Checking in with Linas Phillips

When we last checked in with writer/actor/filmmaker Linas Phillips for 2014’s Future List, he had just appeared on Eastbound & Down as the eccentric, nunchuck-wielding Shawnsey (pictured left), a character he workshopped at many of Seattle’s comedy open mics. He had also just wrapped a film with Mark and Jay Duplass, Manson Family Vacation, which premiered this week at SXSW and was swiftly scooped up by Netflix. (The Duplasses also signed a four-picture deal with Netflix earlier this year at Sundance.) In this movie, Phillips plays another difficult weirdo, a man obsessed with Charles Manson. Jay Duplass plays his brother, a lawyer and family man. Together they go on a freaky fraternal road trip to visit the Manson murder sites. 

I caught up with Phillips in Austin via phone as he hopped into a car to head to another screening.

Are you still at SXSW?
Yeah, I go back to LA tonight.

The movie you costar in just got picked up by Netflix.
I recommend working with Mark and Jay Duplass if you have the chance.

This started as a microbudget Kickstarter project and now it’s gonna get massive distribution. What does that feel like?
Great! The movie has a lot of very cool elements. There’s Manson, people can get intrigued by that, but at the heart it’s a pretty meat-and-potatoes movie that I think a lot of people can relate to with the brother dynamic. It’s a movie that should get sold.

The International Business Times said that it has the one of most bizarre opening scenes of the festival.
Yeah, it’s got amazing clips of Manson in it, and he is just very extraordinary and charismatic, the deranged poet-prophet.

Your character was obsessed with him so you went pretty deep on Manson lore.
My apartment was filled with Manson books for quite a while. Girls would come over and say, “What’s up with the Manson books?” ”I’m making a movie! I swear it’s for a movie!”

Was this the premiere?
The premiere was Monday and we had another great screening yesterday morning. People laughed and the Q&A was great. I think people were a bit hesitant, appropriately, to laugh at the stuff where my character is talking about Charles Manson a lot in the beginning. But then it gets away from that and more into the relationship between the brothers.

We had to be a little more sincere and earnest with the emotional dynamics of the characters when dealing with that stuff so it didn’t seem disrespectful, because my character is talking about specific details of murder sites. I thought there’d be more laughs in those places, but people were sussing out the film and wondering if they can trust it on an ethical level.

As a filmmaker, how does it feel to have gone through that whole production process and finally get to see it with an audience there, to see if the jokes land?
I started performing comedy when I was in high school so that was my first experience with audiences, and I feel like it’s affected my filmmaking. You’re creating stuff because you hope it’ll land. [With films] it’s just a way longer time to know for sure.

It’s easier acting in a movie—I’m a writer on the project too—but you just don’t have that same anxiety going into a screening. You’re just like, “That was the best I could do for my part.” The whole thing is dependent on the director. It’s more enjoyable to not have that burden of the director.

How are the Shawnsey-related projects, are we gonna see anything with those?
Actually, there’s a character in my next film named Shawnsey. It’s a little bit different than how I do him onstage, a little more innocent and more handicapped version of him. That film is called Rainbow Time and I’m gonna do it in June or July in LA. It’s a super small movie, way smaller than the Manson movie.

Honestly, it was like going to film school working with Jay Duplass. I have a little momentum going. I’m gonna hit it hard and not take another five-year break between features—not ever take another break again if I can help it.

What’s the most insane thing you’ve seen at SXSW this year?
Doing press with Jigsaw [Tobin Bell] from the Saw movies was pretty hilarious. We had these really dumb interviewers from the college, they’re film students and they didn’t know how to use the camera. So me and Jigsaw are setting up this guy’s camera so we can get out of the interview and run to our Q&A. That was my favorite surreal moment. Jigsaw was like, “No you want to put it over here and you want to be sitting next to the camera so our eye line is for the camera.”

And then he murdered her.

He actually did murder? I haven’t read about that in Variety yet.
Yeah I think they’re trying to quash it but it’ll get out there. You might as well break it.

Thanks for the hot tip!
Jay Duplass murdered someone a couple days ago, too.

I read about that, but he’s got the Netflix deal now so it’s cool.
The whole sale thing too is probably helpful because Jay and his success with Transparent is great for the movie. He’s so good in that show and in our movie. When we started, that show hadn’t even come out. He had just come from the set [of Transparent] so he was really warmed up. He went from having a trailer on an amazing civil rights movement TV show to running around the desert with me.

How did you hook up with those guys?
Mark and Jay are so supportive. They’re like angels of filmmaking. Mark helped me find a producer for Back Asswards, and we had talked about doing another project at some point. I kinda stalled out on it, stupidly—I couldn’t get the script done. I already knew Mark and then Jay I met because of Manson.

You left Seattle and things just started happening. Is that how it works? Get the hell out of Seattle?
Seattle was a great time to reconnect with that creative spirit and try to have fun coming up with jokes and writing stuff. I wrote two screenplays while sitting in my apartment in the Laurelton. I feel like I went there to get my mojo back.

With the whole Manson thing, I was working on the script with the director [J. Davis] for like two years while I was living in Seattle, so it was a lot of planting seeds. People are like, “How’d you get that role?” Well, because I talked to that guy for two years. It’s not just because I went to LA.

You had planted those seeds well before. You’re the rare case of someone who went to LA when they had already laid some groundwork instead of just showing up, like, “Make me famous!”
Although I’m starting work at P.F. Chang’s next week, so I could’ve laid a little more groundwork.  

Photos by Linas Phillips. Tobin Bell photo by Cathey Greutert.