After a high-profile start, film school grad and Steven Spielberg protégé Phil Joanou's Hollywood movie career faltered and he opted for the independent film route to recharge himself in the late '90s.
Inspired by Jaws (1975), the teenage Joanou started noodling with his father's Super-8 camera, creating increasingly elaborate movies with his friends. At the University of Southern California's distinguished film school, Joanou's The Last Chance Dance won the Best Student Film prize in 1984; when his idol Spielberg saw the film, he hired the struggling grad to direct episodes of the TV series Amazing Stories in 1986. Under Spielberg's aegis, Joanou then directed his first feature, the flashy high school comedy Three O'Clock High (1987).
Impressed with Joanou's skill, top 1980s rock band U2 chose the young director to helm the documentary U2: Rattle and Hum (1988). Shot during the group's Joshua Tree U.S. tour in grainy black and white and full color, Rattle and Hum paid homage to the American roots of rock as well as recording the band's dynamic stage performances, earning Joanou and U2 critical kudos. Joanou's next feature, the violent New York Irish gangster story State of Grace (1990), once again showcased the director's knack for stylish visuals and was elevated by Sean Penn, Ed Harris, and Gary Oldman's intense performances. In 1992, Final Analysis's slick neo-noir thriller sheen and sexy lead trio of Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, and Uma Thurman, however, were overwhelmed by the story's ludicrousness. After both features failed at the box office, Joanou turned back to television, first creating the documentary Age 7 in America (1991), based on Michael Apted's acclaimed British series (28 Up (1985), 35 Up (1991)), and directing installments of cable TV's neo-noir anthology Fallen Angels, Vol. 2 (1993) and Oliver Stone's science fiction drama Wild Palms (1993). Joanou returned to features with an adaptation of the detective novel Heaven's Prisoners in 1996, but it was another box office disappointment. Opting out of the Hollywood studio system, Joanou wrote, directed, and independently produced his next feature, Entropy (1999). A film about a director's struggles with love and the movie industry, Entropy garnered positive notices on the film festival circuit. After Entropy, Joanou increasingly focused his energy on creating attention-getting TV ad campaigns for Diet Coke and Nike. By this time Joanou was slowly nudging his way back into the Hollywood studio system, with the true life-inspired 2006 sports drama Gridiron Gang providing just the right mix of grit and inspiration needed to give his career a strong second wind.