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Austin doesn't deserve all the credit for Texas filmmaking chops

Posted 11:11am on Wednesday, Apr. 07, 2010

There is no dialogue for the first 17 minutes of St. Nick, David Lowery's 2009 film about two grade-school-age kids struggling to make their way in the world without adult supervision. In long, languid takes, the camera slowly tracks the movements of The Boy (Tucker Sears) as he scopes out an abandoned home and then brings his younger sister (played by Sears' real-life sister, Savanna) to live with him there. On the soundtrack, we hear mostly natural sound -- the wind rustling, or a window being pried open -- and a plaintive classical composition by musician Baby Dee.

When the girl finally speaks, her words are at once momentous ( finally!) and completely banal. The brief dialogue that follows tells us absolutely nothing about the kids' present circumstances.

Arrestingly photographed, achingly poignant and unabashedly cryptic, St. Nick -- which premiered at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival and is expected to have a limited theatrical release this fall -- evokes comparisons to the dreamy-arty cinema of Terrence Malick (especially Days of Heaven), David Gordon Green ( George Washington) and Kelly Reichardt ( Wendy and Lucy). It's the kind of movie you'd expect to see coming out of Portland, Ore. (where Reichardt is based), or the North Carolina School of the Arts (where the Richardson-reared Green started an art film mini-renaissance a decade ago).

At the very least, you figure it was made by one of the many young, ambitious filmmakers who have turned Austin into the definitive hotbed of Texas cinema.

But St. Nick was filmed in Fort Worth, and Lowery is based in Dallas. He is one of a small band of emerging talents, many of whom work on each other's projects, who are steadily changing the image of independent filmmaking in the Metroplex. Whereas Austin used to be the domain of all things arthouse, at least in Texas, filmmakers like Lowery are discovering the virtues of making ambitious films in a place not known for them.

"During the past two years, I've spent a great deal of time in Austin, and people automatically assume I'm from Austin," says Lowery, a baldheaded 29-year-old with piercing blue eyes and a self-described "rustic beard." "It's been fun to say, 'No, I'm from Dallas-Fort Worth.' It's nice to have that identity, especially when you have a film like St. Nick to show for it. It throws people for a loop, and it's fun to confront those expectations."

Those "expectations" are rooted in decades' worth of tradition. Thousands of Dallas-Fort Worth residents work in film and television locally (the most recent Dallas Film Commission report on the subject, in 2006, counted 3,800 crew people and 149 film production-related businesses, and that doesn't account for freelancers or actors). Still, the city's most famous productions have been mainstream-minded TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger; Prison Break; and the upcoming The Good Guys (a Fox drama set to debut this spring, co-starring Colin Hanks). The indie scene, meanwhile, has mostly been dominated by straight-to-DVD horror and action films, with titles like Suburban Nightmare (directed by Jon Keeyes) and Pot Zombies (directed by Justin Powers) -- movies that turn a profit, but don't quite earn respect from critics or film buffs.

Now a new generation of artists, many of whom have roots in Austin but call Dallas-Fort Worth home, is attempting to chart a new course.

The cinematographer of Lowery's St. Nick was Clay Liford, who directs his own films, including My Mom Smokes Weed, a short that screened at Sundance in January (Lowery was the cinematographer on that one), and a feature called Earthling, which had its world premiere at South by Southwest. (It will screen at the Dallas International Film Festival on Sunday and Wednesday.)

James M. Johnston, a Fort Worth-based director, served as producer of both St. Nick and Carried Away, directed by former Lone Star International Film Festival artistic director Tom Huckabee. ( Carried Away will screen at the Dallas International Film Festival on Friday and Wednesday.) A handful of other filmmakers who have fanned out to other parts of the country still see Dallas-Fort Worth as fertile ground for both shooting and financing their independent titles.

"To a certain extent, I can ask myself: 'What am I doing here? I can be living somewhere else,' says Lowery, who has lived in Dallas since age 7 and spent two years at the University of Dallas before turning to full-time filmmaking. "But there's a lot to be said for working in a place where you're comfortable, and I grew up here."

No, DFW is probably never going to be able to compete with the capital city, which has the history (Richard Linklater, the director of Dazed and Confused and unofficial godfather of Texas indie film, still lives there), a strong film program at the University of Texas and a film society that helps to fund projects throughout the state. But directors like Lowery aren't necessarily trying to replicate the Austin vibe here. They are simply eager to march to the beat of their own cinematic drum, far from the Hollywood cynics, in a place they call home.

Funding-friendly

A beautiful, if slightly withdrawn schoolteacher, played superbly by Chicago-based actress Rebecca Spence, begins suffering from crippling headaches and strange visions. Her dreams are plagued by terrifying, otherworldly images. Meanwhile, a violent incident on a spaceship seems to be having all sorts of inexplicable repercussions back on Earth. What does it all mean?

This is the setup for Liford's sometimes uneven, but mostly hypnotic Earthling, a science-fiction thriller with the anguished temperament of an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. The movie, which was shot in Dallas and is currently seeking a distributor, doesn't necessarily bear a distinct geographic stamp -- it could be taking place in any town in America. But Liford says he doubts he would have been able to make it if he were based in a more traditional indie/arthouse filmmaking center like New York or Los Angeles.

"I do stuff here that I couldn't do in Los Angeles," Liford says. "In L.A., you get talked out of making films. In Los Angeles, you can be like, 'I'm going to make this movie for $50,000,' but then someone will say, 'No, let's talk about this, you should do it for more money, let's develop this.' So you go to a bunch of meetings, and you end up not making the movie."

Born in New York, Liford never really intended to become a Dallas-based filmmaker, per se. He moved with his family to Big D as a kid and then enrolled in the University of Texas, where his contemporaries included such rising indie stars as Bryan Poyser ( Lovers of Hate, which will also show at the Dallas fest), and Jay and Mark Duplass (the upcoming Cyrus, co-starring Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei). If he had his druthers, he probably would have stayed in Austin, but after graduation, he decided to move back to Dallas to help care for his ill father. He ended up making his living in part as a cinematographer on a number of those schlocky straight-to-DVD titles that are churned out locally.

But even though Liford acknowledges that he has little interest in the mainstream product that's often produced here ("I actually think Prison Break is dumber than Walker, Texas Ranger, which at least isn't trying to be something good," he says), he has no regrets about settling in Dallas. He also points to a hidden benefit that the folks in New York, Los Angeles and Austin might not even be aware of: a financial one.

"Every restaurant in Los Angeles has been asked to be used as a film set, and they want 200 bucks just to shoot there," he says. "But here, people are really, really interested in being involved with your movie. There's so much you can get cheaply."

That's a point echoed by producer Amanda Micallef and director Chad Feehan, both raised in Fort Worth, who now live in Los Angeles. Their collaboration, a psychological thriller called Wake, co-starring The Sopranos' Jamie-Lynn Sigler, premiered at South by Southwest and will play the Dallas International Film Festival on Tuesday and April 16 (see sidebar). It was shot in California, but a large chunk of the financing came from Texas -- "friends and family and anyone who would listen to us," Micallef says.

"Raising the money was easier than you'd think," says Feehan, adding that many potential investors in Dallas-Fort Worth aren't jaded or gun-shy the way people are in Austin, where they might have either lost money investing in a film in the past or know someone who has.

The result is a kind of best-kept secret that allows filmmakers with deep roots here to flourish. Keep your budget low and take advantage of the area's considerable hospitality, and chances are you can see even your most esoteric cinematic ambitions realized.

Silent filming

A nagging question remains: Will Dallas-Fort Worth ever be anything more than a best-kept secret for a small band of indie filmmakers? Does the Metroplex have the potential to become a destination city for artistic-minded talent?

According to Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, probably not.

"It's kind of commonly thought among the indie filmmakers locally that you might make quote-unquote films in Austin, but you make money in Dallas," she says. "You have a much better chance of making money on straight-to-DVD horror movies than you do on arthouse films."

But Burklund stresses that the Film Commission is actively looking for ways to foster more ambitious projects, including the possibility of a grant program like the one sponsored by the Austin Film Society.

There's certainly a hunger for it among local crew members and actors. Huckabee says that for each role in his film Carried Away -- a comedy-drama about a man (Gabriel Horn) who springs his grandmother (Juli Erickson) from a nursing home and flees with her to California -- he had three or four good choices, almost all of them actors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Actors who have been years eking out a living doing commercials or having limbs sliced off in splatter thrillers are desperate to sink their teeth into genuinely meaty roles.

And, according to Huckabee, if both local investors and budding filmmakers in Dallas-Fort Worth could come to see that "artistic" and "indie" need not always be equated with poverty, the caliber of filmmaking here might improve considerably.

That's no easy task, especially in the current economy. (For his part, the director hopes to earn money by taking the self-financed Carried Away on a tour around the country, playing at nursing homes and senior centers.)

But, he says, "I think if one movie could hit here and make money -- it doesn't have to be Blair Witch, maybe it only needs to make 10 times its budget -- but I think if that happened, the dam might burst."

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