Three Guys, a Girl, and a Dog Named Friday
Austin film collective Jollyville Pictures on its ingredients for success
By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 18, 2009
If you haven't heard of Jollyville Pictures, well, that's probably going to change pretty soon. Right now though, chances are you've at least seen something that involved a member of the loosely knit, four-person film and animation collective in one way or another.
Chances are good that what you saw made you laugh out loud or, possibly, run on over to Hyde Park Baptist Church to find out what's taking the rapture so long to get here.
Chances are even better that in either case the cause of your explosive hilarity and/or spiritual distress – and we'll give you good odds on this because, you know, it's pretty much a gimme – was the music video for Hayes Carll's wickedly funny, heathen honky-tonker "She Left Me for Jesus," which the iTunes Store is calling a "whisky-addled sing-along for the final moments before last call."
(And, what the hell, on the off chance that you haven't awakened to the sinner's paradise that is this particular music video, go turn on ME Television. We'll give you even money that it's on right now.)
Although it was directed by Jollyville member Dano Johnson, "She Left Me for Jesus" is not a Jollyville Pictures production and instead flies under the banner of Collection Agency Films LLC, which Johnson formed with Austin musician cum jack-of-all-trades Troy Campbell back in 2004. Collection Agency Films functions as Johnson's day job – one that he loves, to be sure – and like the bill-paying gigs that his fellow Jollyville members also have taken on, at times it seems it might subsume their freewheeling, not-really-for-profit Jollyville collective.
But thanks to a girl, a dog, and one of the most exquisite short films to come out of Austin in ages, all that's changing. Before too long, chances are you'll be thinking of Jollyville as a lot more than a roadway over yonder in the key of West Austin. But, hang on, we're getting ahead of ourselves ....
It's a relatively gorgeous weekday afternoon, and I'm sitting in Spider House Patio Bar & Cafe with Dano Johnson and Don Swaynos; along with director Tate English and actor T. Lynn Mikeska, they make up the whole of the Jollyville Pictures collective. Johnson, whose day gig tends to revolve around animation (check out his promo spot for the Secular Student Alliance here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xixCt8-qYgo), has one of the more interesting fan bases I've ever heard of, thanks to his 2007 animated adaptation of Edwin A. Abbott's cult novel Flatland, which, while it features the voices of Hollywood heavyweight Martin Sheen and former Logan's Runner Michael York, is more beloved by high school math teachers than either Apocalypse Now or anything the once-upon-a-D'Artagnan has done of late. Co-directed with buddy Jeffrey Travis, Johnson's smart and funny adaptation turned out to be perfect for teaching bored students the basics of geometry and spatial relationships and has gone on to a rich afterlife in junior high and high schools across the country. Like the video for Hayes Carll, though, Flatland isn't a Jollyville Pictures release, either, although it does feature voice work from Mikeska.
Swaynos recently directed the video for Captain Clegg (aka Jesse Dayton) & the Night Creatures' track "Zombie a Go-Go," which arrived courtesy of Dayton's friendship with Rob Zombie and his work on Zombie's Halloween II soundtrack. Again, not specifically a Jollyville-branded project, but you can see what I mean when I say the Jollyville crew seems to have something going on everywhere. (And hang on, wasn't that Mikeska pulling stand-in duty for Hollywood hottie Heather Graham on the locally shot John Inwood film ExTerminators? Oh, yeah.)
So what's the deal? One of Austin's last few remaining DIY film collectives – and one of the 512's longest running, since 2001 or thereabouts – is too busy working on other people's projects to crank out some of its own? Not quite, but, as Johnson and Swaynos are quick to admit, the lousy Texas film economy – and the economy in general – hasn't helped things. Half a dozen Austin-based film collectives – that is, smallish coteries of filmmakers, editors, actors, and animators working together to create a single vision through various media – have come and gone in the past couple of years alone, most of them popping up for single projects and either seeing them through and then dissolving or sticking it out until interest wanes or cash-strapped members seek more lucrative artistic outlets elsewhere.
Sure, the larger, more storied pseudo-collectives like Reel Women and Motion Media Arts Center (now completely transformed into the Austin School of Film) are still around, but – for the purposes of this article, at least – they're not really existing along the classic, guerrilla lines of old-school collectives, i.e., a camera, a girl, and a gun. As Austin Underground Film Festival Director Andy Gately says, "Most of them are defunct, and the rest tend to drop like flies after a year or so."
The exception to the trend would be Jollyville Pictures, which is coming up on a full decade together. Every good band of superfriends deserves its own origin story. Here's theirs.
"Don and I met at [the University of Texas'] KVR-TV back around 2001," says Johnson. "I was interested in doing children's television and ended up doing an internship up at Sesame Workshop in New York, which was basically getting coffee at the greatest company in the world. Eventually I just started teaching myself Adobe After Effects and animation and everything else. We knew Tate English from UT, and one day he called me with an idea about doing a puppet show for KVR-TV, since, obviously, I'd been interested in that sort of thing."
That phone call resulted in a successful five-episode puppet show – the unironically titled Puppet Show – aimed at college students. It also brought together for the first time the three members of what would become Jollyville and defined their mutual appreciation of smart, often political, always cutting-edge humor. Swaynos recalls, "It was along the lines of 'the word of the day is dystopia,' that sort of thing."
After graduating from UT in 2002, Swaynos moved on to a series of freelance production jobs that would eventually come to include the immensely powerful documentary Year at Danger, co-directed and featuring UT film professor and Texas Army National Guard Major Steve Metze. Produced under Metze's Scum Crew Pictures banner, Year at Danger ended up winning the Grand Jury Award at the deadCenter Film Festival and was named 2008's Best Documentary by Houston Press.
In the interim between UT puppetry and real-world danger, though, the Jollyville crew finally coalesced around a trio of short films that, in the best sense of filmic collectivism, utilized every aspect of the group's far-ranging skill sets, from acting to editing to directing and beyond.
Their pitch-black, surrealist comedy "Emily," shot in 2004 and picked up by Lloyd Kaufman's Troma Entertainment for that company's traveling package of outrageous indie obscurities TromaDance, was first up, quickly (or slowly, depending on which Jollyville member you're speaking to) followed by a pair of snarky shorts, "Theory, Fact, or Fiction?" and "In Defense of Definitions ...."
"A lot of what we'd done up to that point had been comedy, really," Swaynos says. "For instance, our short 'Theory, Fact, or Fiction?' is a parody of intelligent design, and it's almost, beat by beat, a parody of the [1982 Christian-oriented] movie Rock: It's Your Decision, but instead of questioning rock & roll, we're questioning gravity. We were pretty sure we could sell that, too, on the basis that it's edgy, microcinema humor. We were thinking that it would be great for The Daily Show, but that didn't happen."
What did happen was the entrance of actress T. Lynn Mikeska into the Jollyville ranks, rounding out Swaynos, Johnson, and English's microcollective with a much-needed shot of femininity, sass, and flat-out top-drawer acting. (In addition to her work with Jollyville, Mikeska has her own "feminist collective" theatre company, Shrewd Productions.)
Mikeska: "It's been really neat in that Don, Dano, Tate, and I have our own artistic paths but then we keep coming back together as Jollyville. We first met when I auditioned for 'Theory, Fact, or Fiction?,' which was a commentary on the Kansas school board decision to teach intelligent design. And I've gone on to do three other films with them.
"The thing about Jollyville," she adds, "is that first and foremost, as an artist, I think that we all really strive to have connections. I'm not just an actor; I'm a musician as well – I was recently nominated for a B. Iden Payne Award for musical composition – and what artists want is connections with other people. Normally we're kind of a little socially awkward, so our art is born from a desire to connect and to leave a piece of yourself behind and to fight death.
"My dream has always been to be financially stable enough to just sit around and make art with people I love. I mean, it's great to be on a big set and be around celebrities, but ultimately it's your best friends – like the way I am with Jollyville – that you admire, because you do have a lot of the same viewpoints and you do think a lot of the same things. Being as tight as I am with Jollyville, it makes my art stronger. It makes all our art stronger. And, of course, because artists of all kinds have loads of insecurities and tend to denigrate themselves, it helps to have your friends close at hand and working alongside you. That played a big part in 'The Ballad of Friday and June.'"
Well, that and a talking dog puppet.
Yeah, you heard that right: After the better part of a decade together, "The Ballad of Friday and June," Jollyville's most recent – and finest – exploration of the artistic soul, has them back to square one, with puppets, albeit in a far more emotionally serious vein than anything the Jollyville team has created before.
It's safe to say that you've never seen anything quite like "The Ballad of Friday and June," which, in addition to playing a brace of film festivals (including the Austin Film Festival), snagged the Best Short Film at the Indie Memphis Film Festival earlier this year and seems headed for a permanent spot on Jollyville's "Best of ..." highlight reel (not that they actually have one of those yet).
Friday is a dog –well, a hand-puppet dog, manipulated and voiced by Johnson –while Mikeska (in a tour de force performance) is the struggling ukulele singer-songwriter June. At a tight nine minutes, "Friday and June" eloquently articulates, with equal parts humor and heartache, an unnameable cri de coeur that nevertheless should be instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever chased an artistic dream, stumbled, got back up, and grabbed hold even harder than before. It's that good.
Plus, the Friday puppet – huge soulful eyes atop a furry brown body – comes with one helluva backstory:
Director Tate English: "The girl who made the puppets for our [Texas Student Television] show had moved away, and so I wasn't sure who was going to make the Friday puppet. As it turned out, during preproduction I went to a family gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, and came across a photograph, one of my mom playing with a puppet.
"I hadn't seen it before, so I asked her about it, and she told me she'd made the puppet herself. Apparently, when she was in high school in the 1970s, she won an arts competition and got to go to a symposium on how to build puppets taught by Jim Henson. My jaw kind of dropped, and I asked her why she never told me that she'd learned how to build puppets from, you know, Jim Henson, even though she knew I'd worked on a puppet show of my own, and she just said she didn't think it was important. At that point she was trying to figure out if it was, actually, the same Jim Henson I'm thinking of – tall guy, beard, very hippy, kind of sounds like Kermit the Frog – and, yeah, it was that Jim Henson. And so that's how my mom ended up making the Friday puppet for 'The Ballad of Friday and June.' It's the first puppet she's made in 30 years. Amazing."
Not quite as amazing, however, as the final cut, which, as English notes, "took two days to shoot and a year to edit," thanks to everyone's complicated day jobs. The end result, however, is nothing short of, well, short-film glory, the jewel on the collective crown of Jollyville Pictures' résumé and, as it turns out, also a major turning point in the evolution of not only Jollyville Pictures but the crowded artistic headspace of its creators.
"In a way, 'Friday and June' really saved Jollyville Pictures," admits English. "After we had completed the previous short film 'Theory, Fact, or Fiction?' in 2006, we had really gotten into this slump where we just weren't producing anything. The Collection Agency was doing stuff, Don was editing movies for other people, but the core Jollyville group – Don and Dano, Lynn and I – just hadn't really done anything together and labeled it as such.
"One of the main reasons I wrote 'Friday and June' was because I was really feeling really creatively inadequate and depressed, and that ended up becoming a big part of the story. The act of making 'The Ballad of Friday and June' was, in all honesty, one of those [instances of] 'Fuck it, we're going to make one more thing, and it's going to be the movie that we want to make.' So we made it, and here it is, and all of the sudden it's turned out to really resonate with people. We won Best Short Film at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, it played the Austin Film Festival, and we're getting invitations to other festivals, and, you know, it really jump-started Jollyville in a major way.
"But going into it, I really had the idea that it might be Jollyville's last movie. I was really burned out. Although 'Emily' had been picked up by Troma, it had become increasingly difficult to get money together to make the movies we wanted to make, and while I had these great, creative friends, the workaday pressures to pay the bills we all have to pay were just bearing down on me to the point that I began thinking that I was never going to be able to get it together enough to keep Jollyville functioning as a continued creative collective. But I just had this insane push to make one last movie – 'The Ballad of Friday and June' – and now because it's done so well and I've got that block out of the way, I really feel like we're back on track."
Not only has the success of "Friday and June" reinvigorated Jollyville's collective artistic consciousness, it's also led to a renewed burst of get-it-on-the-page creative output, with English working on expanding the characters into their own feature-length script and Swaynos wrapping up his own feature-length script – based, says English, on an old idea from Jollyville's past – for possible production by the Jollyville crew.
If nothing else, the long-running saga of Jollyville Pictures is a lesson in artistic perseverance and the importance of working together as a team no matter how crazy-busy the day jobs or overwhelming the artistic insecurities become.
"Doing 'The Ballad of Friday and June' and living through that character," says Mikeska, "really allowed me to believe in myself. It gave me permission to understand that what I'm doing as an artist is not about having my name in big letters or lights. It's about doing good work, affecting those that love you, and connecting with other people. Like I said before, most artists are socially awkward. But that's why we make art: to connect with the people around us and to have some sort of effect on the world, even though we may feel in our civilian lives that we're not so good at that. But, you know, sometimes we are."
For more info about Jollyville Pictures, visit www.myspace.com/jollyvillepictures.