Film and TV

The Unlikely Engineering of Halt and Catch Fire

It's day two of SXSW, and Mother Nature, tired of people staring at her badge, is revolting. She has painted Austin a morose gray, and a light drizzle is growing into an angry downpour. By the time a herd of black SUVs stampedes the Hotel St. Cecilia around dusk, a bona fide thunderstorm is brewing, coming so fast there's not even time to sponsor it.

A tent covers the trendy hotel's courtyard, forming a well-appointed cocoon for the occupants of those SUVs and other guests of this semi-secret party. Actors Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis have staked out valuable real estate between the heaters and the bar. Scoot McNairy, fresh off his small-but-searing turn in 12 Years a Slave, is inside, slugging a Lone Star and talking about the things he blows up on his Texas ranch. Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder, is around, having been invited to moderate a panel. John Leguizamo is here too, for reasons not readily apparent.

Planted at the center is actress Kerry Bishé, her hair a deep red, her smile tight but electric. Bishé is best known for her work in Scrubs, which was canceled during her only season. But she recently watched Ben Affleck accept a Best Picture Oscar for Argo, in which she played a hostage trying to keep her husband (played by McNairy, it so happens) from foiling their escape. More movie offers followed, but it's the offer that led her here that seems to hold the most promise.

The SXSW Film Festival, like Bishé, recognizes TV's currently superior storytelling promise, so this year it included screenings of new shows. Among them was Halt and Catch Fire, a 1980s period drama about a group of Texas engineers who battle IBM for PC supremacy. It's a show AMC and its fans hope can fill the meth-and-Manhattan-soaked void left by Breaking Bad and, soon enough, Mad Men. If it does, Bishé — and Pace, and McNairy, and Davis — will be the new household names flying AMC's flag.

As she chats with a friend, Bishé is joined by one of the show's creators, screenwriter Chris Cantwell. Cantwell, nursing a beer, is half there at best. On top of a whirlwind day that he says felt like "your own wedding" — "You spend all that time thinking about it and then it's over" — he is in the middle of writing the show's season finale, a task that, for a screenwriter, runs in the background no matter how many former Scrubs stars are in the fore.

Cantwell is making small talk with Bishé's manager. His attentive posture probably gives her comfort, like the health of her client's IMDB page is safely in the hands of a veteran. Then she asks Cantwell about his career.

He explains, with neither pride nor shame, that Halt is the first show he's created. In fact, it's the first show he's ever written on. Actually, technically, it's his first real screenwriting job.

The manager's face flushes with some combination of awe and terror. She turns to Bishé.

"Do you know what he was doing when he sold this show?"

"Yeah," Bishé says, turning to Cantwell. "You worked in development for Disney."

Cantwell smiles. Now Bishé is confused.

"You worked in development for Disney," she says again, but this with the faint hiss of leaking confidence.

The circle goes quiet, and the rain pounds, and Cantwell lets the moment hang, wringing tension from it like the development executive he never was.

Cantwell did work at Disney, Bishé was right about that, but he was not in story development. He was a marketing guy, a branding stooge, the guy making character videos for YouTube and making sure the pervs and racists kept their distance from the princesses' Facebook pages. In fact, by 2010, six years after finishing film school, he was technically a marketing executive — an even worse distinction for an alleged writer, because it meant he was good at it.

One branding stunt was so good it nearly rescued him. Late in 2009, as Pixar prepared to release Toy Story 3, Cantwell produced a fake 1983 ad for the movie's creepy villain, Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, even running it through a VCR to make it feel dated. He slyly posted it to YouTube and watched confusion rain.

That earned some meetings with Pixar, and Cantwell briefly allowed himself to fantasize about being the first marketing exec in history to promote the content so well they asked him to make it. But nothing materialized, and Cantwell began talking himself into the practical benefits of life as a marketing executive. By the time his boss came around, offering a promotion that would basically extinguish his aspirations as a writer, it was all but settled.

He hadn't been writing much lately, anyway. He started writing when he was a kid, and finished his first screenplay when he was 16. (He keeps in a bedside drawer as a monument to how bad he can be.) He dabbled in comedy, founding the improv troupe at Dallas' Jesuit High and joining a comedy group at USC. But for Cantwell, the dream was always movies. He remembers his parents taking him to the UA Northstar 8 Theater in Garland, and still recalls the releases of his most formidable summer, 1989, when he saw Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters 2. He was 7.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone