Pride On Film: The Black Harvest Film Fest Filmmakers Profile – Phil Donlon

Photos Courtesy of Phil Donlon

Chicago native Phil Donlon first knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker after being inspired by the story of racial tension presented in Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING.  Years later, Donlon landed at the Theater Conservatory of Chicago before co-founding the Gilead Theater Company.  The Gilead Theater company garnered awards and accolades for plays such as BentBalm in Gilead among many others. While there Donlon wore many hats and honed his craft as producer, director, writer, and actor.

After moving to Los Angeles to begin his acting career, Donlon starred in many television and films. However, after boredom and lack quality roles he wrote WRESTLED (2003), a film which he directed and starred in. WRESTLED is a first short film about a young urban missionary struggling with his own demons as he tries to convert a young prostitute. The film won high praise and a few awards including Best Drama and Best Actor at The Orion Awards and Grand Goldie Award for Excellence in Filmmaking.  It was followed by A SERIES OF SMALL THINGS (2005) and SANIYA (2007).

In 2008, after a chance conversation with actor Ernie Hudson, Donlon convinced the actor to come aboard his project THE MAN IN THE SILO.  The story follows Marcus Wells (Hudson), a successful African American executive that is trapped in a world of guilt and despair following the deaths of his wife and child.  PrideIndex chatted with Donlon about why he made THE MAN IN THE SILO, how he begged, borrowed and stole to bring this emotional roller coaster to life, and about his outstanding cast lead by Ernie Hudson’s performance of a lifetime.

PRIDEINDEX.COM (PI): Talk a little bit about your filmmaking experience and the journey to bring  THE MAN IN THE SILO to the big screen.

PHIL DONLON (PD): I started as an actor, and I still act. However, I was not happy with the quality of the television and film material I was getting, so I decided to make my own movie.  I took some of my own money and made a short film called WRESTLED. It went to Sundance back in 2003 and later the Independent Film Channel bought it and played it. I believe it played for a few years.  From that point, I was able to get the money to do another film.  I wanted to do something that was substantial and special that would showcase my talents as a director.

I become an actor after seeing Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING. It was the first film that I saw that I identified with more than just on an entertainment level. Although I thought DO THE RIGHT THING was a very entertaining, I dare not to say that it dealt with social issues.   I first saw it on television back when I was in high school. I remember its message hit me pretty hard.  I didn’t know that film could speak to me in that way.   Over the years, I began studying film and I later became to appreciate it as an actor.  Spike Lee was one of the many directors who later became one of my influences.   I grew to love Spike Lee’s whole body of work especially his earlier stuff.

When I began to put together “THE MAN IN THE SILO” in its initial stages, Senator Barack Obama was running for President of the United States.  I remember saying to my co-writer Christopher E. Ellis that I was going to make something that deals with racial issues today.  There are a lot of movies that deal with those issues, but they’re dated.  Racial inequality still exist and while we no longer have guys in white hoods burning crosses on the front lawn there is another kind of racism that exists especially in corporate America. When Obama first ran, I remember hearing people making comments about Obama such as, “he speaks well, but….” I thought, of course he does. He’s an educated man as I was picking up on those comments I knew that this was the sort of project I wanted to do so I investigated these issues.

I am not African American; I am White, so I don’t know the experience firsthand. I tapped into racism as carefully as I could. With THE MAN IN THE SILO, I really wanted it to be a man’s story that all could understand. In effect, I wanted it to be the kind of story that I could have sent to Spike Lee, he’d watch it, and he would say “thumbs up for the good job.” It was my impetus to getting to the script right.

PI:  What were some of the factors that influenced your decision to transition into filmmaking from acting?  Would you ever consider acting again if you were given the opportunity?

PD: I switched to being a filmmaker due to the fact that as a filmmaker I would have more control over the content that I was doing as opposed to just being handed a script.  I realized after being in the business for about 10 years, like with anything else,  you sort of get involved for certain reasons then you come to find out that things are not always like you expected. I want to make a difference and make good stuff that’s why I got into this business.

To answer the second question, I am currently starring in a film called HIGH & OUTSIDE; I am shooting it in Los Angeles. It is a baseball movie, indie film. I got Ernie Hudson involved in it because I remembering thinking to myself I want to work with this guy again.

A few years ago, I shadowed Peter Berg, the director of HANCOCK starring Will Smith.  Berg was   wonderful actor with a great career, but he’d switched over to directing. I asked him how he did it and how does he balance the two.  He said that you do a little less acting when you are directing, so it is just something that you have to deal with.  (Laughs) I have an identity crisis when it comes to acting and directing, but I try to make it work.

PI:  Which one do you enjoy more, being in front of or being behind the camera?

PD:  I enjoy all three them (acting, directing and writing) equally. I find that when I am behind the camera I love it, but there comes a point, usually when I am almost done with a project when I start to think, I don’t ever want to direct another movie for as long as I live.  And I will go back to acting and again when I get to the point when I am finish with that project and say, Gosh, I don’t want to ever act in another film and thank God that I can go back to directing.  I love them equally and get tired of them equally; it’s nice to have them both.

I have friends that are actors and they worry about this and that because they’re not in control, so it’s out if sight out of mind on some of that stuff for me.

PI:  Talking about the experience with MAN IN THE SILO specifically what was that experience like for you.

PD:   It was the education of a lifetime.  We literally begged, borrowed, and stole to get it done.  It just grew and grew and midway through our filmmaking Ernie Hudson said, “I’m going to hand over my paycheck back to film.”


PD:  Ernie said it best.  One day we were sitting around one day eating and he said. “Hollywood would never offer me a movie such as THE MAN IN THE SILO. Hollywood would never make this kind of movie.”  I thought it was the biggest compliment.  Making it was a dream.  We had this beautiful, well attended screening at Dennis Hopper’s Film Festival in Palm Springs, and someone stopped me in the hall and asked, “What does the script for this film even look like?   I cannot imagine it.”  It was a unique film; it was a unique experience.

I wanted to make the film feel like a dream.  I wanted to make it more than a narrative experience; it had to be an emotional experience.  Every film could be an emotional experience, but I wanted this film to be an emotional roller coaster.  When the film is done and clocks at exactly 55 minutes, an odd amount of time, it gives that emotional ride that you needed making it a wonderful treat.


PI: Talk about some of the hindrances or things that did not go right during the filming process and what did you do to correct them.

PD:   We shot some parts of the film in Los Angeles, Chicago, and rural parts areas of Wisconsin.  The interiors were shot in Los Angeles; each room was in a different location. For example, the kitchen was at someone’s house and other scenes were elsewhere. I spent month’s location scouting. I was very particular about how I wanted each thing to look.  We could not find just one house to shoot in.  We were literally on a shoe string budget, so we were carting everyone to these different locations.  That was not easy.  My DP was very serious about location.  He said it’s about location, location, location. Location and production design were going to make this film.  We could not find this farmhouse grain silo Midwest – like feel here in California, so we went elsewhere.  The train sequence was shot on the Metra train in Chicago. It was not easy carting everyone around and, because of that; I did not get to do as many takes as I wanted.   I gave everyone two takes.  That was the biggest challenge was for my actors because of the way I designed the film; I wanted it to feel like a visual poem, nightmare-like.

I decided that I was not going to do coverage in my movie.  Coverage is where you do a wide shot and a medium and then typically you will hit off with something that had two people in a scene; you’ll do two close ups.  And then you’ve got your stuff for the editor.  Well, on this project, I said none of that. I want one shot to move into the next.  I want the editing to almost take place as the audience watches it.  When someone sees the movie, they will think I have not seen a cut yet.  I have not seen an edit. I wanted it to be very seamless.  Because of that, the camera’s movement and the actor’s movement had to hit their marks exactly at the same time. That was very difficult and my actors did not understand.  When the film was over, and we did a showing of the final product, Ernie Hudson came up to me, and he said you know I got to tell you I did not know what you were attempting to do while we were shooting it but now that I saw the finished film thank you. Now I see what you were doing.  It’s beautiful.  That was the biggest compliment but that was also the biggest challenge.

We also had to deal with issues of constant raining in Wisconsin. We had to bring all the actors back again and costs rose.

PI:  Where was the film shown?

PD: We did a private screening for cast and crew in Beverly Hills. The first film festival was at Dennis Hopper’s Art Music -Film Music (AM-FM) Film Festival this past June in Palm Springs.  It was great festival.  They did not have a Q&A session planned after the film, but the audience stayed anyway and started asking where the director was. I stood up and took questions from the audience.  It was a nice compliment to the movie.

PI:  When was this film completed?

PD:   We completed MAN IN THE SILO in 2008 or 2009.   There were some issues that held up its release for a few years.  We have worked through those issues and now it is open to the public.

PI:  That is great.  I would like to commend you on being dedicated to the film even after a few setbacks in your quest to getting it out there to the audience.

PD:  Thank you.  It was rough; it was not easy. It was really hard to have this piece that you have put your blood sweat and tears into but not having it shown.  A film is meant to be shown.  It’s like when a tree falls in an empty forest, did it really fall? Was it always over?

The entire process worked on me mentally. MAN IN THE SILO is the little film that could.  The cast, crew, and post production players just poured their hearts into it many times for free.  That motivated me to make sure that this film did see the light of day.  But most importantly, it was about showing Ernie’s performance.  Some folks who have already seen it said this is some of the best work they have ever seen him do. I wanted to make sure the world would see what he as an actor could do. It’s like Raging Bull/Robert De Niro type stuff.

PI: What other film festivals do you plan on showing this film?

PD: I could not be the happier that it is playing at Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago in general. It has been my dream for THE MAN IN THE SILO to play at the Gene Siskel Theater and so the fact that this festival is giving it such love is exciting.

I had a conversation Steve Goldhuaer my other producer on this film.  I told him that all I wanted from this project is to just see it get the love it deserves.  I only want to show it at festivals where audiences will appreciate it and show it as much love as I did.  I want to have people who are genuinely excited to see and folks. I want to show it for audiences who will get and will talk about it.

After screening at the Black Harvest Film Festival, we’re going to take it one step at a time.  We’ve already had a ton of distribution offers to get it on DVD.  We’re looking forward to getting the world to see this incredible work done by Ernie Hudson, Christian Stolte (Chicago Fire), Sandra Robinson (The Bay), Brandon Ratcliff, Jodi Shilling, Jane Alexander and the entire cast and crew.

There is a part in the movie where Ernie Hudson has an emotional breakdown.  It was so good that it took a while for him to come out of it.  I remember when “cut” was yelled, I told everyone to leave the set, and I sat there and put my arm around him. Ernie could not even speak.  It’s good stuff.

THE MAN IN THE SILO  will be shown on August 14 at 8:15 pm at the 19th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival click here for more information.