"We're looking for stuff that's a little off the beaten path," says Barak Epstein, the co-owner of Aviation Cinemas, which runs the Texas Theatre, and the co-founder of the Oak Cliff Film Festival along with Jason Reimer. "Stuff that has not been noticed by bigger festivals or films that have played at bigger festivals but just got buried by them."
"We used to say in the early days of the festival that we're after brave filmmakers," Reimer says. "The spectrum of what Barak mentions is all over the map. We're looking for filmmakers who are doing things that aren't typical."
Of course, that sounds easy to do when almost every movie at the box office is either based on a comic book character, a line of toys or a sequel to something that was new and exciting the first time it was released. However, Epstein, Reimer and the rest of the film festival's crew comb through 600 film submissions for full-length and short films. Two selections from Dallas seem to represent opposite ends of the film festival's spectrum.
The festival has serious, soul-searching dramas like Jules of Light and Dark, written and directed by Daniel Laabs, that tells the story of an on-again, off-again gay couple, Maya (Tallie Medel) and Jules (Betsy Holt) living under the judgmental thumb of small-town Texas. One night, they are rescued from a car accident by a stoic oil worker named Freddy (Robert Longstreet), which leaves Jules in a coma. Freddy learns to face his own desires with Maya's help. The film will be screened at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Texas Theatre.
Then on the other side of the genre spectrum, there's dark, gory comedies like Satanic Panic, the latest film from Cinestate and Fangoria, written and directed by Chelsea Stardust, about a pizza delivery girl, Samantha (Hayley Griffith), struggling to make ends meet who knocks on the wrong door in a wealthy neighborhood in search of bigger tips. Instead, she finds herself running from a cult of Satan-worshipping freaks led by Danica (Rebecca Romijn) who need Sam for their sacrificial rituals. Satanic Panic also plays at the Texas Theatre at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.
Of course, the mere fact that both films were shot in Dallas doesn't secure them a spot in the Oak Cliff festival. The list of requirements and considerations for entry extends well beyond geographic ones.
"I used to work with the Oak Cliff Film Festival and know how really picky and selective they can be," Laabs says. "So when I was submitting it, the company that submitted the film said they might be interested, but they are really picky so don't get your hopes up too much. They're not going to pick it just because it's local. It's a pretty huge honor to be part of the festival."
Films in the OCFF strive to offer something unique to audiences, with plots centered on eye-opening revelations about the human spirit or gory good times that most studios are afraid to touch because of marketing backlash. Laabs says he started working on Jules of Light and Dark in 2011 during an important time in his life that he wanted to share with viewers.
"When I was writing it, I was coming out of the closet to my friends and family and starting to live openly gay," Laabs says. "I didn't want to make a coming-out film, but I did want to make a story that could capture the feeling and tone of that time and period of my life."
The original plan was to shoot the movie out of state with a Texas crew but Laabs decided to keep it in Dallas, where he's lived since 1995. The shoot started in 2016 and again in 2017.
"It just made so much more sense," Laabs says. "We could film more days in Dallas, and at the end of the day, that mattered to us. We really wanted to maximize what time we had. So much of this was a learning experience so we wanted to make sure we had time to grow as filmmakers on set."
"This isn't like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Stardust says of her film, Fangoria. "It's the other end of the spectrum. It's very polished and poppy and things like that."
The requirements for night shoots (in someone else's home) are usually a logistical nightmare in Los Angeles. Stardust says she found the homes in neighborhoods like Preston Hollow and Highland Park very accommodating, even while some of the scenes required a bloody mess.
"We were very clear on what we're shooting and what we're doing and what we need the house for and some of the locations we used," Stardust says. "They had film crews there in the past so they kind of understood what they needed, but I think they were just excited about us as a team and into what we wanted to do. One of the places we shot in, their son was a huge fan of horror movies so they were excited just to have us there because the kids were fans."
Stardust says she's looking forward to bringing Satanic Panic back to Dallas for its Texas premiere, not just for film fans but also so the crew that worked on it can see it.
"I feel like Dallas is very accepting and welcoming to us as filmmakers," she says. "I love shooting in LA, but sometimes you run up into a lot of challenges with people trying to overcharge you or just saying no because people are shooting constantly. In Texas, everyone is very excited to have a film crew there and there's a sense of camaraderie there because you have the town supporting you as well."