Dining Out: Interview with Gwynne Phillips

Howard Hawks’ 1940 screwball comedy classic His Girl Friday, screening July 7th at Christie Pits Park, stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as journalists and ex-spouses as they endeavour to uncover the truth about a wrongfully-convicted murderer. Paired with this feature is the short film Dinette, co-directed by Gwynne Phillips and Christopher Lazar. Set in the 1940s, it centres on the meeting of two femme fatales, Georgia and Marlene, at a diner, where stories are guarded and secrets are revealed.

Toronto Outdoor Picture Show’s Dynamic Duos programme continues all summer long.


Gwynne Phillips, who along with screenwriting partner Briana Templeton is half of local comedy duo The Templeton Philharmonic, chatted with us about classic Toronto locales and period influences.

TOPS: This year’s festival theme is titled Dynamic Duos, featuring a wide variety of onscreen pairs, including partners in crime. Was the complicated, shifting relationship between the two lead characters in Dinette inspired by any other on-screen duos?

Gwynne Phillips (GP): I wasn't directly inspired by a specific onscreen duo. I was inspired by the strong women in many films from that era (Mildred Pierce, All About Eve, etc). I knew I wanted to write characters that play on the audience's expectations. They both have moments of weakness and strength, of kindness and cruelty. I think there needs to be more multifaceted female characters in film that reflect real women I know in my life. No one is ever just one or the other. We have a responsibility as filmmakers to write more three-dimensional female characters!


 TOPS: Dinette starts off seeming like a cheerful visit between friends and gradually turns darker, but never loses its sense of humour. How did you balance these different tones? 

GP: I find that horror and humour are intrinsically linked. When I know something terrifying is about to happen in a scary movie, I usually laugh. When something awful happens in real life, people use humour to cope. The Templeton Philharmonic have always tried to blur the lines between being funny and being unsettling, tragic, or scary. Briana and I were laughing between takes because the stakes are so high for these two women in such a short amount of time. But I think it's important to honour the world you've created and commit to it.

TOPS: Your film is paired with His Girl Friday, from 1940. What drew you to the 1940s setting? 

GP: We have always been drawn to the past in our work. In 2012, we produced a site-specific play at Campbell House Museum called Sockdolager that took place in the 1920s. Then, in 2014, we did a 1970s’ Grey Gardens-inspired show called An Evening in July that we staged in a church courtyard. Most of our sketch comedy takes place in a different era. But we hadn't really explored the 1940s yet. There is so much great cinema from that time (see: Hitchcock) and the accents and costumes are pretty fun, too!

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 TOPS: As per the title, your film takes place in a classic greasy spoon diner. What's your favourite diner in Toronto?

GP: The Senator is definitely my favourite. Great food and the best atmosphere. It feels like you're stepping back in time. I was eating brunch there and when I went to the bathroom, I imagined the scene with Marlene in the mirror. I went home and started writing the script. We ended up shooting it at White Lily Diner on Queen St. East, which is also a really great spot with amazing food.  

TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why?

GP: I love so many. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in FX's Feud might be my favourite duo ever, if not my favourite show I've seen in years. Then Harry and Sally. Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. The list goes on. I think what makes a good duo is tension, whether it's emotional or physical. We want to keep watching because we don't know what could happen next. But what makes Bette and Joan special is they hated each other publicly, but privately had a deep mutual respect for one another and were probably friends. That's the best!

Dinette screens Sunday, July 7th alongside His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) at Christie Pits Park.