I'll never forget my first encounter with local comedian Zach Anner in 2004. He was trying to get the attention of Ron Perlman after the special SXSW screening of Hellboy, and I assisted him through the crowd. Born with cerebral palsy, Anner is wheelchair-bound, which can make it very difficult to navigate film festival crowds. Not only was Anner successful in his celebrity interview, but Perlman stayed until the wee hours of the morning talking with his fans -- what I refer to as "a South By Moment," where personal connections are made to ground oneself during the deafening roar of all things SXSW.
Now it's Anner's turn on the big screen at SXSW -- he gained local notoriety by winning his own show through a competition created by Oprah Winfrey, and has been busy directing and starring in his own films. You can see his work in foolproof, a short film he co-created with Marshall Rimmer, which is screening as part of the Texas Shorts program. Anner portrays a freeloading roommate who lives with a responsible businessman (Rimmer) in this funny and ironic short. Anner finds humor in the most obvious places that are overlooked, and turns it into a raucous mirth for audiences. His explanation as to why he turned down a job -- "they only wanted to pay me every two weeks, I need money NOW" -- had me and the rest of the audience in stitches.
This is the hardest part of SXSW to me: My schedule completely falls apart, and my resilience to deal with the crowds downtown is non-existent. I've been keeping a pedometer with me and I've been averaging about 3,400 paces a day, which isn't much (the day before SXSW started I more than doubled that), but it's still cumulatively exhausting, especially with all the standing in line and sitting in theaters.
Because I've seen so many films already, it's increasingly difficult to stick to one venue to see the movies on my "really want to see" list. So I often end up seeing more films I hadn't planned on making. None of the films I ended up seeing were on my original schedule (nothing personal to the filmmakers, it's a logistic impossibility to see everything I could possibly want to see).
I managed to make it to four films today, starting with the documentary Last Call at the Oasis. This provocative doc is often heavy handed, but it doesn't dilute the message; water is a squandered resource and the crisis isn't all that far away. Not surprising considering how we've altered so much land for farming, although it didn't even touch on the impact to monoculture farming so popular in the U.S., and how (and if) that plays a part in the water crisis. Ultimately I felt Last Call at the Oasis didn't make its point for anyone who wasn't already converted.
One of the most rewarding experiences I've had during my tenure at the Austin Film Society is getting to serve as a projectionist for various filmmakers screening their work in our onsite screening room. Getting to see the products of Austin's film community in various stages, from very rough first edits to versions that are locked in as a final cut, is entertaining, educational and a sobering reminder that once you've actually shot everything, the real hard work begins.
I first screened a cut of Andrew Garrison's documentary Trash Dance in early 2011. The film, which had its gala premiere on Saturday afternoon at the Paramount Theatre, focuses on the work of Allison Orr, a dance choreographer who embarks on an unusual project: organizing a dance performance with City of Austin sanitation workers. In the interest of full disclosure, my first reaction upon hearing this premise was very similar to that of most of the sanitation workers when they are first informed of Allison's offbeat idea: doubt and a lot of eye rolling. How very wrong I turned out to be.
While the movie ultimately leads up to the performance at the end (which was shot on a rainy night at the Austin Studios lot in August 2010), it doesn't allow itself to fall in to the cliches one might expect from a film like this. The brilliance of the documentary is how much it focuses on the lives of the various sanitation workers. These are some of the more overlooked and under appreciated people in our world, as they themselves often point out. But they do this without bitterness or cynicism; at no point do any of them seem ashamed of their position in life. When Allison rides along with them on their routes during the first act of the film, she very quickly learns how demanding the work is. Outside of the long hours and physically demanding labor, nearly all of the workers the film focuses on hold other jobs; a reminder of our current economic climate. And as one man points out, he has another full time job: raising his kindergarten aged daughter as a single father.
Saturday was a big day for Austin film, not just because of the SXSW super-secret screening of local C. Robert Cargill's horror debut Sinister (J.C.'s review), but also because it saw the world premiere of Austin-shot (and choreographed, scored, acted, and directed) Trash Dance, for an afternoon screening at the Paramount Theatre. Trash Dance was shot by Austinite Andrew Garrison as he followed choreographer Allison Orr creating the largest project of her life.
Orr spent a year working with employees of the Austin Department of Solid Waste Services: working their routes, learning their jobs, studying their movements and most importantly, gaining their trust as she designed and worked with them during their spare time to craft a performance including 24 workers with 16 of their work vehicles. While just ordinary people, they all demonstrate unique and wonderful talents, playing harmonica, breakdancing, or barbecuing. The level of time commitment was even more extraordinary given most of these people worked second and even third jobs to help make ends meet.
This first photo is actually from Tuesday, Day 5, taken at the Alamo Drafthouse on Slaughter for the most packed screening line that venue has seen yet. Both the badge line and the pass/single ticket line for Safety Not Guaranteed stretched out the doors and curled around the courtyard in front. The studio sent a camera crew to film crowd reaction shots after the very successful movie's second performance.
The ironically titled film Somebody Up There Likes Me is more like Somebody Up There Is Messing With Me, for all the characters' suffering. But their losses are our gain.
Bob Byington's latest feature is everything we've come to expect from the Austin filmmaker, a charmingly off-kilter examination of human relationships torn asunder. It's a thoroughly eccentric film, a movie so hilarious and engaging that I can forgive its slightly nonsensical premise.
At the center of Somebody Up There Likes Me is the bumbling, befuddled Max (Keith Poulson), a hapless everyman who can't seem to hang onto the breaks life gives him. When his ex-wife -- a nameless woman billed only as Ex-Wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) -- rejects his attempts to reconcile, Max plunges into the dating game with coaching from snide and sarcastic co-worker Sal (a show-stealing Nick Offerman). Max wastes little time in wooing and marrying Lyla (Jess Weixler), a breadstick-addicted waitress at the upscale steakhouse where Max and Sal work.
Beloved Fantastic Fest directors Adam Green (Hatchet, Frozen) and Joe Lynch (Knights of Badassdom, Wrong Turn 2) appeared on a SXSW Film panel on Sunday, presenting their new TV show Holliston for FEARnet. This graphic, chaotic sitcom will be making its premiere on April 3.
The show is produced like many other sitcoms on broadcast television, including a laugh track, three-camera set-up and even shot on a soundstage (the same soundstage used for Seinfeld's first few episodes). Although shot like a sitcom, it does not feel like your traditional sitcom whatsoever. During a sizzle reel, we were hit smack in the face with some very obscene (yet still funny) humor. The length of the show does vary though, with some episodes going over 35 minutes. But given their first season is fairly short (six episodes), more is better.
If you've ever seen any of Lynch's or Green's movie work, you can expect some of that same attitude to come through the tube. The show is filled with several references but not the typical Star Wars or Lord of the Rings references that you'd see in shows today. Their jokes show their diversity in taste, ranging from Cannonball Run to Cannibal Holocaust. The film geek ratio of their jokes is very high and its actually a big relief to not see a joke coming from a hundred miles away. The casting of Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) and Oderus Urungus (GWAR) really shows that FEARnet is giving these directors full control of their work and it'll be refreshing to see that.
Austin locals and indie film champions Jay and Mark Duplass have always stayed true to their philosophical roots. This is evident in every movie they've made. The only difference as you go along their filmography in chronological order is that they are able to secure more famous acting talent than the movie prior to it. Despite the enormity of talent they're able to bring in, every film still manages to be charming and full of heart.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon will be about as close as you can get to the Duplass brothers going back to their true roots. They filmed it immediately after Baghead in 2008, and it stars one of the same actors. After Baghead, they signed a deal to make Cyrus, and they've been two of the hardest working filmmakers in the business ever since. They were thrilled to finally show this movie to an audience.
In 1990, Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) embarked on the brotherly competition to end all brotherly competitions, the do-deca-pentathlon. The 25-event competition would declare the winner the champion of all time, but when they were tied, the final event ended in controversy due to some interference from a well intentioned father. This started a feud between the brothers that Mark never got over. Fast forward to when the brothers are now adults. Mark has a beautiful family and Jeremy is a professional poker player. On a weekend getaway for Mark's birthday, Jeremy comes back and antagonizes Mark into doing the do-deca again, much to the chagrin of his Mark's wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur).
At the beginning of Girl Model, dozens of girls are shown standing in bikinis and heels in a room of mirrors; the metaphor is obvious but succinct. It's hardly news that young women are exploited in the meat market of modeling. But Girl Model explores that on a deeper psycho-emotional level. Motivations are obscured and rationalized, making it impossible for an adult to navigate, let alone pubescent girls.
Filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin have a well earned reputation with a strong body of work, including Intimidad (SXSW 2008), Kamp Katrina (SXSW 2007), and Mardi Gras: Made in China. Their latest documentary Girl Model attempts to illuminate the illusive reality of young girls in the international modeling industry through a new model and the scout who found her.
Saturday morning provided an impressive selection of panels for SXSW Film badgeholders, but one stood out above the rest -- especially for any aspiring producers and screenwriters in attendance. "Collaborations in Film: Writers & Producers" featured writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), producer Brunson Green (The Help), and producer and Austin Film Society Board of Directors member Sarah Green (Take Shelter, The Tree of Life). The panelists discussed and fielded questions about what it takes to have a successful working relationship between writers and producers.
While each panelist brought their own impressive career and experience to the panel, it was exciting to see such a great pair like Sarah Green and Jeff Nichols discuss this topic, with their collaboration on films like Take Shelter as well as the much-anticipated Mud.
Green expressed her interest in working with Nichols after being impressed with his writing right from the start, emphasizing how important it is to establish good, clear communication between writer and producer. Admitting that her notes to writers have been known to be straightforward and challenging, Green stated that it is essential to make sure that both parties are working to make the same movie.
Everyone on the panel agreed that a successful partnership allows the writer to properly establish their ideas and accomplish their vision, while the producer must challenge and push the writer in order to get the screenplay to its full potential. The key is striking the perfect balance between creativity and criticism.
One of the more fascinating few minutes of this panel was Nichols elaborating on what initially inspired him to write Take Shelter. From a simple image of a man standing in front of an open storm shelter, to the fundamental emotion of anxiety throughout, he built a truly captivating story. Nichols jokingly added that he threw in some of the more thrilling scenes so people would actually want to watch it. He certainly made it clear that ultimately it is much more fulfilling as a writer to work with producers who allow him to put himself into the entire screenplay, rather than having to bend to notes that work against his original vision.
Brunson Green gave insight into giving a writer the proper amount of leeway throughout the development process. It was fascinating to hear his experience producing the widely successful film The Help from the initial adaptation process to the final release.