He loves it so much, in fact, that he spent nearly four years working on a documentary film about the Star Wars fandom, called “The People vs. George Lucas.” The film received a lot of attention both nationally and internationally, after premiering at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas.
Philippe, who is based out of Denver, has made a number of other films, including a more recent documentary called “Doc of the Dead,” about the rise of zombies in the pop culture landscape.
While Philippe won’t physically be at theBreckenridge Film Festival — he’ll be in Los Angeles shooting his latest project, a documentary on the infamous shower scene in“Psycho” — he will likely be available for a Q&A session after the showings of his films.
The Summit Daily News caught up with Philippe for a little Q&A before the festival, and geeked out about Star Wars, zombies and why they matter.
Summit Daily News: Why is pop culture so important?
Alexandre Philippe: I think we really need to pay attention to pop culture, and not just pay attention to it but preserve it. And we also need to learn from it, to take a page from it, because if you look at even Denver Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con, and you look at these essentially different cultures — there are people into Zelda or Star Trek or Harry Potter or whatever the case may be — and they co-exist in a very fun constructive sort of way, and you look at the state of our politics today,(laughs), you look at the kind of language and tactics that the candidates are resorting to and the divisiveness that we get, whether it’s politics or religion or social issues, whatever we deem important, it’s all about dividing us. And I think if we’re going to move forward in a coherent way as human beings, we need to look at what we have in common as well, as humans. And there’s nothing wrong with a little fun, and making fun of each other in a playful way, and making fun of ourselves in a fun way. Those are attributes of pop culture that I respect deeply and it really troubles me that we don’t give it the respect that it deserves.
SDN: Let’s talk Star Wars. When did the idea for the concept of “The People vs. George Lucas” come into being?
AP: Oh my gosh, that project really started back in roughly 2007, I think. … If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know instinctively those kind of interesting relationships fans have with George Lucas. … I had the title in mind for years and years and when I brought it up to my director of photography one day — he’s a huge Star Wars fan — … and he immediately said, “We gotta do this.” That began the journey. It was really an intense, almost four-year project. We conducted — ourselves — 126 interviews, I think, around the world. We had … fans submit footage to us, with over 630 hours of footage. I mean, it was a beast, you know. But a lot of fun to make, and it was a big success. It premiered at South by Southwest. … It was great, it’s been really great, having the Star Wars fans really embrace that film, you know. It’s become part of the discussion.
SDN: So it was the title that sparked the idea for you?
AP: Yeah. There’s really nothing in the world of fandom like Star Wars fandom, and there’s nothing that compares, in terms of this very interesting sort of dynamic between George Lucas and his fans. In popular culture there’s nothing like it and I felt like it needed to be explored and to look at both sides of course, but also really ask the question that when something as extraordinary popular and important as Star Wars is out there, and people around the world embrace it, to what extent does that piece of work still exclusively belong to its maker, or does it also belong to all of us? And that’s a very tricky question to answer to a certain extent, and what I think makes this very interesting is the fact that George changed the original trilogy numerous times, and kept saying he wasn’t going to release the original cut that we’d seen in theaters, and it raised lots of interesting questions. That’s what I really had fun digging into.
SDN: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
AP: I think it depends on whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not. … You always try to make the film that would be accessible to people who had never even watched Star Wars, and I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve actually had many people come up to me after the screenings that were not Star Wars fans and had never seen Star Wars that said, “Oh my gosh that was so much fun.”
But what I hope people would get out of it is, again, I think that for people to think about this idea of what is a work of art, and can we make the argument that a work of art that has been embraced by us as a culture belongs to all of us? I think there’s definitely some questions that go beyond just Star Wars, beyond just George Lucas, obviously, in the film itself, but one thing I try to do in every single one of my documentaries is make sure that they’re very fast-paced and entertaining and a good ride, and I think that’s always the best way to get the attention of people who are watching it.
SDN: So even a documentary should have a plot, so to speak, and forward movement.
AP: I always very tightly structure my films. My background is actually in dramatic writing, so I really came into this field as a storyteller, and that’s always paramount to me, is telling a good solid story, with a point of view and something to say.
I’ve always looked at that film as a love story between George and the fans. It was this perfect idyllic love that became pretty dysfunctional, and that came back around. … I think again, what he’s given us is tremendous; I don’t think fans have any right to complain, considering what he’s given us, but I also think it’s good for George to have let go and enable other people to do some cool things with his creation. … So I mean, you know, the film is obviously not an attack — quite the contrary, I think it’s a very loving film, and I don’t think you can make a film about George Lucas if you don’t have that love. If you don’t have that respect for what he’s created, then I think the film would have tanked.
I definitely look at that sort of nerd or fan anger as much critically as well, you know. There are fans who go way too far in that anger, but that’s also part of the documentary, is looking at both sides of the story.
SDN: What is your favorite Star Wars film?
AP: It has to be “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s really the greatest, and it’s, I think, the most accomplished film. And to me, I really look at the first trilogy as one big movie, and of course it has a number of flaws, but they’re very endearing flaws and I think, it really is my childhood you know, I can’t separate it from that. I will always, always love those movies.
SDN: Moving on to zombies — at what point did zombies enter pop culture?
AP: Zombies obviously have been part of underground culture, a very strong one, certainly since“Night of the Living Dead.” But they really start coming to the forefront quite recently, and you know, when you talk to zombie experts, and zombie scholars, whatever you want to call them, there is an argument to be made that 9/11 is what really changed everything. Because there’s this idea suddenly that the apocalypse was brought to our doorstep and that’s where you really start seeing the emergence of the fast zombie, which really brings in the metaphor of our fears are greater now, we need a faster zombie, you know.
Shortly after that you have the first zombie walk in Toronto that grew year after year, very quickly, and started leading to other zombie walks and zombie runs and zombie fashion shows, you name it. There was this kind of accelerated process that leads us to where we are now, which is — zombies are everywhere.
SDN: What is your favorite zombie movie?
AP: I would have to give you something other than the classic answer, (which) definitely has to be “Night of the Living Dead.” … One film that I’ve always liked is a Canadian zombie film called “Fido,”which is really smart and beautifully made. … It’s a really clever, really fun film.
SDN: Do zombies still have a future, or have we exhausted the subject?
AP: No, I think, like everything, I think the sign of a healthy genre is when numerous talented people try a bunch of different things with the genre, and as long as that happens, there’s going to be a very healthy future for zombie films.
Like recently, the Norwegian film “Dead Snow 2” that came out, I thought was even way better than“Dead Snow.” …. The sequel is what the first one should have been. It’s like finally, they found their voice, … and they completely nailed it; it’s a really great flick.
So as long as you see that kind of stuff happening, as long as it’s not the same old, same old slow shambling zombie, shot in the head whatever after a while…. and interesting enough, this is what the zombie purists are complaining about, this idea that if it’s fast, it’s not really a zombie. If it doesn’t eat guts, it’s not really a zombie. And the moment you start putting yourself in that box, the genre has these very restrictive rules, that’s when you kill it. And I think that people need to try different things. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t work, and that’s the way it is. I think that as long as people do that, we’ll see lots of zombie films out there, and novels and comic books.
SDN: What does your zombie documentary focus on?
AP: It’s very specifically looking at how zombies went from the underground to the mainstream in a short time. It’s looking at the state of the rise of zombies in popular culture. And in order to do that, of course, we go back to the origins of the zombie, and all the way to pretty much present day right now.
But it’s also, there’s a bunch of fictional scenes and recreations, some crazy stuff going on in this film. Because it’s a zombie documentary, I also like to play with the idea of questioning what you’re watching, is it real or is it not? There’s a number of segments where you’ll watch it, and go is this real is this not real? So yeah, I had a little fun with it.
SDN: What’s the next zombie? Werewolves maybe?
AP: If I knew what the next new monster creation was going to be, then I’d write that thing, I’d make that thing right now (laughs). It’s exceedingly rare to have a monster become not just iconic but just to really create an entire genre, you know, and that’s why we have so few of them.
What’s interesting about the zombie is it really came out of cinema, as opposed to the other monsters that really came out of literature. Of course I’m talking about very specifically the modern zombie, which is the Romero zombie. There were zombies before that but a very different kind. I think right now, for better or worse, I think we’re kind of stuck with the zombies for a while.
I would imagine that the vampires are going to have their upper hand again at some point, I’m not seeing werewolves though. I mean, werewolves have always been around but they’ve never really captured the zeitgeist in the same way.
SDN: I wonder why?
AP: I just don’t think they resonate in the same way, because they’re too, well, if you look at the zombie for instance, the zombie you can certainly say “zombies are us.” They’re kind of a blank slate. If you’re working with a zombie movie, you’re working with a blank canvas — you can make a zombie movie about politics, you can make a zombie movie about consumerism, you can make a zombie movie about terrorism, about anything. It’s difficult to do that with a character that turns into a wolf every full moon, it’s very restrictive I think.
SDN: So it’s the strict genre rules that kill it?
AP: To a certain extent. Again, werewolves have given us a number of really fun great films as well, but I don’t think it’s as versatile a monster as the zombies are, or the vampires. Vampires are very versatile as well. … So I think these two, for the foreseeable future, are going to be our sort of key screen monsters for a long long time to come. Eventually I’m sure somebody will come up with something that will capture the zeitgeist and that will be the (new) phenomena.
SDN: Is there anything you would like to add?
AP: I’m always honored to be asked to show my films and certainly (it’s) a big honor to get to show them again in Colorado. I hope that many people who haven’t had a chance to catch those films on the circuit or on Netflix or elsewhere will get a chance to watch them on the big screen and have fun. I’m just very sorry I won’t be there in person, but I’ll be there in spirit.