Tackling Texas Truisms

Filmmaker Don Howard and the Texas Documentary Tour

photograph byMarlene Hanlin

Local documentary filmmaker Don Howard doesn't look like the sort of guy to challenge existing stereotypes and subvert accepted knowledge, but then he doesn't look too much like an ex-high school quarterback either, though he is. His documentary Letter From Waco (which aired nationally on PBS in September) took preconceived notions of one of Texas' more notorious cities and peeled them away to reveal something far more interesting and unique than just botched ATF raids and Southern Baptists.

As a Waco native who currently lives in Austin, Howard is in the right position to point out the "Wacons" (a term he used in the film to describe the semi-spiritual collisions between things like football, race, religion, and death) in an otherwise fairly prosaic setting. The resulting documentary, slyly humorous without ever stepping over into outright parody, has become a crowd favorite, playing to sold-out audiences at SXSW (where it received "best documentary" honors) and elsewhere. It's hardly surprising given Howard's unique perspective on things.

Currently at work on "part one" of a trilogy of half-hour documentaries on football, cheerleading, and weddings (all filmed here in Texas), Howard will be screening a rough version of the football segment, Game Day, (which consists of footage shot in 1982 by Geoff Winningham and re-edited by Howard), as part of the ongoing Texas Documentary Tour at the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday, December 10 at 6:30pm.

Recently, I spoke with Howard about the art of the Texas documentary, the great Independent Television Service (ITVS), and why local PBS affiliate KLRU dropped the ball when it came to airing Letter From Waco.

Austin Chronicle: What sort of film background do you come from? Have you always had an eye toward documentary filmmaking, or is this something that just sort of came about?

Don Howard: I came to Austin [from Waco] to study philosophy, but I ended up getting a Masters in Radio-Television-Film instead. I ended up doing a lot of stuff with ACTV [now ACAC] at one point, and I was hoping to make documentaries, and so I did my thesis documentary about a high school marching band, of all things. That's kind of how all this began.

AC: Tell me about Game Day, the new football project you're screening.

DH: It's kind of an in-progress thing. The plan is to do another version of it which will be one of three parts of a bigger project called Nuclear Family. Basically, I'm going to use the same footage and re-edit it slightly to sort of accentuate some things that are in it now. For it to wind up on PBS -- which is the plan -- it's got to be about two minutes shorter than it is now.

For me, the good side effect of showing it now is to watch it with a crowd. It's amazing how that changes your outlook. Something that you think is funny might suddenly not be, or vice versa. So, that's kind of one reason I'm really happy about being able to show it in this setting.

AC: I know the film deals with high school football in Texas, but what exactly are you trying to get at here?

DH: The finished product will be more of an examination of father-son relationships than it is right now. Right now it's more about the rituals of high school football.

AC: And it's all set in Waco?

DH: No, not all of it. It was shot by a guy named Geoff Winningham who teaches art at Rice. He did a book on high school football called The Rites of Fall -- one of the best things that's ever been done on the subject. On the strength of that, he got some money together to do a film about high school football, with the idea of examining those rituals you see over and over again -- the Lord's Prayer before the game, the way pep rallies work, the whole thing. He ended up picking a school in each of the divisions and following them around, with the intention of figuring out which team had the best chances and then focusing on them.

Unfortunately, he was hurt mid-season and abandoned the project (this was back in 1982). I met him later on and became interested in this 16mm footage because it's just so great. To my mind, nobody will ever capture high school football quite this way -- it's that good. As it ended up, I said, "Will you let me play around with this footage for a while?" He agreed, and I ended up spending all my spare time for about three years making various versions of this film. At first, I just wanted to put it in a context so people could see this footage, really just to save it. As I went further and further, though, through seven or eight versions, it all came together.

photograph byMarlene Hanlin

AC: Is Game Day, the football documentary, fairly consistent in tone with Letter From Waco?

DH: Not really. As I said, it's one part of a three-part series, three 30-minute shows. One on football, one on cheerleading, and one on weddings. Hopefully, if it's good enough, if you put them together you still have three parts but it's all one big piece. That's why it's called Nuclear Family. You've got fathers and sons in the football piece, mothers and daughters in cheerleading, and kids in weddings. That's the plan, anyway. Whether or not I can do that is another issue.

In terms of style, though, the football film is as straight as it can be. It'll have no dissolves in it, nothing like that. I want to purposefully limit it to really good cinematography cut together and nothing else.

AC: How far along are you on the cheerleading and wedding pieces?

DH: The wedding thing we've shot one wedding for already, but because this is all on film we have to wait until we can raise the money before we shoot anything else. But we got one great wedding so far. Really great. It's a Czech wedding in West Texas. As far as the cheerleading goes, we're in the process of finding some cheerleading squads to shoot. We want to find about six or eight and follow them through the season. We've got three schools that are real possibilities at the moment.

AC: And so all this is going to tie together to explain Planet Texas, right?

DH: At the end, after you've seen all the football, all the cheerleaders, and all the weddings, you've kind of got this view of Texas. You will have seen about 30 different spots in Texas, and they won't overlap much. In my head, I see this map of Texas, and when we're at a football game you get a little spot like down in East Bernard, but at the end of it you kind of get the whole state. That's not real important to what we're doing, but I kind of like that feeling. It's kind of like a weird portrait of Texas.

AC: Let's talk for a moment about that brouhaha with PBS and Letter From Waco a few months back.

DH: PBS is a very weird animal. The film was funded by a group called the Independent Television Service, which believes that PBS is getting further and further away from its original mission and becoming more of an organ for the corporations to present somewhat sanitized views. Not commercials, per se, but when you have large chunks of sponsorship from the big corporations, that affects content. It's great that General Motors is involved in funding the arts and everything, but what are they funding? Well, this year they funded the Lewis & Clark program. They aren't going to fund the show about the interstate system because that's going to get on their territory, right?

So the ITVS was set up to foster "independents working on PBS," as they put it. They have open-call submissions where you can essentially just give them a proposal, and it's become very competitive -- during the period I submitted the idea [for Letter From Waco], there were somewhere around 600 submissions and only 10 grants. It's great but it's also this challenge, like, how can I compete with Ken Burns? Because that's what I'm having to do.

AC: So ITVS funded the film?

DH: Right. They were incredibly supportive all the time, they believed in it all the way, I really can't say enough good stuff about this organization. The weird thing is that they are a separate organization within PBS; their stuff is offered to the stations, for free, but that doesn't really guarantee anything. The way PBS works, each station decides what they want to show. It doesn't matter if it's Ken Burns or whatever. If I'm running the Waco station, I can show whatever I want. In a way that's the strength of PBS, but what that meant for me was this: The national programming service decided it wanted to show the Waco project -- which was really a breakthrough because not that many independent things get sent out over the national satellite. Forty-five of the top 50 markets ended up showing the film, including the New York City affiliate, WNET I think, which ended up showing it earlier so it would air during peak primetime.

AC: But here in Austin...

DH: Well, the Austin affiliate ended up showing it late and then again two weeks after the normal air date. They did show it, though. They saw it as something that wouldn't particularly draw viewership or something. I don't take any of that personally, although I do think it's pretty clear that they were asleep at the wheel in the sense that they didn't understand that a lot of Austin people would want to see that. Not only that, but there are an amazing number of people that are connected to Waco that live in Austin. It's not that far away. So anyway, they missed the boat on that, but I don't think it was an intentional slight to anyone. I don't think they didn't like the program -- I just think it went right by them, they just didn't notice it. Why they didn't at least wake up to the word "Waco," I don't know. I'm glad they showed it though.

AC: Do you find that you've developed some sort of ongoing theme to your work? Some sort of mission statement? What I'm getting at is that you've done the life-in-Waco piece and now the Texas high school footballers, and it seems like there's a common thread emerging here. Or is that just me?

DH: Well, the interesting thing about documentaries to me is this mix between your intentions and what the reality in front of the camera is telling you. I hope that's reflected in my approach to the films. I, in effect, have a sort of mission for each film but I don't ever try to think of whether something's going to fit within my style or not. I kind of figure that'll take care of itself just because I have certain interests. But I don't want to think about 'em too hard.

For instance, it's kind of dawned on me recently that I'm on this high school thing, and I kind of see that as a negative thing and don't want to do that anymore. I don't want to put it into any kind of mental construct to the degree that I go, "Okay, the next film needs to be about this; I need to develop my style along these lines," and so on. I hope that kind of takes care of itself. To me, the key is that each film ought to work within itself on its own terms. It should be interesting to people who come see this showing that the style between the Waco film and football film couldn't be more different. I mean, they're radical, extreme ends of what documentary filmmaking is about. As far as what's common to them, you know, people will have to find that out for themselves. I'm sure there are some common things because it's my viewpoint up there, but I don't consciously try to develop that. Maybe it's because I've come out of a background of editing, but I try to look at it more in terms of chunks of film. It's like, "This film has this material: What's the best way to present it to get the most out of it that you can?"

The Texas Documentary Tour will present Game Day and Letter From Waco on Wednesday, December 10 at the Alamo Drafthouse. Doors open at 6:15pm; showtime is 7pm. Admission is $5 for the general public, $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and UT students. Don Howard will be on hand to introduce the films and conduct a Q&A session afterwards. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.

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