Wales-born filmmaker Phillip Escott grew up loving cult cinema and documentaries, so it is no surprise that he spends his days now making them. As the head of independent production company called 441 Films, Phillip produces numerous docs – for companies like Arrow Video, Eureka Entertainment, and 88 Films – as well as feature films. His latest, “Cruel Summer,” tells the harrowing story of a boy that is maliciously bullied. Available on VOD this month from Wild Eye Releasing, it’s a disturbing movie that, Phillip explains, is inspired by the tragic, true story of a young boy in Sheffield, England.

Phillip recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed his life as a filmmaker and the making of “Cruel Summer”:

Movie, inspiration, and cast

Meagan Meehan (MM): What sparked your inspiration to become a filmmaker and how did you manage to get your start?

Phillip Escott (PE): I’ve been a cinema obsessive since childhood, I grew up in video stores. Film was always an avenue I wanted to go down, but the closest my family got to have a connection in the industry was my Grandfather who was a projectionist for 20th Century Fox and the cinema he worked in shutdown before I was born, so that was helpful. As an industry it all seemed very closed-off to someone like me, I’m just a working-class kid from Cardiff, filmmaking happened in London and L.A; not in Wales.

But there I was, spending all my time watching films, skipping school and heading to the local market which didn’t mind selling ‘18’ rated VHS tapes to a minor. It was the works of Wes Craven, George Romero, John Carpenter, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci that got me fully immersed in the film, especially the horror genre, so it’s all thanks to those guys that I decided to have a stab at it!

I bought a DSLR camera, a Canon 550D. I shot and edited a few shorts and music videos with it, which gave me the knowledge needed to put a project together; from pre-production to shooting and then onto post-production – all on a minuscule level, granted. This gave me material to create a show-reel with, however, and that led to camera operating work, which was my first foot through the door.

My first paid assignment was from The Asylum! I was brought in to do EPK work on a feature they were shooting in North Wales called “Jack, the Giant Killer” and Mark Atkins, the director, is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. As I was doing behind the scenes material, I got to mirror him a great deal and learned a lot from just observing him work.

I got bumped up to 2nd Unit Cinematographer during the shoot too, which was a great honor as I got to stage scenes and was asked to do some forced perspective photography that I had no idea how to do – but managed to blag my way through it somehow!

I had also been helping Arrow Video here in the UK with extra features, but this was in the early days before they became what they are today, so they would pay me in discs – which for a film obsessive is just as good as money.

Luckily for me, Arrow pay with real money now!

MM: What kind of equipment do you think is the best to film on and except for making Movies, what other jobs might interest you?

PE: I’ve adapted to pretty much all cameras; each project is different and will require different equipment. For documentaries, I prefer to shoot with a Sony as they are simple, easy and can run for hours. On film projects, I enjoy using RED. They are the closest I will get to shoot with an actual film camera I’m sure If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d like to think I’d still be doing something film related, be it writing about them or helping to expose people to them. Otherwise, I’d be a fulltime beer and whiskey taster, if that’s an actual profession?

MM: How did the inspiration for “Cruel Summer” occur to you?

PE: Craig Newman, my co-director, and I wanted to explore random violence. We’re big fans of films that take place over a single day, and for the budget we had, it was an ideal set-up. Knife crime is a big issue in Britain, especially amongst teenagers, and there are a staggering number of examples in the news that helped shape our story.

There was a tragic story of a mentally challenged young man in Sheffield who was taken into the woods by a group of so-called ‘friends’ that really struck us. The real story would be un-filmable, so we devised our story around a number of crimes that took place in the UK.

We added the autism aspect to highlight the stigma and difficulty that those who have the condition suffer from society in general.

It’s a broad spectrum, but due to documentaries on the subject focusing mostly on the negative aspects, the violent fits, in particular, it’s created a negative connotation, and we felt we could help re-address that perception.

MM: What personally appealed to you about the “Cruel Summer” project?

PE: Having been caught up in petty gang culture and violence during my youth, I’m fully aware of how easy people can get sucked into situations that, deep-down, they know to be wrong but due to external factors – especially aggressive older peers – ignore those instincts, often against their better judgment. Then have to live with the consequences. It was that element of the story that appealed to me.

The tag line for the film is ‘one-day changes everything,’ and that’s true I think, it could be positive, like winning the lottery, or meeting the wrong person on a wrong day; either way your life can be changed as a result.

MM: What is the presiding message of “Cruel Summer”?

PE: It’s a simple message really, ignorance and petty insecurities can be the undoing of not just yourself but all those around you. Scapegoating is also a major issue we as a society have to address, it’s been happening in Britain since the 1980s: we love to blame movies for all of our society's wrongs! And I see Mr. Trump is keen to jump on that bandwagon now in the wake of the recent tragedy in Florida. I can assure you that the people who orchestrate these violent acts are driven by their insecurities and not by what movie they recently viewed.

As to why people find the latter more believable I do not know.

MM: Did the young cast ever struggle with anything in the movie?

PE: They were all troopers and understood what was being addressed in the movie, we weren’t setting out to exploit anyone, and everyone brought their A-game. Richard Pawulski, who plays Danny Evans, was a little reluctant about the nudity that was required, but he was 18 when we shot the film and who wouldn’t be nervous about that? We assured him it would be brief and it’s a powerful image, one that really drives home the cruelty of what these kids were doing.

We casted the movie ourselves, as we couldn’t afford a casting director, which was a blessing and a curse I guess.

We went with who we felt were best for the characters as we envisioned them; which meant not using more established talent on occasion, due purely to the impressions, we had from auditions. So, from a business sense it was a nightmare, but creatively it was very freeing.

Filmmaking, upcoming projects, and advice

MM: This far into your career, what do you like most about working as a filmmaker?

PE: To be honest it’s been the people you meet along the way, from the cast and crew who help bring your vision to life and all the way through to the heads of film festivals who believe in your film when maybe others don’t. Their passion and energy is inspiring and makes you want to keep going.

Having people like Chris Crow and Paul McFadden believe in your project was a true highlight as well, they are hardened vets in the UK film industry and have BAFTA’s, EMMY’s and who knows what else under their belts, but they saw the film and believed in us and helped us over the finish line when they really had no reason to.

MM: Career-wise, where do you envision yourself being in ten years down the line?

PE: Yikes, that’s a tough one! Ten years ago I’d never have dreamt I’d be here talking about a film I made that was being released in the US, so who knows? Hopefully, I will be here talking about the most recent project I’ve just had released – If I’m lucky enough!

MM: Do you have any upcoming projects--and advice for younger emerging filmmakers--that you want to indulge?

PE: At the moment, I’m looking to ‘give back’ a little. I’ve devised the Fractured Visions Film Festival here in Cardiff. I’ve gathered a bunch of great people I’ve met along the way in this industry and will be helping to discover new filmmaking talent from across the globe, I’m not interested in just offering recognition, I’m also going to get these films in front of sales agents and distribution heads with offers on the table for the best films.

It’s exciting to see what’s being made out there and I’ve seen some truly impressive examples of independent cinema as part of this festival already. If anyone would like to know more, just head over to the “Fracvis couk” website.

My advice is as follows: it’s a cliché now, but just do it. Pick up that camera, grab your friends, shoot on the weekends, learn the ropes and keep pushing forward. You’ll be surprised how receptive people are to that passion and dedication!