Austin-Made Comedy Home Free Is Taking Homelessness Seriously

How a chance encounter in 1997 keeps changing lives

Joe Hart as the Professor in Home Free (Photo by Onion Creek Productions)

A lot of filmmakers say their film was truly conceived in Austin, but not all of them can point to a specific address. However, Aaron Brown and Lenny Barszap, director and writer of college comedy Home Free (screening at Austin Film Festival Oct. 27), could walk you to the ramshackle student house on Bellevue Place that launched it all.

That was their first post-dorm residence when they were undergraduates at UT in the mid-1990s. Barszap recalled it as being "a crazy huge house that was kind of dilapidated, but kind of the coolest house we ever lived in." That was where they lived when they became friends with someone who would change their lives. "I brought my dog up from home and met this man who they all called the Professor. We would chit-chat with him and play washers with him, and he was always reading."

"He was kind of like our Yoda," said Brown, "this unexpected older man."

The Professor was their friend but didn't share too many personal details. "He played his cards close to his vest," said Brown, "but he was very good at teaching, and you could tell he had been in the classroom, no question."

"And we were his students," added Barszap.

“Go out in the world and keep doing good things.”
The story they heard was that he was a former UT philosophy professor who gave it all up "to live a simple life on the street," Barszap said – which, to a bunch of 19-year-olds, sounds like a cool Jack Kerouac fantasy. However, the reality was a lot tougher. "One day, there was a huge crazy Texas thunderstorm, and I walked the dog down to the park and saw him wringing out all his belongings. We were just like, 'Don't sleep out in the elements. Come sleep on our porch.'"

It wasn't a hard decision. "We were jerkoffs," Barszap said, "and we didn't take anything seriously, but at our core we did think we were good people, so when we saw someone who was actually suffering, I'm very proud of that 19-year-old kid who did say, 'Don't suffer. We've got you.'"

This led to a year of a strange and wonderful friendship with the Professor as an alfresco house guest, and a genuine awakening for the housemates. "We thought we were broke," said Barszap. "We wouldn't run our air conditioning because it was too expensive, we furnished our house from dumpsters and garage sales, and got everything off the curb. So there was this weird feeling that we had nothing, but all of us had our parents' credit card for emergencies. We all knew we were OK, but then we had these people that we met that really had nothing."

"That experience left a huge impact on our lives," Brown added, and over the years they have found more people who knew the Professor. Alongside figures like Leslie Cochran, Jennifer Gale, and Gerry van King, aka the King of Sixth Street, "he was part of the Austin fabric. People who were in Austin in the '90s, they knew him."

Home Free depicts the highs of having the Professor around, but also the lows of how opening the door to him meant opening the door to other members of the unhoused community that had gathered around him. Barszap said that, as matters spun out of control beyond what a bunch of teenagers could handle, "we had to go to him and say, 'We feel terrible, but we can't keep doing this.' And he said, 'Don't feel terrible. Feel good that you did something. Go out in the world and keep doing good things.'"

And they're keeping doing good things with Home Free. Not only are they hoping that the film will bring attention to America's housing crisis, and humanize people living rough, but they're putting their money where their mouths are by committing 10% of all profits to the Austin-based The Other Ones Foundation. Aside from the AFF screenings, Barszap will be part of the "Writing for a Cause" panel, and then after the festival they'll be helping organize Been There 2, a special fundraising music festival taking place at the Esperanza Community.

The show will be headlined The Pharcyde with local legends Brownout , one of the many side projects of Black Pumas and Grupo Fantasma founding member Adrian Quesada, who also composed the score for Home Free. So how did a micro-indie get a Grammy winner to soundtrack their movie? Pretty simple. "Adrian is a college buddy of ours," Barszap said, who first knew him as a member of the Blue Noise Band when they were all undergradds. "I was into avant-garde jazz and they were doing a lot of that stuff, and I went, 'Oh, cool.'" However, they were the only people who thought it was cool. "I'm thanked on their album because I was literally the only guy there when nobody else was."

With no budget to license music like a Dazed & Confused-style jukebox soundtrack for Home Free, they reached out to Quesada. Brown recalled, "He said, 'It's funny you're asking me about this right now because I've been thinking that I wanted to make this '90s mixtape project thing,' and we said, 'Let's get to work.'"

Home Free

Texas Premiere
Fri., Oct. 27, 6:15pm, State Theatre
Wed., Nov. 1, 5pm, Galaxy Theatre

Indie Film Track: Writing for a Cause: Social Impact Entertainment Financing and Assessment

Fri., Oct. 27, 1:30pm, Stephen F. Austin Assembly, 701 Congress

Been There 2

Nov. 11
Esperanza Community, 780 Bastrop Highway

Austin Film Festival runs Oct. 26-Nov. 3. Badges available now at
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Austin Film Festival, AFF, AFF2023, Austin Film Festival 2023, Home Free, Aaron Brown, Lenny Barszap, Adrian Quesada

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