Six (Not So) Easy Pieces
A Collaborative Local Film Takes the Long Road From Paris to Here
A naive American girl gets taken in by a slick French playboy. A double-timing young woman sends her love letters to the wrong boyfriend. A cynical whore smirks in bed as her dweebish john looks on. All quintessentially French visions (the last one re-created on our cover) -- appropriate, as they come from a quintessentially French project: 1965's Six in Paris. It was an innovative and collaborative effort, six shorts grouped into one omnibus film that boasted the talents of New Wave greats like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer. The unifying thread was the films' setting -- six Parisian neighborhoods -- and the unorthodox use of 16mm film technology. With the support of producer Barbet Schroeder, six cinema mavericks wanted to prove that films could be made more cheaply and interestingly with the use of mobile 16mm cameras employing direct sound, rather than with cumbersome and expensive 35mm studio cameras, while at the same time celebrating their various stomping grounds and that distinctly Parisian way of life.
Thirty-five years later and a continent over, local filmmakers and brothers Wyatt and Zack Phillips (Something New) came up with the idea for a compilation film showcasing the work of young Austin filmmakers. But they didn't want to take pre-existing short films and simply glue them together. They envisioned a far more adventurous project, based on that little-seen Six in Paris, which the brothers had discovered while studying films of the French New Wave.
Using Six in Paris as a template, the Phillips brothers sought to make a similar film in Austin, but with the new and economic technology of digital video. They knew that Austin had more than enough stories worth telling and talent to be tapped. Wyatt Phillips explains, "One thing we wanted to highlight was that within this restricted geographic area are these several different ways of making a film, even given the same tools -- digital cameras -- which are certainly a viable filmmaking option, not only for economic reasons but because [the technology] fits with the spirit of Six in Paris." The brothers made a short list of young Austinites who had already directed or produced at least one film, so "credibility as far as delivery wouldn't be in question."
Next they set about recruiting five other filmmakers to join in the experiment. Another set of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, quickly signed on even in the midst of shooting their "foreign-language" feature Frontier. Video makers since childhood, the Zellners had taken grad-school money and proceeds from an inheritance to film their first feature, Plastic Utopia, while still in their early 20s.
Wyatt and Zack next persuaded Kat Candler to join the project after seeing her award-winning feature cicadas in the fall of 2000. A self-described drama diva in high school, Candler left her native Florida to study acting in Boston but was quickly disillusioned by an insensitive professor. Back home she found her way into creative writing classes at Florida State University. Befriended by film students, she began acting in short films and serving as script supervisor on their projects. Once she became familiar with the filmmaking process, she knew she had found the love of her life.
Six in Austin then gestated for nine months until the Phillips brothers had an animated conversation with Gonzalo González after an Austin Film Society screening at the Alamo Drafthouse. González was a veteran Super-8 experimental filmmaker who had participated in numerous Cinemaker Co-op screenings and had worked with various avant-garde musicians and dancers, as well as produced Justin Hennard's Moonlight by the Sea. Wyatt Phillips says, "Gonzo was sort of the spur to get us from casually mentioning and involving people to actually starting the ball rolling, putting together a production timeline and doing the background headwork before we brought all [eight filmmakers] together."
Soon after that encouraging meeting, the Phillips brothers established guidelines for Six in Austin: (a) each film would be 12-20 minutes in length, exclusive of credits, (b) form would be mini-DV with a 16:9 aspect ratio and in color, (c) each short would have to be a live-action narrative, set in Austin with a time frame within one year prior to or following 2001, (d) Austin would have to be referred to visually and/or in the dialogue, (e) no characters, storylines, or actors could appear in more than one film, (f) no "name-actors" could be used, and (g) cast and crew had to be Austin residents.
Armed with their creative rules, Wyatt and Zack looked to complete their group of six (allowing for the inclusion of the two sets of brothers). The irrepressible Bob Ray had already blasted his way into independent film infamy with his Austin-based drug comedy Rock Opera. Like Gonzo, Ray was a product of the fertile breeding grounds of Cinemaker Co-op. Geoff Marslett, the last to sign on, arrived in cinema by way of an extremely fractal path leading from a Dallas high school run by Hungarian monks, through the Great Books program at St. John's College in Santa Fe, and on to math, philosophy, and quantum physics. Eventually he became fascinated by the possibilities of computer animation and created "Monkey Vs. Robot," which is part of a Spike and Mike's Twisted Animation compilation. His MFA thesis consisted of an animated short, which he intends to expand into a feature (Trip to Roswell).
Even though surrounded by such energetic and accomplished directors and writers, Zack and Wyatt still had no production money. They contacted Anne del Castillo, a beloved figure in the Austin film scene respected for her work with the Austin Film Society, Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, and AIVF Salons, and she agreed to produce the film.
"Once Wyatt and Zack described the project to me, I decided that helping out as producer might be fun and worthwhile," del Castillo explained. "I respected all the proposed filmmakers and knew they would work with a strong collaborative spirit, which is what the project called for."
As each piece fell into place, Tamara Klindt, another TFPF alum, soon joined as co-producer. Private donations of $12,000 for production costs were secured, and grants from the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund and the City of Austin Cultural Contracts Programs (under the auspices of the Arts Commission) were secured for post-production.
With a tight completion deadline of October/November, which would allow submission to Sundance, SXSW, and other major film festivals, the directors knew they all had to be through with filming and post-production by early fall of 2001. Some of the filmmakers were eager to work with new people, so they posted a casting call on the Texas Film Commission Production Hotline Web site. They were shocked by the sheer quantity and often high quality of the responses they got from actors all over Texas and out-of-state, but the guidelines for the project restricted them to the use of Austin-area actors.
The filmmakers assembled their individual crews by contacting friends or calling in favors. The size of crews ranged from the minuscule, especially for the two sets of brothers, to the massive. When Bob Ray pulled up to one of his locations, he was shocked to see a crew of 40 standing around. "What the hell are we going to do with all those people?" His feature film Rock Opera was made with a much smaller crew; he didn't think he'd need that many on hand for his Six in Austin short, titled "Wrecked," about a victim of a downsizing dot-com who takes revenge on his insensitive ex-boss. But with two cameras running simultaneously to cover the numerous action scenes brimming with exploding gunshots and spurting blood, Ray was soon thankful for every extra hand. He also loved the luxury of two cameras capturing the action from different angles, an impossible expense were it not for DV.
Almost becoming a victim of the title of his short film, Gonzalo González kept running into trouble tying down locations. "Beset" is the study of a young woman (Raquel Duran, who plays the French prostitute on our cover) unknowingly trapped in the lenses of omnipresent surveillance cameras installed by an obsessed, middle-age loser. González needed to infuse his film with a sense of claustrophobia, but his chosen locations kept disappearing from his grasp. To create a condo with its apartment, garage, and hallway components, he ended up using portions of seven different buildings. But "creative geography" actually helped him further constrict the visual space of the film. For him, the location nightmare became an aesthetic dream.
Wyatt and Zack Phillips' location was easy to nail down: They simply boarded a Cap Metro bus. Their short, "Carlos," is a virtually real-time observation of a man riding across town on a slow bus headed toward his destiny. Forgoing permits from Cap Metro, the Phillips brothers kept their mouths shut and their camera lens open in true guerrilla style, employing a minimalist technique with only one featured actor, Tommy Vásquez, supplemented by Austin's natural-acting bus riders.
Geoff Marslett experienced some resistance from locals when he tried to shoot "Out of Bounds," about middle- and high-school students struggling to make sense of society's extreme emphasis on winning in sports. Marslett searched for usable football and soccer playing fields, but ran into too many coaches who fretted over what a herd of unruly, unkempt film people might do to their boys' turf. Finally, St. Stephen's Episcopal School welcomed the crew and cast of 100. Casting was going quite smoothly until Marslett tried importing a pre-existing football team. The youth league directors said that any such use of a team, even for a movie, would be considered unfair "practice" and might disqualify the team from league activities in the fall. So, Geoff was forced to pull together his own team of 11-year-old boys, culled from the St. Stephen's student body.
As with every film production, there is always the danger or delight of the unpredictable, something Kat Candler experienced firsthand while filming "The Absence of Wings." She wrote the script -- about a 17-year-old Catholic schoolboy obsessed with a classmate who seems to embody the purity, idealism, and sweetness he can't find at home -- with certain actors in mind. When shooting began, she had a rewarding, but sobering, directorial experience with those actors. With Kat's blessings, Derek Wade, who plays the student (and is featured on our cover), was taking quite some time to get himself psyched up for an emotional confrontation. When the young actor came before the camera, Don Cass (as his father) threw him up against a wall and began screaming and demanding to know "how could he take a 30-minute break and leave him there having a fucking heart attack and heat stroke and goddamn he's just a fucking kid of an actor and what the hell does he know?" The unsuspecting Derek's pain and tears were real, but Kat wisely let the camera roll even though she was initially unnerved by the raw violence of the attack. She appreciated what the older actor had accomplished with an off-the-script method. With his back to the camera, his appropriate dialogue could easily be added during post-production.
David and Nathan Zellner had a less traumatizing but more temperamental actor on their hands while filming "Rummy," a dramatic view of a man trying to regain some sense of order in his sad life by fighting with a former girlfriend over ownership rights to their dog. Filming in mid-July, the Zellners initially forgot that old dogs suffer terribly in the swelter of Austin summers, especially when dragged onto the baking limestone of Mount Bonnell. Their rigorously planned shooting schedules would grind to a halt whenever Cujo's tongue began to dance on her forepaws. But at least with the use of DV, the Zellners didn't have to worry about a restrictive number of takes for each shot.
Every director claims to have enjoyed working with digital video and exploring its possibilities. Geoff Marslett and his director of photography, Levy Castleberry, purposely color-balanced incorrectly to achieve a reddish tint, so viewers could "taste the heat" of the Spaghetti Western-influenced sports film. Candler decided to let her imagination loose and have her principal character's visions of an angelic girl be actualized in post-production by an After Effects digital colorist. And in the spirit of DIY, low-budget filmmaking, the Phillips brothers worked with the most basic of digital cameras, the unobtrusive Canon Elura 1-chip.
In the past, Austin's presence as a filmmaking mecca has been sporadic, mostly as a blip on the cinematic radar screen. But with Richard Linklater's Slacker in 1991 and the emergence of Robert Rodríguez, Guillermo del Toro, and Mike Judge, Austin quickly became a force in independent filmmaking. That first generation established a vibrant and tightly knit community that's paved the way for a new generation of locals also driven to make movies in and about their hometown. What Six in Austin hopes to prove is that local filmmaking now has a rising second generation -- a new wave, if you will -- of Austin auteurs.
See "101" on p.84 for a review of Six in Paris.