Lou Diamond Phillips, who many know from his role as Ritchie Valens in the 1987 classic La Bamba or his current role as Gil Arroyo on FOX’s hit show Prodigal Son, gave us the pleasure of interviewing him. He talks about his new book The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira, collaborating with his wife Yvonne, directing, and more. Check out the interview below!
Nerds and Beyond: As stated in your acknowledgment in The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira, you based this novel off of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinderbox. How did you go about deciding to put a sci-fi twist on the story?
Lou Diamond Phillips: The original inspiration for the novel was actually a series of manga style drawings that my wife, Yvonne Phillips, had done and were the first concepts for a graphic novel. Those were inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinderbox but because they had been shifted from the original European setting of the story to a more Japanese feudal feel, they evoked a real post-apocalyptic, almost other worldly scenario for me. The idea was originally to write a screenplay and sci-fi, at the time, was a more proven genre for the big screen. Avatar and Star Wars were certainly influences and Game of Thrones hadn’t actually happened yet but both Yvonne and I didn’t want to lose the fantasy/fairy tale aspect of the story. Writing the screenplay, which is a format more familiar to me, allowed me to establish the plot and characters. I reverse-engineered the novel from there.
Nerds and Beyond: Originally, you wrote your version as a screenplay, pulling inspiration from Avatar and Star Wars. What prompted you to adapt it into a novel?
Lou Diamond Phillips: So, here’s the thing. When I finished the screenplay for The Tinderbox, I realized that it was going to be a very expensive film. I had hopes to direct the film (still do) and I knew that, at that time, no studio would give me that amount of money to helm it. Understanding that the story could potentially be sold to someone else, it seemed like a good idea to write the novel, establish more authorship, and more completely paint the world and the characters. In doing so, it really evolved and became deeper and richer than I first anticipated. What I didn’t anticipate was how long it would take. The process from beginning to end was nearly ten years.
Nerds and Beyond: You certainly have experience with screenplay writing, from movies such as Ambition and Trespasses. Can you describe the process from transitioning The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira from a screenplay to a novel? What was the most difficult part of the process?
Lou Diamond Phillips: Just because someone writes screenplays, I understand that it doesn’t necessarily follow that you would be a good novelist. There are so many fundamentals that need to be addressed when writing prose and it requires almost a completely different mindset. A screenplay is often a blueprint that allows for input from the rest of the collaborative artists; the cinematographer, production designer, wardrobe designer, etc. The novelist has to imagine that entire world, paint the picture for the reader and yet still allow some latitude for the reader’s imagination. My biggest mistakes were in point of view and voice. I had a tendency to head-hop because, as a film director, it’s important to be invested in everyone in the scene. I needed to pick specific perspectives for the different passages and, as a result, I think the writing became cleaner. Also, on film, you have the luxury of seeing the actors emote without dialogue. In narrative writing, those thoughts must be articulated and/or turned into dialogue to move the action and be revelatory of inner life. Fortunately, my previous writing had already honed my approach to story, plot and character so I just needed to think more expansively.
Nerds and Beyond: You’ve worked with the sci-fi genre before with Stargate and Supernova. How did that experience, if at all, play into writing this novel?
Lou Diamond Phillips: My experience with sci-fi, as an actor, is a little limited but I learned to apply a rule that actually comes from comedy – Commit To The Bit! You really have to believe in what you are doing, whether it’s wrapping your head around some esoteric or alien technology or imagining that something is happening in space in front of you when you’re actually just staring at a green screen. So the performance has to remain grounded in reality even though your imagination is in overdrive. For me, this was the same approach to writing The Tinderbox; create an imaginative, fantastical universe but keep it grounded in human emotion.
Nerds and Beyond: Your wife Yvonne provided the cover art for the novel and 30 of her illustrations will be featured in the hardcopy version when it hits the bookshelves on October 20. What was it like to collaborate with her on this project?
Lou Diamond Phillips: I always remembered that it was Yvonne’s original artwork that sparked this entire journey and so it was only natural to always turn to her as a sounding board. For the most part, we were always on the same page even though I basically hijacked her original concept. She’s a fan of Sci-Fi in cinema so she was supportive of my approach to the screenplay. HOWEVER, when the focus shifted to the book which she now suddenly had to illustrate, it was a slightly different story. She never had any intention of drawing a Sci-Fi leaning story, especially since the majority of her work was evocative of a classic German woodcut style of pen and ink. I have to say that she bravely stepped out of her comfort zone and created a wonderful hybrid that pays homage to the kind of illustrations found in the original HCA but also incorporates qualities of retro Sci-Fi and graphic novels.
Nerds and Beyond: You also have a production company with your wife called “Frabjous Day”, a name familiar to fans of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem and Alice in Wonderland. Can you tell us about your company and any projects you’re looking forward to with it?
Lou Diamond Phillips: Yvonne and I are both big fans of Lewis Carroll and it’s my hope that The Tinderbox evokes a little of that whimsy, especially in creating a fantastical world and utilizing a bit of wordplay. But beyond The Tinderbox, I’ve always been impressed by the number of really great ideas that Yvonne has and I realized not long into our relationship that she should really be a producer. Therefore, we formed Frabjous Day Entertainment and we have a number of projects in the pipeline – everything from comedy and horror to historical fiction. I also expect that Yvonne will be branching out into children’s books before long that will showcase not only her amazing art but also her clever wit and imagination.
Nerds and Beyond: Literary masters such as Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, John Gardner’s Grendel, and more seemed to have quite the influence on you as a writer. How did their work and impact inspire or guide you in writing The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira?
Lou Diamond Phillips: When first conceptualizing our collaboration, our inspiration was Stardust by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Charles Vess. In fact, I thought the original story would be more of a novella or released in installments like Stardust. As I said before, it evolved and took on a life of its own, expanding into a more typical novel length. But it was always our intention to keep the illustrations.
After deciding to create my own universe (easier said than done) it instantly brought to mind the fantastical voyage of Alice Through The Looking Glass or the world of rabbits created by Richard Addams which included their own vernacular and spiritual beliefs. And since the story was going to remain very faithful to the original fable (with a witch, a tree, dogs etc. all adjusted for the new setting) it reminded me how successfully other works had been when directly lifted from their inspirations; like John Gardner’s Grendel which was a retelling of Beowulf from the bad guy’s point of view, to cinematic touchstones like West Side Story taken from Romeo and Juliet or The Magnificent Seven inspired by Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai.
Nerds and Beyond: The writing process can be frustrating for many writers who experience blocks in their narrative. How does fitness or workout routines allow you to get past these blocks in creativity?
Lou Diamond Phillips: Working out has always been a part of my regimen as an actor, mainly because, even at my age, I occasionally have to do action. But I also discovered that working out is a good tool to help me memorize lines. I guess getting the juices flowing, doing something physical that doesn’t really require mental concentration, allows my brain to work on different things. It wasn’t a long walk then, so to speak, to use it as a problem solver when mulling over narrative or dialogue. At the very least, it clears the mind and is obviously good for you! Although the writer’s block breaker during Covid has also extended to sweeping and doing the dishes.
Nerds and Beyond: Last year, you directed episode five of the sixth season of Marvel’s Agents of Shield. Also, according to your podcast interview with Tony Tellado of “Sci-fi Talk”, you are projected to direct an upcoming episode in the second season of Prodigal Son. As a director, what aspects of the episode do you focus on? Do you anticipate any challenges with directing and acting in the same episode?
Lou Diamond Phillips: I absolutely love directing and consider it to be simply yet another branch of my creative tree; much like the novel writing sprang from my screenplay writing but stretched out in a different direction. My first responsibility is always to the story and then to the cast. I love actors and want to support them to give their best work; when they do that, the story comes alive. But in addition to that, there is the tone, the visual metaphors that capture the essence of the piece, the overall design; and to do that, I truly enjoy working with the other artists (cinematographers, production designers, stunt coordinators, every crew member really) to take great ideas and actualize them. Doing all of that in a finite schedule and budget is the challenge and a real workout for your organizational/motivational skills.
From my very first film as director, HBOs Dangerous Touch, which I co-wrote, I’ve always had to direct myself in scenes. It’s a bit schizophrenic but it simply means I have to be doubly prepared before the cameras roll, with all of the boxes checked and a great deal of trust in my crew. That said, I’ve often gotten so caught up in watching my other actors during a scene that I forget my own lines. That’s why we have multiple takes!
Nerds and Beyond: Finally, as a Filipino-American actor in Hollywood, you’ve been versatile in the roles you’ve portrayed. From Ritchie Valens in La Bamba to King Siam in The King and I (for which you received a Tony nomination), how has that experience been for you? Have any of those roles left an impact on you today?
Lou Diamond Phillips: I’ve always been very fortunate as an actor that my diverse background has lent itself to playing many diverse roles. I’ve said it many times – I take representing different communities very seriously and I approach all of those roles with respect and specificity, whether it’s in the Latino community or one of the Native nations or the King of Siam or even the King of England. One of the wonderful by-products is that I’m constantly learning, constantly exposing myself to different experiences and cultural influences, so I can honestly say that every role I’ve played has enriched my life and outlook. I also hope that my decades long study of human nature and the travel that I’ve been fortunate to undertake has equipped me to create characters not only for my acting but also for my writing.
Thank you to Lou Diamond Phillips for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to catch Lou Diamond Phillips as Gil Arroyo on FOX’s Prodigal Son when it returns for season 2 in early 2021. Don’t forget to grab your own copy of The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira when it hits shelves on October 20.