Interview: At The Movies co-host Michael Phillips
Over the last year, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. (Tony) Scott of The New York Times have done a great job of continuing the legacy of At The Movies on TV. This coming Sunday, the show will air its last. On July 27th I spoke to Mr. Phillips on the phone for nearly half-an-hour, discussing everything from his best memories of watching the show to the best movies of the year so far.
It was great talking to someone who both deeply appreciates At The Movies, and has had the privilege of being able to share their enthusiasm for film in front of the camera. Come back this Wednesday for my interview with Mr. Scott, and on Friday for my own look back on the legacy of the show.
A big thank you is in place to Michael Phillips for taking the time to do this interview.
When did you start reviewing movies, and when did you know that’s what you wanted to do? Wow, well it was writing for the high school paper, which is called ‘The Shield’ at St. Catherine’s in Racine, Wisconsin. You know, I’d write about Jaws and Taxi Driver and already I was dimly aware of a show called Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You. It started in ‘75 and I started writing in ‘76 and I liked this idea of ‘wow, there’s this whole show which is these two people talking about the movies that they’ve seen lately.’
What’s your favourite moment from hosting At The Movies? Good question – I want to get the answer right – but there have honestly been so many great moments. One recent moment was when I mistakenly wore one of Tony’s suits the last time we were filming, and I still don’t think he’s entirely recovered emotionally over that fact yet. He didn’t find out until once we were done taping.
We also had a lovely time talking about Scorsese and Polanski in an extended segment everybody seemed to like, and we threw out half the usual segments to do it. That proved to ourselves and everybody, really, that the deeper we went, the better the results. We had wonderful support on the way in last September, and wonderful goodwill on the way out a few months later. I only wish we had more time in between.
Were you a big watcher of At The Movies before you were offered the full-time hosting position? Honestly, since high school that show meant a lot to me, and I’m 49, so that’s a long time for one show to be a part of the American public. Even then it was a ground breaking show, where these two guys would discuss movies and say what they thought of them. And it was kind of what brought film criticism into the public eye – Roger and Gene became the face of film critics.
And what’s your best memory from watching the show? My favorite memory of the old days was hearing what Gene and Roger’s favorite snack foods were. Gene picked Pad Thai, which at that point was new to me. I might be misremembering this, but the look – in my mind’s eye, anyway — Roger shot Gene after hearing that was pricelessly deadpan. People always talk about the arguments, but I think for a lot of us the entire history of the show has become an extended clip reel of highlights.
I love that for at least one guy I worked with in a factory in northeast Minneapolis, in the summer of 1980, At the Movies introduced him to his first-ever subtitled film. And he liked it. To see people at college eager to see movies like My Dinner With André just because Roger and Gene said ‘this is worth your time and attention’ is a big thing.
How do you feel you and A.O. Scott have continued the legacy of the show? Tony and I had the greatest satisfaction of embracing the original intentions of the format, by trying to make it as sharp-witted and as entertaining as we could. I mean it’s not like they hired either of us because of our massive television charisma, but we learned how to get by and enjoy it for however long we would be allowed to play into our strengths and offer the kind of coverage we could be engaged in. Like the one show where we just discussed the work of Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.
And that was one of the best shows… Thank you. We got a lot of good feedback on that. Every week we try to fill the show with a lot of those things here and there, but that week we only had two movies to review, Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer. Tony and I both didn’t care much for Shutter Island, so it was a way to stretch out and explain its flaws. It was good to be able to talk about ‘what are the works of these directors that we agree on, if we look at them with a kind of serious importance’ and it was really gratifying to be able to do that.
It really was one of the best episodes… Good to hear – that one fell together so easily. It was great not to feel like ‘we gotta wrap up this conversation in 45 seconds…’
And it was also close to the original format of the show… I think what Roger and Gene – and at their best, Roger and Richard Roeper – tried to do, is make a debate about a movie more than just an argument. It’s not hard to find two people to argue about a movie – you can find all kinds of videos like that. What we tried to do is why the show took off in the first place. Roger and Gene would just be themselves, and discuss movies without compromising their personal standards.
Tony and I, the one thing we have in common, is the interest in giving the attention to some of the smaller films. With the big mainstream successes that are on everyone’s mind – like Inception – the independents or foreign films truly need the attention since they tend to get swallowed up by the blockbusters.
I think that is one of the most satisfying things about film criticism… It is, and I think so long as you don’t cry wolf making extravagant claims every week, then people will believe you.
How do you feel the legacy of the show will continue after it ends in mid-August? Well, who knows. More than one group of people are interested in continuing a variation of the show… There is a lot of interest in keeping something and why wouldn’t there be. A half hour syndicated show is an anomaly in this media market. There’s that, but I think the next home for a show like this will be somewhere other than cable or public television. I do sense a strong appetite for more than one project.
It seems like each time it’s ended, it comes up again in a newer version. Variations of the format are all over the place. There’s a tradition of this type of show in Europe, whether movie or book related. So long as there’s an appetite to explore the culture and tell people about films they haven’t heard about yet, it’s going to be there.
What are your future plans for after the show ends? Well, I can’t really talk about specific plans, but I’m pleased and privileged to have the job at the Chicago Tribune as the film critic there. It’s a demanding full-time job, and Tony and I are quite fortunate for the outlets of expression that we do have. I think that did feed naturally into this challenge of taking over the show, and trying to bring it back to it’s roots, and I like to think we’ve accomplished that to an extent. You know to try to learn to write in an entirely different way for the scripted segments of the show like an actual conversation – 2/3 is off the cuff anyway, in other words the stuff for the teleprompter used in the scripted portion, it took us a while to figure it out. But both of us had a good long warm up working with Richard, on how to successfully get your points across in a short amount of time.
Yeah, we were never going to please everybody. The civilized half of the world thinks we argue too much, and the other half of the world thinks we don’t enough – obviously, that’s an overstatement, most felt the tone we struck is about right. You can’t really engineer that or hook that up – it either comes naturally, or it doesn’t. It’s great to deal with a whole group of people who feel the same way.
I think you’ve managed to strike the right balance.
What are your personal thoughts on the 3D craze? I don’t share Roger Ebert’s disdain for the format.
Neither do I… I have 9-year-old son, and I do like the cheap excitement of some of the films. If we’ve learned from mediocrity that was Clash of The Titans and The Last Airbender, which were both conversions, if anything’s going to sour the public’s view of the upcharge they have to pay for it, it’s going to be that. There’s still some part of me that enjoys on a very cheap level the 3D even in the seamlessly aggressive films that are constantly reminding you of the format, like Despicable Me which wasn’t a great film. I think it’s more of a diversionary, rather than a revolutionary, life-sustaining event. Everyone got misled by Avatar, which had a lot more going for it than just the 3D.
How to Train Your Dragon was another good one. Absolutely. It helps if your film is good. Pixar’s avoiding the obviousness with which everyone else uses 3D. Where the filmmakers at Pixar are obviously ambivalent on the whole 3D trend, focusing rightfully more on their stories.
Toy Story 3 didn’t really need the 3D… No, or Up for that matter. When I saw Up at Cannes, it was at the big venue with very high quality 3D glasses. So seeing Up there was a great experience, but it was really after the fact that Up was made in 3D.
And it was also just a great movie… Exactly, and the 3D didn’t make much of an effect that I called it the best movie of last year. And isn’t the composer, Michael Giacchino, just a genius?
Absolutely. With his work on Ratatouille as well, he’s just incredible.
And The Incredibles – All three are some of the finest Pixar scores.
Can you tell me what are your favourite movies of this year so far? One is The Kids Are All Right, which is a film that I certainly hope is remembered around awards time. To me it’s the kind of low-budget/high quality film that we should be getting five of a year, but we barely get one. There’s nothing particularly special about the way it’s made, but it’s carried by these five great performances, and it’s without the usual demonizing of Hollywood films, there’s no one villain.
Exactly. Everything about it was just so likeable. Little Miss Sunshine was another indie film that was probably a more commercial hit, but that film just didn’t do it for me. Aside from the script, I just didn’t believe that all those people would be in the same movie. Where’s this one works for everything.
Another good movie this summer was Inception. I don’t think it’s a great masterpiece, but it is one of the better movies of the summer.
What are your thoughts on Inception’s Oscar chances? I think they’re good. With 10 nominees, there’s no question it’s going to be there, and couple that with it’s financial success…
Chris Nolan is a fascinating director. His films are puzzles, all kind of trying to balance commercial with somewhat more challenging storytelling. And they’ve all been really good, except for The Prestige which didn’t really do it for me.
I felt the same way about The Prestige. Tony and I totally disagree on that one – he thinks its one of Nolan’s best. He’s wrong on that, of course. He’s a filmmaker you can argue about, but he makes the money worth spending – I look forward to seeing what he has next for us.
And what are some of your least favourite films of the year? I saw two this week, actually. One is, I think, Charlie St. Cloud. And the other is Dinner For Schmucks. A lot of people will enjoy it, but I think it’s one of the weakest French adaptations of a French comedy I’ve seen. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd are very funny people, but everything about this remake is misjudged, and I just thought it was tedious.
What is the coolest promotional item you’ve received? We don’t keep most of it, so I honestly don’t remember most of the stuff. But it would have had to have been something edible. I always like more food.
And what movies are you most looking forward to opening in the coming months? I’d need to take the time to look at the whole schedule – I haven’t really thought about it.
That’s okay. Sometimes it’s not good to build up too much anticipation for something before it’s released. I’m glad you brought that up. Actually hype is the enemy in most cases – the one thing that Tony and I do not believe in, is hype for that reason.
I totally agree. Sometimes you just set yourself up for disappointment. Like often the trailers show the best parts… Yeah, that’s true, and you know it gets into the whole spoiler issue. We were privileged to do this show for a season that supported our disdain for hype and our interest in exploring the art form that is film. And in a way, some people responded to it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up? It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you – and doing the show was a serious pleasure and one of the luckiest breaks of my life to do it with such a great group of people.
Congratulations on being able to host the show in its final year – you and Tony have done a great job. Thank you very much – I really appreciate that.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.