Phil Nutman was one of my best friends. Exactly 24 hours after he died in October of 2013, I wrote about him. For about twelve hours straight. I put down my memories of him as a way to deal with his death. Some of what I wrote that night I am going to share here today - though not the entire thing. Because of the personal nature of the original piece, I gave it only to his widow and two of my other close friends. I do, however, want to share some stuff publicly. I'd like people to know more about the man I knew well for 28 years, the film, fiction, and drama genius, my first writing partner, the friend I created with and argued fiercely with, laughed uproariously with, and cried with. I'll also post as many photos of Phil as I have and can find.
Below are portions of my piece from six years ago. I divided some chapters of my life with Phil using titles and lyrics of songs which meant a lot to both of us.
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Upper left shows the Grand Cinema being demolished in February 1963, five months before Phil was born. I imagine his mother would have seen many films there.
LUV N BULLETS
08 October 2013, 5:55 p.m.
As I start to write this, it has been 24 hours to the minute that Phil Nutman passed away. From last night into today and tonight, a tide of tributes has rolled onto his Facebook page.The impact Phil had on my life for 28 years — as a friend, a brother, a writing partner — is such that I feel a need to put down my feelings, thoughts and memories of my life with him.
“luv n bullets” is how Phil signed his emails to me after a period where we had lost contact for several years. Only Phil would come up with something like that. It expressed his personality perfectly. After a few years of not seeing or hearing from each other, it seemed to be his way of saying that his love was always there for me, that he was shooting it into my spirit and I had better not forget it. That was Phil’s own spirit; if you were lucky enough to be his close friend, he damn well let you know you were. With Phil, it was a friendship for life, and it was not going away. It might change form as the friendship grew longer; it might get knocked about, fall down, get up again — but it would always be there. With Phil and I, it was usually up. But in the last two years of his life, it seemed to be always down. Life grinding like a giant foot down on both of us. The last two years it was Phil and I trying to help each other — desperately — to stay up.
We went back and forth a lot. I once walked away from our friendship, which lasted less than a month. He did the same to me, two or three times. A few weeks would pass, but we always came back, putting aside the petty disagreement which caused the break. Apologies were made and in a few minutes things were back to normal, as if nothing had happened. We both accepted it and worked that way, because in the end, our love for each other was too strong to do otherwise.
Phil and I met in late 1985 via a trans-Atlantic phone call. He was doing coverage for Fangoria of From Beyond, a Stuart Gordon film for which I’d created many of the special makeup effects. It was being shot in Rome, but due to Evil Dead II's prep starting, I had to remain in Los Angeles. Fangoria informed me Phil had finished all the on-set interviews in Italy and they had scheduled mine to be over the phone. Phil and I hit it off during that call and he said if I was ever in London to give him a ring. We stayed in touch and the following year I called to say I’d be in England for a few weeks.
We met in person in the summer of 1986 at a central London pub. Over many drinks we got to know each other, talking horror, literature, makeup effects, and film (Kubrick to Milius to Argento). Phil was a true cinephile and had an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly any person or subject in cinema you could think of. After that first Guinness-fueled meeting (where he’d shown me what a proper Shamrock was), he invited me to come stay with him in North London. A few nights later, I got off at the last Northern Line tube stop and from there took a bus to Finchley.
Phil often reminded me of the dinner we had that night, at some Malaysian place in a distant London suburb — a dish called Devil Chicken. We could take our food super hot, but this stuff was killer. It sent Phil and I to the men’s room sink to cool our mouths when the waiter wasn’t fast enough with more water.
Back at his place, we got soused on wine, watched Hammer films on his VCR, and became fast friends. The next day, Phil — as hungover as me — remembered at least that much. What he didn’t recall was that at some point during our drunken night, he proclaimed in great detail how men gave better blow jobs than women. He never said whether he was speaking from experience and I didn’t ask. All I know is that I was tanked, and when he pointed me towards his spare bedroom, I hoped he wouldn't be creeping in during the night to demonstrate the validity of his theory.
The next morning, I stumbled into the kitchen as Phil was cooking breakfast, cigarette dangling from his lips. “Sleep well, dear?” he asked. His casualness threw me. We had just met the night before, and I didn't know if he was straight, gay, or bi. Would he have, did he, while I was asleep... ? Phil already knew I was straight as I'd told him about my longtime girlfriend and I breaking up the month before. As Phil and I ate, I mentioned my paranoid thoughts. Phil let out the most hysterical laugh, from the gut. “You thoughtI might have done what?!” He kept laughing and slapped his hand on my shoulder. “Dear boy, I would never do that without your express permission. But if I had, you certainly wouldn’t have forgotten it!”
Very little was forgettable about Phil. He lived life fast and hard, like an engine revving higher than normal. He was opinionated, intelligent, and shockingly foul mouthed. But most of all, he had a huge heart.
Throughout 1986, 1987 and into 1988, Phil and I spoke often. Anytime Fangoria did coverage on one of my films, Phil did the interview. If they tried to give me somebody else, I insisted on Phil. During those years, Phil and I somehow managed to see a lot of each other; I went to England twice a year and he came to L.A. just as often. Sometime in 1988, Phil moved to New York City.
The last interview Phil did with me I remember well. It was a two parter called “Shostrom Saga” and “The One Guy Who didn’t Wanna Direct.” It was a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere than our first trans-Atlantic interview. This time he was staying at my place, and we did the interview in stocking feet over Heinekens in my living room as Siouxsie and the Banshees played. Both our professional lives were in full swing upwards. My makeup effects career was doing well; Phil was writing for more magazines. We talked of things we’d like to do creatively together. There would be something, we felt. We just didn’t know what it was.
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
In April, 1989, I found doors opening for me after I’d directed an episode of Monsters! for Laurel Entertainment — the one Phil covered for that article. The segment itself was no big deal, but I found many people at production companies asking, “Is there a film you’d like to direct? Bring something to us.” I didn't have a script I wanted to direct, so that left one option: write one.
I phoned Phil and told him the good news, then gave him the down side. “Phil, I’ve never written a screenplay.” I’d caught him in a glum mood. He and his girlfriend Kitty were having trouble and money was tight. But he immediately sparked to the first suggestion I threw at him: “Let’s write something together.” It seemed like such a natural thing for us to dive into. Then I got my second good idea of that phone call. “Phil, I’m going to get you out of your shit situation for a while. I’m going to fly you to L.A. We’re going to lock ourselves away and come up with a screenplay.” And that’s exactly what we did.
It happened one summer, it happened one time It happened forever, for a short time.
Before Phil arrived, I came up with one thing we had to put in our script — using a train to try and disguise evidence of a murder. I lived in South Pasadena directly across from the Michael Myers house from John Carpenter's Halloween. Between that house and my front door were train tracks 30 feet away. The nightly freight and Amtrak trains sparked the idea. That was the kernel I left Phil with as he packed his bags chuckling.
The next morning I picked him up at LAX. Doing my best to keep his mind off his problems in NYC, I took him to lunch at Rose City Diner in Old Pasadena. It was a quintessentially sunny California day. The Crystals sang Da Doo Ron Ron on the 1950s jukebox. We kicked around ideas for a thriller. Our brainstorming session continued at my place into the night. We both loved neo noir films like Blood Simple and Blue Velvet, and were big fans of classic film noir. We decided to work within these genres, come up with something original, and keep it fairly low budget. We’d both read a lot of true crime and felt that murdering someone would be extremely cumbersome, that bodies were heavy and tough to get rid of. Hitchcock had alluded to this, but Phil and I both felt the difficulty of such a task had never really been portrayed right in films. We were going to make it messy.
The following day, we lay in the grass at a park creating our five main characters and their backgrounds. This was a first for me. Although many friends had suggested I’d probably make a good writer, I always blew off the suggestion. So there I was, writing for the first time — with one of modern horror’s best dramatists. But I didn’t think about it like that back then. At the time, I just considered him as Phil, a friend with common interests and passions. Two guys in a park trying to write a film.
25 years later that I’d be yelling at him on the phone, “You need to get your web site back online, Phil! You’re one of the best goddamn writers of horror fiction on the planet!” Phil would shout back, “Fuck it! I’m retiring from horror.” He was by then living in a crappy motel and just wanted to write his Jack and Penny novels, his Young Adult fiction. And so it would go, back and forth. Life — and the film business — had hit both of us pretty hard. We were trying to resurrect the film we wrote in 1989. We had a top actress in Europe interested in the leading role. We had both fallen into our own respective troughs, and I was trying hard to keep things together for us.
But in April 1989, it was just two guys in a park creating a film. A beautiful, warm day. Dreaming big. Positive and hopeful for the future.
We went back to my flat and locked ourselves in my office. We had a detailed treatment to write — and a deadline. After the New York call to Phil, I'd rung back the junior executive at one of the production companies which wanted to do a film with me. I told him I did have a project and and he was now expecting a treatment in five days. While waiting for Phil to arrive, I read a few screenwriting books. Phil, of course, had read them all. As I mentioned the ‘first turning point’ of our story, Phil took my copy of the Syd Field book and hurled it across the room. “That guy’s a fucking wanker. You don’t write by-the-numbers. It’s about characters. Characters create the story. It’s about psychological acuity.” He used that phrase often: psychological acuity. Looking back today, I realise I learned more from Phil about writing drama than all the books I would later read.
That week in my office was an adventure which we both recalled affectionately many times over the years. Phil told me it was one of the best writing experiences of his life. It was for me as well. That week was like the scene in Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and Nancy Olson. Cigarette smoke filling the room, Phil typing, me pacing, both of us calling out ideas. We literally did not leave that room for seven days and nights except to go out to eat and to sleep. We put up a huge foam core board with index cards for our scenes. Then Phil paced, throwing ideas out, a scene, a line of dialogue. I typed as he threw things back at me, another scene, more dialogue. We moved the cards around. Sometimes we’d open the window to let out the clouds of smoke choking us, but I don’t recall ever taking a break. Because something magical was happening. We played off each other like a couple married for decades. We finished each other’s sentences, each other’s thoughts. If this is what screenwriting is, I thought, I really like it. What we were experiencing was of course, chemistry. Massively good creative chemistry, and the excitement you get from a new and rapidly deepening friendship.
We did a last all-nighter and drove to a 24-hour copy place at 5:00 a.m. to xerox the treatment. A courier picked it up two hours later to make our 9:00 o'clock deadline for the production company. We included a note saying we could get the full script to them in a few weeks (which we did). Less than a month later, Phil and I sat in a room with the junior executive after he had read our full script. The guy said, "Gosh, I don't know... I'm on page 25 and can't find the first plot point. You know, that Syd Field thing..." I looked over at Phil and knew exactly what he was thinking.
In the end, the company didn't bite. They decided to do their own neo noir story - something directed by one of the heads of the company. Their resulting film was as exciting as watching a sink fill with water. The screenplay Phil and I wrote, Heat Wave, never got made, although it came close a few times. We pushed it on and off for a couple years, then both found ourselves drawn back into the jobs which provided us our income. Phil went back to NYC to write for magazines and I went back to doing makeup effects films.
We didn’t give up, though. We came up with a few episodes to pitch to Laurel for Monsters! with the plan for Phil to write the teleplays which I would direct. Phil’s baby — a gem which I still wish I had a copy of — was called Horseman in a Bottle. It was about a man sequestered in his apartment, wrapped in rotting cloth, carrying a tiny vial. Two other characters are trying to get in to his apartment — one to find out what the man’s ailment is and help him — the other (unknown to the other characters), to kill him. The vial contained the worst type of plague to threaten mankind, and the man was slowing dying of it, and had the only clue as to its antidote. It was all Nutman, all horror, and positively brilliant. I was salivating to direct it.
Did Laurel go for it? Hell, no. Why would they go with two rising stars in writing and makeup effects? Wouldn’t that be, well... logical? Phil and I shrugged and moved on. It was Laurel’s loss. The Horseman episode illustrated something I think many of us in horror — whether books or film — know quite well: that Phil was a visionary thinker. He was always ahead of the pack. Many of his Facebook fan and friend posts have mentioned Wet Work, published years before anyone had thought of The Walking Dead and World War Z. Many agreed; Phil’s ideas not only pre-dated these successful films and TV shows - they were better. *** To be continued.