There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Dante Alighieri has nothing on Gordon Hauge. In the first few minutes of writer-director Philip Cook’s new Despiser, the “independent artist” gets fired from his job, gets dumped by his wife, and gets in a car accident. He ends up in purgatory.
After being deposited in a dark forest, Gordon fights off a crowd of hooded, scythe-wielding figures wearing what look to be garbage bags. He engages in car chases and gun battles. He encounters a host of strange, computer-generated creatures, including troll dolls that bombard him with taunts of “You’re gonna die!” and the giant, buglike Despiser himself, who rules his realm with the help of many legs and shiny teeth. And he learns a bit of straight-to-video wisdom: “You’ve gotta have faith, a will to survive,” a fellow purgatorian tells him. “You lose your spirit and you’ll end up enslaved to the Despiser.”
Those words have a special resonance for the 42-year-old Cook, who in the past two decades has made three movies, all of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre and all on a shoestring. The first two aired on cable; none have ever been released theatrically. Cook’s one-man company, Eagle Films, makes the bulk of its money on video-production work and political commercials. “As an artist, sure, you’ve gotta have faith, no doubt about that,” Cook says. “When you’re doing something creative, there’s always that fear of being out there with your very personal creative thing and having people say, ‘That’s lame.’”
He has a million stories to tell about the problems of lining up investors; of lighting, shooting, and editing everything himself; and of fighting to get his movies seen. Despiser, which was filmed mostly in a warehouse near Cook’s home in Falls Church, Va., has taken home prizes for best picture, best director, and best special effects at small horror-film festivals such as Los Angeles’ Shriekfest and Modesto, Calif.’s, Firelight Shocks Film Festival. But Cook still sounds weary talking about it. “It was a long haul,” he admits.
He wrote the script 13 years ago. Since then, he’s made certain telling changes to his tortured-artist protagonist. “Initially, it was this story of a young man and all the enthusiasm you have in your creative pursuit and the issues that it may not turn out,” says Cook. “Then Gordon and I got old, and I thought, I can’t get into this now. So now he’s someone who’s sort of been knocking around a while, and it still isn’t working out.”
This, of course, suggests a question: Just how closely does the author resemble his character? “Well, there are some similarities,” Cook says with a laugh. “But I don’t necessarily like to admit it, because Gordon’s a pretty messed-up guy. I think I’ve got it together a lot more than he does.”
The son of an Air Force engineer, Cook grew up in Mount Vernon, Va. He made his first movie at age 16, with his dad’s old 8 mm Bolex camera. “I wanted to make these epics, and, obviously, I never had the resources to be able to do it,” recalls Cook. “I did a Star Wars knockoff, and I did all these visual effects that were pretty amazing then.”
Cook brought that early effort with him when, in 1978, he went to the University of Maryland, College Park, to study film. “I screened it in one of my first classes and it just blew everybody away,” he says. “They were all doing drug-deals-on-the-corner kinds of Miami Vice knockoffs, and I walked in with this spaceship battle and explosions.”
After graduating, Cook worked briefly for local horror-film producer Don Dohler and then for a production company that contracted with MTV. In 1983, he left to freelance. Since then, he’s racked up a client list including companies such as AOL Time Warner, AT&T, and the Washington Opera, and politicians such as Michael R. Bloomberg, Jay Rockefeller, and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez. But that’s all the day job.
“I’ve always loved telling stories and creating other worlds, interesting places to visit and have adventures in,” says Cook. “Mainstream Hollywood is creating some of them, but to me there’s still a void there. These worlds are more exciting than the day-to-day real world that we live in….They’re enchanting, wondrous places, and there’s a little bit of mystery and a little bit of danger, and by making a movie you sort of get that in a surrogate sort of way. Whereas in our lives, we’re lucky to keep the car, have a county inspection on it, pay our taxes.”
Cook wrote his first feature, Star Quest, in 1984. The story of a genetically engineered assassin who escapes his handlers to search for a crashed alien spacecraft, the film was reviewed in Variety and even exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. Cook spent a year raising the money to convert the 16 mm film to a 35 mm print, but Star Quest was never picked up for theatrical release.
Cook still had high hopes for Despiser, though. In 1991, he and a friend headed to Santa Monica, Calif., to seek financial backers at the annual American Film Market. Neither had bothered to buy an official pass to the event, so they decided to print their own fake badges and bluff their way in. They just needed a company name for their IDs, and Cook came through in a moment of inspiration. “I was trying to think of a name that people might’ve heard of but that didn’t actually exist, and I thought, Eagle Films,” he says.
Cook didn’t get the money for Despiser that day, but he did snag a deal for a 1987 script called Invader. About a reporter who discovers that a military commander has taken over a UFO and is using its resources to engineer weapons, the film aired on HBO, Showtime, and the Sci-Fi Channel in 1993.
By then, Cook had concluded that going for the big screen just wasn’t a good economic choice for him. With Despiser, which finally began production in 1998, the director embraced his limited resources. He built and painted the sets and did all the cinematography and most of the post-production and CGI work himself. He recruited his wife, Helen Cook, to handle costumes and craft services. He also decided to go straight to video.
“There is an audience that will seek out these B titles, sometimes full well knowing it’s a bit of a roulette,” he says. “It’s like, OK, how bad is this going to suck? It’s not for everyone: You have to suspend your disbelief. I think my picture is one of those that surprises them. It’s not like most films. If you’ve seen it, whether you like it or not, you’ll remember it.”
So far, Cook’s new approach has paid off. Since Despiser’s release last month, Cook has sold 7,000 DVD and VHS copies of the film to Blockbuster. He’s also struck a deal with Hollywood Video and is beginning to work on overseas distribution. He’s already secured contracts in France, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Turkey. Cook says he’s recouped his budget threefold.
The director likes to think that he’s made something of a niche for himself. “My films are imaginative, unusual, unexpected pieces of entertainment,” he says. “People might say, ‘Here’s this guy who makes these wild effects films for little or no money.’ I don’t want to leave that as my epitaph, but I think my films are ambitious given the scale I’m working in.”
Still, Cook admits he’s lowered some of his expectations over the years. “I don’t have that pretense anymore of Steven Spielberg calling: ‘Phil, we just saw Despiserit’s absolutely brilliant! Can you come down and direct our next picture?’” He laughs. “After the first movie, I thought, Where are the calls? Second one: I don’t think they’re going to come. Third one: I know they’re not going to come.
“You kind of, in the back of your mind, wish that would happen, and if they do call, that’s great,” he continues. “But I know that the next picture, I’m going to end up doing it all myself again and, like before, I’m going to have to drag it kicking and screaming every step of the way.”
When conversation turns to his next movie, Cook bolts off, excitedly searching for a sales pitch he’s already put together. He returns with a portfolio of Gothic-looking images, figures sparring in dark, forbidding landscapes. He’s working on a script for what he calls a “Braveheart-meets-Lord of the Rings fantasy-action film” set in fifth-century Britain. His characters, he says, will do battle in both the real world and the afterlife. He’s already found someone in India who will make the armor for the costumes, and he’s located a Roman re-enactment group here in D.C.
Cook won’t say for sure whether he’s going to follow through on the pitch, though. “I’m gonna wait and see how the dust settles on Despiser before I decide if I want to take the plunge into this mayhem again,” he says. “Part of me asks, Why am I considering doing this again? I’m not getting rich off this. They’re awfully hard. There’s great risk involved financially. I do contemplate, Should I walk away from this whole thing?
“But it would be a shame to say you’ve spent 25 years of your life honing this discipline and finding ways of pulling this stuff off and then quit. So I guess I’m going to see how far I can gountil somebody notices and gives me an opportunity to make something in a more mainstream way, so I can get out from underneath that low-budget stigma.”
That said, how does Cook feel about the prospects for what might or might not be his next low-budget project? “If I decide to make it,” he says, “it could be really cool….” CP
Despiser screens at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. For more information, call (202) 736-1732.