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Don’t Fear the Creeper: An Interview with Gina Philips

It has been 15 years between drinks but, as of the end of March this year, Gina Philips just wrapped shooting on what marks her return to the horror franchise that gained her legions of fans, Jeepers Creepers (2001). Diabolique spoke to Philips about her experiences with the series.

In the role of the strong and sarcastic Trish (sister to Darry, played by Justin Long), Philips blew gender stereotypes out of the horror water. “She wasn’t written as the typical girl,” confirms Philips. “[The script] could have said ‘Darry’ for all the Trish lines and she would have then been a boy. It wasn’t divided by: this is what a boy acts like and this is what a girl acts like. They are both fully formed humans.”

That’s the thing about the original Jeepers Creepers; it poses several red herrings when it comes to horror genre convention and then proceeds to rip them to shreds. At the beginning of the film, many will assume Trish and Darry are boyfriend and girlfriend, until the conversation tips into typical sibling ribbing and antagonism.

While Trish is the Final Girl of this tale, she is in a far less victimised fashion. It is Darry who does not fare so well in what would traditionally be the fate of the female. Given Trish’s survival, many fans expected a return of her character in the sequel over a decade ago, Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), but a change to the script saw Trish removed, contrary to reports that claim she declined to reprise the role.

“There are a lot of stories out there that I turned [a role in Jeepers Creepers 2] down, but that is just not the case,” Philips says. “I would have never turned it down.”

“There was originally a story that involved my character, and the studio ended up thinking it wasn’t the right movie to make,” she continues to explain. “They didn’t think it was scary enough. So Victor [Salva, writer-director] wrote a new movie that had nothing to do with me. I didn’t turn it down… [pause]… I’m glad you asked because it’s something I’ve always wanted to clear up. Every time I see that written I think, ‘No, I didn’t turn it down!’”

Information about Jeepers Creepers 3 is still cloaked in secrecy. While pre-production has commenced, neither Gina Philips nor her co-star from the original film, Jonathan Breck (The Creeper himself) can confidently confirm a release date. Similarly, the storyline is under wraps too, although season horror actor, Meg Foster (They Live (1988), Stepfather II (1989) and Days of our Lives series regular, Gabrielle Haugh, are among the inclusions in a cast of largely Jeepers Creepers debutantes.

Ask Gina Philips about the storyline and she proceeds with trepidation: “This is actually not my movie. It doesn’t have a lot to do with Trish. What I do is kinda… I haven’t been told specifically except don’t say much… [She pauses to think]… I am in it in order to launch what happens next.”

“The character’s in me now,” continues Philips. “Trish is in me – she’s with me – it’s not hard to come back to who she is at the core. But a lot has changed for Trish over the years. She’s a mother; she’s been through a lot. I haven’t gone through anything like what this character has been through – and I’m knocking on wood as I say this because I’m pretty superstitious – but I am a mom now and I understand that journey of, once you become a parent, you would do anything for that child as far as beg, borrow, steal, kill or die for your child. It was easy to put myself in that place because it parallels my life.”

“The director, Victor… I don’t know how much I’m supposed to say… [Gina pauses again to choose her words correctly]… what happens in-between films had already been written. He gave me that to read. He made it very easy. I read it once and said, ‘Great, I’ve got it, I’ve got no more work to do’. Between my own personal experience, how much the character is in me and what he gave me…”

So is she saying that Salva gave her information about what happened to Trish in-between the first and third movies?”

“No, the plan is for this stuff to go to screen in the next Jeepers Creepers movie,” clarifies Philips. “Victor has written what happens from the second after the conclusion of Jeepers Creepers 3. I think that’s all I’m allowed to say about it but he wrote in such detail and he had a lot of flashbacks to what happened over the years that it made it very easy for me. I got to see what will eventually happen to the character and he put enough flashbacks in there that I got to see what happened to her over the last 15 years. Let’s just say, there’s more to come.”

Hark back 15 or so years, and Gina Philips came to Jeepers Creepers with great enthusiasm as a fan of horror movies herself yet never having performed in a horror film at the point in her career. An early childhood induction into the genre, thanks to her father, sees the now 47 year-old actor reel off films like The Changeling (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Omen (1976) and The Shining (1980) among her all-time favourites.

“Looking back – and now that I’ve got children – I realise that some of the things I watched were really inappropriate,” she laughs. “I really make fun of my father now but he showed me this stuff pretty young. He loved horror movies and we grew up watching them together. I remember at seven years-old watching Salem’s Lot (1979) with him, and then he would go outside and scratch on the window screens to terrify me [laughs again). It’s still a thing – my dad and I will watch a scary movie together. When I see a horror movie, I think of my dad. It didn’t scar me. I’m sure it did in ways I’m not aware of but…”

Given Philips’ list of favourite horror films reveals a penchant for the supernatural, it is hardly surprising that she draws from her early cinematic experiences when preparing for the role of Trish.

“I think of the unknown that feels more powerful than me,” says Philips. “Whether it be some alien-like thing or this creature, The Creeper – anything supernatural it really, really is terrifying to me. And the truth is, it could be a human – not something supernatural – but something that just is bigger and more powerful in some way and has power over you in that moment, which is a terrifying thought.”

“Trish was easy for me,” continues Philips. “Usually, when creating a character, I just find a piece of myself and I amplify that. I have a little brother who was around the same age difference as the brother and sister in the film so that was an easy part of it. I really focused on that relationship. To me, Trish is very guarded. I view her as someone who had gotten hurt and who had learnt to be guarded in her life, and she used sarcasm – and a little bit of an attitude – to hide her emotions and to get through. She’s a smart girl but, when it came down to it, she’ll do anything for her brother. She may torture him and tease him and be snarky with him but she’d do anything to protect him, which obviously came out at the end of the film.”

“Even though I know Jeepers Creepers is a genre movie, the thing that drew me to the script is that it is a drama, until The Creeper shows up. It’s a relationship movie in a lot of ways. It’s a brother-sister relationship movie. It’s hard to know why an audience holds onto something or what they connect to in a film but I feel that people connect to this film because there was an actual relationship between two people that they could latch on to and care about the characters.”

The script of Jeepers Creepers came to Gina Philips by way of her agent, and immediately created an impact on her for a number of reasons.

“When I got the script, not only did I love it, but there were all these really creepy drawings in it, and it got my attention,” she explains. “It interested me because I realised that the director or producer or art director – whoever – was very visual. It’s something that carried over into the movie too. I think Jeepers Creepers is actually a very pretty movie, which is a strange thing to say about a genre film but I think they shot it beautifully. There are images that are beautiful to me.”

Philips auditioned twice for the role of Trish and then returned to audition alongside a shortlist of three actors for the Darry part. She calls the casting of Justin Long a “no-brainer” due to the chemistry between them, an intangible something that felt like the relationship she shares with her own younger brother.

Once shooting began, both Philips and Long found themselves in a small American town in the middle of nowhere in what sounds like an intense and isolating experience across the course of months.

“It was kinda just Justin and I because the director and Francis Ford Coppola – who produced the film – they really felt strongly that we never interacted with Jonathan Breck, who was playing The Creeper, or any of the other characters that we would not have met,” Philips remarks. “We were cloistered together and we didn’t get to socialise for months with anyone else. They wanted to keep that pure. It was an interesting experience in that it was just the two of us, and it also made our relationship stronger, which I’m sure translated on film. It was also a little creepy there. Shooting at night in the middle of nowhere, walking back to your trailer…

“It was a wonderful experience for an actor, though, because they really made it about the acting. I’m sure at their end they were wondering about the effects and the visuals but, for Justin and I, it was all about the acting,” she continues. “In fact, we went down a week earlier and they had us do a bunch of improvisations and acting exercises that they filmed and then Victor wrote more scenes from our work – especially the end, because it was supposed to be a very different end to the film.”

Salva’s original script for Jeepers Creepers concluded with The Creeper’s truck crashing into a train but budgetary restrictions meant this expensive finale had to be ditched for something less ambitious.

“They came up with the idea of just making it character-based instead of effects-based,” confirms Philips. “It didn’t have to be a big thing so, instead, they based it in emotion and character. So Justin and I did a bunch of improvisations and then the writer-director wrote it and that’s what went to screen.”

For Philips, the success of the first Jeepers Creepers and its continued life as a franchise came as a huge surprise. With a modest budget of US$10 million, the film started small by Hollywood standards but would exceed that budget by US$6 million in its opening weekend alone, and go on to gross approximately US$37 million.

“The night it opened, I went with a few friends to the Universal movie theatre in Los Angeles to see it,” she recalls. “After about 10 minutes, I had to leave because I couldn’t watch myself on screen with people – I got too nervous – so I just waited outside. Then I started seeing person after person coming out and asking for their money back. So I panicked. I mean, I’ve walked out of films before, and to go and ask for your money back, it has to be horrible for that to happen. I thought it was a bomb and I was really upset.”

“Then I find out the sound had gone out in the movie,” she continues. “That’s why people were walking out. I remember my friend grabbing me and saying, ‘Look up there’. They had the movie playing every hour and it just said, ‘sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out…’ I’ll never forget that moment when I’ve gone from complete despair thinking this was going to be the embarrassment of my career to ‘Oh wow – people might actually like this movie!’. The next thing, I get a call at 8 o’clock in the morning from a friend saying ‘Congratulations, you’ve got the number one movie’ and me saying, ‘What are you talking about? That can’t be possible? It’s a little horror movie’. It was a shock. A delightful one but still a shock.”

It is not hard to hear the fondness and gratitude Gina Philips has for Jeepers Creepers when she speaks about the movie. Despite enjoying a solid career, including recurring roles in both Ally McBeal and Boston Public, it is because of her role in Jeepers Creepers that she gets stopped in the street at least once a week.

“I have to say that horror movie fans in general are the most loyal, passionate fans out there and, for this film, we seem to have a really incredible, loyal following. I have never had a bad experience with a fan – only the loveliest, most complimentary respectful interactions. I adore our fan base. They’re the ones who have made this movie successful. They’re why we’re actually talking about this right now.”

If there is more life in Jeepers Creepers, fans can be assured that Gina Philips is keen to be a part of it: “I feel a responsibility to the fans. I can’t see any reason I’d turn down appearing in one of these films, circumstances permitting, of course.”

About Emma Westwood

Emma Westwood is a writer from Melbourne, and broadcaster on Triple R FM’s Plato’s Cave film criticism program, with an interest in horror and extreme cinema. She is the author of Monster Movies (Pocket Essentials, UK, 2008) and is currently working on a monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) for the Devil’s Advocates series.

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