A prairie judgeship decided by a poker game inspired Casey Phillips to make his first feature-length documentary. After 2016 wrapped, the GOP media consultant started bootstrapping what would become Win, Lose or Draw Straws, which was released earlier this month.
“We definitely made a movie that would have cost a ton of money for pennies on the dollar because we didn’t have funding,” said Phillips, who used his day job to squeeze in shoots and interviews around the country.
The stories of different candidates whose campaigns end in agonizing draws are woven together. But Phillips, as the writer and director, frequently returns to the 2015 Mississippi House contest between then-GOP challenger Mark Tullos and incumbent Democratic Rep. Blaine “Bo” Eaton that ends up turning on four votes from Jasper and Smith county residents who forgot to take their IDs to the polls.
Their decision to leave their IDs at home that day leads the candidates into a high-stakes game of drawing straws from a bag — hence the title.
Phillips had to race to hit a self-imposed deadline of September 2019, but by then his nearly 90-minute documentary was finished and ready to submit to the Sundance Film Festival. Ultimately, he saw 2020 coming. “I thought, ‘Boy, it’s going to be an interesting year. People are going to care about politics.’”
That national interest helped find a buyer — Virgil Films, a doc distribution company out of New York.
Win, Lose or Draw Straws premiered in August at the Brooklyn Film Festival and on Oct. 13 debuted nationwide on top streaming platforms. What kept Phillips going as his workload ramped up through the midterms and then into 2020 was shared accountability. “It’s about telling too many people you’re working on something and then being held accountable when they ask, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that thing?’”
It wasn’t hard to stay creative when he considered alternatives. “I get inspired by everything. I have good days and bad days writing, and good days and bad days directing,” he said. “I feel so fortunate to be able to create for a living that even a bad day of writer’s block still feels better than a day digging ditches.”
While documentary films aren’t known for their box-office, the experience has helped Phillips professionally.
“I thought a lot more things would translate between 30 seconds and 90 minutes, but not a lot actually does,” he said. “But it made me better at my day job. It also made me 1000 percent more competent with long-form”
And Phillips said he doesn’t intend to stop here: “I’ve got a couple of scripts in my pocket. Narrative features are a lot faster in post-production because you actually have a plan.”