were KC Gardiner and Dean Helliwell, both have acted with Tom before and Dean is also an ex-serviceman.
James Anderson was our DOP. He is a truly talented and creative individual. James is known best for series such as Bear Grylls, Hunted and Escape. This is the second film me and Jim have made together and we have very similar creative eyes.
Rena McGregor covered us for makeup and was responsible for the very cool blood seeping shot (you’ll have to watch it to know).
Charlie Melville was our sound person for the day and did an excellent job at ensuring we captured the best audio possible. On the day of the shoot, there was clear and defined roles on set, but everyone was very proactive in helping out as and when it was needed. It was very much a team effort.
I was already friends with most of the cast and crew so they all jumped at the chance to make the film which made for a very positive energy on set. We filmed at Stoll Mansions, a veterans accommodation which very kindly gave us full use of their community centre, free of charge.
D&CFilm: What is the role of the filmmaker / artist in society?
Phil Spencer: To tell stories and move people, in whatever form of expression that may be. I also think it’s important to tell your story, show something you’re passionate about. It is far more powerful seeing something from the heart. If you care about it, there will be others out there who care too.
D&CFilm: And how important do you think the Soldier’s Arts Academy is and what experience has it given you?
Phil Spencer: The SAA is an incredible company. It is completely not for profit and provides an invaluable platform for veterans who are serious about entering the Arts. Personally, I went from being completely lost with no clear path to having a new lease in life and a very clear vision. In less than a year they helped me perform at the West End, Globe theatre, deliver poetry workshops at RADA and make my first short film. This very much had the knock on effect which led to the Exeter Phoenix and I am continuously pursuing new opportunities.
D&CFilm: Visually and lyrically where do you get your cues from – what and who inspires you?
Phil Spencer: Music, film and life. My head is like a film, every thought I have, everything I see with my eyes just plays through my mind as a film. I thought perhaps I was a bit odd, but I’ve now learnt as a filmmaker, this is very handy. I take a lot of cues from emotion, it’s my favourite thing about film. Taking an incredible visual and moving people emotionally is so rewarding. Watching film kind of puts us all on a level playing field because after all, we are all human. In terms of my words, nine times out of ten, they literally come out of thin air. From an experience or from something I’m witnessing or from an emotion I’m feeling. Granted, for my first two films, I chose the military as the vehicle to tell them, that’s a direct impact from my journey. I felt it was important to tell these stories so I figured they would be a great starting point. My next two films step away from the military completely, but will continue to explore the poetry of film and the power of emotion.
D&CFilm: What has been the most frustrating aspect of making the House Hunting film, and what’s been the most rewarding?
Phil Spencer: I would say producing presented the most frustrations. The moving of deadlines, logistically ensuring all the moons and stars line up can at times be trying. The most rewarding feeling for me is setting up a particularly powerful and hard to shoot scene and watching the cast own it. Seeing the magic play out in front of you is exactly why I do it. I also absolutely love the spontaneous creativity that comes out on set. A bit of improv, an unexpected shot, trying something different, those random, unplanned golden nuggets can really elevate a scene.
D&CFilm: Thanks Phil!
Phil Spencer’s House Hunting premieres at Two Short Nights at the Exeter Phoenix on November 29
The Two Short Nights film festival takes place from November 27 to November 29 at the Exeter Phoenix.