100 Dallas Creatives: No. 59 Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks
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"Sorry if the reception's bad, I'm headed into a national sequoia forest," Toby Halbrooks says, answering the phone in California. The musician come filmmaker is currently in the golden state to work on his latest venture with fellow Dallas darling, David Lowery. This time it's a project for Disney, a remake of the 70's children's film Pete's Dragon. They are writing the script together, and Lowery will direct.
The pair, along with producer James Johnston, forms the team Sailor Bear. Sailor Bear's first release, a short film called Pioneer, won the Grand Jury prize at seven film festivals and catapulted Halbrooks headlong into the world of independent film. Prior to that, Halbrooks had been working as a commercial producer and director.
"David and I started working together in 2006. I met him on this commercial and we became fast friends after working all night on the job," he says. "Within a couple of weeks we were writing together. I never set out to be a film producer. It just happened. James has known David for even longer and when we all met we decided to do Pioneer together."
The partnership has taken Halbrooks to the Sundance Film Festival four years in a row, for films includingUpstream Color
andAin't Them Bodies Saints
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, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. When asked about the name Sailor Bear, and where it comes from, Halbrooks insists that it's totally arbitrary. "We were at SXSW and I was wearing what looked like a sailor outfit, and James is a big beary guy. We decided that had to be the name."
Halbrooks always knew that he wanted to be an entertainer, but he had no particular ambitions of ending up in the movie industry. His first foray into the performing arts was as a member of Dallas' unofficial musical mascot, The Polyphonic Spree. He toured the country for six years as the thereminist for the Tim DeLaughter led band. But despite that obvious indication of musical talent, Halbrooks makes no claim to being a musician.
"I find myself in these strange upper levels of productivity in things that I don't necessarily excel at," he says. "I'm incredibly lucky but I also think that, if I have to pin down any bit of talent I might have, I'm good at spotting relationships with people who are the best at what they do. I don't need to seek them out, those are the people who attract me."
To the extent that Halbrooks attributes the success he has found to growing up in Dallas, it's because of the talented people he has met here, like Lowery and DeLaughter. Another such person is the late Benjamin Curtis, of the band School of Seven Bells. Halbrooks and Curtis went to the same junior high.
"We grew up together," he says. "We were a creative force making music." Curtis passed away with cancerous lymphoma in December of 2013. Halbrooks dedicated his directorial debut, a short film titled Dig, to Curtis.
As far as what lies ahead for Halbrooks, he says that he enjoys producing but has plans to delve further into directing as well. "It was nice to get to see the other side of the process," he says. "Producing is very satisfying but there's definitely a difference. It was really rewarding. I didn't know if I could make the switch."
He and his partners have a few more projects in the works, potentially also for Disney, and he mentions that he'd like to direct a feature length movie sometime in the next year, as well as a few more shorts shot in Dallas, and some commercial ventures.
Despite the myriad of creative projects he plans to pursue on in his own, Halbrooks intends to continue working with Sailor Bear. "I'm pursuing writing and directing but I hope to keep working with David as his producer and co-creator. James, David and I, we'll always help each other out with each other's projects." Halbrooks says that they've come up with a litmus test for deciding which projects to take on: "We ask ourselves, 'If this doesn't get made, will I be really pissed off?'"
Pete's Dragon is Halbrooks' first experience working with a major studio. When asked how he feels transitioning from independent to mainstream filmmaking, he's unwaveringly positive. "You have to say yes to things," he says. "We're interested in the fact that they let us tell an original story. Everyone at Disney has been really fantastic."
Unlike the original, the remake will not be a musical, or employ cel animation. "It'll be a bigger movie," he says. "Not bigger in popularity necessarily, but bigger in scope and emotional attachment. It's not super campy." Plans to shoot the film in New Zealand are underway.
Given the project with Disney, and several other significant acknowledgments, including a Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship, a Spirit Award and a spot on Variety's 10 Producers to Watch list, one would imagine that Halbrooks feels pretty proud of himself. On the contrary, his humility is as remarkable as his achievements. "It's not like I think, 'I've made it,'" he says. "There's too much work to be done." 100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings
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