Thanks for the Memories
'Chronicle' staff past and present on 20 years of covering SXSW Film
In many ways, it was almost more likely that we would have first started South by Southwest as a film event and added music later, rather than the other way around. After all, Nick Barbaro and I met as graduate film students at the University of Texas, while Roland Swenson was a Radio-Television-Film undergrad, although his extensive professional involvement was all in music.
This is, of course, fantasy based on biography and background rather than practical reality. In 1987, Austin already had an internationally known, couple-of-decades-old music scene but boasted no immediate ongoing film scene. Talented filmmakers like Eagle Pennell, Kevin Reynolds, Tobe Hooper, and David Schmoeller would release an interesting feature, or graduate from UT, only to immediately head to the West Coast. It wasn't until after Rick Linklater released Slacker that things changed. Not only did he stay in Austin, he stayed involved in the film society, too.
But we started with music – the three of us and Louis Meyers sitting around, talking, and planning. After seven years of SXSW Music, the event was established and successful enough that we decided to add a film component. Louis Meyers left right before that year, so it was just the three of us. Nancy Schafer was brought on board to head up the show. That first year featured the work of filmmakers like Eagle Pennell, Andy Anderson, and Tobe Hooper. The Statesman film writer at the time sniffed that we should call the festival "The Friends of Louis Black," which was by no means accurate but in many ways hit the concept on the head. The general idea was a boutique film festival honoring the work of Texas and independent filmmakers. We really didn't expect or plan for more.
Much to my surprise, if no one else's, the event kept growing, initially under Nancy, then Angela Lee, then Matt Dentler, and now Janet Pierson. I think I knew we'd created something special when our 1998-1999 attendees included Jonathan Demme, Robyn Hitchcock, Tim McCanlies, Kyle Henry, Quentin Tarantino, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, Julianna Margulies, Jack Hill, Sid Haig, Steven Soderbergh, Guillermo del Toro, Harry Knowles, Robert Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellán, lawyer/producer John Sloss, John and Janet Pierson, Ellen Spiro, Richard Lewis, Don Howard, Ramona Diaz, Hector Galán, Paul Stekler, Matthew McConaughey, and Mike Judge. It seemed to me that we must have reached the mountain peak and that it would all be downhill from there.
Far from it. SXSW Film and the Austin film community have just continued to grow. Happily, each has supported but not dominated the other. – Louis Black, Chronicle editor and co-founder, SXSW co-founder
It was embarrassing, but at least it contained no foul language or catty insults. This is the story of how I learned to resist filling in copy blanks with wiseass remarks of my own. All it takes to cure you of the habit is one horrifying experience of seeing the comments meant for only your eyes and those of the editor or writer you were addressing staring back at you in print for all the world to see. It happened to me with the program book for the SXSW Film Festival during its second year of operation in 1995.
Back in the day, there didn't exist an army of staff members and volunteers clogging the offices and streets, working hard to make sure that the whole SXSW operation moved smoothly and that all the proverbial trains ran on time. Still having lots to prove in comparison with SXSW Music, its older sibling, SXSW Film was very much a shoestring affair. It had only one real employee, Nancy Schafer, the film festival producer, who, in turn, had lots of help from two of SXSW's co-founders – Louis Black and Nick Barbaro (who also happened to have, and still have, full-time jobs as the editor and publisher, respectively, of The Austin Chronicle). Back then, the Chronicle and SXSW offices were conjoined, separated only by a volleyball court. It seemed natural that the production of printed matter, such as program books and schedules, be done at the Chronicle, since that was our bread and butter. (Plus, Nick always knew that if he dinked long enough with the fonts and point sizes he could make all the copy fit even if eagle eyes were needed to read it.) I would pitch in and copyedit and proofread the text. Blame it on the all-nighters, the mischievous gods of the publishing world, or simple human error ... but there it was in black and white as I stood helpless on the convention floor – and, boy, was my face red.
– Marjorie Baumgarten, senior editor, 1987-present
The task of instantiating my experience with the Chronicle and SXSW Film during the first decade of the 21st century feels a lot like the experience itself: formidable, in all senses of the word. In print, I've compared the Festival to choking on an ice cube while flailing around for bills in a money chamber; in conversation with friends, the metaphor's not quite as cute.
Coordinating the weekly preview issue (immediately after putting Interactive's to bed), in addition to writing the content in the paper's daily editions, demanded escalating levels of savvy, judgment, elbow grease, endurance, and lucky breaks as SXSW Film's programming grew vaster and more varied every year. It is difficult to fathom how Chronicle Screens editors do it today, with the Festival bigger than ever. After all, they're accountable not only to the readership, but also to attendees, to the filmmakers, to their writers, and to personal and professional standards. And, as I'm sure has been stated elsewhere, the editor and publisher helped found the thing and have a considerable financial stake in it.
But the pressure on them pales in comparison to what the filmmakers face. I will never forget the conversations I had with filmmakers during the Festival, venturing out on breezy spring days during lulls in the press cycle to sit and talk about their movies, their lives, and what it's like to be at a crucial juncture in one's career. I got to laugh with Bradley Beesley, Bob Byington, and the Duplass brothers. I got to admire the courage of documentarians like Alex Gibney, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin of Carnivalesque Films, and Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley of Rumur. I got to interview legends like Jonathan Demme and the late George Hickenlooper, discuss screenwriting with Roman Coppola, sing with the Refugee All Stars, and play wheelchair rugby with the brilliant Mark Zupan. I got to watch The Last Waltz with Robbie Robertson. I got to see debut efforts from hundreds of unknown directors, many of whom are so talented that the industry would never figure out quite what to do with them.
So, that was my favorite part. Even today, when I hear about a friend's deserving work not making the cut or that the Festival has done something dumb like eliminate the Texas Shorts program, I still marvel at the inclusiveness and quality of SXSW Film. It's overwhelming.
– Shawn Badgley, Screens editor, 2003-2007
The early years of SXSW Film were marked – some might say pitted – with predigital video revolution works of 24fps outsider art that positively screamed DIY. For me, the occasional rough edits, dodgy lighting, and the sporadic sequences of muddy soundwork only added to the charm. And in 1997, nothing and no one charmed me more than 26-year-old Sarah Jacobson's Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, a punk rock lust 'n' love story that, in retrospect, puts both Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Rock 'n' Roll High School to shame, simply by virtue of Jacobson's enormous heart and fearless filmmaking-on-a-safety-pin skills. Jacobson wrote, directed, produced, and edited this, the first punk rock film penned from a female perspective, and audiences (myself chief among them) fell hard for it. A smashing cast and countless cameos – Lisa Gerstein literally, uh, nails the grrrl-centric title role, AFI's Davey Havok makes an appearance, and Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra turns up looking appropriately skeevy – make this $50K marvel as lively and vital today as it was when it landed Jacobson in Spin magazine as one of the 50 most influential people in "girl culture." (The film's soundtrack – featuring everyone from Mudhoney to the Loudmouths, AFI, and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh – rocked nearly as hard as the movie itself.)
Beyond the film's more obvious feminine-outsider mystique, Jacobson's ebullient, all-inclusive cri de coeur seemed to be, "Hey, you can do this, too!" And plenty of people did, as evidenced by the flood of punk rock docs and quirky DIY features dealing with intensely real-life issues that soon after Mary Jane began cropping up as fast as magic mushrooms at a Butthole Surfers show.
Sadly, Jacobson's cinematic promise was cut short when she died of endometrial cancer on Feb. 13, 2004, but her pioneering punk spirit lives on via the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant. Thanks in no small part to her brief but remarkable career, SXSW Film has become even more of a place for misfits, freaks, and geek-punk dreamers than it was back in those halcyon early years. We miss her.
– Marc Savlov, staff writer, 1997-2012
Trimming down seven years of SXSW memories to one good tale is like wrangling the SXSW film schedule: impossible. There are the celeb stories, like stepping out of an elevator as Conan O'Brien steps in. There are breathless stories, like semi-hijacking a taxi crammed with Gawker staffers and barely making a midnight screening. But the important ones are about filmmakers. It was 2006, and I'd snagged my first ever SX interview. Documentarians Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer were showing Darkon, their film about live-action role players and the complex interpersonal politics of running a fictional land (imagine Game of Thrones with car payment woes). We chatted for about half an hour, next to a big pit of LEGOs: I think I may have been the first interviewer they'd spoken to all day who even knew what a LARPer was, so that was a great start. After the interview, I hammered everyone I met, told them, You need to go see this film. When it came back a year later for a run at the Alamo Ritz, I plowed back through my recordings, found the interview, wrote an article, and got to share the experience again. Since then, Meyer and Neel have become SX regulars, returning in 2009 with their doc about Alex Jones, New World Order, and causing ripples in 2012 with their iPhone-shot King Kelly. And you know what? If all I've ever managed in writing about film is to get a few more people to see Darkon, I think I can sleep soundly tonight.
– Richard Whittaker, contributor, 2006-2011, staff writer, 2011-present
There are plenty of movies I'd gladly watch the last 20 minutes of, apropos of nothing. Any of the Ocean's trilogy, Star Wars: Episode IV, Catch Me If You Can, Mean Girls – cult classics or anything lighthearted would be completely fair game. But when a friend came over to pick me up for dinner a few minutes early as I wrapped up my viewing of a screener last March, he was not walking in on one of those movies.
There I was, on a beautiful spring evening, bathed in the last few rays of daylight in my sun-soaked apartment off Shoal Creek ... and I was a goddamn mess. Cheeks stained by streaks of mascara, I sat in my armchair, snotting all over myself and quickly entering the territory of numbness. He sat patiently on the couch while I watched through the last of the credits, and then he watched as I came to terms with the story I'd just watched.
I don't remember where we ate that night, and sometimes I struggle to name more than a film or two from Festivals past, but I don't think I'll ever forget the way I felt that day, watching Eden for the first time. And I suspect I'm not the only one: After all, it took home the audience award for best narrative feature in 2012.
– Monica Riese, Screens editor, 2013-present
It was a teeny note, smaller than a business card, marked with teeny handwriting, and when I would happen upon it, it made me smile. But now, for the life of me, I cannot find it.
It was SXSW 2006. The main interview of a SXSW assignment was complete. I could have simply filed the story and called it a day, but the subject – the intriguing doc Cruel & Unusual, about trans women in men's prisons – had three directors, not just the one I'd interviewed in advance by phone. So we all met. Things clicked, and conference friendships were formed.
Co-director Janet Baus and I hit the town, ending up at the Sleater-Kinney show. A produce warehouse off the soon-to-be-burgeoning East Sixth corridor was converted into a venue. Pre-Portlandia Carrie Brownstein pranced around the concrete loading dock with Elaine-from-Seinfeld high kicks as the sound bounced hard into an ecstatic audience.
As the evening wrapped, my new director pal lamented running out of time to find the perfect pair of Texas cowboy boots for her partner. I had a pair that I'd worn maybe five times in the 15 years I'd owned them – a gorgeous and thoughtful gift from someone in my previous life. They just weren't "me." It was time for them to be fully rocked and appreciated.
We went to my house, and I dug out the boots. I think, at first, Janet might have been disappointed, expecting a desert-worn pair of Texas shitkickers. Ultimately, though, the shiny pair of burgundy Spanish-leather beauties stood on their own. And they were the perfect size.
About a month later, a box came in the mail, a surprise Yankee care package. To this day, I burn the handmade red-and-blue candle which occupies a special place at the tub.
I still can't find that teeny note that came in that box from my friend. I miss that slip of paper, my stand-in for that slip of SXSW connection. I miss it way more than I miss the boots.
– Kate X Messer, senior editor, 1996-present
My most vivid memory of SXSW Film is the opening night party of 2000. Well, I take that back: I was very drunk, so the memories are quite vague. I was a young journalist, way too excited by open bars and celebrities, but I felt so shiny and important covering that event. That platinum lanyard around my neck, that reporter's notebook in my hand – both of them felt like license to do anything, although I did very little aside from refilling my drink. I babbled for a while to the actress Drea de Matteo, in town for a movie called Sleepwalk, because The Sopranos had hit the year before (she played Adriana), and she was becoming a big deal. She was probably the most famous person I'd ever shared a beer with at that point, and she was friendly and beautiful and made me feel like a million bucks. That was a very distant feeling the next morning, a Saturday, when I drove with shaky hands to the Chronicle office at 10am to file some story, and I was so wildly hungover that I threw up on my lap while sitting at a stoplight. Welcome to SXSW, kid.
But my favorite memory of SXSW Film has nothing to do with parties or celebrities. I wandered in to a screening of the 2002 documentary Spellbound, about the national spelling bee, with no real expectations. By the end, I was crying. I was cheering. I felt so transported, so moved. I had shaky hands then, too, but the good kind. It was movie magic, the kind I will never stop getting way too excited about.
– Sarah Hepola, Screens editor, 2000-2001
In my years on the beat, I met no celebrities and gathered no scoops. I attended no parties. When the schedule came out each year, we'd scramble for picks, and I happily agreed to review weird little movies I thought I had no chance of seeing a month later in theatres. I liked the existential aspect of the serendipitous Festival experience. I also like weird little movies.
I went to only one big premiere. Penelope Spheeris' concert doc We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll was The Osbournes before the Osbournes were The Osbournes. On my side of the house were platinum badge holders with Patagonia zip-ups, (then) state-of-the-art flip phones, and Santa Clara accents. The other side? As many Slayer fans as I've ever seen: local, rowdy, banging heads and throwing horns, in fringed moccasin boots. I liked the movie, but I saw it with the wrong people.
My weirdest screening was at midnight in the dingiest room of the Dobie. Climax was a creepy, crawly, anti-buddy comedy about post-adolescent dudes and their bilious Bogosian angst. This was 2001 – before mumblecore, before the puppyish passive-aggression of Michael Cera, before Ryan Gosling tenderly loved a sex doll, before Joseph Gordon-Levitt was mopey to Zooey Deschanel. Indie moviemaking was still reacting to Clerks with jokes about jerks, their friends' speech impediments, and their Asian-American girlfriends. There were maybe 10 people in the room, and I was the only woman.
The lights came on to reveal the room even bleaker and less occupied. I felt eyes on me. "You ... want to go somewhere after this?" asked a voice two rows down.
"I'm going home," I said. "I'm the third-stringer, I'm married, and I have a day job." I added, "Also, that movie."
I also watched a lot of documentaries. Documentaries about the juvenile justice system, documentaries about the peak-oil crisis, documentaries about the patchwork ethnic heritage of Texas accordion music. I watched the Pixies reunite. I watched kids I hadn't actually met grow up and go to summer camp. I watched families form and fall apart and reunite. I had a lot of access to the stories of people who were brave enough to share their lives. I watched a lot of movies I probably would never have otherwise seen, even streaming on Netflix, which is where I get my stuff these days. It was an utter privilege.
– Marrit Ingman, contributor, 2000-2007
I've corralled our SXSW Film coverage for eight of the past 13 years. "Corral" feels about right; I've felt like a horse wrangler (whisperer?) trying to determine which few films we can champion, and I've taken seriously my small part in helping those films find their footing.
So yeah, it's been a soul-searching exercise and also, let's be frank, an organizational nightmare that inevitably sets me growly for about six weeks out of the year. I don't have a lot of fun during SXSW, save the annual Chronicle-sponsored SXSW Film party, where I drink too much and teeth-smile like a new deb. I almost never set foot in a theatre.
In 2004 I did. Before Sunset was the "buzz screening" of the day – an unannounced, unpublicized sneak. It still seemed lightly cockeyed that Richard Linklater had made a follow-up to Before Sunrise – An arthouse sequel? What's that about? – but that didn't mean I wasn't hungry for it. I'm a few years younger than the films' central lovers, Celine and Jesse. I read about them first in Anthony Lane's New Yorker review; the film wouldn't open in my small town for months yet, but my gut twisted with certainty that I had to know these people – my people. That film caught me right at the precipice of a change I didn't know for sure was coming but was foot-bouncing ready for.
Some films feel like family; Before Sunrise felt like first love. So maybe I was guarded when I plunked down at the Paramount for the Before Sunset sneak; how many first loves sour upon revisiting? Instead, it knocked me sideways. The final-reel send-off of Nina Simone singing "Just in Time" felt just right, especially for someone feeling upside down (I'd just left the Chronicle to feel out the world at large) and forever trying to catch up to Celine and Jesse.
Now Linklater's bringing them back to the Festival with Before Midnight – An arthouse trilogy? Who does that? – and the film arrives right as I hang up my hat as the Chronicle's chief wrangler of SXSW Film. Once again, these particular movies have managed to catch me right as I'm changing. I can't wait to see what happens next.
– Kimberley Jones, Screens editor, 2001-2003, 2007-2012