Distilling the Process: Ann Arbor creatives R.J. Fox and Heidi Philipsen are working to bring "Love & Vodka" to the big screen

Love and Vodka

This story was originally published on April 25, 2019.

R.J. Fox doesn’t wait around for something to happen -- the Ann Arbor author goes out and creates his own opportunities.

Filmmaker Heidi Philipsen likewise makes things happen for herself. So perhaps it is kismet that these two talented and hardworking artists found each other and are making art together as they turn Fox’s book Love & Vodka into an independent film. 

Fox knew he wanted to be involved in filmmaking since he was in high school, and he currently teaches English and video production at Huron High School. “Everyone tells you that the odds are stacked against you, that it’s like making it to the NBA … so you have to have a mindset that you will find a way and get your work in the right hands of someone who wants to make your movie.”

Fox knew he found that person when he met Philipsen.

“A colleague said that he had a student whose mom made movies, so I reached out to her on Facebook,” Fox said. “That’s a key thing about this industry: You have to be willing to knock at every door and make those connections.”

Philipsen, who just completed securing distribution rights for her most recent film, Darcy, had other projects in the queue but was struck by Fox’s determination. “He just didn’t give up, which impressed me very much,” Philipsen says. “My son was in Huron High and I was on the press circuit and film-fest circuit for my first feature [as PGA producer and co-director] for Darcy and R.J. reached out to me. It took me a whole year to finally read his script, but when I did, I couldn’t put it down.” And more importantly, she says, “R.J. remained nice no matter what, and you don’t always find that in this industry.” 

Fox adds, “When I get a no, I just keep following through and hope that [my work] will strike a chord.”

Love & Vodka appealed to Philipsen for many reasons. “I liked the lead character very much. He’s this a real guy -- this Midwestern putting it all out there for love. I don’t think our Midwestern voices get heard enough.”

Philipsen credits her mentor, Kathryn McDermott [instructor at the Motion Picture Institute and former vice president of production with Columbia Pictures], with some words of advice that she followed in this instance. “She always told me to stay grounded. And that’s what struck me about R.J ... he’s grounded, nice, has an incredible work ethic.”

Fox and Philipsen are currently building their production team. Philipsen says, “[McDermott] always told me, and I believe this, that if we put the work in, it will come back … [but] we can’t push it. You just have to make sure there is excellence there and, hopefully, that excellence will lead the way.”

Their next stop is the Cannes International Film Festival -- a “bucket list” item for both artists -- where they will seek investors for the movie. Fox says, “This is what I’ve wanted since high school -- someone who believes in my story and will invest in it so we can make the best possible movie.”

Fox began writing the screenplay Love & Vodka in 2001 and rewrote it as a book in 2009. He sold it to Fish Out of Water Books, a local publishing company, and then went back to work again on the screenplay. Along the way, Fox continued to write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including the autobiographical book Tales From the Dork Side by R.J. Fox, published by AADL's Fifth Avenue Press. He also studied film production and says about Philipsen, “I am working with someone who is doing everything I read about. Heidi has proven time and again that she knows what she is doing.”

He adds that he is proud to know that his film is being made by an excellent director who also happens to be female. “This industry has been lacking in changes for women for too long,” Fox says. “[Philipsen] will bring a female perspective that is strived for but can’t always get to as a male. I have full faith that I am putting my project in the right hands.”

The mutual respect between the writer and producer/director is evident when Philipsen says, “I have such great admiration for R.J. as he’s been so open to any updates we’ve wanted to make. Since he first wrote the screenplay in 2001, things have changed between what women and men can say to each other, what’s OK and what’s not OK. We are bringing the script to a more modern edge … making it more a love story about two equals, not just a guy in pursuit of love.”

Fox concurs. “This is the best possible scenario -- I get to be involved but without having to be the director. This way, I can watch Heidi and learn from her. I am extremely fortunate.”

Both artists are enthusiastic about what the future holds. Philipsen says, “R.J. and I are just starting our big journey together and it means so much to me for us to be able to tell our joint story. He felt the need to tell this story, get it out there and that really spoke to me. We have a potential hit here with a hero who crosses boundaries, who crosses countries, goes into the complete unknown for love. What can you not love about that?”

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.

For updates about the making of "Love & Vodka," follow its Facebook or Instagram pages. Related: "R.J. Fox Turned His Life Into Art and Wants to Teach You to Do the Same" [Pulp, January 7, 2016]