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?