Todd Phillips Once Made A Documentary About Phish Called ‘Bittersweet Motel’ – Here’s What He Had To Say About It, Years Later

Todd Phillips Bittersweet Motel Phish

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In 1997, filmmaker Todd Phillips was hired by the band Phish to make a raw documentary about the band’s rabid fanbase and unique rise in the music world. The project leaned heavily on behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the members of Phish, as well as conversations with some of the idiosyncratic personalities that make up the band’s often cult-ish fanbase.

The documentary was filmed in 1997 and 1998 before being released in September 2000.

Phillips was a young filmmaker at the time, long before the commercial success of movies like Old School, The Hangover Trilogy, and The Joker. As the story goes, he was hired by the band after they saw his documentary on punk shock-rocker G.G. Allin, Hated. The band gave him unprecedented access, capturing footage of Phish concerts and fans while on tour in Europe and the states, including at August 1997’s Great Went music festival in Limestone, Maine.

Bittersweet Motel has a complicated legacy. Though it isn’t widely available on any streaming sites, unauthorized copies still circulate on YouTube and other video sites. When it came out, the movie was almost universally panned by critics One reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes said “It is so formless that I began to wonder if the projectionist might have scrambled the reels. The documentary is as generic as the band it follows.” The New York Times wrote: “Bittersweet Motel” includes quite a bit of music, but not nearly enough to show the band’s range of musical interests or its ability to create wonderful free-floating jams.”

AV Club, flubbing the film’s name, was even more unrelenting with its review:

Bittersweet Hotel [sic] is one of those “let the music speak for itself” sort of films, made up mostly of footage from Phish’s 1997–98 American and European tours. The problem is that the band’s music doesn’t have much to say, conveniently (if backhandedly) supporting singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio’s defensive claim that the group gives voice to a generation of “suburban white kids.” It figures that this documentary was only made at the behest of the band: Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell, and drummer Jon Fishman are affable enough, but their modest qualities also make them uninteresting subjects.

Many Phish fans take umbrage of the project for its cartoonish and sophomoric portrayal of the band and its fanbase. It’s a time capsule of the 1.0 era, filled with troupes about drug use, rockstar ego and hubris, Chads from the northeast talking about armpit hair, and naked fans. Filmed when the band was in their mid-30s, it captured the group in a different time and head space. 20 years later, a lot has changed. Trey is sober, the band took an extended break, they continue to write and tour prolifically, and the entire Phish experience feels slightly more mature and wiser, all while embracing its usual flourishes of irreverence.

But Bittersweet Motel is also filled with lovable inside jokes, pull quotes, and pre-Internet memes that are now part of the text for how we remember Phish in the late ’90s and its feedback loop with its fanbase. Sayings like “You brought bad reviews?”, “You paid us!”, “Chicks in the front row,” and “Kiss my ass you f***ing tool” endure beyond the era. Scenes like Trey singing about Page’s new shirt or talking about playing music off-rip as if he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron helped crystalize their off-stage personalities in the minds of fans that travel religiously to see the band.

As a Phish fan, if you can look past the cringe and find the chuckle in these tropes, you can find kernels of truth in the film. These quotable moments endure in all their good-natured fun, especially as an entry point for new fans of the band. While Bittersweet Motel might fail at capturing the extent of Phish’s prolific musicianship, it excels at capturing the chemistry, camaraderie, and geekiness of dudes who worked their asses off and woke up as rockstars one day, living out their wildest musical dreams.

“Rock and roll – on a certain level – is a bunch of bullsh*t, but music is not. Music is the realest thing in the world to me, and anyone who’s been there can feel it. ” – Trey

Remembering Phish’s Bittersweet Motel, years later…

The guys in Phish themselves haven’t really said much about Bittersweet Motel over the years. In 2019, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss his newly-announced side project, Ghosts of the Forest, and a new documentary released that year, Between Me & My Mind. While talking about the new project, Trey mentioned Bittersweet Motel with an abbreviated “it was what it was”

“People have asked over the years many, many times to do movies. Only one time have we agreed. It was Todd Phillips [for 2000’s Bittersweet Motel]. That was a long time ago and, whatever, that was what it was.”

That answer seems like a polite way of leaving what’s in the past in the past.

But what about Bittersweet Motel filmmaker Todd Phillips?

Phillips’ career exploded around the time Bittersweet Motel came out. His movies have grossed over $3 billion at the box office, according to The Numbers, making him one of the most bankable auteurs in Hollywood.

In August 2016, I got a chance to interview Todd Phillips while he was on a press tour for his movie War Dogs with Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. I met Phillips in a suite at Manhattan’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, where we started talking about some of his documentary projects that predated his scripted career. At the time, I published a lengthy piece here on BroBible about on War Dogs and Phillips’ career, where the director summed the movie up with a quote that still resonated with me: “I like movies about guys who make bad decisions.”

Buried in my long-form profile, published around the time of War Dogs‘ release (read it here), was a discussion about his work with Phish on Bittersweet Motel. As a writer, it was one of those rare, on-the-record moments where I could tell an artist I was a big fan of a lesser-known work, far removed from the pop culture radar. As I recall, Phillips was gracious with his time and seemingly enthused to discuss his documentary work, shrugging off the studio publicist to keep the conversation going beyond our allotted time. I’m grateful for that because I still consider it a wonderful conversation about his filmmaking career and vision.

Because Bittersweet Motel remains deeply influential in the headspace of many Phish fans old and new, I thought it might be a good time to republish bits and pieces of that discussion from the original article. Except for this time around, I reframed it to fully focus on our conversation about the movie in the context of Phillips’ other documentaries.

I just want to be clear: This is not a new conversation about Bittersweet Motel. It happened in almost 16 years after the film was initially released; almost 20 after the project actually began. This is just previously published bits and pieces of an old conversation from 2016, edited to solely focus on the parts about Bittersweet Motel.

The movie remains pretty evergreen in the Phish world. I hope it provides some unique insight into what Phish’s Bittersweet Motel is and isn’t, all these years later.

“I think they’re living their true, authentic life.”

Old School wasn’t the only Todd Phillips movie poster in my college apartment. Hanging above my bed was the poster for Bittersweet Motel, the documentary Phillips filmed through 1997 and 1998 that followed Phish on tour across the United States and Europe. The documentary hit theaters in 2000, right around the time Phish announced their first extended touring hiatus. It was released around the same time as Phillips’ first major studio comedy, Road Trip.

Full disclosure: I was obsessed with Bittersweet Motel in high school, the peak of my Phish concert-going days until later in adulthood. It holds the dubious distinction of being both the last VHS I ever owned and the first DVD I ever owned. It’s a divisive documentary amongst Phish fans — some complain that it wasn’t serious enough or hone in on their musical talent, instead making the members of the band and the fanbase look like a clown parade of stoner goofballs. Personally, that’s what I love about it… because sometimes you need art that holds a mirror up to reality, even if what you see makes you cringe a little bit deep down in your soul.

Todd: It was so fun. I wasn’t a Phish fan. They hired me to make that movie based on…

BroBible: Hated, right?

Yeah. And it’s so random that they’d like that movie. So I wasn’t a Phish fan but I certainly became a Phish fan. I traveled the world with these guys and Trey in particular was so warm and so interesting and such a great guitar player. I just remember flying around Europe with them on their plane. To me that was one of the great experiences.”

The movie really helped characterize the behind-the-scenes personalities in Phish. 

Yeah, yeah. Because they were pretty quiet and didn’t talk very much.

Super quiet.

Page, and Mike — even in the movie they don’t talk a lot. But it lets you realize, ‘This is why Trey is Trey’ and ‘This is why Mike is Mike.’

I think there are a lot of people who are like, ‘yeah, I’ve been to 150 shows, but I don’t really know these guys besides their stage personalities.’ 

It’s interesting that they chose to be that way in life. Forget the movie. They have these really intimate shows with 80,000 people but you don’t really know who they are.

You really played up that buddy angle in the documentary, which was always very interesting to me. Bittersweet Motel documents that better than any musical documentary does.

Better than it documents the music, quite frankly. The most you can take out of that movie… we had a really small budget. So we were shooting a lot with one camera, which is insane. But what we did do right, thank you, was capture those moments. Like the ‘I like Page’s new shirt,’ — we did this to really help you understand the warmth and connection.

Or Trey calling Brad a f*cking tool.

I love that stuff.

Why did you get into documentaries? 

Quite frankly, it was because at that point I wasn’t a talented enough writer at that point. I mean at 18, 19 you’re not an experienced enough writer. You need to live a little until before you can write unless you’re a naturally gifted writer. I mean so much of writing is drawing from your own experiences. Old School happened because we made Frat House when I was growing up. You need to live a little before you can sit down and write. So how do you live a little? Documentaries for me was almost a way for me to live life on fast forward. I mean I found out that I was going on tour with GG Allin for 6 months. That’s living. Who’s going to do that? [Editor’s note: For context, GG Allin literally throws feces at his fans and has a female urinate in his mouth in Hated].

I learned a lot. Traveling around Europe with Phish, I lived. I f*cking lived. It’s going to inform your work later on life.

Do people still ask you about Frat House?

Yeah, yeah. All the time.

That’s one of those movies that feels like a time capsule of the mid-90s.

So 90s.

Such a weird PR backstory around it too. It’s almost snowballed into a larger than life thing.

I actually like what happened to Frat House, quite frankly. Because it never aired on HBO. It won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but it never aired on HBO.

Why’d you want to focus on fraternities?

Well, I was an intern at HBO in the documentary department. Sheila Nevins who runs HBO Documentaries — still does — had seen Hated. At the time they didn’t acquire things from outside of HBO. Now they do. At the time she was like, ‘I can’t air Hated, but it’s f*cking great. What do you want to do next?’ So me and Andrew Gurland made Frat House together. We pitched that movie to her, did the research, and got interested in the subject. For me, there weren’t any fraternities at NYU, but I grew up on Long Island and a lot of my friends went to schools that had them. So, when I saw them on winter break, they’d tell me stories of hazing and things and I couldn’t believe it. That’s where it actually came from. A friend of mine from high school was telling me about the hazing at his school. This is why we ended up shooting at a fraternity at SUNY Oneonta.

I feel like you really must have gotten comfortable shooting dudes after that. Like that one scene in Bittersweet Motel at The Great Went with the shirtless guys in the tent.

Yeah, I love guys like that. People love to joke about stuff like that, but I think they’re living their true, authentic life. There’s part of me that goes, ‘I wish that was me.’ They don’t give a f*ck about anything.

One of those guys in that Bittersweet Motel scene is still pretty active on a Phish Facebook group. I think I’m Facebook friends with him.

Ha, I love that. Good for him. What about that blonde girl from the movie? Do you remember her? She was doing whippets on the runway at the festival. Where’d she go?

What was that? Like 5 o’clock in the morning? Something like that?

It was literally 5 o’clock in the morning. They’re good people ultimately. Like a great group of people.

Have you kept up with any of those guys?

I did with Trey for a while. But I haven’t in years. Trey was the one that I was closest to, which you can probably tell from the movie. He was just the most accessible, the most willing to f*ck around and have fun with it and talk. The other guys would kind of clam up a little bit, they were great at performing but they didn’t really want to be doing the movie quite frankly. They felt like it was Trey’s idea. And I’m glad, but nah — I haven’t talked to Trey in probably 5 or 6 years. I like to look them up and listen to clips of their new stuff. I mean I love their music. It was fun to be at his house and access the studio. I mean we got access that most fans would kill for.

Do you ever think about doing documentaries again?

Oh, all the time. I mean documentaries have become more and more accepted as wonderful, insightful pieces of entertainment. Making A Murderer this year was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. I look at that and I’m like, ‘f*ck I want to do that again, for sure.’

Look documentary is 80% subject matter and 20% filmmaking, obviously. You pick a good subject like GG Allin and the movie is going to make itself, quite frankly — not to take away anything we did. But it’s GG Allin, it’s hard to make a shitty movie about him. Another good documentary this year was Weiner. Another great subject — what an open book he was. It’s such a commitment of time, though. The directors of Making A Murderer spent like 10 years on it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, it’s incredibly compelling, but to take the time to make a good documentary… it’s just a big investment of time.

The world has changed so much since you started making documentaries, now with varied forms of distribution.

Yeah, if I made Hated today that would be everywhere. Back then we self-distributed to movie theaters on 16-millimeter film print. It’s crazy. And it would also be a way better movie by the way. I’d be able to shoot it with my iPhone and it would look better and I’d be able to film forever. We had no money so we were shooting on 15mm film which cost $500 for a reel of 11 minutes. So we could only film so much for that movie.

What sort of weight or responsibility do you feel for mentoring young filmmakers with your work?

I love to do it. I mean I did it dead on with Nima Nourizadeh for Project X, who hadn’t made a movie ever. I’d seen a lot of his video and commercial work and I thought he’d be perfect for Project X. It happened to me with Road Trip and Old School. I think having a mentor in life, whether you run a website or you want to be a filmmaker, is really, really crucial. So I love to do it. I love to take someone like that and help them get through that first project. That’s really key. If you’re young and have the ability to find a mentor to take you under their wing, it’s the most important thing.

Do you ever see something in the culture and feel that it’s coming right out of your movies?

All the time. I see stuff that looks inspired or influenced by me. Not to be self-obsessed, but you definitely feel things where you’re like, ‘that’s cool.’ I’m almost 45 years old, young people are coming up to me who saw Road Trip when they really young. And I’m like, that’s crazy…

And do you ask about the scene with giant women’s cheetah underwear?

Well… when I was their age I was watching Stripes and Animal House.