Texas at SXSW 2014: Toby Halbrooks, 'Dig'


Toby Halbrooks of Dig

Two Texas-based short films that were in competition at Sundance 2014 are making their Texas debuts at the SXSW Film Festival: writer/director Todd Rohal's Rat Pack Rat and Dig, by Dallas-based filmmaker Toby Halbrooks.

Halbrooks is an integral member of the filmmakers at Sailor Bear, a Dallas-based production company that includes David Lowery, James Johnston, Shaun Gish and Richard Krause. Last year's Sailor Bear feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints received an award for cinematography at Sundance, and this year's festival featured Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, also produced by the Sailor Bear team.

Dig stars Austinite Jonny Mars and newcomer Mallory Mahoney, who plays a young girl intrigued by the large hole her father (Mars) is digging in their backyard.

I spoke with Halbrooks in Park City during Sundance about Dig as well as other Sailor Bear projects, including the short film Pioneer. Here's what he had to say.

Slackerwood: What inspired you to write Dig?

Toby Halbrooks: I knew that I just wanted desperately to tell a story. I wrote it well over a year and a half ago, and I literally wrote it in one sitting really quickly. I had a feeling that I wanted to tell a story about a little kid watching an adult do something that seemed really mundane, and trying to figure out what they were doing -- that it had some higher purpose.

I chose digging just because it's an apt metaphor for so many things, and it's also totally innocuous. That guy's just doing something in his own backyard, minding his own business, and everyone becomes obsessed with it, because he won't explicitly say why he is doing it. Despite it not really not mattering at all -- it's none of their business.

But at the same time, it is fascinating for a kid, and they would always wonder. The simple answer is, "Oh, he's digging a pool or something" and they might think that. But at the same time -- no clue, and you would automatically put higher meaning on it. There's some purpose that I don't understand, and that's the obsession that children have. I was really interested at finding out how far you could take that.

There was a personal experience that I had. A neighborhood friend's dad would cut random patterns in his carpet. They were nonsense, and it just turned out that he was just a drug addict and doing something just crazy. When we saw it in the morning after waking up, "Whoa, what does this mean? There's got to be something here?" and trying to figure it out. Not realizing until years and years later that in fact he was just a nut.

Of course this film is not that scenario, but at the time we were like, "This is really interesting, what is this?" and that's kind of the heart of it. And also the kid just trying to no matter what, trusting her dad and having that connection and wanting to be close to him. even if she doesn't understand, she's going to get in the hole and support him.

Dig Still Photo

How did you cast the roles for Dig?

Halbrooks: Jonny [Mars] was the first person I talked to. I had seen the films he had done with Kat Candler, and I think that he is a great actor. I recognized that it was a somewhat similar character in the fact that he's playing a father of young people. I wasn't too worried, this is remarkably different from those roles. Each one has been way different, and I just knew that I wanted him to do it and I didn't have anybody else in mind.

Buffalo Casting in Dallas helped me out. We saw 75 kids in a three-hour period, and I met Mallory [Mahoney] there. I had her come do a callback with 25 kids -- Kelsey Walton and Kaitlynn Neill all came to the callback. I did one more callback with just the three of those girls, and I asked them all to be in it. And Myles [Brooks] I knew I wanted to be in it -- he flew in from Los Angeles to participate. He was in Pioneer with us, and we love him and his dad. It was over the course of a week that I saw all those different callbacks.

I was originally intending on just getting the most like straight-laced kind of gritty, because the story didn't need cute kids. As a matter of fact, I wanted it to be even more realistic. But then Mallory despite obviously having a bright shock of blond hair, it was a no-brainer. She expressed so well everything that I wanted. I'd never even seen another kid that came close to being able to like emote that way. I wasn't expecting to get this, I wasn't expecting to go this direction with it, but then it was a blessing to find her. It was easy, working with them.

Your short film Pioneer is dialogue-driven which creates a visual imagery, but with Dig there's very little dialogue.

Halbrooks: I definitely wanted my initial pitch for the tone of Dig to be like "Cool Hand Luke meets The Sandlot." Obviously The Sandlot is very talky and jokey, but this is mainly kids watching and just trying to figure out what's going on. The script for Dig had very little dialogue, I cut a little bit of dialogue out even. I just wanted to make something really moody, that didn't even feel remotely boring and was captivating.

In the same way the way that we always pitched Pioneer is that it's two people talking in a room for 15 minutes, and it's one of the most captivating 15 minutes that you'll ever watch. I still think that it holds up, and that statement is still true.

While I don't think that Dig is the most captivating thing on the planet, I was definitely going for something that has very little dialogue, and can I carry a movie that is basically just people watching somebody do something. There was no grand design, I just wanted to see if I could make a movie and that seemed like the easiest thing to do.

Do you have any upcoming projects with others?

Halbrooks: We have no ambition to take on projects outside Sailor Bear projects, meaning James, David and me. If one of us is spearheading a project, than we will work on that. Otherwise we are working with other partners -- James is writing a movie, so we'll tackle that. We are working with our partners at Parts & Labor Films -- Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen -- projects we are developing with them. It's relatively simple to figure out what we're going to do. If you care about something, it's going to happen.

Dig is part of the Texas Shorts program at SXSW, which screens Friday, March 7 at 7 pm at the Marchesa; Tuesday, March 11 at 7 pm at Topfer Theatre at ZACH; and Saturday, March 15 at 2 pm at the Marchesa.

[Photo credits: "Toby Halbrooks at Sundance" by Debbie Cerda, for use with attribution.]