Guns, Ghosts, and Family Values: Philip Cook Peels Back the Many Layers of Hit Internet TV Series MALICE
By Ariel Nishli
When I received an email from Phil Cook suggesting we conduct our interview using “this device that Alexander Graham Bell invented over a hundred years ago” in lieu of Skype, it wasn’t too great of a leap to assume I was in for a lesson on the value of old school sensibilities.
It wasn’t only our initial correspondence that tipped me off. Over the course of his career, the veteran filmmaker has produced and directed three independent movies, and boasts a longer resume of visual effects and design work. I expected a marked change of pace from interviews I conduct with the young Turks who currently rule the nascent medium of Internet TV.
What resulted is best summed up with words of wisdom spoken by the master of genre bending and blending, Quentin Tarantino. “You must know how to play by the rules in order to break them.” After a lifetime of experience in feature films, Phil Cook’s calculated foray into Internet TV is KoldCast’s newest series MALICE, and it is decidedly fresh.
You are watching Episode 1 of MALICE!
MALICE revolves around a troubled family that settles in a rural Virginia home where disturbing, macabre events pluck them from each other’s lives, one by one. Only Alice is left, a wry sixteen-year-old with an overactive imagination. It’s up to her and her M16 to make things right by fighting this vague new evil face-to-face.
The show is compelling for the same reasons any classic movie holds up: Dynamic characters, meaningful themes, inevitable yet unforeseeable twists, and good old-fashioned storytelling. As for what makes it original – what makes it playful – the reason is somewhere up Cook’s sleeve.
THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): How would you classify MALICE? It contains elements of a few different genres.
PHILIP COOK: Everybody thinks this is a Poltergeist type of show. You know, a family in a haunted house where “ghostly” things start coming out of the woodwork. It sort of masquerades as that type of picture, but that’s not really what it is. Hopefully it will come as a surprise for people because right now they think it’s supernatural demonic stuff, and it’s really something else. I knew that if I made people think it was Poltergeist, they would be intrigued because it felt familiar. Once I got them seduced, I could start driving them in the direction that I really wanted to go and tell this other story.
T6W: You’re alluding to MALICE being something other than a horror story, but I have to challenge you on that. There’s clearly a supernatural element to the show. Seems like it would be cheating your audience to pull the rug out from under them if at the end of the day it’s another story altogether.
PHILIP: It is supernatural. It’s not ghosts. It’s not demons. It’s not related to the afterlife. It’s something… different. But it is definitely a fantastic situation. And it’s not a cop-out to the degree of “oh it was all a dream.” No, it’s nothing like that.
T6W: Are we going to learn more about our freaky little “ghost boy” who keeps popping up?
PHILIP: Oh, absolutely. You’re going to learn everything about ghost boy. You’ll learn his whole evolution. In fact, you’re going to learn the dynamic of everybody in the show, and how they fit. You will get closure. Most importantly, this is a painful journey that Alice is going through over the course of the story. She works her way towards the mystery and it’s definitely going to take a toll on this kid. It’s going to take a toll on this entire family. I really want you to empathize with this 16-year old who’s just been handed this mess. All she wants to do is be a kid, and now she has to solve everybody’s problems.
T6W: And yet she’s caustic, sassier than other kids we’ve seen in horror movies. She even jokes about the situation. Is that her armor?
PHILIP: I’ll tell you what Alice will become, particularly in the first episode of the second season. She’s going to become a hero. She’s going to be a 16-year old tragic hero, almost like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. This isn’t going to be her only journey, if we can keep this thing going. Her story is the stuff of an adventure film, and not in a Scooby Doo kind of way.
T6W: What is it that makes her so apt in dealing with these giant, superhuman threats? What gives her resolve?
PHILIP: Well, she cares. I think she cares and nobody else does, so she rises to the occasion. You hear these stories all the time about seven-year-old kids rescuing people from burning houses. They rise to the occasion because they care and they’re clever enough to puzzle their way through it.
T6W: So you’ve created this dysfunctional family, which is not atypical for the genre, but you’ve made the mom somewhat villainous. She essentially abandons her family. She’s the one who’s really screwed up whereas historically, it’s always been the dad.
PHILIP: It is always dad! That pissed me off. Why is it always dad who’s out of his mind?
T6W: You can look to The Ring, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Shining and almost everything that followed. That mold is rarely broken.
PHILIP: Exactly. It’s always crazy dad. I looked at these tropes, saying “OK, we all know we’re trying to go down a familiar path but how can I flip it 180 degrees?” Nathan Turner, the dad played by Mark Hyde, is an epic character in this show. He’s actually the second most important character. There’s this bond between Alice and her father. She admires him. He’s doing the best he can with his basket-case wife; he’s trying to hold this whole thing together.
T6W: What is going on between Alice and her pops?
PHILIP: There’s a romanticized relationship between Nathan and Alice, which you rarely see, particularly in a horror film. I mean these two people… they understand one another in the middle of this weird situation. He checks out, but he does come back.
T6W: Speaking of checking out, he’s an Afghan war vet who gives his two teenage daughters automatic weapons to tear up their backyard with. That’s a pretty bold move. You must’ve considered the fact that you’d be sending out the wrong message.
PHILIP: I think it’s a compelling scene. I’ve never seen that in a movie before, a dad and his daughters shooting up the cemetery in their backyard with machineguns. I think people are really intrigued by that. I was expecting a lot of hate mail. One guy said, “What a shame, he shot up all those beer bottles.” And another person said it was desecration of a cemetery. And it was, there’s no question about it. But it evolves the characters in an accidental kind of way. These people are definitely on the edge.
T6W: There’s an ongoing conversation about our gun culture, especially with the recent spate of public shootings. What are you trying to say by putting weapons in the hands of these upper-middle class prep school girls?
PHILIP: A couple of things. One, it was shocking, and therefore somewhat provocative. You have a cute little kid with an automatic weapon. This is her tool to fight monsters. The other thing I was intrigued with is that there are children fighting wars all over the world. There are 16-year old soldiers in Rwanda carrying machine guns. I thought, ‘You know what, why not have an American kid do the same? I mean, my god, we’re such a gun-obsessed culture anyway. These kids are playing videogames like Call of Duty. They embed themselves with terrorists and massacre passengers at an airport. I saw my nephews playing that game and it stunned me. I was shocked.
T6W: Children’s videogames are incredibly violent. It’s amazing what carnage they’re exposed to.
PHILIP: I was stunned… morally repulsed. I was like, “Oh my god.” And these games are so beautifully executed. Incredibly realistic body parts are flying everywhere, there’s blood all over the floor. Maybe I identify too much with these sorts of things. They freak me out a little bit, but Alice is a monster fighter. It is over the top. It is a little romanticized. If somebody said they were inspired by MALICE to shoot a bunch of kids in their high school— I mean, there’s no context for that. It’s always, “I have to defend my family.”
T6W: I’m more interested as to what in your inner world made you want to put machineguns in these girls’ hands.
PHILIP: I’m not an advocate of guns, I don’t own guns, and I’ve never even fired a gun. Virginia, where the show is shot, is very much a gun culture. It’s not unusual for parents to train their kids to use weapons responsibly. It’s just a way of life for them, whether it’s hunting or target practice or whatever. So that’s not entirely unusual, particularly for the red state of Virginia. If you have a permit, you can actually wear a gun strapped to your side.
T6W: That would be very unsettling to see in Los Angeles.
PHILIP: People don’t do it because cops don’t like it. Even though you could legally walk into a Starbucks with a gun strapped to your side, it’s not really a good idea because the cops will stop you. And they’ll know you have a license but it makes them uneasy. But my point is, by law you can do it. Every so often, there’s a ‘Bring Your Gun To Work Day.’
T6W: You’re joking.
PHILIP: I’m not. It’s a big slam in the nose of the gun law thing. Anyway, I just wanted to address that issue. And the other thing about the guns is how it relates to dad. The story kind of tells itself backwards. He is a very practical man. Mark Hyde was a former Navy Seal. I wrote this role for him because I thought, ‘You know, all you have to do is play yourself. Just be you,’ which is what he was. This is a very practical man and when he sees problems, he logistically works through them.
Click to watch Navy Seal Mark Hyde (Nathan Turner) in the Season 2 MALICE Promo
T6W: I sensed that, especially when he’s sitting on the kitchen floor, methodically cleaning his guns, sharpening the swords. He’s very, very masculine. What is behind the Roman cavalry flashback where he’s carrying the enemy’s head back to the empress, Alice’s mom? Is that a peek behind the curtain into Alice’s view of her family?
PHILIP: It’s a parallel story that we will see more of. It’s not a complete one-off, we’ll actually return to all those little flashbacks. And it is Alice’s romanticized view of her father and her mom, a barbarian queen. His act of love is presenting her with the severed head of her enemy. Nobody loves you more than that.
T6W: Would you call the Turners a dysfunctional family?
PHILIP: I don’t believe there is such a thing as a functional family. I think everybody’s family is screwed up. Everybody’s got the crazy uncle, and there’s always some issue in the household. It’s a struggle to have people live together as this little tribal unit and keep it together. The Turners definitely have their problems, but there’s no question that these people love each other. They may not always be able to articulate it, but there’s no doubt, particularly at the start of the second season, that they care deeply about one another. Every family that I know has different types of problems. Substance abuse issues, just all kinds of things.
T6W: Has your own family experience as a child bled into MALICE?
PHILIP: I used to think my family were freaks because I grew up on Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver, The Brady Bunch. I thought that’s how families are supposed to be. We knew some friends whose dad worked in the FBI. I thought they had the perfect family too and would always be envious. I thought, “Wow, they have one of those TV families.” But over the years, we got to know them better and found out they had problems too. They were just better at masquerading them. So, no, I don’t think the Turners are dysfunctional, but they’ve got problems. Nate being in the military obviously put a huge strain on his family. And I have to tell you, you’re going to find out why Mom is so screwed up, which is true of the heart of the whole story.
T6W: We have time for one last question.
T6W: One of the first press releases on the show reads, June 10th 2011: Philip Cook reluctantly commits to producing MALICE. Why so glum?
PHILIP: I knew once I pressed the ‘go’ button it would consume my life. Just consume my life. And I have a full-time job in political advertising. When I’m not doing that, the remaining eight hours in my day are spent working on this show, not accounting for sleep. I don’t know if I’ll ever pull it off again. With every project I’ve ever done, I’ve always felt as if I’ve been dodging bullets like Neo in The Matrix. All these bullets are coming at you for different reasons, whether it’s film distribution, dealing with Japanese partners, or alcoholic actresses. In the end I can say, “Oh my god, we made it. I’m still standing.”
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this magazine.