From Penitentiaries to Picture Shows

Spiderwood Studios founder Tommy Warren follows the dream

From Penitentiaries to Picture Shows
Photo by Mary Sledd

"We're going to have a big sign up there." Tommy Warren points across a room smelling of fresh paint. Imagine Spiderwood Studios, he urges. See it as he sees it. Workers scurry past, building, painting, securing hardwood flooring. The smell of fresh paint is in the air. Breathe it in. Outside, cattle dot the land. Warren points next at the barren, winter field. "There," he says, "will be the jumbo stage." All 20,000 square feet of it. If ...

If you know anything about the state of the Texas film industry, then you know that "if" is an increased film-incentives program to which the Texas Legislature will soon give a yea or nay. The current 5% hasn't slowed the tide of Hollywood projects going to states, such as New Mexico, Louisiana, and Michigan, that offer 25% and more. Most insiders talk 15% as the magic number needed to again compete, given a strong Texas crew base and diverse locations. Warren, both pragmatic and a gambler, is ready if the Legislature is. "I'm waiting for that good feeling in myself that filming is going to be okay here," Warren says. "I'm going to try to bring films here from my friends, but it will take some help from the Legislature." On a smaller scale, he's ready anyway, and his budding facility may well offer good medicine for a struggling industry.

Warren's dreams are already taking shape 25 miles from Austin in what is left of the Utley community, a former cotton town that is now best known as a place to launch canoes on the Colorado River that flows right through film-studio property. "When cotton went away, [Utley] went away," Warren says of the town that boasted almost 500 residents in the 1850s, noting that another Warren (no relation) built a chapel for slaves on this spot. American Indians once camped here as well, Warren says, and scientists have dug up a prehistoric bison skeleton. At the end of the road in boom years, there was a ferry to take the cotton downstream. "There's a lot of history here," Warren says, his hand sweeping across the horizon. But how do you revive a memory? Send it a letter. Warren sent a letter to himself addressed to Utley just to see if it would arrive. It did. The town came back to life.

The concrete was poured almost four months ago, and today a 6,000-square-foot soundstage is ready for Spiderwood's first official client, Church's Chicken, which is slated to film a commercial here in the last days of January. Warren hopes to follow it with feature films, animation, and music videos. The stage's floor is "superflat," he says. It has 40 tons of air conditioning, production suites, lightproof/dustproof doors, lots and lots of electricity, and walls that are double-plated and insulated. Warren also sees a facility set up for wire stunts and a two-story green screen, he says as he strolls a metal walkway above the stage. "My whole first thought about Austin was that one of the things lacking was a back lot," he says. It grew from there.

Silver-haired with an old-school mustache and a country drawl that reflects his rural Arkansas upbringing, Warren's background is an odd mix that somehow fits together. A fireproof film vault at the studio? It's little different in technology than a prison cell, and Warren cut his teeth constructing prisons around Texas. Yes, prisons. After a five-year search for the perfect studio site, part of what steered him to Utley was experience building a correctional facility in nearby Elgin. He knew the lay of the land. The other lures were the Colorado River and the tony nearby Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop, where he envisioned film stars camping out during productions. He sketched the film studio himself and spent more than three years clearing the Utley land, which hadn't been farmed in 30 years. He dreamed. Big.

Warren grew up dirt-poor in tiny Hampton, Ark., a dot on the map that coincidentally also produced television producer/director Harry Thomason (Warren was born five blocks from Thomason's wife/partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason in Poplar Bluff, Mo.) and schlock film director Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek). Warren was a late convert to the business of dreams. Fresh from high school graduation, he crossed the border into Texas with $27 to his name and two payments in arrears on his car. He went to night school in Dallas, earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M, then, when that money ran out, another scholarship to Centenary College in Shreveport, La. Eventually he found himself in Beaumont, Texas, where he chaired the planning and zoning commission, built prisons, and got a taste for politics as Southeast Texas campaign coordinator for such up-and-comers as Ann Richards and John Hill. He was also handy with a camera and in the Seventies started shooting commercials for underdog local candidates. That led to acting in commercials, and the film bug had officially bit.

But it took the prisons to get him to Spiderwood, with a stopover at Paramount Studios. Warren had taken two trips to China as one of the first Westerners to see inside the Chinese courts and correctional facilities. Lillian Michelson, the longtime researcher at DreamWorks, got wind of his experiences and urged production designer Dick Sylbert to fly Warren to Los Angeles to pick his brain for the 1997 film Red Corner, about an American businessman who ends up on trial for murder in China. That led to other projects – including assisting on the documentary The Man on Lincoln's Nose, about Robert Boyle, Alfred Hitchcock's production designer on North by Northwest – and to Warren taking over the offices of Aleksandra Lyons at Paramount. "Anyone with a badge could claim an office," Warren says of the Paramount lot, adding that it's just such an inefficiency that spurs him to make Spiderwood a lean, well-oiled machine à la the prisons he has designed.

In that only-in-Hollywood story, Warren – who had previously done a smattering of magazine writing in Texas – and Lyons ended up co-writing a script, The Inner Circle, about a breast cancer survivor's struggle post-mastectomy. Warrens' new company, Spiderwood Productions Inc. – the name came from complaints of a spider-filled tree at one of his prisons combined with Hollywood and his own middle name, Glenwood – shot it in the summer of 2002, and it was distributed by PorchLight Entertainment, showing up of late on the Hallmark Channel. Warren later co-wrote a series of National Lampoon videos set around golf and starring David Leisure. But he wanted to come back to Texas, and he believed he knew how to construct the perfect film studio. "Development and this business are very similar," he says, noting that he is actively courting action films and alternative markets, including the Internet, for films. In the past, he has spoken at a governor's conference about economic development. "I told them the first thing is to take care of the industry you've developed and the offshoots of it," Warren says. "What people don't realize about the movie industry is it's really a high tech industry."

Working alongside him on the studio project is his son, Trent, a Skywalker Sound-trained editor who also has worked on music videos. They wander the nascent facility, watching it come to life. A little paint here, a soundproof window there. An animation-rendering room boasts oversized wiring to assure "clean power" to avoid any computer glitches. A suite above the completed soundstage would allow Hollywood actors a place to chill out between takes. "I just feel it," Warren says. "This is going to be great. If you can imagine it, we can make it."

Warren knows a national economic downturn colors his efforts. But the land the studio sits on has already had a trial run, providing that back lot Warren originally dreamed of. It served in the opening scene for one film in which a shack is burned down. The Los Angeles-based crew expected trouble getting a fire permit, but the local fire marshal said all was copacetic, Warren says. Welcome to Texas. Between the shiny new buildings sits an ancient barn, restored to much of its original log construction, with one exception: The door was on a building used in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the Seventies. "I believe I can be a great ambassador for Texas and the film industry," Warren says. An icy wind whips through the former farmland. It's full of dreams mixed with cold, hard reality.  

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