Interview: Phil Morrison "All is Bright"

Photo Credit: Photo by D Dipasupil – © 2013 Getty Images – Image courtesy
November 19th, 2013

Director Phil Morrison won several awards in 2006 for his Comedy/Drama film “Junebug” and his latest release “All is Bright” is sure to garner more attention.  The film stars A-list actors Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, and centers around Giamatti’s character Dennis who has just returned from prison to find his wife has been stolen by his best friend Rene played by Rudd.  The two thieves set on an adventure to sell Christmas trees in NYC to support their families.  Phil was kind enough to tell us here at Movie Room Reviews all about making this film.

Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews:  Phil, I’ve seen this film a few times now, and I first saw it months ago at the Tribeca film festival when it was called "Almost Christmas." And now I’ve seen the version for the Blu-ray which coming out on November 19th.

Phil Morrison: Oh, good. I'm glad... If that's when you saw it, I'm glad you got to see it again. It was a sort of a murky print that you saw there at Tribeca, so I'm glad you got to see it a little bit more finessed there, picture-wise.

MRR: Why did you end up changing it, the name and everything? It was "Almost Christmas" and now it's "All is Bright."

Phil Morrison: Oh you know, that was all marketing and committee decisions. The title that Paul Giamatti and myself and a couple of other people were routing for was "Two Thieves." What you might notice about both "Almost Christmas" and "All is Bright," in the world of video on-demand... I bet you can finish this sentence.

MRR: Oh, yeah, they come up first, huh?

Phil Morrison: There you go.


MRR: Nice move.

Phil Morrison: "All is Bright" is certainly a title that had come up in the past. I think it was even on the list that I made just when we were brainstorming about a zillion, and of course, like everybody was writing down every doggone Christmas-y kind of title they could possibly think of.


MRR: Every lyric from every song you could think of?

Phil Morrison: Yeah. Yeah. [chuckle] Exactly.

MRR: Well Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd who star in the film, they both have done different styles of movies kind of throughout their careers, but why do you think they work so well together in this film?

Phil Morrison: Oh wow! Well, I'm glad you think they do. I really think so too. Well you know what's interesting is, what I noticed just in-between takes and stuff was how much they really respected each other so much in an utterly non-competitive way. Paul Giamatti, in interviews about this movie has talked about what a better actor Paul Rudd is then he is, in a way that sounds, on the face of it might sound like false modesty or just stick or something, right? But I happen to know he really means it. Because he watched Paul Rudd's ability to improvise and be loose in a scene and marveled at it. And I think it goes without saying what Paul Rudd would very clearly admire in Paul Giamatti.

And so it was like a non-ass-kissing mutual appreciation society, you know? [chuckle] And I think that's what made it work so well. I think the way, this is me just speculating, but I think that the way that Dennis (Giamatti) sees Rene (Rudd), and the way that Rene sees Dennis might reflect a little bit the ways in which the ways the world looks at Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti. Does that make sense?

MRR: Oh, yeah.

Phil Morrison: Obviously these guys were not cast against type. These guys were very much cast within type. And on the face of it, that is the kind of thing that might make you shrug or yawn, "What else is new? Paul Giamatti plays this kind of character, Paul Rudd plays this kind of character." But what we hoped to do was kind of dig in and explore a little bit more what it's like to be forced to be that kind of character. And to have the world just assign you that place in life as always the curmudgeon, or always the happy guy.

MRR: Did you have to come up with nicknames for 'them on the set because they're both Pauls?

Phil Morrison: Yeah, it was always confusing. I ended up calling them by their character name a lot which sometimes seems a little silly or pretentious to do, but in this case it had practical reasons.

So, but yeah, it would get confusing sometimes. Yeah.

MRR: Was Paul Giamatti's civil war beard, was that his idea or your guys'?

Phil Morrison: It's interesting. It was his idea that I was really happy with, to be honest. It is the first time I've ever really said this to anybody. What drew me to this story was to a large degree, stuff about Paul Giamatti's character that I really related to, philosophically and experientially. And when we said he wanted to grow that kind of mustache, it was actually one that I had had once upon a time myself.

MRR: Really?

Phil Morrison: Yeah. And I got rid of it when that dude from "American Apparel" showed up with it. Like, "I can't look like that guy." So that was really heartening to me, it was like, and moving to me in a way that he chose to look like that. He talked about facial hair a lot as one of his ways towards entering a character, which I think is partially like a self-deprecating thing on his part, in a way, to deflect talking really about entering a character. But I'm sure there's some real truth in it as well.

MRR: Well the film is about the holiday season. Can you tell us some of the pros in making a holiday movie, and what are some of the cons of that?

Phil Morrison: Well, I love Christmas movies, and that's one thing. You know what I really love, that in a way, I think I have similarities to this one, in the sense that it's kinda cantankerous and not entirely easy to swallow, is the one called "Holiday Affair" with Robert Mitchum. Have you ever seen that one?

MRR: No I haven’t.

Phil Morrison: It is awesome. But that's just kind of an aside. So the pros I think are about being able to be given this really privileged position to be able to try to reflect your own point of view about this big, important, universal time. And even though I guess there's been a kind of a glut of Christmas movies, everyone has their own particular, weird, idiosyncratic viewpoint about that time of year. And we all want to believe it's universal, and we all are meant to try to find the place in which it is. But we're also banging our head against a wall, fighting the fact that we have our own expectations about what it's meant to be, right?

MRR: Right.

Phil Morrison: So a pro of it is to get to make a movie about that, right? That's a real privilege. The con, in this case, is that we made it for a tiny budget in March and April of last year, in which there was kind of a mini heat wave. And cherry trees were blossoming, and people were wearing t-shirts. [laughter] And so that's the con of making a Christmas movie if you're making it in New York City and it is far from Christmas. And trying to capture that really, really special spirit when it's not really Christmas. That was the con in this case, anyway.

MRR: Did you go back and film New York during Christmas time at all?

Phil Morrison: No, no. We had a little bit of footage that you see close to the beginning of the movie, when they're driving into town, that we had from the previous Christmas. In this day and age of making an indie movie, the idea of "Oh hey, we have these actors and we have this little bit of financing, but what would be really best for the movie would be to wait until next year, and do it really at Christmas time. That would make the best movie for the world." Right? No one will do that because people's feeling is, and they're probably right, is by next year that money will have gone away, and that money will have gone to somebody else's movie.

So rather than make the best possible movie we can, we need to make the best possible movie that we can right now, even if right now is March, and that's just the way of the world. There's kind of a psychology in indie movie-making where before there is financing for a movie, people feel about their movie, it's like "How dare the world not want to finance my movie, because my movie so deserves to exist." And then once there is financing, the psychology becomes, "Oh my God, I am so lucky! I'm the luckiest boy in the world, that somebody wants to make my movie and I'll do anything possible to preserve that fact," even if it means making all of these many capitulations. So that's just kind of the case. So therefore we shot in March and April.

MRR: You had two famous and talented actors and several other great actors. What are some of the aspects that you brought to the film as a director?

Phil Morrison: Part of me feels like it's not really for me to say, because you kind of want to remain unconscious of that. I think that what I love in any movie is the strangeness that comes out of the fact that it is this particular director's approach to this particular material. When you're making a movie and you're in the process of editing it and stuff, an expression that you might hear sometimes is, "Well, that's just not what I expected" or "That's not really what I would have done", right? Well, when I watch a movie, my favorite parts are the ones where I feel like, "Wow, that is nothing like what I would have done!" Because then you're like entering somebody's weird perspective.

A good friend of mine is Kelly Reichardt, and I got to be a producer in a couple of her movies. And she is just constantly doing these amazing things that are nothing like what any other director would have done, and that's my favorite thing. And I know this is a bit of a convoluted answer to the question, but I guess it's because I wanna remain unconscious of what those things are.

MRR: That makes sense.

Phil Morrison: But it means that a movie will be full of contradictions. I like movies that contradict themselves and that are, that don't privilege consistency. I thought of that guy, Imamura, Shohei Imamura, that Japanese director, a lot when I was making this movie 'cause his movies are just so nuts. You feel like the reason this movie is this way is simply because this guy, may he rest in peace, is so strange.


MRR: Well I guess the audience will then break apart your directing and see what makes you your own director, right?

Phil Morrison: Yeah, yeah, I hope so. I hope so.

MRR: So the film comes out in Blu-ray on November 19th, what is the audience gonna be able to get with the new Blu-ray?

Phil Morrison: Oh, well, they'll get a chance to see it. I don't think they put any extras or anything on there, the movie is the movie.

But I think it's an interesting movie, it's a movie that takes place at Christmas, but what it really is is a movie about a man dealing with the fact that he is dead to his family and has no choice but to live that way. And it concurrently takes place at Christmas, and I think that if that's an idea that is interesting, then I think it's a compelling movie to people.

It's about how generosity and sacrifice go hand-in-hand, and that generosity isn't a fair trade.

MRR:  I really enjoyed it, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Phil Morrison: Thanks.