Dave Phillips: A quirky world suits him fine

a photo of David Phillips
David Phillips made an investment in pudding a few years ago that has paid great dividends. His original outlay has allowed him to fly free to more than 30 countries since then. Phillips’ exploits also caught the attention of Hollywood execs, who cast

Seize the opportunity — and fly with it. That could be the mantra of David Phillips, a UC Davis civil engineer who’s also known as the “Pudding Guy,” the originator of the concept behind an Adam Sandler movie, “Punch-Drunk Love.”

A few years ago, Hollywood writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson caught wind of the bargain-hunting exploits of Phillips, who once had bought $3,000 worth of chocolate pudding — about 12,000 cups of pudding — to redeem 1.25 million frequent-flier miles in a promotion. Dubbed the “Pudding Guy,” Phillips inspired the concept behind the 2003 film, “Punch-Drunk Love,” in which Sandler played Phillips as the character, Barry Egan, a beleaguered salesman with anger issues who is harassed at work by a phone sex operator and has seven emasculating sisters among other misanthropic challenges.

Though “Punch-Drunk Love” won a Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Phillips admits the dark comedy may not be everybody’s cup of tea — his mother wasn’t so enamored with it. But he himself found it delightfully quirky. And quirky is just fine with Phillips, who counts the uber-quirky sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick among his top cultural influences. “Way ahead of his time,” he says of the writer.

When he’s not supplying Hollywood with story ideas, the mild-mannered Phillips works as the manager of water and waste services in the utilities division of Facilities, Operations and Maintenance. The Fresno native has been at UC Davis for nine years and is an alumnus of the engineering program.

Away from the job, Phillips is an expert on reading the fine print for bargain opportunities. “I’m always looking for a good deal. Tons of opportunities exist around us all the time — we just don’t notice them.”

Except for Phillips, that is. His penchant for knowing the nitty-gritty details behind airlines’ frequent flying programs has paid off. To date, he and his family have flown to more than 30 countries. Phillips himself has flown more than 100,000 miles in 2003 alone, traveling to exotic locales such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Amsterdam, Singapore, Hawaii, Bangkok and Mauritius. “This year has been fantastic,” he says, grinning.

Are you like the main character in “Punch-Drunk Love”?

Mostly not. I have better anger management and have only have one sister. But I do have a player piano — and I tend to crash into things. Mainly I supplied the concept — the pudding — not the character.

Why did you choose a career in civil engineering?

Originally I wanted to be an electrical engineer. But through a quirk — there’s that word again — I became a civil engineer. I wound up taking an introductory course and fell in love with it when I realized civil engineers use computers a lot, but they also get to work outside once in a while.

What do you like most about your job?

Working here is great because the campus is quick to support unique and innovative approaches to solve its problems. I’m responsible for campus water systems, sewers and storm drains, swimming pools, the campus wastewater treatment plant and the landfill.

The least?

Many facilities on campus are not up to par. I’ve spent most of my career here working in a trailer. My current office literally used to be a holding cell for campus police.

Has global travel changed you?

It’s opened my mind in many ways, from realizing that human nature is fairly universal and that life in other countries may not be the way it’s portrayed on the nightly news.

What did you think of Hollywood?

As an advisor to the film, I attended some of the screenings, parties and other events. While the people behind the movie were very nice about it, when you see the Hollywood world close up you can’t help but think it’s weird. It’s all about schmoozing. I also was amazed to realize how much time and effort goes into every movie, no matter how bad it ends up.

Read any good books lately?

I prefer audio books and listen to a lot of them on flights. My favorite writer is the late Phillip K. Dick. His ideas about what is real and unreal are fascinating. He once wrote, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” This seems truer every day.

What’s your favorite campus spot?

That’s easy. My backyard. I’m lucky enough to live in Aggie Village.

What change would you like to see on campus?

I’d like the university to adopt a combined sick leave/vacation program. Many state agencies allow this already. This gives employees more choices. Healthy families don’t need all the sick leave we’re given. Finding enough vacation time is much harder than finding airline tickets. I suspect we’d all be sick less if we could take more vacations.

Did you meet Adam Sandler?

No. He wasn’t there when I was watching them film and he didn’t go to the parties or screening. I heard he’s actually sort of shy. I met some of the other actors and actresses — Emily Watson, Luis Guzmam, Phil Hoffman. All nice people. None of them knew the story was based a real person. They got a laugh from that.

Are your colleagues jealous of your globetrotting?

In a good-natured way, maybe. But the fever has spread to some of them, who are finding more reasons to travel afar. That’s good.

How many frequent flyer miles do you have left?

About 4.8 million miles — and growing.

Where are you going next?

Kuala Lumpur in April, but I hope to visit Rio De Janeiro or Buenos Aires before January.

What’s your best advice for finding bargains?

Read deep and jump quickly. Most bargains are buried way down in the fine print of a program. And once you see it, be prepared to take advantage of it right away. A lot of people aren’t willing to take a chance, especially if it seems kind of silly. •

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