There Is No Box: Phil Dunn

(Note: It has taken a week for me to collect my thoughts on this amongst all the other written things I fill my life with, so for this, I apologize in retrospect.)

Tuesday 12 March 2019

12.15 p.m. at Specialty Cinema

Dir.: Phil Dunn

Country: UK

Runtime: 9:20

In Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), the eponymous director (Alejandro Jodorowsky) is introduced in a voiceover. For the purposes of this article on Phil Dunn’s Box Office Smash, I am going to replace the movie title Dune with Box Office Smash in said voiceover:

‘I wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with the drug, but without hallucinating. I did not want LSD to be taken; I wanted to fabricate the drug’s effects. The film was going to change the public’s perceptions. My ambition with Box Office Smash was tremendous. So, what I wanted was to create a prophet. I want to create a prophet to change the young minds of the world. For me, Box Office Smash will be the coming of a God.’

This may seem a trite way to open an article: by having the words of another filmmaker stand in for the words of Phil Dunn. But there is a point to this exercise.

Director Phil Dunn

Real Phil, now: ‘I made it thinking that no one was gonna watch it,’ his hair is slicked back; the smile is wide and warm, like something you might see in a British Airways commercial, ‘but I just gotta make it, I just gotta get this out of my system.’

It had been in his system for years. And although it wasn’t (by his own admission) an important film, he realized it would have a cause precisely because it did not have a cause.

“That for me is the incredible thing, some of these festivals, their audience; the fact that they like it enough to show it, let alone to nominate it. Let alone to give it an award. That’s been incredible. And I still don’t understand it to be honest. I’m like, ‘What are you seeing that I can’t?’”

He may be laughing when he says this, but what he’s highlighting is in fact an important truth concerning filmmaking: once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.

He said as much himself: ‘Once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.’

Told you.

‘That’s literally what I’ve found with this film [Box Office Smash],’ he continues, “it’s going travelling around the world. It’s like, ‘Oh! I’m over here now! I’m in New York! I’m in L.A.!’ And you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And whoever appreciates it, appreciates it. You don’t have any control over that, but man, it’s so lovely that anybody does at all.”

Box Office Smash was a personal pet project: the three Ps.

The genesis of the film came when Phil was running through a park (He neglected to tell your correspondent whether he was running from or to something…). He stopped by a field for a breather. It was at this point—the planets aligning, and Jodorowsky boiling an egg, I presume—that Phil thought to himself, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you saw a guy working inside a cardboard box in the middle of this park.’ As you do. But you do. This is so true: the birth of an idea from nowhere. Except it’s not. Phil was responding to his surroundings.

‘It was just one of those silly little ideas,’ he remembers, ‘it just wouldn’t go away for literally four or five years. I kept thinking about it.’

He soon realized (5 years? Time is relative, as Jodorowsky would tell you!) that it was the idea that wouldn’t go away. He started to build a narrative around it. Kept it simple. Kept it personal, since the personal is universal. ‘It’s very rich and deep to me,’ Dunn notes, ‘I thought about it a lot: a bit like poetry where you can consider and contemplate a particular thing. And try and find the words to paint the picture around that subject to help people see what it is you’re feeling about it.’

With a background in theology and poetry, the words Box Office Smash were envisaged as word play, a poem.

Then, he started to think how those words would look in the real world. The eponymous box was designed and redesigned again and again. He built it in his garden. Then he de-built it. Re-built the box: ‘I took it apart five times in my garden to figure out the construction of the thing.’

James Killeen as Office Man

As far as boxes in movies go, this is one of the best boxes in Cinéma du Boîte. I do not say this lightly. Why not? Why am I making such a big deal out of Box Office Smash? It’s good, yes. But it has another quality: a quality that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune would have had, had it been made.

‘It’s quite a spiritual film,’ I say, ‘not a religious film, but a spiritual film. Was that quality present when you were making it?’

‘For me,’ Phil begins, “it is about how we, as human beings, want to put things in boxes, and put ourselves in boxes. And as far as the universe, God, the meaning of life: we want to try to pin it down and say, ‘It’s like this!’ Like Jesus: his teachings were saying to the religious people of the time, ‘You’re trying to put it all in this box; there is no box! Stop that!’ This religion thing isn’t what it’s about. It’s actually about real people being alive, being everything they’re meant to be. Being loved. Being able to love. Religion wants to make you have to live up to some sort of standard. And the fact is we just can’t. We need to break out of that.”

Was he like director Bruce Robinson the night before the first day of shooting on Withnail and I (1986)? Was he trying to get drunk on cheap vodka and failing dismally? No, he was not. Though he has seen Withnail and I.

He was, on the first day of filming, somewhat teary-eyed after the first shot had been filmed: the Box Offices in the park. ‘I had all this in my head and now it’s here in front of me,’ Phil remembers thinking. ‘We can change reality!’ His hands are really animated now. ‘This is what human beings are all about!’

There is a momentous quality to Box Office Smash: something bigger than all of us. I would have written the article sooner, but I needed time to consider the film in depth. Not what it was about, but what it stood for. I’m still thinking.

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