Austin is a city most commonly praised for its music scene, its tacos, and its many species of rare and exotic facial hair, but the truth is that beneath the Austin and the Texas you might expect is one of the richest communities of filmmakers working in American cinema today.
BY TRAVIS LEE RATCLIFF
The Apiary, Austin
In 2015, Austin was named by Moviemaker Magazine as the best American city to live and to work as an independent filmmaker. Despite the climate of innovation and the diverse cache of exciting new film voices in the Texan community, many are unaware of the storytelling that is going on around them.
WHY DO LOCAL FILMMAKERS MATTER?
It may not be immediately apparent to a casual fan of the cinema why local filmmakers are important or valuable.
The reason is simple. The stories we tell shape the way we see ourselves.
The way we represent our communities in our culture of images plays a vital role in forming our identity as persons of a specific time and place.
Local filmmakers are capable of molding and challenging our vision for ourselves in a way that has an enduring impact on how we think about and describe our culture and communities.
For the first century of its existence, the American cinema has been and remains heavily concentrated on the West and East coasts. While filmmakers frequently bring productions to regions around the United States, these visitations often represent the localities they photograph as backdrops for whatever story was being told at the moment.
Only in the last several decades has it become possible and inevitable for communities outside of Hollywood and New York to produce and sustain viable enclaves of filmmakers.
These communities are interested in the regional culture to which they belong.
Out of the specificity of these local spaces, new and innovative stories can be discovered. The resulting films often have broader appeal beyond their locality, while still speaking to the immediacy of under-represented communities in our midst.
At the forefront of this development in localized filmmaking and cinematic storytelling is the rise of filmmaking enclaves in Dallas, Austin, and around the state.
Let’s explore some of the filmmakers that make Texas a frontier in film today.
At the top of the list, we have an obligation to mention the filmmakers who have laid the groundwork for the cutting edge film community we now enjoy.
These filmmakers helped create the language that has emerged as a part of the unique Austin and Texas film culture. In addition to the work they’ve done on screen, many of these filmmakers have built the institutions that have allowed filmmaking as a craft to flourish throughout the state.
A discussion of film in Austin is almost inevitably a discussion of the work and influence of Richard Linklater. The filmmaker’s extensive list of accomplishments include: Slacker, Boyhood, The Before Trilogy, School of Rock, Waking Life, Bernie, Dazed and Confused, and this year’s successful spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused: Everybody Wants Some.
Linklater’s fascination with the impact of the passage of time in cinema is evident in his best films. His ability to walk the line between his experimental sensibilities and his humanist character-driven narratives are what make him one of the great film voices of his generation.
In the context of Texan cinema, he has almost always prioritized the exploration of unique stories and representations of our local culture. His decision to remain in Austin after his early successes with Slacker and Dazed and Confused have helped create a viable example of pursuing a successful career outside of Los Angeles and New York for filmmakers all over the country.
For local filmmakers and film lovers, Linklater’s contributions to the cinema are almost overshadowed by the incredible work of the institution he’s built in the Austin Film Society. The Austin Film Society, of which Linklater was a founder and remains an artistic director, has perhaps been more influential than any other institution in the state for promoting and building a sustainable community of independent Texan filmmakers.
Rodriguez made a name for himself out of his fierce independence from studio filmmaking. In order to fund his first feature film, Robert Rodriguez participated in medical experiments. El Mariachi, made famously for $7,000, helped establish the first waves of indie-auteur success in the 1990s.
Like Linklater, he refused to yield to the temptation of establishing himself with Hollywood filmmaking and remained based in Austin in order to build his own studio infrastructure.
With the recent launch of his own television network, El Rey, and his continued success in producing his own feature films, Rodriguez has laid down an infrastructure that has in many ways allowed for the expansion of the local film community.
As Rodriguez has continued to produce work in Texas, including television shows like From Dusk Till Dawn, the viability of living and working as a filmmaker in Texas has been substantially increased.
It has almost become cliché to call attention to the influence of Terrence Malick on contemporary cinema. The visual language he established in early films like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and refined in late-period masterpieces The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life, seems inextricably woven into the visual stylings of contemporary independent cinema.
Malick came of age in Austin, attending St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, before studying philosophy at Harvard and Oxford with an emphasis on the work of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.
After departing Oxford, Malick began his film career with one of the most memorable debut films of the 1970s: Badlands, a love on the run thriller starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.
Malick’s narratives are often loose, free floating, atmospheric exercises. A pre-occupation with plot is de-emphasized in exchange for a more abstract, almost spiritual exploration of theme and tone. The presence of the natural world is more powerfully felt in Malick’s cinema than in almost any contemporary auteur in the American cinema.
In looking at contemporary Texan filmmakers there is often a clear reaction or absorption to the language of Malick’s films that is often commented on by critics and writers on independent cinema.
Malick has been protective of his privacy throughout his career, making virtually no public comment on his work since the debut of his first film. He remains based in Austin and frequently sets his films in Texan communities.
THE RISING STARS
These filmmakers have broken through and made names for themselves nationally as independent filmmakers who are shaping the conversation around cinema today. All of them have either built their reputations here in Texan cinema or remain here to quietly pursue their work.
David Lowery has most recently come to prominent attention in the American cinema as a result of his successful 2013 Sundance film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and his critically successful 2016 Disney film Pete’s Dragon. Prior to his recognition on the national stage, Lowery created many short films and collaborated frequently with filmmakers in the independent film scene in Texas and around the country.
Lowery is one of the iconic filmmakers to emerge out of an enclave of Dallas and North Texas in the last ten years. This community included rising cinematic talents Shane Carruth, Eric Steele, Toby Halbrooks, James Johnston, and Yen Tan, among others.
His work often provokes comparisons to Terrence Malick for his atmospheric and tone-poem style minimalist aesthetic, but there is no doubt that the cinema he has created stands totally apart from comparisons to other American auteurs.
His work has often been deeply reflective of Texan environments. The atmospheric quality of much of his films gives the viewer an intense emotional connection to the worlds he explores.
His 2011 short film, Pioneer, is one of the strongest Sundance short films of the last several years, and features Lowery’s incredible ability to work with child performers.
However, perhaps what is most ripe for re-discovery is his debut feature film St. Nick.
St. Nick is one of the most lyrical and powerful films to come out of Texan cinema in the last fifteen years. Following two children on the run from an unknown danger, we follow their near silent escapades through North Texan landscapes and abandoned houses.
The film provokes comparisons to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter but placed against the backdrop of our own Great Recession.
St. Nick is a film riddled with innumerable mysteries and wonders and it remains a great curiosity that it is not better known.
Lowery is a master of creating disillusioned fairy tale landscapes. Darkness and majesty go hand in hand in his cinema. There is a powerful romanticism and nostalgia to every frame, but parallel to it is always this looming sense of loss and sadness whose causal roots remain illusory to the characters and to the audience.
No one was more shocked to learn Carruth had won the Grand Jury Prize at 2004’s Sundance Film Festival than Shane Carruth. It was an unlikely victory, at least according to Carruth’s own expectations for the evening. Primer was an underdog at the festival. The scrappy $7000 movie was the debut feature film by the writer, who also served as the film’s director, lead actor, editor, and composer.
The film was a remarkable success, developing a cult following and becoming one of the most rigorously logical time travel films in the history of science fiction cinema.
Carruth manages, with Primer, to take the mumble core aesthetic and bring it to life within a genre. The characters are totally unique in science fiction cinema for their disregard to explain their thinking or their logic to the audience. They speak in the technical language of the world they live in and the film dares the audience to keep up with them.
This is the nature of the puzzle box cinema of Shane Carruth. The audience is never talked down to or given easy answers to complex problems.
While the do-it-yourself mode of production arose primarily out of the low-budget nature of the work, it would continue into Carruth’s second feature film Upstream Color.
After years of struggling to finance a follow up to Primer, Carruth went back to the fiercely independent methodology that had allowed him to succeed with Primer. Upstream Color debuted at the 2013 Sundance film festival and is a marvel of a film.
Carruth once again wrote, directed, scored, acted in, and worked on the editing of the film. This time, he did have the assistance of producers and a co-editor in Dallas filmmaker David Lowery.
The resulting film is like the effervescent free floating amtospherism of Malickian cinema seen through the lens of totalizing paranoia.
Upstream Color follows two individuals who are drugged and brainwashed by a hypnotist who strips them of their identity and all of their financial resources. Clueless, the characters are left to re-build their lives and re-discover their identities. The film explores the nature of identity and attempts to uncover what is at the core of our identities.
While exploring these themes, the film captures North Texan suburban landscapes and interiors with a specificity that creates a greater portrayal of alienation and loneliness in the contemporary world.
Carruth is currently in post-production on his follow up to Upstream Color known at this time as The Modern Ocean.
Previously he was based outside of Dallas, Texas in Plano.
Based in Austin, Jeff Nichols graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts and soon after began making powerful independent dramas and thrillers. His films include Shotgun Stories, Mud, Midnight Special, Take Shelter, and the soon to be released Loving.
Nichols is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas but is based in Texas and has recently taken to setting his films in the state.
Nichols has had a great track record of producing and directing the sort of medium budget independent films that were once quite common, but have recently evaporated from the American cinematic scene.
Bujalski is commonly referred to as the godfather of the American mumble core movement. His early films do seem to predict the wave of movies that would gain popularity out of South by Southwest in the mid 2000s. Bujalski’s movies in this period include: Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha, and Beeswax.
After re-locating to and basing himself out of Austin he began to take an even more formally experimental direction with his filmmaking.
2013’s Computer Chess adopted some radical visual choices, including using early cathode ray tube digital cameras to build a totally unique visual aesthetic for his period piece set against the rise of computers competing against chess masters in the 1980s.
Computer Chess took advantage of the director’s brilliant way of adapting improvisation into the tapestry of his films, building the entire film off of what originally existed only as an eight page treatment and using a cast of non-professional actors to give radical realism to his film.
Bujalski remains in Austin and released his most recent film, Results, which was also set in Austin, in 2015.
Hertzfeldt may be most iconically recognized for the viral success of his “Rejected” cartoon series, which was originally nominated for an Oscar in 2000, but achieved a cult status with the rise of video sharing and YouTube.
His influence as an animator can’t be overstated. His 2012 debut feature animated film: It’s Such A Beautiful Day was named runner up for best animated film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and named in 2014 by Time Out as ranking #16 on their list of the one hundred best animated films of all time.
The way that Hertzfeldt takes a tactile, hand-drawn approach to the medium of animation, while simultaneously playing with black humor and existential dread make his work totally unique in the field of animation.
Hertzfeldt, in what is now no doubt becoming a characteristic trend amongst these selected Texan filmmakers, is also unique for his fierce independence from traditional institutionalized filmmaking or animation. Hertzfeldt animates his work by hand, by himself, and often self-distributes or directly distributes his work to his audience. He has successfully built a brand for himself with his own cult following in a way that sets him apart from other animators working in cinema today.
His 2015 short film The World of Tomorrow was nominated for an Oscar for Short Animated Film and ranked by Rolling Stone at number ten for best animated films of all time. The film marks a shift in his style and a transition into a digital arena that is both exciting and deeply moving in the context of the story he’s chosen to tell.
Hertzfeldt is based in Austin.
These filmmakers are doing some of the most exciting work in independent filmmaking around the state, right now. While many of them have been working in cinema for much of the last fifteen years, it is exceptionally exciting to see what they will produce next as they are given bigger and bigger canvases from which to tell their unique stories.
For years, Nathan and David Zellner have been producing, directing, and acting in short and feature films that are incredibly rich with humor, energy, and a distinctive voice.
Their work is voluminous and has been awarded grants by the Austin Film Society, selected by Sundance and South by Southwest, and received limited theatrical distribution.
Despite the high output they’ve maintained and the institutional attention the Zellner brothers have received, it still seems far too often that their work is less known than it should be. I feel their films are essential viewing for anyone interested in independent cinema in Texas today.
Over the last eight years, they’ve given us three incredible feature films, all worth watching.
Their debut feature film, Goliath, is a character study in a man whose marriage has broken down and whose cat has gone missing.
The 2011 follow-up to Goliath, Kid-Thing, follows a young girl who discovers a woman who has fallen down a well.
Most recently, their 2015 film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, was a breakout success. The film follows a Japanese girl who interprets the film Fargo as a treasure map and travels to the United States to seek out the lost treasure depicted at the end of the film.
The hallmarks of their filmmaking are the incredible minimalism and restraint in the way their stories and scenes are constructed as well as the wicked sense of wit and wry humor that each film contains.
Nathan and David Zellner are based in Austin.
Trey Edward Shults
Upon first viewing Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha earlier this year, I could barely prevent myself from immediately buying another ticket and watching the film a second and third time. The intensity of my experience with this debut feature film can’t be overstated.
The film, which follows an estranged family member returning for a Thanksgiving dinner, only to be haunted and undermined by her demons, dazzles you with its performances, its elegant balancing of an ensemble cast, and its dizzying sense of subjectivity.
Borrowing some of the best elements from the cinemas of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Terrence Malick, Krisha emerges from its influences still feeling totally unique and new.
Perhaps what is most exciting about Shults’ debut film is his incredible use of his own family members (his aunt, his mother, his father, etc.) as his principal cast members, while also appearing in the film himself. The story, inspired by his own life and experiences that happened to a family member at a family reunion, accomplishes a sense of intimacy that is hard to rival.
Shults was born and raised in Houston, Texas. The film, set in his family’s Houston home, manages to paint a powerful picture of suburban Texan life simply by the specificity to which it pays attention to the landscape of the home it’s set in.
Shults learned some of his craft working under the camera department for Terrence Malick’s most recent film: Voyage of Time and Jeff Nichols’ recent film Midnight Special.
The film debuted at South by Southwest and played with great success at the 2015 Critics Week program adjacent to the Cannes Film Festival before being acquired by A24 Pictures and given a limited theatrical release across the United States.
When you speak to young filmmakers in Austin, chances are very high they’ve studied under Kat Candler at the University of Texas. Her influence as a mentor to young filmmakers can’t be overstated.
As a filmmaker, her work represents one of the most exciting voices in Austin today. Her stories are often grounded in what feels like under-explored Texan communities. Candler built her reputation directing some of the best short films to come out of Sundance in recent years (Black Metal, Hellion).
One of those short films, Hellion, was adapted into her 2014 feature starring Aaron Paul. As a film, Hellion seemed to crystalize the talent she has for humanist character studies that feel deeply engrossed in the atmospheric world building of their locality.
Most recently, she has joined the exciting roster of female directors for Ava DuVernay’s television series: Queen Sugar.
Yen Tan is a Malaysian born filmmaker who immigrated to the United States at age 19. Prior to his film career, he worked as a graphic designer in Dallas. Yen Tan has been at the heart of the rich community of filmmakers that have emerged out of Dallas in the last fifteen years, collaborating with David Lowery, James Johnston, Eric Steele, and Toby Halbrooks among many others.
Yen’s work is exceptionally poetic. 2013 saw the release of his feature film Pit Stop. Set in rural central Texas, Pit Stop follows two gay men who slowly build a meaningful relationship at a gas station they both frequent. The film premiered at Sundance.
Pit Stop is one of the most beautifully restrained and emotionally rich portrayals of the human experience in rural Texas that I can recall seeing in cinema, and it is beautifully photographed by Texan cinematographer Hutch.
Pit Stop is a perfect example of the complex emotional balancing act that Yen Tan manages to effortlessly accomplish in his work. Yen’s immense talent as a director is in his ability to bring out intense vulnerability in his characters while also showing their reluctance to exhibit that vulnerability.
His most recent short film: 1985, was one of the break out successes from 2016’s South by Southwest film festival and a perfect example of why Yen’s filmmaking is so exciting to lovers of independent cinema. 1985 follows a dying man who seeks out the aid of a consultant to cover up his symptoms before he returns home to see his mother.
Yen Tan is currently based in Austin.
There are many more filmmakers who could and should be profiled extensively for their work in telling innovative films in our community. Consider this an introduction to the richness of creativity that is all around us.
In a city that loves local music, local food, local art, think about exploring what your local filmmakers are producing.
In the time of deep alienation we are confronted with, there are few things that have the power to bring us together once more into a public square than shared stories in the cinema.
The darkened theatre surrounded by your fellow community members remains one common space where we explore and try and make sense out of our culture together.
Let’s elevate the stories that offer us something unique about ourselves and our existence and let’s experience these stories collectively. As a result, we could enrich both our society and our lives.
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