The Home School
Austin's latest class of cinematic talent represented by six anticipated films at SXSW is going places, but they aren't leaving anytime soon
For a few months, we all thought P.J. Raval was really going to move away from town, but even after he'd vacated his house and put all his stuff in storage, he kept putting it off. Now, he's probably going to stay a while.
"I like that I have been able to work with good people on projects that I like and also work on my own projects," he says. "And I think that's really rare not a lot of places like that. It would be foolish to walk away from that right now."
Remarkably, a string of low-budget labors of love like Kyle Henry's Room, Steve Collins' Gretchen, and Jake Vaughan and Bryan Poyser's The Cassidy Kids has kept him regularly and gainfully employed since he graduated from UT. There's no guarantee that things will stay this way, but coming from a young, award-winning cinematographer, the decision to stick around when fiscally greener pastures beckon strikes a serious chord of confidence.
Filmmakers here have long supported each other and made films possible with the requisite complement of blood, sweat, and tears, but confidence in our directors is starting to write checks they (and their crews) can actually cash. It's possible that the range of budget and scale among the Austin-made features playing at South by Southwest Film 06 points toward a potentially exciting future if the momentum can be sustained.
With the infrastructure and student crews provided by the Burnt Orange Productions-UT Film Institute partnership (The Cassidy Kids) or the connections to outside resources afforded by a New York-based producing team like Gretchen's Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, and Anish Savjani, Austin's most talented filmmakers could be stepping up to a higher level of production with better chances of making it past the festival circuit and into theatres, even as budgets remain low enough to afford passionate artistic control. Meanwhile, all indications point toward increasing health for the kind of micro-budgeted narrative and documentary features we're perhaps more accustomed to, as films like Korey Coleman's 2AM and Kat Candler's jumping off bridges premiere, and others, like Paul Gordon's Motorcycle and Heather Courtney's Letters From the Other Side, continue festival runs that began at Slamdance 2006.
As a friend and collaborator to most of these filmmakers, and as one who hopes to join their ranks with a feature to be shot this summer (produced by the same team as Gretchen), it was my pleasure to serve as an insider-moderator for a discussion with all of them while they prepare for SXSW. After taking a group photo literalizing a certain slander that might be leveled at Austin's filmmaking scene (and, yes, at this writer), we stuck around the hotel room to discuss just how it has come to this, and the connections it took for everyone to get their films made.
Bryan Poyser: Well, you know, aside from that, there's a kind of competitiveness here, as well. Like when my friend Alex Holdridge showed his movie Wrong Numbers at the Austin Film Festival and started getting all these calls and meetings with industry people; well, that looked a lot like success to me, and it really lit a fire to make [first feature] Dear Pillow.
Kat Candler: Maybe I'm naive, or maybe my memory's not so good, but I don't remember arriving here back in 1997 and there being this many filmmakers from Austin with features in South by Southwest. I don't remember there being so many people who are on the cusp ... in terms of people doing well and being discovered ...
BP: Right. It's true that it really has grown, but it's also not quite the case that there's a fully self-sustaining film community with movies getting made here and getting distributed and being seen beyond South by Southwest and independent of other film festivals around the country.
Korey Coleman: This has been a great place for me. I mean, I've made tons of connections here, but there can be a tendency to overhype things, whether in music or film or writing or whatever. I think that if you get wrapped up thinking that the town is so supportive that I can make films on nothing but a smile, join a film club and things'll happen for me, well. ... But after about 10 years doing my show [The Reel Deal], even though it's just an access show, it got to the point where people were saying, you know, you talk shit about other people's movies all the time, and what can you do? And that's a valid question, you know? You've gotta be proactive. Of course, there's a tendency for the established people to get more attention than the little guys, but I mean, that's just like anywhere else.
BP: But it's weird because of what people might be primed to expect. Austin has been "about to happen" since I got here in 1993. I think it's going to take a lot for Austin to ever become the kind of town that will rival or even get close to Los Angeles or New York, if it ever does, or if that's even a good thing. So many of the people who have had a little bit of success here have ended up moving away because they don't necessarily want to be a caffeine jockey while they try to make movies.
Heather Courtney: At least for doc filmmakers, it seems like to get jobs producing or shooting, you have to be in New York or L.A. Ultimately with docs, you go where the story is, but I feel really lucky to work with all the people I've worked with in Austin, and I always wanted to come back here to a home base. But sometimes I worry that our base of support might erode if people here need to leave. Maybe our days are numbered, and that makes me sad.
Kat Candler: And I think that creates a question for everybody: Who's going to stay here and make the connections with New York and Los Angeles from Austin and tough it out?
BP: Well, I bought a house.
Austin Chronicle: So, then, there must be an upside to a town that's "about to happen."
Korey Coleman: I have a theory, though. I think a lot of it is about technology, because I think as soon as filmmaking became more accessible to people like me and I don't think I could ever do it on film, I mean the way that I just did it you know, with more people making things and when more people have access, that community becomes tighter. So many people who are able to do the same thing can really help each other out. Like I know Kat because she would come down to my show to do interviews all the time to promote a film. So, when I came around to getting ready to make a movie, if I needed to talk to someone for advice about technical or producing kind of questions, I'd just go to Kat. And there's just a chain reaction here, you know? Once you bring someone on, they convince someone else.
HC: And I know I've had a really great experience when I was editing and wanted to show a rough cut, there'd be 20 to 30 people there to give me feedback. Austin is incredibly supportive in that way, whether people are making films or just interested in giving their time, there are a lot of people you can go to, and I don't know that you'd get that in a bigger place.
Steve Collins: We had a lot of help on our film. We had a dress shop that gave us a location, for instance, added like $100,000 in production value, and we also worked with a church that gave us our production office for free. Stuff that I know personally from having done stuff in New York, making films, I did not have things like that happen. Very much the opposite. That's why I moved here.
AC: And you've bought a house here, too.
SC: That's right. I'm a homeowner and a baby-maker here. Yeah, I'm settled. When I first left New York, I lived up in the Adirondacks for three months and realized that I was never going to be able to do what I wanted to do there because I needed more of a community than that. I couldn't just be doing it alone, like in a cave. You need the musicians, you need the actors, and all that. On our film, I think it's 90 percent local actors.
AC: And Gretchen has an exceptionally large cast for a "small" movie.
SC: Yeah, and I thought it went very well. There's no one in the film that I don't like, and, honestly, when we started, I was a little skeptical that we could find everyone here. But, you know, I worked with a casting person, Vicky Boone, who was very keyed into the theatre scene, and she just was able to get me all the good ones, so it was great. And we were also really fortunate to find Graham [Reynolds], who is the real thing. He's a brilliant artist who makes brilliant music, and I gave him a very difficult task of emulating a temp score
AC: Not just any old temp score, though
SC: Right. Bernard Herrmann. Who's like the most famous and talented movie composer who ever lived. And Graham really rose to the challenge and scored something that was unique to my film, and he did what Bernard Herrmann couldn't do, which was actually look at my movie and tailor a score to that. And you'd never guess, but he basically recorded it all in his house and, with overdub and reverb, made a pretty big sound. But that's from someone who really understands music and understands how to make something feel big without renting out a hall and getting 90 musicians, which is obviously not in an independent filmmaker's budget.
AC: So, there's more to it than technology and access.
SC: I certainly think a good film school helps. You need that kind of entity that's spitting out filmmakers into the community. And any kind of arts community really, not just film. You need to have those people around, the actors, the musicians.
AC: But, I guess, since you bring up film schools; Paul, you actually made your film over your three years at UT ...
Paul Gordon: It was good having a group of people that I could ask to help work on the movie being in film school. ... I'm not very good at asking people to help me out with stuff. And, even in school, I'm always amazed how other people get a lot of people to do the shit work for them on their films.
SC: Yeah, but you graduated with a feature.
PG: Yeah, that's true. I guess I'm the smart one.
Jake Vaughan: Did the faculty get upset about that? I know some schools get their feathers ruffled when somebody tries to do that.
PG: I didn't really tell them I was doing a feature. I just made it as individual shorts. But at my third review for my thesis, Cauleen [Smith] asked me, "So, what are you going to do after you finish your feature?" But, no, they weren't jerks about it or anything, and they didn't really say anything. And I graduated.
BP: Compared to other film schools, UT is one where you're actually expected to write and direct whatever the hell you want. Like when Jake and I went through, there was no committee system to decide on which project would be done or anything. It really forces you to make what you really want to see.
HC: It is a directors' school, really. Like on my thesis ["Los Trabajadores"], I was able to make that 48 minutes long, where if I'd gone to Stanford documentary, it would have had to be, like, 15 minutes. And I don't think I would have gotten the same kind of start from it, with the PBS screenings and the confidence from ITVS for the grant on this film, if it had been a short. Definitely not. So, UT is really great that way.
Kat Candler: I went to Florida State, and worked at a movie theatre, and everybody in school was working there, and talking to each other and helping each other, but that really was a situation where you had to go in front of a committee, and everybody submits a script, and one gets picked, and that writer may not get to direct. But they also fund stuff.
JV: But then the university owns it. At UT, you pay for the film yourself, you pay for everything, but then it's yours.
BP: Yeah, but they have explosions in their short films.
PG: I think it's good to pay for your own first films, because before you start asking other people for money to make something, you should be able to show them you can do it. And I just feel like you learn so much when you have to pay for it yourself. I just think you learn everything
Kat Candler: And you have to be really careful, because it is coming out of your pocket. You're very careful and very precise.
PG: My money was mostly from financial aid. Just every year, I kept getting the maximum amount of financial aid, and every year, they keep giving you the same amount even if you have a TA-ship, so you end up with $7,000 extra, and third year more.
AC: But you do have to pay that back.
PG: Yeah, but it's a low interest rate, and the debt dies with you. Like, if you die, your family won't be held responsible.
BP: When you are using other people's money, there are more opinions for you to consider. It's a trade-off. Because you have more resources, but that comes with different responsibilities.
AC: But then isn't that why we have a story here? The thing is, for the people in this room, either you've already done it and worked with other people's money, or you're starting to get the attention, so that now you can do it. When you graduate to that level, what kinds of changes have happened, in your experience?
SC: You just have a lot more on the line. I didn't feel nearly the same amount of pressure on shorts that I got funding from a grant or funded myself. You feel no pressure. I didn't feel any pressure to please anyone or do anything in particular, but you do, you feel pressure to please everyone when you're using someone else's money. And that's a danger.
Kat Candler: On my film, we got a lot of support from the city, and almost all the food was donated, and we got grants, made lots and lots of deals. But we didn't have enough money to get all the way through production. After three weeks, we were going to run out, and I just said, "Well, fuck it, I don't know about you, but I'm gonna keep showing up on set, and if you guys are gonna be there, great, but if not, I'm just gonna move on. I don't know about you all, but I'm making a movie."
AC: And the rest of the money came through?
Kat Candler: Oh, yeah, we continued to raise it constantly, and we're even still trying to fund the film. So, money is hard. But I will say it's a complete joy to own that film and not have to answer to anybody but ourselves. And for that I'm incredibly grateful. All the decisions were made by my producers and myself and my editor and my DP. We own that film.
BP: When you're making a movie with somebody else's money, then it's a product. It's not just a question of, "How do I make the best movie I possibly can?" but also, "How do I make the best movie that will also make its money back and hopefully turn a profit for their investment?"
JV: It's going to be a film that's potentially somewhere between what you want it to be and what they expect it to be. And they may not necessarily know what's going to be profitable any more than you do, but it's a valid concern all around.
Kat Candler: In terms of the commercial viability of our film, we're talking to distributors and producers' reps and all these people who tell us, "Your film's not commercially viable," and we kind of go, "Well, what the fuck is that?"
BP: Right. You can only know if it's commercially viable if it's out in the commercial world. That's the only way to find out. I mean, we all have some sense of what kind of movie is commercial, but for instance, who the fuck knew that a movie about penguins was going to be the highest-grossing movie at the Oscars this year?
JV: But, realistically, you do have to have certain assets to make a film go farther. You have to have stars or certain kinds of producers in order to put together a product that's more saleable. And these things are aggregated in Los Angeles and New York. You know, it's like if you're in the oil business, you have to visit Houston regularly or live there. There's just no other way.
BP: When movies get more expensive, you have to bring in elements that create recognition in order to sell the product more easily. That's the reality now. The only way that's going to change is if independent film morphs into something more like music, where you can go around and put on screenings to get the work seen and build up a fan base and create a support network. And that's maybe never going to really make it big. Maybe that's going to maybe get it to a sustainable level, though.
JV: I think that when the opportunity came up to do a Burnt Orange project with more funding and resources behind it, we jumped, because we knew that we wanted to get into a situation where we couldn't necessarily call all the shots. Because that is a step that I really wanted to take, that we had to take, and I think ultimately is what we might all get further into because that's how movies get made if you're going to have a career. And it's a really good thing to have that negotiation and learn which battles to fight and which not to, and to have to deal with somebody saying, "You have to listen to my point of view on this." It makes you a better all-around filmmaker.
PG: But when you're up-and-coming talent, you have to ask, where do you hope for it to end up? Maybe you're hoping for arthouse or DVD? And maybe you start small, and get enough attention with each film to make the next one a little bigger. But I don't know if there's a real in-between: not scrounging anymore, but not getting your movies funded by the big companies. Is there an in-between here if you want to make a living off of it without the projects becoming so big that you can't really make what you want anymore? And I think a lot of people in Austin kind of want it to be more like Hollywood.
Kat Candler: You know, we are really learning the business of it and how to deal with this product, and we are really educating ourselves as to how to grow and get it out there and get it seen by wider audiences. Because it is a business, and if we want to make money and not have a day job, it's what you've got to do. We need for this to be sustainable, and we need for people to get paid so they can stay, and that's our responsibility, and it should be, and it's a good thing.
JV: "When is Austin going to pop?" is sort of always the question, but maybe it's the wrong question. Maybe Austin just is what it is. I mean, in L.A., you have to find a day job, too. The fact that we have to get jobs outside our industry here is maybe a good thing. And, I mean, on a certain level, isn't focusing on that really about displacing insecurity about our own careers onto the city? You know, it's not because Austin hasn't reached its potential, you know?
Kat Candler: I'm not going anywhere. I refuse. I refuse to leave Austin, and I refuse to believe that I can't make a living making films here. I want a family here and raise kids here. Fuck everybody who says we can't do it, because we can. I don't care who we have to go to or who we have to convince to make this work and make this happen, but we're going to do it.
Korey Coleman: I'll tell you, man, I was in a pretty unique experience to have a lot of people put so much into this film, but there were nights where I was losing sleep because, you know, I'm used to rejection, and I don't really care if people appreciate what I do no, I'm lying. I do. But, you know, from the people that gave us some food or worked on the film or put some money in, that's a whole lot of people involved, and my gratitude is so big to them, that I really worried. So that's a big part of why I'm happy it's getting shown. I'm happy for all those people that helped get it done. Because not only do they deserve that, but they'll be the first ones to call you a loser.
BP: Yeah, you want to honor that because if nothing else, filmmaking is totally like a bunch of people getting together for some crazy, ridiculous dream that may never come true. And I think it's really great that the success that one of my friends has is mine, as well, and I can feel proud to be part of this thing.
HC: Even when it's about money, it's not about money. It's that you really want people to see your film. And business is a big part of that. And that's so important, because of all the commitment from people. When I watched my film finished for the first time ... I watched all those names go by in the credits, and I kind of started to choke up. I felt like, you know, that's my life.
The Cassidy Kids
Sunday, March 12, 7pm, Paramount
Wednesday, March 15, 4:45pm, Alamo Downtown
Monday, March 13, 6:30pm, Dobie
Saturday, March 18, 7pm, Austin Convention Center
Letters From the Other Side
Friday, March 10, 9:45pm, Austin Convention Center
Wednesday, March 15, 4:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Sunday, March 12, 1:30pm, Paramount
Wednesday, March 15, noon, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 11, 1:30pm, Dobie
Thursday, March 16, 7pm, Alamo Downtown
Saturday, March 18, 6:30pm, Alamo Downtown
Jumping Off Bridges
Saturday, March 11, 2:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 16, 1:30pm, Paramount
From the Archives:|
Six (Not So) Easy Pieces
BY CHALE NAFUS
A Collaborative Local Film Takes the Long Road From Paris to Here
The Reel World
BY SARAH HEPOLA
Korey Coleman started The Reel Deal as a scam; he ended up with a show.
More Than a Festival, Less Than a Movement
BY SPENCER PARSONS
At Slamdance, tenderness, anger, and a very steep slope
TV Eye: All Work, Little Pay
BY BELINDA ACOSTA
Local filmmaker Heather Courtney's award-winning doc, Los Trabajadores, hits the small screen.
On the Case: No. 1
BY SPENCER PARSONS
The Burnt Orange kids and 'The Cassidy Kids'
On the Case: No. 2
BY SPENCER PARSONS
Greetings from planet 'Cassidy'
On the Case: No. 3
BY SPENCER PARSONS
Movin' on up
Me Talk Dirty One Day
BY JOHN PIERSON
Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughan come clean on their 'Dear Pillow'
Man on Fire
BY MARC SAVLOV
Mike Henry and the 'Slam Planet' recovery benefit