ARLINGTON -- Will Canon grew up in Arlington with a passion for filmmaking, but he had few of the opportunities enjoyed by his youthful counterparts in Hollywood.
"My family was always supportive," he said. "But it's not like I had an uncle I could call up and say, 'Can you help me get an agent?'"
Somehow, though, things worked out.
Canon, who chased his dreams to college in New York and then to the motion picture industry in Los Angeles, is premiering his first full-length feature film today at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin.
"Getting in South by Southwest and premiering there is extremely exciting, but at the same time, it definitely has not been an overnight thing," said Canon, 31, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with his wife, a school principal. "Obviously I've been plugging away at it. But it feels like -- wow -- this is definitely a mile marker."
A career boost
A showing at the chic and internationally renowned SXSW -- a annual event even more famous for its live-music activities -- can help launch a budding filmmaker's career. Canon's movie, Brotherhood, is among a record number of film submissions -- nearly 4,000 -- in this 17th year of the film festival, up from 3,620 last year, officials said. It was one of about 1,600 selected to play and one of only eight that qualified for the narrative feature competition.
Film festival producer Janet Pierson said Brotherhood, about a disastrous fraternity initiation scheme to rob a convenience store, stood out from among hundreds of movies she and others previewed.
"We have several films in the competition that fit into a certain genre, like 'frat prank gone wrong,'" she said. "But it was so suspenseful and gripping, and the acting and direction -- I thought it was a quality production right up and down the line. It's particularly exciting to see a film this strong from a first-time feature director."
The movie will be screened today, Sunday and Friday.
Years in the making
Brotherhood is based on a short film, Roslyn, that Canon wrote and directed a decade ago as a student at New York University. The short aired on Showtime, The Sundance Channel and HBO International and was selected as a semifinalist in Chrysler's Million Dollar Film Festival.
"I knew I was drawn to this fraternity initiation issue," he said. "The short is eight minutes long, but I always felt like there was more of a story there."
The 81-minute movie was shot at a former University of Texas at Arlington frat house on Abram Street near Cooper Street, minutes from where he grew up.
The project was an opportunity to impress his parents, Aubin and Mark Petersen -- his stepdad since he was 4 -- who live in Dalworthington Gardens. They turned out on the set most evenings and stayed until as close to bedtime as they could. The story unfolds over one night, so film sessions ran from dusk to dawn.
At daybreak, Canon and some of his crew would crash at his parents' home, Aubin Petersen said. "When they would get through, he would text me, and I would rush in and make breakfast for them, and they could eat and go to bed," she said.
She found the bustle of the movie set reminiscent of Canon's creative endeavors as a teenager, when he and his friends made videotapes. Paying homage to Saturday Night Live, they used their parents' video cameras to record their original sketch comedy bits and screen them to gatherings of friends and relatives.
At church camp when he was a student at Bailey Junior High School, Canon entertained the youths and instructors each night with segments of one of his first videos, Kung-fu Theatre.
"It was hilarious!" raved his mother.
Canon, a Lufkin native who moved to Arlington at age 6, said the playful writing and recording in those years kindled thoughts of something more.
"That's where it started," he said. "But in the back of my mind, I realized there is some kind of creative person behind the production of these things. That was the part I was really drawn to."
But he didn't know where to find it.
"I grew up in a place where the film industry is not a big industry," Canon said. "I didn't know any film directors growing up. But my wife is a principal at a school [in California], and the parents of the kids at her school are writers and actors and agents."
After graduating from Arlington High School, he played basketball at the University of Dallas his freshman year. Then he transferred to Baylor University, where professor Robert Darden helped hone Canon's screenwriting skills and directed him to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for his junior year.
It was the turning point.
Aubin Petersen said she has never doubted that her son would find success and never once considered nudging him into a more stable profession -- like real estate analysis, the direction his stepsister Mallory took.
Petersen remembers a focused youngster who set goals and laid out plans for everything he wanted to accomplish -- which at the time mostly involved sports. And he was sensitive and thoughtful, which she believes comes partly from adapting to a blended family.
"Life makes you who you are," she said. "You want your child to grow up to be true to themselves. He showed us what his plan was. And each step he has taken has gotten him closer to where he wants to be."