Local Drought Doesn't Apply to Filmmaking
By now, the game plan is familiar to the point of cliché: Make a film for as little money as possible and hit the festivals. Attempt to find a distributor (foreign and video sales seem to be one easy route to a little quick cash). Scrape together what's left over and begin work on the next film. And, of course, little is definite in the world of low-budget filmmaking. Sometimes, great gulfs can emerge between aspirations and accomplishments. Even the best-laid plans and intentions can go unexpectedly awry.
Profiled here are three Austin-based film projects that have dotted the Austin landscape this summer. Olympia filmed in May and is presently in post-production; Aunt Vivien's Wedding is still in the pre-production stage after a planned summer start date was pushed back; and Tourmacherai began shooting on August 1 and will wrap at the end of the month. These three projects are not the sum total of independent film work originating in Austin this summer (some other notables include George Ratliff's Purgatory County, David Zellner's Plastic Utopia, and Null Set Productions' Pressurecooker). Olympia, Aunt Vivien's Wedding, and Tourmacherai are, however, illustrative examples of the kind of work that is increasingly becoming part of the everyday tapestry of Austin.
Returning to the PlateLocal filmmaker Bob Byington has been through the process once before. Three years ago, he wrote and directed the low-budget feature Shameless.
"It was our first film and we had a lot to learn," says producer Jason Silverman. "We learned on our feet. Our rule of thumb [on our next film] is not to make the same mistakes we made in Shameless; we want to make a whole new batch of mistakes."
Shameless picked up a $2,500 prize and was named Best Feature Film at the Great Plains Film Festival, and was the runner-up for the audience award at the International Film Festival in Mannheim, Germany. During those trips to the festivals, Byington met actors Jason Andrews, star of Rhythm Thief, and Damian Young, who appeared in Amateur and Simple Men. Andrews and Young agreed to act in Byington's second film, Olympia, lending extra prestige to the project.
"The money-raising became a lot easier when we attached Jason Andrews to the project," Silverman says. "Jason has a really good reputation in the film community. He's been in a couple of high-profile films."
Austinite Carmen Nogales, star of Shameless, takes the title role of Olympia, a Mexican soap-opera star who travels to the United States to pursue her dream of throwing the javelin in the Olympics. She hooks up with a down-on-his-luck coach played by Andrews, who has an unconventional method of training -- he gets Olympia angry to the point at which she'll hurl a javelin at him. The farther he stands away, the farther she throws.
Young plays Olympia's former manager and lover, who comes north to track her down. Rounding out the cast are Austinite Patricia Fiske and Houston's James Black, who garnered favorable reviews in last year's low-budget The Man with the Perfect Swing by Wimberley filmmaker Michael Hovis.
Olympia was shot last May in Austin, Lockhart and Laredo and will be completed with money raised from a group of local investors that includes Byington's former teacher and a handful of attorneys. Bill Stott, a professor of American studies and English at the University of Texas and one of the backers of the film, says Byington is currently in Los Angeles editing Olympia.
"In order to rent the system, we get it a lot cheaper working at night and on weekends," Stott says. "There's going to be a certain amount of sound work that has to be done... but I'm not certain what his next step is."
A rough cut will be ready by the end of August to show to distributors and others to help raise the money needed to strike a 35mm print of the film from the Super-16mm negative. Olympia may be ready for public screenings by Thanksgiving.
Going CourtingBackroad Productions formed last January and is in preproduction for Aunt Vivien's Wedding, a low-budget short film described as "Steel Magnolias meets The Wonder Years."
Although Backroad's young but well-connected group of Austin actors is having trouble raising the money needed to start shooting, they've already staged an impressive coup -- they've gotten Academy Award-nominated actress Susan Tyrrell to agree to be in their film. Nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for her work in John Huston's Fat City, Tyrrell has also appeared in such cult favorites as Andy Warhol's Bad, John Waters' Cry-Baby and Big Top Pee-wee.
Other castmembers of Aunt Vivien's Wedding include Backroad principals Patrick Harrison, Laura Hudson, Landon Peterson and Will Wallace. They are also listed as the film's producers. The group met each other over the years through acting or in acting workshops in Austin.
Peterson, 17, had a supporting role in The Stars Fall on Henrietta and starred in Breezy Hill, a low-budget feature shot in Louisiana last year (see sidebar). Eighteen-year-old Harrison has been featured in several commercials and had bit parts in the made-for-TV movies She Fought Alone and Mother's Gift. Hudson, 27, is a former tennis pro who got into acting at Harrison's urging. Her résumé includes Mother's Gift and a handful of commercials and music videos. Wallace, a 30-year-old attorney who has left law for acting, landed an appearance on Walker, Texas Ranger and in Evening Star, the Terms of Endearment sequel shot in Houston earlier this year.
Although their screen roles usually have been minor or even walk-ons, each of them have used that time on the set to their best advantage. They've made friends and asked for favors.
"It's a long story," Harrison says about how he and Peterson wrangled an invitation to a wrap party for the film Powder in Houston last year, and how they got themselves invited up to Tyrrell's room, made friends, and later got her to agree to be in the movie -- and for a reduced rate.
During this year's SXSW Film Festival, the filmmakers met Lucy Frost, a producer for Granite House, a local production company that makes commercials and industrial videos, and is preparing to enter the feature film market, too. "When I met them at South by Southwest, they just came in and said what they wanted to do. They're straight-shooters," Frost says. "That's part of it, but part of it is that they're pretty well-connected. I don't know many young people who could get Susan Tyrrell in their movie, and that's what this business is about."
Frost knew a writer, San Franciscan Dan Carter, whose unpublished short story is the basis for Aunt Vivien's Wedding. The story is a folksy tale of a young woman about to marry into a prominent family and whose dreams of the perfect wedding are dashed when her nephew inadvertently makes a shambles of the ceremony. "They want to make movies that you can watch with your grandmother or your nine-year-old kid and be okay with it," Frost says.
"We're not Christian filmmakers -- we're Christians who are filmmakers, but we're not Christian filmmakers," Hudson says. "We want to make more positive films. There's a lot of stuff out there that I just don't think there's a need for.... We want to make films that are positive, that make an attempt to change things."
She also brought director Dwight Adair into the project. Adair, another Granite House principal, directed several episodes of Dallas and Dynasty, and served as dialog coach on Urban Cowboy and A River Runs Through It.
"I think it's a charming little script and it has real potential for the festival circuit," Adair says. "It would be real fun to do." He's also impressed with the Backroad group's drive. "They're more mature than they have a right to be," Adair says. "They're doing a good job beating the drum and raising money for the project."
Adair's wife, Sandra, has agreed to edit the film, provided she can fit it into her schedule. Sandra Adair has previously edited Richard Linklater's subUrbia, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise.
Aunt Vivien's Wedding, a sponsored project of the Austin Film Society, is budgeted at $50,000-$70,000 but, Peterson says, "To tell you the truth, it fluctuates every day." In addition to pooling their savings and hitting up family and friends to raise the budget for the film, the group held a $50-per-ticket benefit concert July 19 at the Austin Music Hall featuring Dove Award-winning vocalist Gary Chapman and three local bands. Chapman's involvement was another example of the Backroad pluck. While living in Nashville, Hudson attended the same church as contemporary Christian music star Amy Grant and won an appearance in one of Grant's videos. Through that connection, Grant's husband, singer/songwriter Chapman, agreed to perform at the Backroad benefit.
"I think it was successful," comments Frost, "but we didn't raise as much money as we'd hoped." Several factors may have hurt attendance: competition with the opening of the Olympic games, confusion over who would be getting the money, a last-minute change of venue, the stiff admission price, and the possibility that Chapman wasn't quite the draw that was hoped.
"That's why we don't have a definite start date," says Frost. "We don't want to schedule people until we know for sure we have the money to shoot." She says Backroad hopes to begin shooting in September.
Bizarre Love TriangleTohn Eisenman and David Haynes, the principals in Saketini Productions, had originally planned to open a bar and serve "saketinis" -- a martini made with sake and vermouth.
"It was going to be a bar a couple of years ago, but instead of spending money on a bar we spent the money on the film," says Eisenman says.
"But we kept the name," Haynes adds.
Haynes and Eisenman are co-directing and producing Tourmacherei.
"It's an old, archaic French term used to define a certain mentality amongst a certain end of society in which a person could be in love, physically in love, with more than one person at one time and act on those emotions," Eisenman says. "It's kind of a love triangle situation where you've got the main character being pulled and drawn in two different directions because of the way he wants his life and social pressures that force him to follow a certain path."
According to the film's plot synopsis, the man finds the love has drained out of his marriage, but he is unwilling to leave his wife and daughter. However, he finds himself drawn to a former lover who has since become lesbian, but is willing to rekindle a relationship only so that he can father a child she and her partner can raise.
The film is being made on a budget of some $50,000-$60,000, money raised from several investors from different walks of life putting up $5,000-$10,000 each. Haynes claims to have cut production costs almost in half since the actors and most of the crew are working for deferred payment. Tourmacherei is an original screenplay by Haynes, a 27-year-old film school drop out.
"I pursued an RTF degree for a while and basically decided and realized the best way to get the RTF education I wanted was to actually make a film," Haynes says. "I actually dropped out of UT film school halfway through the development of this project."
Eisenman, 24, was studying philosophy and film in California, but dropped out and moved to Austin last year to work on this project. Haynes, who has lived in Austin off and on for the past 10 years, and Eisenman are both originally from Dallas.
The cast also all hails from Dallas and includes Todd Faulkner, who appeared in the low-budget film Subterfuge and The Last Laugh, and Diana Jorge, who had bit parts in Demolition Man and Rising Sun. The other players, Quenby Bakke, Liz Piazza Kelley, and Shawn Harden, are veterans of the Dallas theatre scene. Most of the production crew, however, are from Austin, Haynes says.
Shooting began Aug. 1 and should last through the end of the month. "We have distributors already talking with us... finding out what we're doing and how things are coming along," Eisenman says. "But the nature of the independent film is that no one's willing to commit anything until they see the finished product." n