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13 December 2018

The quiet ambition of Courtney Phillips.

by Jason Stone


London Alley director Courtney Phillips may be just thirty years old but, with twelve years in the film business under his belt, he has a lot of experience. As we sit down to discuss a career which has won him a lot of admirers, you can't help but notice the way he hums with energy and ambition. He's not noisy or pushy though, he just exudes a quiet determination signalling the hustle that gets things done. He's going places.

Asked about how he started his film career, he describes "a naughty kid in Acton who had dropped out of school and was starting to get into mischief". Even though he'd been cast as "the little mixed race kid with the afro" in various promos thanks to his producer mother Kate Phillips, it didn't occur to him to press this family connection to open doors in the film business.

It was only when a friend of his sister's started earning money as a runner at his mother's company that it dawned on him that this was something he could do too. His mum had never pushed him in this direction and from the way he describes it, you suspect that this was wise parenting... she must have recognised that he needed to see the opportunity for himself. He speaks of her with quiet awe: "She was... she was ... waiting very patiently. She never pushed it in any way or form."

Working initially as a runner, his fascination with the whole filmmaking process quickly exorcised the mischievous demons which had threatened to take him off the rails and - instead - he set about learning as many of the ropes as he could.

As he worked his way around the film set devoting time to each of its many disciplines, he accumulated knowledge which would serve him well as he set out to become a director.

Emil Nava was a big influence on the aspiring director. Only a few years older, he nonetheless became Phillips's mentor and proved the proposition that you didn't need to go to film school to be a success.

Phillips's first significant breakthrough came in 2012 when he directed a promo for a friend who had formed a band: "He was posting music on Facebook. I was like, this is amazing, let me make your video."

I'm a Leo. It goes with my character.

Courtney Phillips   


The eager young director had made this same offer to a number of other bands and it had nearly come off a few times but, with a personal connection, success was always more likely. Luckily for everyone concerned, the band his friend formed was Bastille and they are now a worldwide sensation.

The promo Phillips had made for them for just 500 in his mother's house proved to be a huge catalyst for him.

I'm very much advocate of trying to get more black people in the industry, because I understand the ratio doesn't quite add up.

Courtney Phillips   


He agrees that he must have been pretty cocky to have set his heart on the big job when he first arrived on a film set. He explains it in astrological terms: "I'm a Leo. It goes with my character."

Phillips says his skin colour never proved a barrier to his progress: "No one said or did anything to my face that I can remember, to be honest. Everyone was always super lovely to me. But, at the same time, I'm very much advocate of trying to get more black people in the industry, because I understand the ratio doesn't quite add up."

Courtney Phillips had his eye on the more lucrative business of making TV commercials right from the get-go. And when he was in New York to shoot a promo based around kids he'd seen performing acrobatic dance routines on subway platforms, he spotted an opportunity: "There was Puma product placement in that music video. And I'd decided to cut that video into a 60" test commercial, knowing that commercials is where it's at. And it fucking worked."

It coincided with OB Management's decision to move into TVCs and using the Puma test film as an example of what he could do, they won Courtney Phillips an opportunity to direct a New Balance commercial.

Did he miss the opportunity for self-expression as he transitioned from promos to TVCs? "Yes and no. There is greater freedom overall but, you still have to appease the label and the artist and things get changed in the same ways that TVCs do. And, actually, the bigger budgets on TVCs can make things more open."

The piece of work which prompted our meeting represents another interesting step for Courtney Phillips. It's a trail for the BBC's latest talent competition - The Greatest Dancer and it takes brings together a lot of the director's skills. When you watch it, as well as being impressed by the choreography and its promo vibe, you can't help noticing what a challenge its makers set for themselves by including a whole load of mirrors set at different angles in front of the camera.

What on earth was he thinking? He laughs: "It was definitely a headfuck, at times. We knew there would be unwanted reflections, it was just a case of trying to minimise it."

It was definitely a headfuck, at times. We knew there would be unwanted reflections, it was just a case of trying to minimise it.

Courtney Phillips   


Phillips worked closely with fellow director Markus Lindqvist who still moonlights in his original role as VFX supervisor to make sure they could keep the post costs down: "There was a lot of planning. And there was also a bit of luck, as well. When we were there on the day, everyone was really obsessing over how we deal with the mirrors. And then when we got down to it, it's actually not as hard as we thought."

As well as being keen to credit the VFX team, Phillips texts straight after the interview to make sure there's a shout out for the creatives on the BBC film - Olly and Zane. Keen to pay forward the love he got from various mentors when he started off, Phillips considers incredibly important to offer any support he can to young collaborators and he says he's expecting great things of the duo.

With the rest of the crew taking care of the technical aspects, Phillips was able to concentrate on performance, and it's clear that he relishes the heightened level of co-operation that makes this possible.

We finish our chat by talking for a bit about a personal project Phillips has had in mind for a number of years and he promises he'll explain it more fully another time. He's made time for the interview as he dashes between meetings about the next thing and post-production work on the last but you sense he's taking it all in his stride.

You can see more of Courtney Phillips's work by visiting his page at the London Alley website. And then contacting Otis Bell on +44 20 7388 6050 or via email at otis@obmanagement.co.uk.

David Reviews is hand-crafted by Lovely Lenzie Ltd, 7 Seven Sisters, Lenzie, Glasgow, G66 3AW. Editor: Jason Stone. Phone: 0141 776 7766. E-mail: jason@davidreviews.com.