Doing it his way
Since the ballyhooed independent filmmaking movement birthed an instant sub-genre of movies about hip, angst-filled young people pontificating on some major--or worse, minor--turning point in their lives, it seemed perfectly reasonable to fear Dancer, Texas Pop. 81. Never mind the critical murmuring seeping out of its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival back in March. The blurbs at the Dallas premiere at the USA Film Festival said it all: Four high school graduates-to-be contemplate their future and wonder if their boyhood pact to leave their tiny West Texas town for Los Angeles will survive the test of time. Yep, there's a sure-fire re-spin if ever there was one. Instead of a bunch of world-weary scenesters or Ivy-league educated smart-asses, we'll have a bunch of Podunk, Texas, kids who are as clever as any world-weary scenester or Ivy-league educated smart-ass. That TriStar Pictures saw fit to gobble it up just a week into its production and then release it hot and heavy in Texas markets only made it look worse. Yeehaw, Bubba, if nowhere else, that dog'll hunt in Texas fer sure.
But from the get-go of Dancer, first-time director Tim McCanlies shows that he's no wannabe hotshot striving to convince Hollywood how bright and shiny he is. McCanlies introduces himself as a screenwriter, aiming to show no one but himself what a pleasant storyteller a Hollywood scribe can be, given a chance to see a film done the way it was envisioned. Yes, Hollywood scribe. It turns out McCanlies is far from a renegade filmmaker. After getting a theater degree at Texas A&M and finishing the graduate cinema program at Southern Methodist University, he's spent more than a decade in the studio-system salt mines. He has spit-shined projects for the likes of Walt Disney Studios and written barn-burners like the cable-wasteland movie North Shore, where he single-handedly invented the lexicon that surfers now use everywhere.
"Like all the cliches," McCanlies chimes over a staid hotel breakfast buffet the morning after the USA Film Festival screening, "the life of a Hollywood screenwriter is sort of a soulless existence.
"I'm so used to being the screenwriter that no one wants to talk to," McCanlies says. "Now I'm the director who everyone wants to talk to. It's such a complete reversal. I'm usually the guy that everyone wants to keep hidden away, the bitter guy in the back going"--he breaks into a guttural mumble--"'But you completely screwed my movie up.'"
Screwing up my movie are exactly the first words that popped into McCanlies' head when he heard that TriStar pictures had picked up Dancer a week into its production in Fort Davis, Texas. Burned out on the gobble-it-up then shit-it-out Hollywood process, he had opted for the do-it-yourself route for his 10-year-old script for Dancer.
"You put your heart and soul into something, and some director comes along and just..." McCanlies waves the words away and trails off in a you-gotta-laugh-'cuz-it-stings chuckle. "I spent a year and a half at developing this thing at Disney. Everyone loves it and wants to make it. You finally go into see Ivan Reitman, and he says, 'Tim, I kind of like the basic concept...'" The chuckle comes again, keeping the teeth-grinding at bay. "In a heartbeat, the studio executive is like, OK, and he throws your script out of the window without hesitating. It shows you real quick where you rank in the system, just in case you forgot."
But he couldn't let Dancer, his homesick ode to growing up in a small Texas town and then shipping out to Hollywood, be whored out.
He figured he'd take $100,000 of his own money and shoot it on 16mm, "do a Robert Rodgriquez, or I guess more of a John Sayles thing. You know, writing Hollywood movies to get the money to do your own film."
That's when Chase Foster, his producer, came along with the promise of deeper pockets. Foster managed not only to dig up the initial $600,000 proposed budget for Dancer, but spin it to people who upped it to $2.3 million.
Although $2.3 million sounds like a ton of money, McCanlies says he still had to draw lines in the sand, recruiting Fort Davis locals to fill the smaller roles and making compromises to stay within budget. When Sony called to say they had bought his film, he figured the compromises had just begun.
"I was an independent filmmaker for a whole week," McCanlies says. "I was just starting to really enjoy it too. No suits on the set. Just doing my own thing. Then with one phone call, I had all these dire scenarios in my head. Let's put some rock and roll in it, jazz it up. We'll do some re-shoots, put in some skin, turn it into Porky's, for all I knew."
But the studio left him alone to do what he wanted to do, which he says was "most importantly knowing what not to do, which I had learned from watching all those directors mess up scripts."
In trying to get away from L.A. and do a film about a kid trying to decide whether he wants to go to L.A., McCanlies lured the city to him.
He says it all came down to a good script.
"A project like this could get past any problems of a first-time director and a small budget because it was well-written. So many things can happen while making a movie, you know if things fall apart, at least you have a good script. If you start out with a bad script, I don't know how you can turn that around."
On that end, he says Hollywood films and independent films aren't so different. "In Hollywood, there are a lot of reasons a movie gets made that have nothing to do with whether the script is good or not. And in the independent world, it's really the same thing...they cobble together a script kind of as an afterthought."
Which is why, now that Dancer is getting a small buzz and he's getting pitched to direct everything from the next big-exploding-action film to the next boyz-in-the-hood flick, he says he'll hold out to do one of the films he's written.
"Certainly I'm myopic as a screenwriter to think that it all starts with a script," he says as he lets out another laugh, this one delighted and wise with experience, "but I do think it all starts with a script."
--Scott Kelton Jones
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