Sonny Carl Davis Faces the Death of Old Austin in Buck Alamo
Checking in with the lonesome cosmic cowboy
After 45 years in the film business, Austin filmmaking legend Sonny Carl Davis has one piece of advice for young actors. "Do good work and make friends," he warmly explained.
That's advice that never would have stuck with Buck Alamo, the fading focus of Davis' new drama (suitably named Buck Alamo) which receives its North American premiere at the Austin Film Festival this weekend. Buck has a long history of screwing everything up, a last vestige of the Threadgill's and Armadillo World Headquarters era of Austin who finds himself broke, friendless, estranged from his daughter (Lee Eddy), and unwittingly stalked by Death itself, given narratorial voice by Bruce Dern.
Davis paints Buck as a familiar figure to Austinites. "You go the honky-tonk, and there's the guy who's still an artist but he just doesn't have that big of an audience, or a gallery to show his art in." In the elegiac and poetic Buck Alamo, the fictional Austin fixture tries to make amends, but it's all too little, too late. "Buck figures, 'If I go back and apologize, things will all be forgiven.' ... but 'I'm sorry' doesn't patch those holes you made or those wounds you incur."
Not that there are no similarities between them. Davis chortled: "The wardrobe department was the back of my old closet."
Maybe the biggest difference between the actor and the character, Davis was a cornerstone of the early Austin film scene, co-starring in Eagle Pennell's landmark 1978 picture The Whole Shootin' Match. The only problem was that there just wasn't that much of a scene. When it came to local filmmakers, "you could name 'em all on one hand," and he knew them all – Eagle Pinnell, Lou Perryman, Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel – so with an eye to a real career eventually Davis and his wife relocated to Los Angeles. Their short stay turned into 30 years. "I just wanted to check it out," said Davis, adding that he appeared in "a few films over the years." (A massive understatement, with 83 credits to his name.)
By contrast, Buck was the big fish that stayed in his small pond, and now the water is dry. "He's a character who is very familiar to me," Davis said. "We've all got friends who go, 'Maybe I should have gone to Nashville or L.A., and maybe I wouldn't be living in a double-wide.'"
Buck is definitely a familiar figure to writer/director Ben Epstein, who in part was inspired by his own uncle, who he met for the first time in years at his grandmother's funeral. "He's a musician that never got to play before more than 10, 25 people," Epstein said. They started talking, and Epstein initially thought of making a documentary about his uncle, and his life in tiny Red Rock. However, as he started developing the film, "it just turned into the inspiration of this character." It was local producer and filmmaker Mike Blizzard who introduced him to Davis: "The way that his truths spoke very closely to this character that we had, and then the way he spoke about his own life, and this long, storied career, I went, 'Sonny's got this.'"
Even though most of that career was in L.A., Austin had called Davis back, and by the time he moved back in 2007 the city had a real film scene, "with heroes like Robert Rodriguez and Rick Linklater making movies here." The town's movie history, and Davis' role therein, is recorded in the 2018 documentary Also Starring Austin (coincidentally directed by Blizzard, who also produced Buck Alamo): and unlike Buck, who bought into his own mythology, Davis suddenly found himself a revered part of Austin's film pantheon. Not that the reverence didn't sting occasionally. "My wife and I were back a few years ago, sitting around the dinner table at some people's house, and this young teenager student, during the course of the after-dinner, said, 'Oh, I know who you are. I studied you in film history.' OK, I'm a character on Turner Classic Movies now."
Another big difference between Sonny and Buck? There's no sign of Davis slowing down. He remains a jobbing actor, known for "big roles on little films and little roles on big films," and he admitted his wife was even nervous about him taking on a project about an old man looking back on his life. He's worked alongside actors from Bill Murray to Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, and he added one more big name in Bruce Dern. Epstein admitted, it was one role that made Dern the perfect voice for imminent mortality: 1978's The Cowboys. "Of course the only person who ever killed John Wayne would kill this guy."
However, his co-star came as quite a surprise to Davis, who had no idea he was in the picture, as they never shared a single scene. "Did I black out that day?" Davis mused. "People ask me, 'Bruce Dern, what was he like?' I don't know, I didn't meet him. But it all came together pretty good."
North American premiere
Sat., Oct. 23, 7:15pm, St. David’s
Mon., Oct. 25, 7pm, State Theatre
Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-28. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.