Survival of the Fittest?
The Unlikely Story of Austin-Based Natural Selection
It is, by all accounts, an unlikely story: During the 1996 Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Film Festival, a pair of fledgling screenwriters with slightly less than zero experience place in the semifinalist category of a screenplay competition and find themselves wooed by a major New York production company at the Driskill Hotel bar and signed to an exclusive writing contract literally overnight. Unlikely, yes, but these things happen. There's more, though: Two years later, the directors and co-founders of the festival decide to produce the script themselves as their first foray into indie filmmaking. To helm the project, they choose a former Austin resident and current Los Angelean storyboard artist who's fresh off an unexpected stint sketching shrapnel bearings for Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. It's this director's first film as well.
To top things off, what was supposed to be a little old indie from Texas somehow managed to nail casting coup after coup, as half-brothers David Carradine (Kung Fu, Death Race 2000) and Michael Bowen (Magnolia, Jackie Brown) sign on within weeks of each other, adding to a host of recognizable character actors -- NewsRadio's Stephen Root, Northern Exposure's Darren Burrows, Waiting for Guffman's Bob Balaban -- who eagerly jump on board the production as though it were P.T. Anderson's newest (it's not). Coincidences abound, deals are struck and restruck, and production is completed on-time, under-budget, and with only one minor catastrophe when star Carradine terrorizes one of the writers, who shrieks and nearly soils himself. Natural Selection, produced by Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Film Festival directors Marsha Milam and Barbara Morgan, directed by Mark Bristol, and written by B.J. Burrow and Allen Odom, opens this Friday for a one-week run at Landmark's Dobie Theatre before moving on to other outlets in the arthouse chain, though the film has already screened to standing-room-only crowds during its AFF premiere last fall. The black comedy about a pair of unwitting serial killers stalking each other in a small Texas town is part media spin fantasy, part horror show, and part homage to the B-characterizations of the Carradine semi-sibs' father John, replete with ex-sanguinated noggins in mailboxes, monkey fetishizing, and a documentary film crew covering the carnage. Its hip, clever twist on the modern-day glorification of the criminal underbelly is spot-on, and the film's parallel documentary and narrative structures ricochet off each other with all the concussive bluster of John McEnroe in a closet.
And, oh yeah, it's pretty funny, too. Austin native Mark Bristol took the long way around when, as a movie-mad kid, he decided to cut himself in for a piece of the action and become a director himself. Instead of taking the most obvious route, though, Bristol began studying the art of storyboarding, the tiny, boxy, hand-drawn blueprints that filmmakers use to determine the flow of visual action and camera positions long before actual shooting locations are found.
"I really just taught myself," he explains. "In 1981, a book came out called Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Illustrated Screenplay, and for the longest time, that was my bible. I realized that art and movies went together and these sort of comic book drawings depicted each shot in a film, and so I spent my days tracing all of these pictures and learning what a dolly was and learning all the lingo, and began storyboarding all the movies that were in my head as a kid."
Like many others with similar ambitions, Bristol gravitated toward the University of Texas' film program, where he eventually found himself hamstrung by, of all things, bad grammar: "I was in the film department for a while, but I couldn't pass the RTF Department's grammar and spelling and punctuation test to get into upper-division film courses. (I think Robert Rodriguez had the exact same problem.) I thought the irony of all ironies was that if I couldn't pass that spelling test, I'd just go get an English degree, which is how it ended up."
Bristol kept up with his storyboarding throughout his years at UT and in 1993 found himself working for celebrated Austin screenwriter (and his former Little League coach) Bill Wittliff on the CBS television movie Ned Blessing: A Return to Plum Creek, which netted Bristol both his first real film paycheck and onscreen credit. The die, clearly, was cast.
At the time, storyboard artists were a rarity in Texas, which meant Bristol was free to take on as many projects as he could handle. During the early part of the decade, he racked up an impressive body of work, including Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut The Good Old Boys, Dazed and Confused, Flesh and Bone, The War at Home, and Love and a .45. After the film-fallow summer of 1995, Bristol made the requisite pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where he set up shop and quickly made a name for himself in the competitive Hollywood storyboarding field. Work on films such as Kiss the Girls and Without Limits followed, as well as an increasing amount of commercial work (much of it under a post-Beastie Boys, pre-Being John Malkovich Spike Jonze). Then came the phone call.
"When I first moved out here from Austin," recalls Bristol, "I used to get a lot of calls from low-budget, indie films back in Texas saying, "Hey, can you come back? We can't give you any money, but, you know, we need a storyboard artist.' And, of course, my heartstrings were always pulled but by that point, I'd made up my mind: No more low-budget films.
"That was what was running through my mind when I got this message on my machine from this really wonderful, sweet-sounding man named Terry Malick. I'll tell you right now the name didn't connect with me. I had no idea who this guy was, and so I didn't call him back. He had mentioned that he was developing this movie, and he had seen the storyboard work that I had done for The War at Home and he'd like to work with me. He didn't mention at all what the film was or anything like that. I just figured he was some low-budget filmmaker with no experience. And then he called back.
"We had a really delightful conversation, and I was just so charmed by him. We really had a great time talking about storyboarding, and essentially I was just trying to feel him out. I asked him what, if anything, he had done before, and he said, 'Oh, I've done a couple of things.' He never even mentioned that this was going to be this big, epic war film, The Thin Red Line. And so I ended up saying I was just going to have to pass. I actually ended up recommending some books on directing to him that I thought might help him on his way, books like The Making of Jurassic Park, because in the back they've got all these examples of Spielberg's storyboard work, and The Making of Terminator 2 for the same reason. And again, he was like, 'Oh, I think I've seen those. Sure, I'll check 'em out.'
"Finally, two or so weeks go by, and I get another message from him saying that he's coming out to Los Angeles, and he'd like to meet. By this time I was thinking this was one of the most tenacious guys I'd ever talked to. I ended up calling my friend Carty Talkington, who directed Love and a .45 and who lived in Dallas at the time, and I told him, 'Hey, there's this guy who keeps calling me, he says he's a director, but I really don't think so. His name's Terrence Malick.' And this voice explodes out of my phone shouting, 'Terrence Malick!' I mean, he just freaked, and rightly so, and he mentioned Days of Heaven and Badlands, and my heart just stopped. My only thought was that I'd just blown the Terrence Malick off.
"Needless to say, I called Terry back and told him I'd love to do the movie, and the rest, as they say, is history."
Bristol's association with Natural Selection had begun in a roundabout way several years before he joined Malick's crew, however. Talkington's Love and a .45 had wrapped in 1993 and ended up premiering at the first Austin Film Festival, where both men were conscripted by Milam and Morgan to head a class on the art of storyboarding. During that time, Bristol and the fest directors hit it off and decided that if they ever found the right script, they'd pursue it as a team, allowing Bristol a shot at directing with Milam and Morgan producing. Three years later, that script -- Natural Selection -- arrived. "We're both from Longview in East Texas," says B.J. Burrows, who, along with partner Allen Odom, wrote the script that started the whole process rolling. "Longview is a hotbed for great characters and so forth -- that's where Hands on a Hard Body was shot. The two of us went to high school together where we made some short films, but up until this script we'd never written anything together."
The idea for the serial-killer-as-media-darling, while not exactly new, arrived in the form of a dream Burrow had while attending Southwest Texas State University. He promptly called pal Odom at Baylor -- at 3am -- and told him this was something they had to do. Although the pair had literally no experience writing for film before, they tackled the project over the course of 1995 with an eye toward producing and shooting it themselves.
"We had planned on making a 20-minute short to check the waters," says Burrow, "and though it sounds as if we weren't that serious about it, we really were. All I've ever wanted to do was write.
"Our friend Shannon Owens read the script when we finished it over the course of the year and told us about the Austin Film Festival -- at that point, we'd been living in caves and hadn't heard about it -- and we entered it and here we are. We were semifinalists in 1996."
"It was actually a collaboration between me and him and Jack Daniels," adds Odom.
Although they only placed as semifinalists in AFF, Burrow and Odom found themselves cornered at the Driskill Hotel bar by Chris Daniel, vice president of Gotham Entertainment (Goodbye Lover, Paradise Lost), who immediately put them on the company payroll with an eye toward having them crank out a series of scripts for possible production ("We made them actually write this out on a napkin, literally," says Burrow, "because we didn't believe them at all.")
Although the duo's Gotham gig lasted only a short while, it primed them for more writing and refocused them on their original idea of shooting Natural Selection by themselves. Says Burrow, "When our Gotham gig was winding down, we decided to go ahead and make Natural Selection on our own when, at the same time, Barbara and Marsha called us and said they wanted to test the script with a public reading featuring Bill Wise and a bunch of local talent, which ended up going really well. That was on July 30, 1997. The moment the reading was over, Barbara came up and told us they'd like to produce the film. We ended up making the deal with them on Elvis' birthday, and that was it." One of the recurring themes in the interviews conducted for this article was actor David Carradine, who came on board after casting director Liz Keigley recruited his half-brother Michael Bowen for the role of the serial-killer-cum-postman Willie. By all accounts, Carradine was the model of professionalism once the cameras were rolling, but off the set, he was downright creepy.
Burrows: "The first day he was there we ended up hanging out with him in his trailer and shooting the breeze. I ended up alone with him at one point, and he started making me really nervous. He had asked me this very in-depth, philosophical question, and as I was trying to answer it he began walking around the trailer and cleaning every single thing he touched. He's wiping down the walls, the doorknobs, the handles, and I'm just sitting there thinking this guy is really clean or something. He's actually freaking me out at this point, when suddenly he goes over to this bag he's got and pulls out this huge knife and slams it into my chest! It was a collapsible knife, but I had no way of knowing that and so of course I scream like a maniac -- and he just leans back and says, 'Expect the unexpected.' I mean, Jesus Christ, you know? He was just fucking with me, but whoa. That's David Carradine for you."
"The wondrous thing about making a movie," explains Bristol, "is that there are these sets of circumstances, call it fate or whatever, these amazing opening doors that you never thought were going to be there. I thought we'd have maybe one name in our film. We were looking at doing it really guerrilla-style and just making it. Liz Keigley, who cast the movie for us and who I knew from my work on Ned Blessing, decided to cast the movie as a favor, and she opened up so many great faces from the local talent pool, and also, amazingly enough, found Michael Bowen for us, who she'd worked with on Walker, Texas Ranger, and who had also, coincidentally enough, been in Love and a .45. It still shocks me how it all fit together."
It gets weirder, too. Marsha Milam knew both Johnny Hardwick and Stephen Root from their work on Mike Judge's King of the Hill, which led to the pair taking a deuce of smaller, snarky roles in the film. Root, whose face is perhaps better known from his weekly stint as Dave Foley's boss Jimmy James on NewsRadio, grabbed the smallish role of Mr. Crenshaw, an aggrieved parent of one of the killer's victims and monkey-mad blubberer, because of the part's indie overtones. "As a character actor, I'm attracted to a lot of independent stuff," he explains. "But, you know, I don't have a lot of time to do it because of the TV work. I have to be there every day of the week, and of course I have to be there for the King of the Hill stuff as well, so it's hard for me to get out unless I'm real specific."
Pressed for calamitous tales of shooting mishaps -- and there's usually at least one on every picture -- Bristol pauses and comes up with nada. "I know this is going to sound clichéd, but it really was a flawless shoot. On-time, under-budget, all that. Nothing went wrong, and I guess we ought to be pretty happy about that."
Natural Selection has yet to secure major -- or for that matter, minor -- distribution, though the Landmark deal should hopefully lead to offers on down the road. Though with a slew of festivals in the film's future, it's apparent that -- six months after the wrap party -- things are just beginning to heat up for this unlikely success story.
(Natural Selection opens at the Dobie Theatre Friday, February 4. It will be preceded by the 14-min. short "Roadhead," directed by Bob Sabiston and produced by Tommy Pallotta. See Film Listings for review.)