Life and Work, Light and Dark
How an artist's fabled legacy met its match in 'some dumb New York girl' who wanted to make a documentary
Margaret Brown is drinking a lot of coffee with her migas at her neighborhood Tex-Mex-eria as she talks about the New York premiere and national release of Be Here to Love Me, her toast-ofthe-music-and-film-world Townes Van Zandt documentary. At one point, she pauses to put the fear of Margaret into the guy who has just filled her cup: "You know," she calls after him, only half-kiddingly, "it's making me nervous that that coffee you're serving me is coming from the 'decaf' container." He laughs and reassures her that she's getting the real deal, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. I, too, have to chuckle, because caffeinated-in-the-decaf carafe happens to be a pretty good description of Brown herself.
The 34-year-old filmmaker from Mobile, Ala., with degrees from Brown and New York University film school, conveys an outward unflappability and self-confidence that doesn't quite dovetail with the way she describes her interior landscape: the wide-ranging, free-floating anxieties and insecurities; her persistent fear, during this year's frenzied ride on the international film-festival circuit, of going blank during a Q&A; the sheer terror (and sleeplessness) she experienced during the run-up to her film's premiere at the Paramount Theatre for the "hometown crowd" at South by Southwest Film 05; not to mention her dread of all the live radio appearances that are de rigueur for those whose films hit home runs. She even confesses to being nearly undone by the prospect of doing (out-of-the-frame) on-camera interviews.
The flip side of Brown's personality is a somewhat incongruous, heels-dug-in assertiveness, spring-loaded for the unwary who might intentionally or inadvertently exploit her uncertainties, as one unsuspecting but attitudinous New York reporter learned during a recent press interview. "This woman was making me feel really uncomfortable," Brown recalls. "She was just spitting questions at me and was so mean, making me feel really awkward around her, and I kept freezing. I felt like I was sounding like an idiot, so I told her I wanted to stop the interview." Don't mess with Margaret.
But do go see the film that Brown made when it opens at a theatre near you. (Full disclosure: My husband, Chronicle Editor Louis Black, is one of the film's executive producers.) This film was Margaret's baby: Just ask cinematographer Lee Daniel (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset), her boyfriend and the guy who shot the lion's share of the film (and who has joined us for a plate of huevos and some Townes talk).
Brown, who grew up in a songwriting milieu her dad, Milton, co-wrote "Any Which Way But Loose," among many others tuned into the music of Townes Van Zandt while going to school in New York, and it was then that she began to incubate the idea of doing a doc about him. Preliminary research revealed that the task would not be a straightforward one. Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 52, was, during his all-too-short life, a songwriter's songwriter. Brown does not like "genius" testimonials in a documentary, preferring to have the subject's work speak to the viewer for itself, but her cutting-room floor was covered with hosannas for Van Zandt from fellow musicians of all stripes. Talking heads that made it into the film with more substantive recollections included everyone from Willie Nelson who, with Merle Haggard famously turned Townes' "Pancho and Lefty" into recording gold, as did Emmylou Harris (also in the film), who recorded "If I Needed You," as well to Joe Ely, Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett.
But this lyrically productive life had a dark, tragic side to it. Hailing from an upper-crust Fort Worth family, Townes was on a prep-school-to-law-school trajectory when he grabbed the wheel from mom and dad and executed a stunning U-turn. Glue-sniffing at military school at age 16, drinking, even shooting up bourbon and coke were only a few of the more outlandish early indications that young Townes was probably not going to end up at the Texas law school with a building named after his grandfather. When he backed himself out the window of a four-story building "just to see what the fall would feel like" the Van Zandts had him committed at a Galveston Island medical center, where he underwent shock treatment. The 30 years following this memory-erasing "cure" would be characterized by alcoholism, substance abuse, three failed marriages, and three children: a daughter, Katie Belle, and two sons, J.T. and Will, who, with different mothers, each bear a remarkable physical resemblance to their dad.
Brown realized that sussing out the "truth" of this life on film or any medium would be impossible. And, all too easily, it could become overwhelmingly depressing. She wanted the film to be emotionally true above all else, and it would take several passes, over the four and a half years it took to produce, to get it right.
Margaret Brown: My only agenda was to do something that I felt emotionally represented what Townes brought to people, as well as what he did to his family. After all, if you just make it really depressing and only about what happens when you blow everything up and abandon your family, that is a really depressing story, but Townes also brought this music to the world in a very singular, individual way. Hardly anyone I know actually does what they want to do in life, but he did and that was not depressing. So, it's more complicated. It would have been easy to go the dark, heartstrings route, to show only the effects on the family, but not to show the more complicated vision would not have been right. In fact, the first few cuts of the film were so dark that I knew they weren't telling the overall story I wanted to tell, so we changed it. There had been a few previous attempts at films about Townes that had been these huge downers, and when I first approached Guy Clark, who was Townes' best friend, about being in this film, he was worried that I, too, was going to tell a story that would have been just like the Townes song "Waiting Around to Die." Guy felt it was really important not to leave out all of Townes' humor and lightness.
As it turned out, Brown discovered that portraying Van Zandt's life on film would devolve into a more universal question, with personal application for the filmmaker, as well, namely, "what does it take to be an artist?"
MB: Kris Kristofferson says in the film that you couldn't be a songwriter and stay home you had to go out for six days at a time, not sleep ... that's a really romantic idea of what it takes to be songwriter. All those guys did that, and I think when people see that in the film, that romantic view of what life could be like walking away from the 9-to-5 world, that sounds great. I want people to watch the film and think about what they would do in their own lives, given those circumstances. I think for me, it was a really personal journey. I had a really stable childhood, and my dad was a songwriter. He's written some amazing songs, but he didn't write a million great songs, he was more of a family man and he was always there for us and he sacrificed a lot for us to be a dad. Townes wrote a lot of really great songs and he had this kind of mythic life and, I guess, when I started the film, I wondered in this really romantic, naive way if that's really what it took. I wanted to find out. I think I always knew that was not the right path, but I think part of me wondered, well, maybe it was the right path; all these great artists went down that path, maybe that is what it takes. And, if that's true, do I really want to be an artist? So, on a personal level, why I wanted to make this film wasn't really about Townes, it was more, "Is this what it takes to be an artist? Do I have to do that? Do I want to do that?"
Austin Chronicle: And you concluded?
MB: [laughing] No fuckin' way.
Lee Daniel: Personally, I don't think Townes pondered all that much about what he had to give up to be an artist. I think he just did it; it was in his DNA. It was almost predestined. Sometimes, there's just a need: You have to, you don't have a choice, you just do it because you think you need to. You know the consequences are going to be tough on the people who love you, but I don't think that Townes had a whole lot of choice in the matter; it all added up to one thing because of the whole package, including the addictions.
Be Here to Love Me has drawn rave reviews both for the way it tells the story "not just a true and moving portrait of an artist [the film is] a work of art itself," in the words of Rolling Stone and for the visual, impressionistic poetry of Daniel's cinematography, shot with what the same review called "an enormous sense of place, not only physically but internally."
AC: So, how did Margaret get you attached to her project?
LD: About a year before she started filming, I got a call from Margaret I get a lot of calls like that. When she told me she was doing a film about Townes, I thought, "Do you know what you're getting yourself into?" I had seen him a thousand times in Austin; I knew the stories and that it was dangerous material, if you're going to dive in and make a true story or what you think is a true story you're going to spend three years of your life in a pretty dark place. I wondered, was she ready for that and was this for real? I didn't ask her that specifically ... it was conveyed through long pauses in the conversation. I knew the music really well, had the records, had seen Townes at the Cactus Cafe or the Austin Outhouse, at lots of places that are gone now. Townes and others from his era were always playing open mic you could just go to the Cactus and hear them for a few bucks. I remember going to play pool at the Austin Outhouse, buying a pitcher of beer, and, if you happened to be there on a Tuesday night, Townes would be there playing. Half the people in the bar weren't even paying attention to him. This was in the mid-to-late Eighties, when I think he was just beginning to get a following in Europe, in Scandinavia and Ireland. His material was what was so dark. I knew a little about his reckless lifestyle and that he drank a whole lot and I heard stories about him falling off bar stools in the middle of a show, but never saw it myself I think that was happening later on, in the Nineties. I loved his music and I was surprised that no one had made a film about him before, though Margaret told me that someone in New York had done a film called Heartworn Highways in 1976 that shot a lot of Townes and his friends in Austin. I was intrigued, but I didn't take it that seriously.
MB: You thought I was some dumb New York girl.
LD: [laughs] Well, you know, NYU. This conversation took place about 2000, and about a year later, she'd started production.
MB: He never called me back.
LD: She claims I never called her back. I never said no. I get lots of calls, but this one really intrigued me, because it was about Townes. It was always in the back of my mind, but I never heard back from her or "her people."
MB: Well, since I'd called a few other times, and you never called back ...
LD: She'd already done about seven or eight interviews ...
MB: When I talked to Lee about Townes the first time, I could tell that he got it. He knew how I wanted to tell the story. I felt like I connected with the way he talked about Townes and I knew that he was the right person to do the film without ever having met him, just by that conversation. I felt, well, I've found the cinematographer. But then since he never called me back I hired someone else. Frazer Bradshaw, a really good shooter who was the son of my mother's best friend. But he was in San Francisco. Then, after we'd started shooting, I secured an interview with the Flatlanders and was coming to Austin to film it, but Frazer wasn't able to be here in time to shoot, so I just went over to Lee's house and asked him if he would do it and he agreed.
AC: So, what did Lee shoot in the film?
LD: I did probably 30 of the film's 40 interviews, all over Colorado, Kentucky, Georgia. Townes traveled a lot between Nashville and Austin. So, for example, when Margaret and I went to Kentucky to shoot an interview, we'd just shoot out the window. I have this old pickup truck that could have been the same as then, and I had this unopened Lone Star beer can; it was a freshie, so we threw it on the dash. You could just sort of hear it out of the frame rolling around on the dash. Sometimes we'd go on road trips where all we'd shoot was B-roll.
MB: We tried to shoot stuff that was evocative of Townes' road trips that wasn't tied to modern times, to get some quasi-period stuff. The first day we shot, we just drove around Austin and a lot of the stuff we shot from Lee's truck ended up in the film. Lee knows every back road in Texas. I'd say, "I want to shoot something with this feeling," and he'd say, "Oh, we can go down this road or there's something 10 miles or 10 hours that way." I knew what I wanted the film to feel like, so we just went driving around and shooting forests and trees.
Those shots of birch trees are from Colorado, where Townes spent a lot of time; he'd go live in the mountains, he and Cindy, his second wife, who was an equestrian. They'd ride horses through the snow up there.
LD: Those roads we drove around and shot were probably the same roads that they'd traveled, around Crested Butte ...
MB: Everyone up there knew him. He played at all these little places in Colorado. Everyone we'd meet would say, "I've got a Townes story!"
Of course, making a film about someone who's no longer with us without lapsing into cliched biopic mode has its challenges. Be Here to Love Me has the eerie feel of Van Zandt's presence, thanks to the enormous video and picture archive that Brown was able to access from the artist's third wife, Jeanene, the mother of two of his children. Another major coup was scored early on, when Brown fortuitously contacted and then decided to travel to Georgia to see William Hedgepeth, a writer whose work she'd come across in the course of her preliminary research.
MB: After we'd talked for a while it was a little awkward at first when Hedgepeth warmed up to me, he said, you know, "I have these interviews with Townes and, if you want, you can listen to them and keep them." These turned out to be a gold mine interviews he'd done with Townes over a five-year period they became the spine of the film. Townes would call Hedgepeth in the middle of the night and talk about the songs he'd just written, and this is where I got that famous Townes quote: "I don't envision a very long life for myself, I think my life will run out before my work does. I've designed it that way." I've always believed that you make your own luck; I knew that what Hedgepeth had written about Townes was the best I'd come across and I just felt I needed to go visit him. I certainly didn't know what would come of it.
AC: Some of the most visually intriguing footage is what you paired with the voiceover segments from these Hedgepeth interviews with Townes. How did you go about setting these up?
LD: These were re-creations to make it feel quasi-period. We used old film stock and we used an optical printer to manipulate and slow down the outtakes and work print footage that was given to Margaret from Heartworn Highways. We also took old film stock and shot it through old lenses and cameras to make it seem like it was old. Not all of it worked; re-creations are the hardest things to pull off sometimes you can end up with an America's Most Wanted kind of feel you know, these dramatic shadows used to trigger a memory or a repressed memory. They're very difficult to pull off, and what will work is always a mystery. There's no magic formula. But it's still good to try, because sometimes the hokiest thing may turn out to be just the right thing, once you get into the editing room.
MB: The scene that we shot to go with Townes' voiceover about how he got neurotic when he smoked pot and psychotic when he drank alcohol was in Galveston. I wanted it to feel like he's in a hotel room, either drying out or writing, the way someone might look out on the world from this interior space when he's hiding from the world. I wanted it to be in this dark room, and you can see the feet under the door in the lit hallway outside the door. I wanted it to feel like a suspended moment.
LD: There were lots of experimental shots that came out beautifully, but there was no place in the film for them, so we had to let them go. They'll be on the DVD.
AC: The film has garnered wildly positive reviews from all quarters. You've clearly touched a nerve with this doc, something that doesn't happen that often in this genre. Do you feel like people have "gotten" the film, as well as liked it?
MB: Yes, it seems like they have gotten the film. A few reviewers have complained that the film endorses drugs and that lifestyle and that it should have taken more of a Mothers Against Drunk Driving position. In Rotterdam, there was this long newspaper review, a rant about how dangerous the film was, and another one to similar effect in Minneapolis. I like that in a way, because it shows the film made a strong impact on the viewer.
Having negotiated the gratifying, if nerve-racking waves of the past year's film-festival travails and weathered the withering glare of the spotlight that's inevitably trained on filmmakers who make well-received films, Brown pauses, on the eve of her film's national release, to take stock. She notes, much to her surprise, that she's still standing and "not (so) nervous anymore." She's come a good long way from that first interview she did for the film, the one with the Flatlanders.
MB: You'll notice that interview did not make it into the film, the reason being that it was the worst interview. I'd never interviewed anyone before and I was really shy and terrified. I'm not as shy anymore. I'm still afraid, but maybe more confident about being able to articulate my thoughts.
Of course, that just-out-of-the-gate stumble occurred well before she would undergo the character-building experience of having to ask Willie Nelson in person to be interviewed for the film. Mustering the moxie to jump into Willie's truck (yes, you read that correctly) while he was on a camping trip can only be a powerful confidence booster.
MB: J.T. [Van Zandt's oldest son] said we had to get Willie for the film and, since he wouldn't return our calls, we had to simply go find him in person. J.T. arranged for us to show up at one of Willie's camping trips. We were all standing around trying to decide how to proceed when J.T. told me that what I needed to do was go jump into Willie's truck and ask him right then. So, I ran over and got into his truck. It was so embarrassing and so forward. I said I'm doing this movie about J.T.'s dad and it would be great if you could give an interview and he said sure. And I said, well, do you mind doing it right now? The crew was waiting down the road.
One senses that today's Margaret Brown would have no problem at all with last year's SXSW premiere at the Paramount; today's Brown would never have worried, like the old Brown did, that some disgruntled "hometown" Townes fan would bring a gun to the screening. There remains just one final question to ask.
AC: Why have you named your production company RakeFilms? I get the reference to Townes' song "Rake" and to Townes himself, but why RakeFilms?
MB: Well, a "rake" is a male archetype; there aren't many female rakes. I got to thinking, why can't there be a female that's a rake? Why can't women be rakes?
So, she appropriated the term for herself. You know, her caffeine-in-the-decaf-carafe days might be so over.
Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt opens in Austin on Friday, Dec. 9. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.