Lights,Camera, No Action
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.
But FilmDallas went belly-up amidst charges of financial mismanagement after having produced two failed pictures--Spike of Bensonhurst, shot in New York, and The Dirt Bike Kid. The Studios at Las Colinas hosted a string of features from Silkwood to Robocop to Born on the Fourth of July, but business throughout the '80s was always patchy, prompting Crow to sell the complex and Texas Commerce Bank to foreclose on the new owner in '91. Former Nashville songwriter Chris Christian now owns the studio, with Ross Perot Jr. holding the deed on the rest of the complex. But movie-wise, they preside over a ghost town. The last studio film project Las Colinas hosted was Leap of Faith in 1992. Late last year, the Irving City Council nearly killed the Irving Film Commission, which now hangs by a thread after a six-week study found it was still a (potentially) viable piston in the engine of the North Texas economy.
"With a facility like The Studios at Las Colinas, it definitely is not an issue of 'Build it and they will come,'" says Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission in Austin and a 16-year veteran of that state office. "Why do [Hollywood film projects] come to Texas? We have small towns, picturesque countryside, and good weather for most of the year. They come here for exteriors. They don't come here to shoot in a studio. There are hundreds of studios in L.A. that've been paid for a million times over. If you have [a studio like Las Colinas] and can afford to maintain it, it is an asset to the community. But you need a TV series, a regular project, to pay your bills. And that's what keeps Las Colinas alive."
Texas Monthly screamed in ecstasy its May 1998 cover headline: "Hooray For Hollywood, Texas!" The magazine's "special report" on Texas' thriving film industry (currently the third most profitable in the U.S.) focused most of its attention, as one would expect, on the current convergence of studio producers, directors, tech crews, and stars in Austin. The roots of the current Austin buzz, which roars louder than the MGM lion, is a combination of two wholly unique and traditionally adversarial attitudes. The University of Texas' film school has been strong for three decades now, so all the way back to the days of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there's been a pioneering student sensibility that chose personal vision over national exposure. A logical blossoming of this was the Austin Film Society, created by Richard Linklater, Lee Daniel, and Louis Black in 1985 to screen and discuss obscure films unavailable on video. When archetypal '90s indie hits Slacker (Richard Linklater) and El Mariachi (Robert Rodriguez) broke out of Austin to ride the crest of the Sundance hype, the pair decided to bring their feature-film projects back to the capital city rather than live their professional lives full time in Los Angeles.
Art begat commerce, it seems, when Hollywood folks who were brought down for these movies encountered Austin's "cachet of coolness" and suddenly began moving other projects to South Central Texas.
As for Austin's current success at wooing the studios and hotshot independent producers, Copeland says, "Everyone grumbles that we're so successful because the Film Commission is located down here. But personally, I live in Austin, and it's out of control here. There are too many goddamn people with cameras. When people call and say, 'I want to make a movie; where should I shoot it?' I try to tell them they've got hungry, talented crews in Dallas and Houston just sitting on their ass. But these Hollywood people know other Hollywood people who've come down to Austin and said it's so laid-back, and there's so much to do there, and we had a great time. Sometimes you hear people say that Dallas is too uptight, because they know somebody who had some kind of problem there."
Copeland believes these "problems" stem from the late '70s, when the television industry here was thriving, building its success on the back of the hit show Dallas. "People came here because the labor was nonunion. But there was so much work that professionals quickly unionized down here. Los Angeles didn't like that. They could pay union wages in their hometown. Why come to Dallas?"
More than anything, Copeland contends, Dallas was the victim of the show-business trends that affect everyone: "It's very cyclical; they jump on places, and then they leave."
Right now, it seems, Hollywood has jumped on Austin. In 1998, Austin hosted nearly twice the outside national movie projects--studio and independent--that Dallas did. National and international companies still flock to Dallas to film TV commercials, which brought in $60 million last year, and corporate films--educational, motivational, and training shorts for the employees of large national companies.
Theoretically, this generates the business that creates an infrastructure for locals to do indie films just like Austin's feature-film success does. And unlike the capital city, we can boast two state-of-the-art film-processing labs--Allied Digital and Video Post, which additionally does film-to-video transfers and video editing. That means local indie directors, like commercial and corporate filmmakers, don't have to ship their raw footage off to New York and Los Angeles for the more expensive processing and editing services in those cities.
But when you talk to the non-Hollywood filmmakers--the people who live and shoot here in North Texas and try to get their films nationally distributed--they sing a cacophony of opinions about whether Austin's national feature-film prominence and Dallas' corporate-film culture are actually a good thing for the little guy. These industries either sustain young filmmakers and their future projects while they live in these cities or drain their brains of creative spark, save that which can be used to sell a company or a product.
Kim Flores and Mike Swanson, writer-directors who are partners in life as well as in a production company called Gutter Films, prepare for a conference call. They're bidding to do another TV commercial for the video game company Midway Arts; Midway was pleased with the first frenetic, drum-machine pounding spot they directed for the game "Twisted Edge," but competition for such lucrative gigs is still fierce in Dallas, the undisputed TV-commercial capital of Texas and, many say, the Southwest. Flores and Swanson are also in contention for projects with Las Vegas' Mirage hotel and the Texas Lottery.
"We get to practice our pitch," Flores says of the commercial work that finances the shorts and feature films that are their passion. "You get experience with casting, handling actors, and you have to learn the latest editing techniques, because commercials are about what these companies think is hip right now."
Swanson agrees, citing both the technical demands and the artistic benefits of working in the realm of TV commercials to help support your feature-film aspirations. "Commercials boil things down to a single idea that has to shine," he says. "You have to take a smaller chunk of film and create a piece with greater intensity. Plus, we can earn $40,000 on one commercial job, which finances short films and keeps us going for a while."
Flores and Swanson have made one feature, Las Vocessitas, which won an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) award, and several shorts, including Maid! Madonna! Whore!, which is currently being scored in preparation for a jaunt around the national film-festival circuit. Although almost all their work has been shot in Dallas, they find themselves spending more and more time in Austin these days. Through Austin-based AMMO (American Motion, Inc.), the production company that represents them for TV commercial work, and their networking with the Austin film scene, including a $2,000 grant provided last year from the Austin Film Society, Flores and Swanson have seen plenty that they like about the laid-back state capital. Neither wants to relocate, but their increasing Austin presence necessitates that they find a second apartment down there.
Bart Weiss is the imagination behind the Dallas Video Festival and, as many filmmakers insist, one of the few area individuals who've attempted to unify and promote North Texas filmmakers through the Video Festival programming's emphasis on local artists and his availability as mentor.
One way to sustain an indigenous film community, Weiss notes, is to keep its members working on national projects right here in Dallas. He adds: "If there's work here, people will stay because they can make a living. And the more people who come here from L.A. and New York, the more they mix with local artists and crew members and, hopefully, get to know and like them and recommend this scene within the industry."
Of course, crewing on Hollywood and TV films anywhere can make it difficult to remain independent. "I couldn't take the pressure," says Gretchen Dyer, who along with sister Julia Dyer wrote, produced, and directed Late Bloomers, which screened at Sundance and got a limited national release from Strand Releasing. She and Julia are currently in the script-development phase of a new feature project, Cold. "Getting those jobs is too competitive. That's ultimately why Austin [getting all the national feature work] doesn't bother me. We've been doing educational films the last couple of years; that's our bread and butter. Julia freelances, directs, and produces them. We get steady work, we can stay in Dallas, and nobody fucks with us that way."
Corporate films also provide a reasonable living for Dallas filmmakers John Castarphen and Becky Rice, enabling them to pursue their indie careers at the same time. Writer-director Castarphen and producer Rice won Best Film at the Black International Film Festival in Berlin for their feature Stealing Home and have just now completed a final edit on FLMKR, a feature shot in nine days around Dallas late last year. Although both have largely eschewed TV and feature-film work, they lament what they see as a mindset conditioned by commercials and corporates in Dallas that's antithetical to the creative process.
"There are some very talented crew people here," Castarphen acknowledges, "but I wish there were more people who had experience working on narrative film. Their job has always been to sell something, to pour as much light as possible on their subjects to make them visible and pretty. I try to use subtler, darker lighting, and the gaffer will look at me and say, 'Do you really want to do that?'"
Fort Worth-based writer-director Andy Anderson echoes the same sentiment. Writer-in-residence at the University of Texas at Arlington, former Hollywood contract screenwriter, and creator of such indie films as 1988's Positive I.D. and his current Detention, for which he's looking for a distributor, he sees Dallas' TV and corporate industry as having a draining effect on area talent.
"As worthwhile as Barney and Walker, Texas Ranger may be for employing local professionals," Anderson says, "they're the worst kind of production for creative independents. They foster a studio mentality rather than an independent mentality. Filming becomes a job, a daily grind, not a life."
As for local techies assuming paid responsibilities on studio feature films whose principal photography is shot here, Anderson notes, "When these projects come in, they bring with them what you call 'above the line' talent--director, producer, and stars. They often hire 'below the line' people from around here, the professionals who fill the technical positions. Then when the movie shoots and leaves, we're left with people who are very technically proficient, but we've lost the head of filmmaking. Producers figure out where they can make movies cheap, go there, and then they leave with the most important thing--the methods of writing, directing, and funding a movie."
In other words, Dallas and Austin--unless the latter can continue to intertwine local and big-studio resources by generating more Linklaters and Rodriguezes, or can entice more producers like Hope Floats' Lynda Obst to take up residence there--are back to square one as far as helping the independent artist who wants to see the movies in his head realized and projected on a theater screen. And different filmmaking environments will influence movie visions differently.
"You either get financing for your film from the mainstream, the corporate studios, and make movies that appeal to that sensibility, or you work outside the mainstream," says John Castarphen. "Whether or not you choose to carry around the Texas indie banner, making movies outside of the West Coast is a very personal decision...But for me the advantage to working in Texas is that it's not Hollywood. I can do my best work here because it's difficult. The best filmmaking flourishes in environments of rebellion."
Andy Anderson believes that any director who wants to make commercial features that get wide national release will of necessity be forced to move to Los Angeles. But as a frequent visitor there and industry professional who wrote 10 screenplays on retainer that never got filmed, he adds this caveat: "Everybody [in L.A.] is full of shit. If you stay there, you'll wind up making the same crap as everybody else. That becomes the norm. When you work every day in a slaughterhouse, you don't notice the smell."
Beyond the glamour quotient that comes with Hollywood producers' lining up to film in Austin, are there any truly compelling reasons for hard-working Dallas independent filmmakers to double-knot their shoestrings and hightail it south to see their vision legitimized on celluloid? Making the kind of Los Angeles connections that reroute traffic to film on the Guadalupe drag never hurts, of course, but how tangible are the benefits accruing to Austin independent filmmakers from their current big-studio surplus?
The Austin Film Society has given away more than $180,000 in grant money to filmmakers statewide, handily replacing the dried-up National Endowment for the Arts regional funds. Hollywood-powered fundraisers like Quentin Tarantino's Austin mini-festival of films from his private collection are seminal to AFS' filmmaker's fund, so you can easily trace an advantageous relationship between big studios and windfalls for the little guy there.
But the studio success that Austin enjoys has generated its own set of problems.
"Austin is a boom town," says Texas Film Commission's Tom Copeland. "Filmmakers find they can't book 20 hotel rooms at a time because another shoot has taken them. And with this oversaturation of movie people, you get bidding wars. If I'm a gaffer or makeup artist who's lived and worked in Austin for years, I may find that suddenly somebody who wants to take work is underbidding me. They're happy to take a lesser amount to establish themselves."
Regardless of these factors, all the North Texas filmmakers interviewed for this story express feelings ranging from jealousy to acceptance of the obvious--Austin has become the film center that Dallas was huffing and puffing itself to be more than a decade ago. And whether Austin continues to produce national and devoted players like Linklater and Rodriguez who dig their heels into Hill Country soil, the benefits start with a solid film fan base. Or so claims Andy Anderson.
"Once you start making a film," he says, "it's hard to keep your spirits up, and that's where a community really becomes beneficial. You get the courage and the endurance to move forward and finish your work if you feel there's an appreciative group of people who won't let you fall over."
Lance Larsen and Jas Shelton--with a student film Oscar nomination, major studio flirtations, and a feature deal under their belts--may be the next young Austin filmmakers poised to break out nationally. But nobody--not Tom Copeland of the Texas Film Commission, not Rebecca Campbell of the Austin Film Society, not any of the Dallas filmmakers who visit Austin regularly and know the players down there--could name them or any Austin independents who've directly profited in terms of launching a career from Austin's much-hyped national film scene.
Larsen and Shelton, however, are living, breathing examples of the kind of benefits Austin can bestow when there is synergy between indigenous indies and Hollywood studios: They attracted the attention of the producer of Varsity Blues, filmed last year in Austin--that got the ball rolling on a feature deal for their short Crosswalk.
But beyond the indisputable current affection among Hollywood producers for Austin, is Bart Weiss more accurate when he characterizes the community spirit of the capital city as "Hey, pass the joint and let's make a movie"? For the most part, does Austin's stone groove make nothing happen?
"If I had to live and make movies in Austin, I'd go crazy," says Andy Anderson. "It's too laid-back. I used to live in Miami, and I still have Cuban coffee imported from there to keep me jumping. I believe Austin can take the edge off of you. You can hang out late at the Magnolia talking about ideas for your movie, because it's open all night, but eventually, you have to actually shoot it."
Tom Copeland denies that Austin is just like any other college town with artistic pretensions, but he does admit, "There's a lot to be said for the idea that Austin is a clique, and if you're inside that clique, you get very comfortable. My hope is that all this attention will continue, and that the people who crew here on Hollywood features for 16 hours a day and then go home at night to write their screenplays will get noticed in the process."
Filmmaker John Castarphen can reel off the obvious pluses of making a movie in Austin rather than Dallas, but to his mind, they don't necessarily translate into stories that articulate the experience of places outside New York and Los Angeles.
"I think a lot of people want to shoot their [independent] movies down in Austin, because they've been co-opted by the big guys," he says. "The film festival at South by Southwest has certainly acquired more focus than the USA Film Festival, but it's also become a Sundance knockoff. Texas filmmakers make movies based on what's coming out of Sundance. I watch a lot of them, and I think you'd never even realize that was a movie shot in Texas...If you care about making movies outside of L.A., then shouldn't you give some thought to where you live?"
Dallas filmmakers agree that this city contains pockets of writer-directors who are dimly aware of each other's existence, but who toil without a nucleus or unifying framework. Dramatically unlike Austin, local film artists are scattered and learn about each other's projects through friend-of-a-friend rumors--if they learn about them at all.
In 1992, Dallas filmmakers Julia and Gretchen Dryer attempted to form an organization here based on the Austin Film Society. "We called it Potlatch," says Gretchen. "We hosted regular screenplay readings and discussions up until last year, with a couple years off to work on Late Bloomers. We got decent audience turnout, but filmmakers themselves usually didn't show up."
The Dyers hosted a staged reading of Detention, the film that Andy Anderson is currently shopping among national distributors. Anderson was grateful for Potlatch's support, but it didn't exactly help plant a seed that would yield a full-bloom scene.
"Quite a few people showed up for that reading, but it was mostly because they knew me or knew the Dyers," Anderson recalls. "I don't think it was because they loved local film, period. Everybody came, they listened, they made comments, and they left. There was no hanging around afterward to network. But I can't complain. I'm a hermit filmmaker myself."
Yet Anderson remembers one small detail from Dallas' recent past that made a difference as far as film people gathering and chatting. "Today, the USA Film Festival is held in a movie theater, so if you want to talk, you have to hang around in the lobby," he notes. "Ten years ago, most of it was held at the Inwood, where they have a full bar. You saw a lot of filmmakers gathered at that bar, talking about projects. I think beer would bring people out."
Given that Dallas and Austin are positioned so close together and seem to have fairly clear-cut and unique advantages for attracting movie shoots--here for stories set in the big city, there for small-town-rural-suburban backdrops--is it even necessary to think in terms of Dallas trying to reshape itself as a supportive mecca for low-budget, independent projects a la Texas' current "film center" to the south? Won't the different personalities of the cities continue to attract artists whose sensibilities are simpatico? Obviously, but if most Dallas filmmakers are content to keep at least one foot planted here, they still have a wish list of improvements.
"A strong film school sets an ultimate agenda; it's a base that generates ripples," Bart Weiss notes. "SMU offers an MBA in combination with other majors, but what if they offered an MBA in film production, a degree in how to get a movie financed and distributed? We have filmmakers here; what we need is someone who can cut a deal and make something happen that shines light on other indigenous filmmakers. That's how an infrastructure starts."
John Castarphen contends, "Austin is just a leaner, meaner version of Dallas, with a much better film school. The film department at Meadows [School of the Arts at SMU] sucks, and I can say that because I taught there for six years. It would also help if Dallas started supporting its theater scene, so we'd nurture a pool of actors who'd stick around here for at least a little while...When you have the reputation as a place that generates a lot of talent, you create a whole momentum."
There is one man who gets supremely annoyed at suggestions about how to make Dallas filmmaking more communal. He's bugged when you phrase the issue of nurturing a film scene as a Dallas vs. Austin comparison. And as for the pioneer spirit of so many Dallas indie filmmakers, perfectly satisfied with their loner status, don't even get him started.
For six years now, David Fulton has been publisher-editor of Texas Film and Video News, the Dallas-based bimonthly newspaper for area film professionals. He thinks the discussion should be less about the difficulty of each filmmaker's project in a given city and more on building a state infrastructure that will bring projects to all Texas cities and, in turn, nourish local talents who want to shoot their self-penned scripts here and shop them nationally.
As an example of what might be, he describes the Texas Film Development Corporation, a proposal submitted during this year's state legislative session that would provide $50 million from banks, private investors, and filmmakers to shoot 20 small-budget films across Texas over the next five years. Some indie filmmakers have dismissed this legislation as irrelevant to them, since getting movies made with budgets of $3 million-$5 million are what it's aimed at. Fulton gets passionate on the subject.
"God bless the folks who shoot a $2,000 movie and run around saying it cost $250,000. But what are they doing to help build awareness in the banking community and other financing sources? Do we have a database of the major investors, so people don't keep reinventing the wheel? We don't have an independent film scene in Texas--we have pockets of independents, and until people organize in an intelligent and businesslike fashion, we'll continue to have peaks and valleys. And I'm talking about Austin too. What happens when Linklater's and Rodriguez's careers fade, when they have to move back to Los Angeles to get work?"
But Dallas filmmaker John Castarphen, who'd be the last man to stand in the way of the Texas Film Development Corporation's passage, sees industry following movements of filmmakers, not vice versa. In other words, the attention of outsiders will be paid when you have produced something worthy of their attention.
"Money is always hard to find at any time, even in Los Angeles," says Castarphen. "I think Texas today is a lot like New York in the early '70s. I'm from the East Coast, and I can tell you Hollywood mistrusted and snickered at New York then. When Scorcese shot Mean Streets, nobody wanted to trip over him. He couldn't get anyone to give him money, so he started shooting it on black-and-white reel-to-reel video. If you look at the history of film movements, they all started out as a reaction against something. Even Hollywood started out as a tiny community struggling in the middle of nowhere.
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