Junior High Spy

Marcus van Bavel

photograph by Jana Birchum

It's not the sort of place you'd expect to find an indie film studio: Deep in the piney woods of Bastrop County, an unprepossessing dirt road -- marked only by a weather-beaten numerical signpost -- leads to the offices of Dominion Pictures. It's also the home of Austin filmmaker Marcus van Bavel, whose many-years-in-the-making, Cold War, CinemaScope comedy Redboy 13 is opening this Friday at the Dobie Theatre after triumphant screenings at the SXSW '97 Film Festival (where it premiered) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Independents Night," and not a little buzz courtesy of a growing legion of fans, including such notables as Harry Knowles.

Set in the spy vs. spy world of a post-perestroika landscape, 12-year-old Devon Roy-Brown plays a child spy for the CYA, a CIA knockoff given to dirty tricks and the crushing of evil dictators. The organization is headed by Robert Logan's irascible Colonel Calcan. While the gruff Logan is perhaps best known to audiences from the ongoing Adventures of the Wilderness Family films, his first roles came as the star of the mid-Sixties television program 77 Sunset Strip and the occasional walk-on in the James Garner vehicle Maverick.

With its half-knowing nod to the James Bond superspy films of Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and its Dr. Seuss via Monty Python playfulness, Redboy 13 is an ingenious, hilarious mix of computer animation, snappy dialogue, and outrageous situations that already has "cult movie" stamped all over it.

Like the film, van Bavel's home studio is an otherworldly affair, consisting of a pair of gigantic geodesic domes (the filmmaker started out as an engineering student at the University of Texas before segueing -- wisely -- into film, and it shows). With one structure serving as the production office and living quarters, another larger structure serves as a soundproof studio, and while that part is currently undergoing reconstruction in the wake of the removal of the freestanding Redboy sets, Van Bavel and co-conspirator/production designer Robert Burns are hard at work on rebuilding the dome for use in van Bavel's next project, the IRS comedy The Odditors with backing from Terry Gilliam's Handmade Films.

In between film projects, van Bavel has recently initiated a digital transfer company called Film Team that will provide local filmmakers with the opportunity to have their digital video work duped onto 35mm prints for placement in festivals and similar venues.

Surrounded by props from Redboy as well as van Bavel's earlier comic work The Texas Comedy Massacre and assorted 35mm cameras and editing equipment (flatbed, of course), I spoke with the filmmaker about where he's been, and what comes next.

Austin Chronicle: You originally came from Arizona and enrolled here at UT to study engineering. How did you make that leap to film work? Was that something you had always been interested in?

Marcus van Bavel: Well, when I was back in high school I had always been interested in writing short stories and whatnot. A friend and I would write plays and put them on for class credit, and so through that, when I got to college I became interested in stand-up comedy, which I did for a spell while I was attending UT. During my second year, I managed to convince my advisor to let me take some RTF courses as an elective, so I took "Film I" -- I completely skipped over "Introduction to Film." I had been interested in trying my hand at a film for a while and I'd been thinking along the lines of a James Bond sort of story. The most absurd thing I could think of was along the lines of: What if Rambo was a 12-year-old boy? I wrote the first couple of scenes and then it just kind of sat there for a while. I guess that was about the time that Full Metal Jacket came out and I was thinking it would be cool to see this young kid going through boot camp. So when I saw Full Metal Jacket it had this great boot camp scene and it was that idea that kind of helped me get through the whole script.

AC: Backtracking a bit, The Texas Comedy Massacre, not a lot of folks have seen that, but it's almost up there with Kentucky Fried Movie and other bizarre sketch comedy anthologies. How did that fare?

MVB: It took about five years to make The Texas Comedy Massacre, which came out in 1987. I took it to the IFP [Independent Feature Project market] and from that I got a couple of festival invitations. I ended up going off to Germany where one festival was held, and the hotel where I was staying was only about five miles from the East German border. So while I was there I grabbed a backpack and hiked over to East Germany. I just walked on over. At that time I figured Communism was around to stay, so I didn't have any feeling that I had to do that now before it all collapsed, I just kind of wandered over. I hiked across to see what it would be like being in a Communist country. Without permission.

AC: And you weren't shot on sight? Lucky you.

MVB: Well, the official border comes before the fence, so what I did was cross over this border marker and then it was another 500 yards or so before the actual fencing. There was a long, rounded fence that goes up and down the hills for as far as you can see. Twenty or 30 feet high, with all these signs saying "U.S. Forces: Turn Back" in English. And from that experience I sort of moved on to the idea of Redboy 13.

AC: How did you manage to hook up with Robert Logan? This certainly isn't the type of film he's known for.

MVB: I met him at the fest in Germany. He had been doing the Wild America show for a while, and he'd also been doing the Wilderness Family films, but he was really nice to me when we met, very laid-back. I was just kind of a kid at the time and he mentioned to me to send him a script sometime. At that point, my friend David Boone and I had written kind of a Mexican horror movie called Diabolicus, which was a sci-fi horror film, and I so sent that to Logan, though I don't think he much cared for it. Eventually, I sent him the script for Redboy and he really loved it. He mostly liked the dialogue, and in fact he pushed me to make it even more campy than it was at the time. He wanted to do some Mel Brooks kind of stuff, which I resisted. He knew what I was after, though. I told him I just wanted him to play it straight, which was actually something I told all the actors. I figured the humor would just come out of the improbable situations. That was the idea, and I think it worked.

Redboy 13

AC: Working with kids is one of the hardest things a filmmaker can undertake, and with Redboy you have a 12-year-old lead actor throughout the entire picture. Devon Roy-Brown is terrific, though. How did that go?

MVB: Well, Devon was misdiagnosed as having ADD so while we were shooting he was always bouncing off the walls. In a way that was good, because a lot time kids kind of run out of energy, but we'd be working really late at night and Devon would still be bouncing around. We couldn't calm him down. He'd really annoy the crew, because they'd be doing all this really tedious crew work and then there'd be this little kid running around asking all these questions. I suspect they probably wanted to kill him, but he was just great.

I originally auditioned him with three other kids and he was the only one who could nail the dialogue without making it sound stilted. I think he did alright. I've compared him to other child actors that I've seen, like, say, the kid in The Last Action Hero. Remember that? That kid was truly, truly awful. Devon was much better than that. And you know, it is hard working with kids. It's a challenge, because they don't have any life experience to draw on and a lot of times you just have to tell them exactly how to say the lines, which is something you don't do with professional actors.

AC: So here we are in one of the most bizarre film sets/production offices I've ever seen. How on earth did you come up with the idea to situate yourself and your work so far out here? And, um, why?

MVB: Once the script was done, it took a year or so to find the property and design the building. I kind of knew the type of area I needed: It had to be on the East side of Austin and I knew it had to be out of Travis County and I also knew it had to be out on a road that was more or less a clean drive with not a lot of lights or traffic or noise. And so all of those criteria kind of narrowed it down. All told, it took me about a year or two. I had the script and I sort of had a plan and I knew how much money it was going to take. I was going to try and do everything on a minimum budget. I had my camera and I had my crane from my first film, and so what I did was get everybody I knew to give me film -- whole rolls, short ends, and things like that.

AC: Fresh new film? Score!

MVB: Oh, some of the film we got was out of date, so Brian O'Kelley, the cinematographer, and I sorted the film by day code so that we knew that on any particular day we'd be shooting stock that all had the same day code so that if it was slightly fogged at least everything would have the same amount of fog. And that actually worked pretty well. There are some scenes in the film where the film stock isn't perfect but you don't really notice it because it all cuts together so well.

AC: How long was the shoot?

MVB: It basically took us four weeks to shoot about 80% of the dialogue scenes and for that we had a full crew. When I hired Brian he brought with him just a whole bunch of graduate film students like Deb Lewis and Paul Kloss.

Thankfully there wasn't much location work to do, less than a week, really, except for the jungle scenes, and then the rest of the shots were interiors. The jungle footage was shot in Mayfield Park near Lake Austin. At that time the city was really laid-back when it came to securing permits and maybe they still are, but we didn't really have any problems with that. We would show up with a crane, get the shots, and get out.

AC: What about budgetary considerations? The film looks like a million bucks, what with the CinemaScope and crane shots and everything. How did you manage that?

MVB: I started the film with $25,000 and by the time we had finished all the dialogue scenes that was mostly all gone. A lot of that went to people's salaries -- everybody got paid, all the actors, all the crew. That was bad, because the film was shot but it was unprocessed and it stayed that way for about a year. So for a year I had absolutely no idea whether I had a picture or not. I think I processed part of it to cut together a little trailer which I then used to try and raise more money, and that didn't work at all. This would have been after the Gulf War, during the major recession we had, and that just didn't work. So what I did was go to work at my consulting business and try and make more money.

AC: What's up with Film Team? You're moving from film production to doing digital transfers and back again?

MVB: Right. I've started Film Team to provide digital film transfers to local filmmakers. We've really just begun and it looks like our first project is going to be making the festival submission print for Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston's digitally animated documentary Roadhead. Hopefully, Film Team will take off -- that's my dream for next year since my consulting job is probably going to be ending. And actually, this will be a good match for film production since to do the work we're going to have to buy a lot of film stock and so we'll have a lot around. That's always been one of the biggest primary expenses in filmmaking and with Film Team we'll have that covered.

AC: Your next film -- The Odditors -- concerns renegade IRS agents, right? Is this perhaps something you have experience with? I kind of sense that.

MVB: Oh yeah. I owed the IRS about $60,000 because they didn't agree with the accounting I did on The Texas Comedy Massacre -- they tried to claim it as a hobby. They said that because it didn't make any money it had to be a hobby, so I had to hire an accountant and a guy who represents people for the IRS.

Basically we made the Vincent van Gogh argument, which was that when van Gogh was alive, he had never sold a painting, not even one, but now when one of his paintings sells for millions of dollars, the IRS gets a cut. Our argument was that you cannot expect an artist to make money right away. Or while he's alive. It's also like the Orson Welles syndrome, you know? He's more popular now than he ever was, and his films didn't make money at all when he was alive. That's definitely the inspiration for The Odditors. Those guys can be problematic to say the least.

Redboy 13 begins its Austin theatrical run on Friday, Nov. 6 at the Dobie Theatre. For more info, see the Redboy 13 Web site at http://www.io.com/~mvb/rb13.html.

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