Lee Phillips is an award-winning filmmaker, known for creating unforgettable documentaries. One of his more recent projects, Upstate Purgatory, gives viewers a look inside a jail in upstate New York and provides a brief look at the lives of four inmates in that jail. Though the film is less than twenty minutes long, the stories told remain with the audience long after the film has ended. Here, Phillips talks about why he wanted to tell the stories of those four inmates and how he hopes his films will impact people.
What made you decide to go into filmmaking?
I’d always loved movies, but I guess my passion for filmmaking was first ignited at art school. I was maybe 16 or 17 years old and I was being taught how to draw, how to paint etc. Art history was clearly par for the course, but what surprised me was the inclusion of classes in film history. This was way before any Media Studies courses existed and fresh out of high school, I’d never seen film as “art” before. Being introduced to the likes of Renoir, Scorsese, Kieślowski, Welles, Roeg, Kubrick and many others showed me cinema could be so much more than the entertainment I’d grown up with.
I started experimenting with a home video camera, shooting some short sequences and animations. It was the early nineties and the quality was pretty basic, but I really enjoyed the process of bringing images to life. By the time I’d finished my first year, I knew that I’d found my vocation. By the time I graduated, I’d never really explored the realms of documentary. I’d been trying to get funding to make a short film based on a screenplay I’d written. A television station was offering first time directors funding opportunities to produce their first film. The competition was tough and I’d made it through several rounds of the application, but was rejected at the final hurdle.
The following year, the network contacted me and told me they had really wanted to give me the opportunity the previous year, but had run out of slots. They suggested I reapply with a new project. It was Friday, and the deadline was the following Monday. I had no time to come up with a new script, and didn’t know what to do. That evening I saw a news item about a duo of skydivers that were attaching surfboards onto their feet and performing extraordinary acrobatics during free-fall. Out of desperation, I contacted these “sky-surfers” and hatched a plan to make a documentary about them.
A couple of weeks later, I was hanging out at a tiny airport in the middle of nowhere making what would become Beyond the Clouds. I loved the experience of unpacking the lives of extraordinary people (as opposed to the lonely process of sitting at a keyboard trying to create fictional characters). The short went on to win a bunch of awards and people seemed to really like it. This was 1999, and I’ve been making documentaries ever since.
Where do you find the inspiration for the documentaries you make?
It’s really tricky to say where I find inspiration. It could be from anywhere. Quite often, I’m approached with a territory for a potential project, and I try to work out if it’s something I think I could do justice to – or will keep me interested long enough to deliver. There are many projects that I develop that never get made, however the time taken researching them is never wasted, as elements often turn up in other projects. A good example of this is a project I was exploring about addiction. It never happened, but when I met some addicts in Albany Jail, I was immediately interested in them. Really what I’m looking for is interesting and surprising characters who are willing to let me delve deep into their lives. I’m also attracted to morally ambiguous situations that have the potential for conflict or drama.
Why did you choose Albany County Jail as the focus of Upstate Purgatory?
Upstate Purgatory happened by accident. I’d made a series for television in a UK prison and was approached about making a similar series in the US penal system. The production company had spent many months trying to secure access to a jail… several facilities had shown interest, but things kept falling down. Albany was interested in the idea, and I went over to meet the Sheriff. I convinced him to let us in and ultimately spent around 10 weeks filming a two part series for British television.
Over a hundred hours of footage would ultimately wind up forming just two hours of television. Inevitably, while editing, there were many difficult decisions, and some incredible stories that looked like they would never see the light of day. This is standard practice and over a near twenty-year career, I’ve become accustomed to giving up great material, and have grown confident in the fact that if I’m throwing out good stories, then I must be on to something special.
The series broadcast in June 2016 to over 3-million viewers. While we toasted our success, my long-suffering producer reminded me of some of the incredible stories we’d captured that didn’t make it: the Mexican Mafia hit-man recounting one of many murders he’d committed; the tears of a self-proclaimed “Slumlord” mourning over the body of a father that led him into a life crime; and the 21-year old heroin addict, Celeste… I will never forget the last time I saw Celeste.
All these people had been incredibly brave in sharing their lives with us, and I was saddened by the fact that I wasn’t able to get their extraordinary stories out into the world.
A few years back, I had a similar experience while making a series, and was able to cut together a short out of unused material called The Protesters. I wondered whether I might be able to do the same here. The trouble was I was due to start a new project, and in all likelihood wouldn’t have time.
Whilst on vacation, I tore a tendon in my arm and was unable to shoot my next project. Although I couldn’t hold a camera, there was nothing to stop me from getting into an edit suite. I couldn’t resist, and took the opportunity to revisit unused rushes from the jail and began scouring hours of hard won material for those golden untold stories. The intention was to see if there was a short film that could be cut together and released online.
How did you decide which inmates’ stories to feature in the documentary?
Once I’d identified four individuals who’d been the most difficult to loose, the challenge was how to bring them together to tell a compelling short form narrative. It was clear that each inmate offered recurring themes surrounding the fragility of life and death. There was also an element of each individual battling their identity and in many ways, they were all seeking to reinvent themselves.
I juggled the material for a couple of weeks before I found what now seems obvious: the jail could be interpreted as a physical manifestation of purgatory. In essence, the inmates all live here in limbo, awaiting judgment for their past sins. The question is, who will find redemption, and who will be condemned to a life behind bars in hell. Seeing the world I had captured this way was a eureka moment; and the footage I’d been grappling with fell together like it was always meant to be interpreted this way.
Did you encounter any complications while filming in Albany County Jail? Can you tell me about them?
Beyond the obvious safety aspects, the real challenge of filming in a jail is building trust. You need to gain the trust of both inmates and officers. It’s no surprise that officers don’t trust the inmates, and inmates don’t like officers. As an outsider, you quickly realize the impact of spending time in the company of an individual from either party might have an adverse effect on the willingness of the opposing party to open up to you.
The key to this is being truthful to everyone – never make false promises – and to be straight about your intentions. Correctional Officers spend their days being lied to, and each and every one of them can smell bullshit a mile away.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Upstate Purgatory? How do you hope your films, in general, will impact viewers?
I try very hard to ensure the edit is non-judgmental. I always say to my contributors, I am not there to judge them. I will challenge them, but I will always give them an opportunity to explain themselves and give context. I’m not there to be their friend. I am there to try and understand them. The viewer should be left to make up their own mind as to what they think about the characters and the situation they find themselves in. All I want is to create a rounded view that acknowledges their complexities.
These inmates have all made bad choices – and they are paying for them. But, in truth, I’ve never met an inmate that had the chances that I’ve had. I hope viewers may consider how their lives may have turned out differently, if they’d experienced the same upbringing as Celeste, Travis, Jason and Lorenzo. Their misfortunes certainly don’t excuse the crimes, but they certainly help explain where it all went wrong.
It’s clear that you worked to avoid creating a bias in Upstate Purgatory. Do you have any tips for new filmmakers on how to remain as unbiased as possible in their documentary filmmaking and editing processes?
It’s interesting because as a filmmaker you are taught to have a point of view – a voice. But I believe you can make compelling films by not telling the viewer what you think or feel about an individual or situation. In a sense, I like to create work where the viewer becomes the author. The world is not black and white, it is far more complex.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
Yes, I’ve just spent seven weeks on the US-Mexican border for a new documentary set during the first days of Trump’s presidency. As always, the reality of the situation is far more complex than you can imagine.