Director: Dax Phelan
After graduating from The American Film Institute with an MFA in Screenwriting in 2000, Dax Phelan went to work as the Creative Executive for veteran producer Mace Neufeld at Sony Pictures Entertainment. During his 3-year tenure at Mace Neufeld Productions, Phelan worked with some of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters and directors on such projects as “The General’s Daughter,” “The Sum of All Fears,” and “Argo.” Then, in 2003, Phelan sold a screenplay of his own and worked as writer for hire for the next decade.
In 2013, Phelan returned to his independent roots, associate producing the Bret Easton Ellis-penned “The Canyons” for director Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”). In 2014, together with Academy Award-nominee Oren Moverman (“The Messenger,” “Rampart”), Phelan executive produced Anja Marquardt’s “She’s Lost Control,” which won the CICAE Art Cinema Award and played to sold-out audiences at Berlinale, SXSW, and New Directors/New Films. The film was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature and Best Screenplay.
In 2015, Phelan wrote, produced, and directed his feature directorial debut, “Jasmine,” which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and won five awards at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor in a Drama, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Sound Design. He is currently adapting Neil White’s memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” for producer Stratton Leopold (“Mission: Impossible III”) and co-producing Orson Welles’ final film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” with Frank Marshall (“The Sixth Sense”).
I first realized that I wanted to become a screenwriter in college in 1994. In fact, I went to the American Film Institute and got my Master’s in Screenwriting in 2000. However, like a lot of aspiring screenwriters, I had to work a day job to pay the bills and write during nights and weekends. Fortunately, my day job was working with some of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood as the Creative Executive for veteran producer Mace Neufeld (“No Way Out,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Equalizer”). In 2003, I finally sold a script of my own and became a full-time screenwriter. My dream had come true.
Then, over the next couple of years, I realized that one can make a lot of money writing scripts that never get made. Initially, this didn’t bother me. But, as time went by, I became frustrated. I was getting older. My mother was ill. People back home would ask, “So, when are we going to see something you’ve written?” I grew tired of explaining how the development process works or, in many cases, doesn’t work. I wanted to be a filmmaker again, like I’d been in college. More than that, I wanted to do the kind of film that would allow me to recharge my creative batteries by exploring character, ambiguity, silence, improvisation, contradiction, etc., in a way that isn’t encouraged in mainstream filmmaking. I wanted to get lost a little, try things, make bold choices, challenge myself, and challenge the audience. I wanted to do something different. Something special. Something personal.
I met Jason Tobin for the first time while working on a writing assignment in Hong Kong and a little voice in my head said, “This is the guy.” It’s a funny thing, that little voice. I hadn’t seen Jason’s work before that, but I knew he was the right person to play this character I wanted to explore, even if I didn’t fully know who that character was yet. When I returned to the States, I saw “Better Luck Tomorrow” and realized what everyone else already seemed to know: This guy is fantastic. The little voice was clearly onto something. So, when Jason was shooting “The Fast and The Furious” in Los Angeles a few months later, we met up for lunch down off Sawtelle and I delivered my pitch: “I want to do a character-driven film in Hong Kong. We’ll come up with the story together. I’ll write the script. You’ll play the lead. I’ll direct. And we’ll shoot it on the streets of Hong Kong.” Jason agreed.
I’ve always been fascinated by our very human ability to believe things that aren’t true. Inspired by the works of Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Affliction”), I searched for a metaphor through which I could explore this theme and arrived at the idea of an unreliable narrator in the form of a husband who is struggling to come to terms with his grief following the murder of his wife.
I asked my old friend, producer Stratton Leopold, to help Jason and me and he came aboard as a producer. Anyway, I wrote the script and put up the seed money myself, confident that, once others knew I had money in the film, they’d be more willing to part with theirs. It worked and everything grew from there. We shot the film over 21 days in Hong Kong.
Post-production, however, took a bit longer. In fact, I’m often asked why it took so long for me to finish the film. The answer is really twofold. One, when we shot the film, we hadn’t raised all of the money we needed yet. However, we did have enough money to shoot and a window of opportunity when all of the actors would be available, so we just took the plunge – all the while hoping that we could raise the money for post-production later. Two, not long after my editor, Chris Chan Lee, and I finished a cut we were happy with, I lost three members of my family very unexpectedly in the span of 9 months. I was overwhelmed with grief and felt like I was losing my mind, which is ironic because of its similarity to the protagonist’s situation in the film. Anyway, I couldn’t work on the film. I just couldn’t. Life imitating art and all that. It still hurts as I write this. I then spent some time working on other films in which I wasn’t so emotionally invested.
When I finally came up for air, I re-watched the film and that little voice in my head said, “Something just isn’t right.” I told Chris that I wanted to throw the cut out completely and start from scratch, which is a pretty crazy thing to do. To Chris’ credit, he defended all of the hard work we’d done on the cut and, then, agreed to go down the rabbit hole with me. Anyway, once we finished the new cut, we found the completion funds right away. There is no question in my mind now that the final film is the best version of what was shot and, more importantly, the little voice went away. “Jasmine” is dedicated to my mother.