He’s an actor, director, playwright, screenwriter, film production designer, location manager, and, oh yes – he’s also a stonemason and heating stove specialist.
Doug Phillips is a man of many talents, many hats, and it’s all been more or less accidental.
“Nothing in my life has happened intentionally, I just drift through life,” Phillips, current owner of Hearthstone Stove & Chimney Services in Toledo, said in a recent interview.
Born in Wembley, London, England, Phillips, who still has a distinctly northwest London accent, started his working life as a stonemason in England, but not because he had any burning desire to build.
“I became a stonemason ‘cos there was no work at that time, I was unemployed and the government of the time opened a masonry school at the end of my street – I figured I wouldn’t have to get up too early!” said Phillips.
He came to Canada in the late 80s to visit his brother – but then married a Canadian and stayed. He fell into the stove business, when his wife decided to buy a dog.
“It was at a farm, and while my wife talked to the lady about dogs, I talked to the husband about something called ‘pellet stoves,’ then he asked if I could build him a fake fireplace façade for his showroom and it went from there,” said Phillips.
Even the plays he’s written, the movies he’s been involved in, have all come about by “accident.”
He recalled helping to build a set with Theatre Night in Merrickville, the community theatre group his daughter dragged him into, when he overheard someone lamenting the dearth of one-act plays suitable for festival.
“I wrote my first play, ‘cos I like Indian food,” he shrugged.
He had gone into an East Indian store in Ottawa, and the proprietor, a Mr. Singh, happened to be from the same area of London. Naturally they got chatting.
“I’m a very political person, and I grew up in the 70s under Margaret Thatcher, so as I was driving home from Ottawa, I thought about what would happen if Mr. Singh and I had been on opposite sides of the race issue,” explained Phillips.
What he wrote was a powerful one-act play about the insidiousness of racism. Naan Bread was first produced as a community play by Theatre Night in Merrickville. It was performed at the Eastern Ontario Drama League Festival in 2007, where it won the award for Best Original Play.
“Encouraged by this, I took the play to a play writing professor at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama, and together we developed it into a full length play, that was professionally produced in Ottawa,” said Phillips.
That production of Naan Bread garnered a rather odd review from CBC Radio’s theatre critic Alvina Ruprecht.
“The CBC trashed the production but praised the writing!” said Phillips.
With no formal training in theatre or writing, Phillips took this as further encouragement, and wrote The Righteous Tithe, which was first produced at the New Ottawa Repertory Theatre in 2009 and nominated for the Capital Critics Award in 2010.
The story unfolds as a harsh critique of the American security system from the mind of a man with both political astuteness, and the ability to create dialogue that tells a rich and nuanced tale without preaching.
“It’s a stark, honest look at the way the Patriot Act was being handled, from an Englishman’s perspective but with Canadian actors, and an American director,” recalls Sean Tucker, stage and film actor, co-founder and former managing director of the New Repertory Theatre in Ottawa.
It was Tucker who played the co-lead in the play and whose film connections led to the subsequent movie, in which he also played the co-lead alongside Phillips.
“So we’ve worked together many times, and we’ll work together again. He’s really easy to work with. You know Doug is a blue-collar Englishman with a very high intellect; he has a real talent for dialogue and sociopolitical commentary,” said Tucker.
While Phillips has acted in many of the plays he’s written, as well as films, he said acting is the least enjoyable for him.
“Acting is my least favourite, ‘cos I’m not seeing it when I’m doing it; stage is even worse, ‘cos you never see your performance,” admitted Phillips.
Production design or writing, he added, are different, because he has a visual representation of what he’s created.
“And I can put my hand on what’s wrong,” he explained, and that means he can fix it.
When Righteous Tithe was being filmed in 2011, the director of photography was none other than Adrian Langley, acclaimed cinematographer, known for the movies Crook, A Violent State and Gutshot.
Langley and Phillips developed a strong working relationship and in the ensuing years the two have produced three short films and a full length horror film, Butchers, which is currently in post-production scheduled to be released in 2020.
Although Phillips is no longer writing plays, Righteous Tithe wasn ‘t the end of the play writing phase. Phillips went on to write six more plays, all of which were professionally produced. His last, Beneath, which he also directed, was produced in 2017 at the Studio Leonard Beaulne, at the University of Ottawa and had its last performance at the Station Theatre in Smiths Falls.
The play postulates a scenario in which Donald Trump, self-proclaimed dictator of the United States, annexes Canada for its water resources.
A dark and realistic play, it garnered a glowing review from CBC Radio’s Ruprecht, adjunct professor in the Theatre Department of the University of Ottawa.
“This world premiere of a one act play by Doug Phillips is a work of futuristic hyper-naturalism that grabs us by the jugular because it seems perfectly logical and almost too plausible…..Phillips knows how to build horror, and tension, and astonishment as he plucks details from the present-day,” wrote Ruprecht in her critique of Beneath.
Since then, Phillips has put all his energies into film. While filming the movie Butchers on his property in Rockspring with Langley, Phillips was introduced to the lead actor, Simon Phillips, also a film producer and owner of Dystopian Films.
“We’re both from London, no relation at all, just coincidence,” said Doug.
Simon took a shine to Doug and offered him the job of production designer and location manager with Dystopian Films. So, Doug co-produced the horror movie The Nights Before Christmas, and the television series Age of the Living Dead.
Together Simon and Doug starred and co-produced the movie Stealing Chaplin (currently in post production), a violent crime comedy based on a true story, about two inept robbers who get it into their heads that they can steal Charlie Chaplin’s body from its resting place and ransom it for good money. Doug was commissioned to write the script.
“It was really a question of the right writer for the story; it’s very much Doug’s humour, and his dialogue is really very good,” said Simon. “And Doug is very good at taking suggestions; he’ll also have lots of input, but doesn’t lick his wounds if he doesn’t get his way.”
Unlike Doug’s other written works, Stealing Chaplin has no political undertones.
“This was a script that was commissioned, it’s not my idea, and in the precarious world of freelance writer, it’s income. I get a lump sum to write,” said the ever-practical Doug.
And yes, Doug does have a process when he sits down to write.
“I can’t write unless I’m listening to The Cure, albums two, three or five,” he said, and he also has to name a character before he can develop one.
“Names matter. I can’t write a character in a play or a book until I name them first, ‘cos they don’t mean anything to me until they have a name,” said Doug.
Right now, he’s just completed his first book, a work of fiction, that follows the antics of five punk rockers, constantly in trouble and usually drunk. It’s set in 1981 an era of high unemployment in the U.K.
“I wrote it ‘cos it ends on Charles and Diana’s wedding as a commentary on the one-percenters versus the 99-percenters and how things haven’t changed since 1981,” he explained.
For now, as he practices social distancing, he’s keeping busy building a spaceship in his barn, for the next movie he’s working on with Dystopian Films.