How one film student hit the big time right after graduating (and how you can too!)
When Phil Dorling enrolled at the New York Film Academy to undertake a one-year filmmaking program, little did he suspect that he’d be shooting a feature-length Sundance hit with Jesse Eisenberg shortly after graduating.
But that’s exactly what happened. At the time of writing, Phil is only 26 but is already making noise with Why Stop Now? featuring Eisenberg, Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan (and currently available on iTunes, Amazon and on-demand services.) In addition, he has non-directing credits on highly acclaimed films such as the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.
WHY STOP NOW brings together the comic talents of Academy Award-nominee Jesse Eisenberg, Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan in the summer’s wildest comedy. Eli (Eisenberg) is a piano prodigy. Today is the audition that will determine his future– will he launch a career and take off into the world? Or will he stay stuck, caring for his sister and mother (Leo) who, despite her cheerful, loving disposition, is a drug addict. The only obstacle to a seamless transition into his future is dropping off Mom off at the center where she will enter rehab, but a glitch in the system forces sends them off to enlist the help of an unlikely ally, her drug dealer Sprinkles (Morgan). The day spirals downhill quickly, and the hapless team must collaborate every step of the way to battle their own demons and get Eli out of the rabbit hole.
Phil’s story might well be one of the most meteoric rises to industry success we’ve seen in recent years. So just how did Dorling get to work with award-winning A-listers so soon into his fledgling career, and how can aspiring filmmakers emulate such a breakthrough?
Dorling’s passions were a little different in his younger years. He started out trying to make a career in skateboarding. Alas, despite suffering numerous grazes to the knees, Phil ultimately decided professional skating was a pipe dream, but his escapades did give him the opportunity to become acquainted with camera work.
This passion for filming culminated in taking a mixed-media course in his high school years, and it was during these years that he realized a desire to move from shooting skate footage to a narrative storytelling genre. It was also around this time that he set his sights on the New York Film Academy to accelerate the learning process.
“I went to the one-year filmmaking program at the NYFA. It seemed right up my alley; only hands-on classes, no grades, no math, no science, just film,” Phil explains. “I was on a mission from there. The New York Film Academy opened up my mind, my hustle, and gave me the training and confidence I needed to reach for my dreams. The technical and craft oriented classes made me a well-rounded filmmaker.”
A Natural Progression
Other than the speed at which things moved for Dorling, his journey through the ranks is typical of many New York Film Academy graduates working from the ground up. Living in New York provided him with opportunities to get his foot in the door after graduating, notably landing a gig as an intern for the art department working on Racing Daylight (starring Melissa Leo). This progressed to a role as set dresser, and it was during his time on set that he was able to foster connections with esteemed actors such as Melissa and other filmmakers, and meeting with Jesse Eisenberg in Georgia while on the set of Zombieland.
The pair hit it off, and two years of hard graft (Phil worked solidly on the project between graduating in ’08 and the film’s release in ’11) the movie Why Stop Now? came into fruition.
Words from the Wise
While everyone’s journey to professional filmmaking is naturally different, Phil offers fundamentally important advice.
Firstly, he credits moving from hobbyist to professional level to having a strong work ethic, and rightly points out that nothing will come to you easily. Being a hard worker is the one of the key traits of a successful filmmaker. That said, luck is also a big factor so don’t be afraid to dive into opportunities no matter how daunting they may seem.
Surround yourself with great mentors, too. Phil was lucky to have screenwriter Ron Nyswaner take him under his wing, and anyone with similar contacts should not only take advantage of their wisdom but also work hard to impress them.
Try to also gain the technical expertise necessary to back up your drive to succeed. Phil gained his experience via the New York Film Academy and at a local program called IndieLab, but there’s also nothing wrong with immersing oneself in the technical details while on a job too.
Images courtesy of NYFA and Ethan Downing