Mustang Island Premieres at Dallas International Film Festival
Craig Elrod and Nathan Smith screen their latest starring Macon Blair
In the secluded town of Mustang Island off the Texas Gulf Coast, Austin-based filmmakers Craig Elrod and Nathan Smith found a gem of a setting for a tenderhearted romantic indie.
Their new feature – which has its world premiere April 1 at the Dallas International Film Festival – was directed and co-written by Elrod, co-written and shot by Smith, and stars a who's who of local character actors, including John Merriman, Byron Brown, and real-life couple Macon Blair and Lee Eddy. For Elrod, who has had several shorts premiere at SXSW, including "Molly" (2014) and the 2010 Jury Award winner "Petting Sharks," the journey to Mustang Island's completion has been an odyssey: "This thing has been going for the longest time."
"'Molly,'" notes Elrod, "was our jumping-off point." A subtly charming black-and-white short featuring Brown, Jason Newman, and Molly Karrasch, "Molly" was accepted to festival screenings in Cannes, Los Angeles, and naturally, Austin. But even before its success, Elrod and Smith had already agreed: "We are going to write something for Macon and Lee" and "for everybody else" involved with "Molly." Inspiration for the feature adaptation came, the director says, when "we married that idea to this setting. You have this beach in the off-season, a kind of sad Texas coastal town."
The filmmakers began scouting the Gulf Coast, ultimately determining after a year that Mustang Island itself would be logistically impossible "in terms of trying to keep everything in one place" for the movie. Smith recalls: "Then we found this house down in Jamaica Beach, which is a suburb of Galveston, and the minute we walked into [it], we were like, 'This is the house. This is where we're shooting.'"
In late 2015, the crew completed 24 days of principal photography in Austin and Galveston, with nearly 60 locations (an untenable number for most independent features) and Smith shooting in black-and-white [Full disclosure: the Chronicle's digital strategist, Michael Bartnett, is a co-producer of the film]. Elrod and Smith storyboarded each frame precisely, such that a halt in their production – say, from the hurricane buffeting the Gulf at that time – could have ruined the shoot. Smith laughs, "When you don't have a lot of money, there are things you cannot control. What you can control is the tone of the movie and where the camera goes."
Thankfully, the arduous shoot, which required some crew to "pour out the favors" and "sleep in hallways," paid off in spades: At just under 90 minutes, Mustang Island is a sensuous, elaborately beautiful comedy with the laconic pacing of Jim Jarmusch and the Middle American warmth of Alexander Payne's Nebraska.
As Bill, Blair plays a self-sabotaging introvert who forces his brother (Merriman, in a pitch-perfect performance) and friend (Newman) to drive to his ex-girlfriend's family's house in Mustang Island, where he meets and falls for a waitress played by Eddy. "There is not a lot of external conflict," notes Elrod, and this is correct: The film lives and dies with the equally brilliant Blair and Eddy, whose faces reflect the quietus and vulnerability of lost relationships past. Regarding Blair, Smith comments: "What he does is so subtle that when we were watching playback, we noticed he was doing 10 different things we didn't see before."
Mustang Island's Dallas screenings will be the filmmakers' first chance to learn whether an "Aki Kaurismäki-influenced" dichromatic comic-drama can appeal to a general audience. On the brink of their premiere, Smith and Elrod seem hopeful that years of work on Mustang Island will prove worthwhile: "What we are just trying to do is build an audience for our movie so we can make more."
Mustang Island screens at the Dallas International Film Festival Sat., April 1, 2:30pm, and Sun., April 2, 9:45pm. For more info, see www.dallasfilm.org.