On the Case: No. 1
The Burnt Orange kids and 'The Cassidy Kids'
Cinematographer PJ Raval furrows his brow watching the kids rehearse their scene in the treehouse.
"Billy's at the top in one corner, Orlando's down at the bottom in the other," he points out on the video tape. "Compositionally, they're fighting. And then there's Scooter kind of coming in from the side."
Director Jake Vaughan nods but interrupts. "Harry Hackman does not care," he says. "To Harry Hackman, this is a paycheck."
The mythical director of The Cassidy Kids Mysteries, Harry Hackman is invoked often over these first couple days shooting The Cassidy Kids.
"What would Harry Hackman do?" jokes co-screenwriter and producer Bryan Poyser. "We should all get bracelets. WWHHD."
Starring Anne Ramsay (Mad About You) and Kadeem Hardison (A Different World), The Cassidy Kids is an ambitious comic drama about a gang of kids whose unraveling of a murder mystery in 1980 inspired a children's TV show and now sets off a very adult crisis as their DVD-extra reunion brings to light clues that their precocious detective work actually sent an innocent man to his grave. Think Atom Egoyan on Sugar Smacks.
And enter Harry Hackman. Not just for the sake of plausibility, but to connect with the characters affected by it, a convincing performance is as necessary behind the camera as in front of it, so we might hallucinate having coveted that freckly paste-eater's Cassidy Kids lunchbox in second grade, for instance. Perhaps the pressure to pump nostalgia glands pales beside the stresses of the production as a whole, but you'd hardly know it to watch Vaughan, Poyser, and their crew work so confidently and with such good humor. Sure, they break a sweat, but this is Texas in July, and hangar 4 at Austin Studios lacks air conditioning. AC would take $5,000 from a budget that could easily use an infusion of 10 times that and still not quite afford climate control.
Everyone agrees on the same word to describe it: crazy. One would like to put it more delicately, but various elements of the story like period costumes and set-dressing, or parodying a network TV show, no matter how chintzy require an absolute baseline of credibility that only comes so cheap. UT Film Institute Executive Director Tom Schatz acknowledges it should cost over a million, and is being "squeezed into a smaller box." While the scale is far above Vaughan and Poyser's microbudget festival hit Dear Pillow, the control, precision, and artistic daring of that film helped convince Austin's Burnt Orange Productions and UTFI that the two could pull together The Cassidy Kids on a budget they could afford to commit, with a crew largely made up of UT students.
Carolyn Pfeiffer, president and CEO of Burnt Orange, notes that "of course we thought Jake and Bryan were very talented, and they brought us this really multilayered, original script [by Tasca Shadix and Tom Willet] that we just loved. ... So, even though it's pretty wild and woolly, with nine child actors and multiple formats ... we were so impressed by the creative team they were bringing together PJ's photography and Kyle Henry's editing work [Manito, Troop 1500] was all really great that we knew every department would be up to pulling it off."
"What we're here to do is deliver a great movie at a price, with top-flight talent up and down the food chain in town and from the university," Schatz adds. After The Quiet (formerly Dot), The Cassidy Kids is the second Burnt Orange production, and the first to be headed by recent UT grads, with current students in many major positions and Austin actors in starring and key supporting roles. "We're hoping to do one 'home-grown' production like this per year," Schatz says, "so the challenge is creating the machinery to grow these projects at UT on a regular basis."
It is a lot of pressure, but when you see the treehouse set for The Cassidy Kids Mysteries, for instance, confidence trumps temperature. An art department entirely run by students, some of whom haven't worked before on a film of any kind, has stepped up to deliver TV kitsch nirvana.
"The fuel of this show is people's unbelievable enthusiasm," says co-producer Seth Caplan, "and that's what's been so exciting here so far, and so great about Austin." Of course, with 22 days to go, it's essential to preserve this spirit as the Cassidy crew moves on to tougher stuff. Harry Hackman is over. Now, what will Jake Vaughan do?
First in a series.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the August 22, 2008 issue: In "On the Case: No. 1: The Burnt Orange Kids and The Cassidy Kids" (The Austin Chronicle, Vol. 24 No. 48, July 29) it was incorrectly stated that the film production's art department is "entirely run by students." In fact, the department features many professionals, including production designer Jourdan Henderson, set decorator John Parker, construction foreman Jeremy Reeves, construction coordinator Tom Ward, construction laborer Zach Ward, graphic designer Ellen Lampl, set designer Michael Bricker, and property master Yvonne Boudreaux. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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