Lights,Camera, No Action

Austin is now the undisputed movie capital of Texas, but Dallas filmmakers insist there's no reason to panic

In a tiny recording studio on the eastern edge of Deep Ellum, a pair of young Texas filmmakers are combining the movie resources of two very different cities, Austin and Dallas. Gathered in the control room of The Listening Chair, Austin filmmakers Lance Larsen and Jas Shelton are screening their 27-minute short Crosswalk. The film's director-editor Larsen and director of photography Shelton, who've formed a company called Shel Lar Films Ltd., were both raised in Dallas but moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas film school. They managed to graduate, but not before being blacklisted from attending some classes for stealing the entrance codes to a recording studio and doing the sound there for a short film whose title, Matthew's Sunrise, now makes Larsen cringe.

"They were pissed, of course, when they found out what we'd done," Larsen says, "but after the movie won a student award at the Chicago International Film Festival, they went around saying, 'Lance and Jas are two young filmmakers who'd do anything to realize their vision.'"

It was not the first time the UT film school would claim bragging rights. Larsen and Shelton snagged an Oscar nomination for best student film for their 1997 short Beyond Babylon, which began to generate Los Angeles buzz for them at professional organizations like the Directors Guild of America and studios like 20th Century Fox. They managed to talk a small company, Los Americos, into financing their latest short, Crosswalk, for $120,000; in exchange, the company will get a piece of any feature film that might spring from it. That deal, Larsen says, is their way of proving how much they can do with a little bit of money and telling future investors, "Hey, we can take an $8 million budget and make it look like $30 million."

As for the slick look on the short version of Crosswalk, Shelton credits "the big urban feel" of Dallas as part of that: Exteriors were shot here, interiors in their home base of Austin. Larsen says, "When people watched it in Los Angeles and New York, they thought for sure we shot it somewhere in L.A. or Chicago. You can make downtown Dallas look like almost any major city you want, and the people here bent over backward to help us out."

Larsen and Shelton claim that a "major name" is now interested in Crosswalk and that once he signs on, their first feature film will get the green light to shoot late this year. The crew, many of whom worked on Varsity Blues and The Faculty in Austin, will be the same. And the locations--their hometown Dallas for the "big urban feel" of those exteriors and Austin for the interiors--will also be the same. If Larsen and Shelton were to break out in the way Austin filmmakers Richard Linklater or Robert Rodriguez did, they say they'll do everything possible to bring their projects back to Texas, especially Austin and Dallas.

"I don't see a barrier [between those two cities]," Larsen insists. "They're just three hours apart, and they work great together in one project."

The spirit of cooperation Larsen and Shelton seek between cities is encouraging, especially in the face of what appears to be a substantial difference in style, attitude, and resources between Dallas and Austin and the filmmakers who choose to reside in these cities. Add to this the fact that, with a momentum that began during the early '90s, Austin has handily kicked Dallas' butt in terms of the amount of feature-film work it's managed to attract from West Coast studios--projects that, at least in theory, are supposed to contribute to a thriving local independent film scene. Indeed, in this particular tale of two cities, where the state's capital is reaping all the Hollywood attention and Dallas has another echoing, often empty (as far as movie production goes) monument to "world class" status--The Studios at Las Colinas--Larsen and Shelton seem to be among a very few Texas film up-and-comers who care about uniting the advantages of the city where they grew up and the city where they now live.

Everybody seems to agree that Dallas, despite its diminished stature as a third studio town, hosts a large, if scattered, collection of stalwart independent filmmakers. But are these folks crazy for not hightailing it 200 miles south to create some elbow friction with movie-industry folk and at the same time bask in a film fan base that supports four different film festivals a year?

In short, whatever happened to that "Third" Coast buzz Dallas was supposedly generating back in the '80s, and has Austin made that happen for real?

A quick glance at TV and movie production numbers from the Texas Film Commission might make you think Dallas enjoys even greater prosperity: 1998 saw a combined projects budget of $101.3 million here compared to Austin's $54.7 million. The lion's share of our surplus in that comparison, however, can be chalked up to two hit TV series: Walker, Texas Ranger and Barney.

This was not the kind of work investors and publicists were envisioning for Dallas back in the early '80s. Trammell Crow purchased 112 Irving acres for $7.5 million and, in 1982, built the Dallas Communications Complex, 41 acres of which were dedicated to the Studios at Las Colinas. This $10 million production center would be the high-tech open arms for receiving Hollywood projects from allegedly disgruntled coast producers. Not long after, former USA Film Festival director Sam Grogg conceived a company called FilmDallas as a Southwestern mecca for production and distribution (only in the latter category did they achieve limited success, with Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Trip to Bountiful). All this business activity raised high hopes in Dallas (not a difficult thing to do in this town) that we'd become what Austin is now, in terms of studio movie production.

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