Guitar anti-hero 

Punching the Clown
9 p.m. Monday, April 12 at Regal Winter Park
4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15 at Regal Winter Park

How many times has a memorable story from your everyday life prompted you to suggest to a friend, "You know, this would make a great scene in a movie?"

For musical comedian Henry Phillips, his life has been a succession of these scenes, from his inability to properly censor himself on terrestrial radio to playing a song about cocaine-and-tranny debauchery for an audience he didn't know was comprised of Christian fundamentalists.

For Phillips, the friend to whom he told these stories was Gregori Viens, who studied political science with Phillips at UCLA. He'd been telling them for a good 15 years before Viens, who has since become a filmmaker and film professor, finally had the means to bring Phillips' life to the screen. The result is the caustically witty narrative feature Punching the Clown, which screens April 12 and 15 at the Florida Film Festival.

"Over the years, we had several manifestations of `the movie`," recalls Phillips. "We made a short mockumentary. Then Gregori optioned the screenplay with a company, but nobody ever did anything about it. We had written the script so many times and we were so happy with it, we said, ‘Let's just do it ourselves.' It was extremely liberating."

A contemporary of guy-with-guitar comics like Stephen Lynch and Jon Lajoie, Phillips' songs are satirical and hyper-literate, be they about life's everyday struggles, the hidden perversions of great artists and thinkers or being nice to the next Columbine nut job so he doesn't kill you. He's proven versatile enough to open for entertainers as disparate as Paul McCartney and Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and 3 Doors Down.

The film follows Phillips, playing himself, as he abandons a floundering career in middle-America dives for the glamour and potential fame of Los Angeles. It's here — where the real-life Phillips still resides — that a happy accident leads him to taste precarious fame for the first time, only to have a series of snowballing miscommunications befall him.

"From scene to scene, nearly every moment is based on a recreation of a real conversation I've been in or a real event that's happened to me," says Phillips.

In the movie, Phillips' hilarious rise and fall is framed, cleverly, by an off-the-cuff radio
interview in which Phillips discusses his life, music, comedy, girls and career aspirations. It provides a handy biography of Phillips while showcasing Viens' loose, seemingly
improvisational directing style.

"I've always been inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, Agnés Varda, Maurice Pialat, and most of all Mike Leigh," says Viens. "I used kind of a mix of their techniques. Essentially, I was very flexible with actors, adapting to each person's needs within the boundaries I had established. By the time we shot the film, we were well rehearsed and didn't need to resort to any improvising or ad-libbing on camera. The result, I think, is a very realistic tone, with characters that seem alive and relationships that work."

Phillips, who has released three albums independently, has yet to see the movie's festival success — it won the Audience Award at its 2009 premiere at Slamdance — translate into record sales. Distributors haven't flocked to the movie yet, either; Phillips and Viens both blame the film's lack of star appeal.

But they're hopeful it will find its calling on video, urging fans to add Punching the Clown to their Netflix queue as soon as possible. (The film does not have a DVD release date at press time.)

"It seems that it was a terrible year for an independent film to come out looking for distribution," says Viens. "We're hoping that 2010 is better."

More by John Thomason


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