Friday, November 12, 2010

Abandoning the Nest

The Austin Chronicle
MAY 23, 2008

Hurt by the state's inadequate incentives program, Texas film crews take flight

BY JOE O'CONNELL

Filming of There Will Be Blood near Marfa was in its second day when Daniel Day-Lewis fell down a mine shaft and broke two ribs. Few in the Texas film industry will be surprised that Raigen Thornton, a jovial bear of a man, was there in an instant to render aid. The veteran set paramedic and his satellite-equipped truck always seem to be nearby, ready and waiting. But this time the patient is the film industry itself, and Thornton hasn't got a bandage big enough to stop the bleeding.

Consider the facts: Between 1998 and 2006, Hollywood studio films had combined production in Texas of more than $530 million, averaging eight or nine films a year, according to Texas Film Commission figures. The entire year of 2007 eked out a mere $300,000 for the few days that A Mighty Heart landed in Austin. Even independent films are veering from the Lone Star State, with a drop in numbers from 37 tracked by the Texas Film Commission in 2006 to nine in 2007. It's no big surprise who the culprit is: States like neighboring New Mexico and Louisiana offer heftier incentives to entice Hollywood to come a-calling.

More on that later. For now, here are the figures that concern Thornton and his fellow film crew professionals: Between 1998 and 2006, those Hollywood films produced more than 8,300 temporary crew jobs. In 2007, it was 20. Ouch. The independents created almost 8,500 temporary crew openings during the same time frame – almost 1,800 in 2006 alone – but only 461 jobs in 2007. Double ouch.

This year won't be nearly as dismal, says Ken Rector, business manager of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 484, the union of film crew workers in Texas. Terrence Malick has been filming long-planned epic The Tree of Life in Smithville, and Platinum Dunes is lensing a Friday the 13th reimagining in Central Texas. But Rector believes the uptick has much to do with the threat of an actors strike and the associated rush to production. Rector says the slowing of the Texas film industry is resulting in, conservatively, a 10% loss of the state's trained, rested, and ready crew base each year but potentially as high as 25%. IATSE Local 484 claims more than 600 members, but overall crew and peripheral workers in Texas is perhaps closer to 3,000, not including actors, says Steve Belsky, the local union's president.

Thornton feels that pain. Like much of Texas' film crew, he wouldn't be mistaken for an A/V geek or a stereotypical artsy hipster. Instead, he's a San Saba native and Round Rock High grad who worked as a police officer in Odessa before training as a paramedic. He's patched up people everywhere from Kuwait, during the war there in the early Nineties, to offshore oil rigs where he aided divers. But he had kids back in Texas and wanted to be home nights. Movies were the answer. His first feature was Frankie Starlight, shot on the King Ranch in 1994. "They were paying cash," he says of that first gig. "It was interesting and different. It wasn't quite as good of money as working offshore, but I could stay in my own bed."

Friday Night Lights was his personal godsend. He returned to Odessa to work the 2004 film on a set protected by guys he'd served with on the police force there years ago. Then the NBC series landed in Austin, oh so close to his home in Granger, and he seemed set. But the Writers Guild strike halted the show, which managed to eke out a third season through an NBC deal with DirecTV but won't resume production until July. Plus, Kick the Can, a smaller film he'd hoped to work on in the interim, was pushed back due to financing woes. With the slowdown in the Texas film industry, all of the other film paramedic positions are taken, and he's left scrambling for another job to pay the bills. "It's my whole life," Thornton said of the film/television work. "I've been doing this longer than I worked street EMS before. People don't come to Texas as much. I used to work all over the state. I've probably worked in half the counties in the state. Now it's down to a few."

Blame Canada. And maybe Oklahoma. In 1997, Canada enacted film incentives legislation that, combined with the then-weak Canadian dollar, sent shock waves through the U.S. film scene. Suddenly runaway film production was a major concern, and first to go were the made-for-television films, a mainstay in Houston, which in 1995 had been the state's production leader, drawing projects with combined budgets of more than $60 million, while Dallas and Austin were right behind at $52 million and $57 million, respectively. Soon, Houston was lucky to attract $10 million a year while Dallas, with its solid crew base, began to rely more and more on commercial shoots and industrial films. Austin pulled way ahead in the 2000s, averaging more than $100 million in production a year for the first half of the decade on the strength of the Austin Film Society's Austin Studios, homeboys like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, a reputation as a hip and fun college town, diverse locations, and an ever-expanding crew base. But then, on May 23, 2001, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating signed into law the Compete With Canada Act, which offered a sales-tax exemption or a 15% rebate on money spent in the state and created the first state film incentive program. It wouldn't be the last.

Jourdan Henderson perhaps epitomizes the young crew worker attracted to Austin, the cool film boomtown of recent vintage. The Kerrville native graduated from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and decided to take a baby step into the film industry by moving to Austin instead of Los Angeles. "Growing up, I really loved movies and television, and I always watched the behind-the-scenes stuff," she says. "It's just the fact [that] it's something people go to as an escape. You work so hard on it, and I actually get to see what I do on the big screen. It ends up being rewarding." Her first job was as a production assistant on Spy Kids 2, but she quickly developed a career as an art department coordinator on Austin films. Her duties include tracking budgets and getting clearances but change rapidly from day to day, a pace she enjoys. The lull between films became her big concern, but a few commercials filled the gaps, and she has never had to take a job outside of the industry. "One year in Austin we had five films going on at one time," she recalls. "It seemed like it was going to happen, but our balloon deflated quickly." Her friends in the industry began to scatter. One started designing furniture, another took a bakery job, and yet another did dispatching for a cattle company. Henderson instead left for film work outside of Texas. She has spent four months of the last two years in Austin and is currently on location in Boston. She says the projects available in Austin now would largely require her to take a pay cut. "I'm not done until the end of August with this project," she says. "I want to see what's happening in Austin. I don't think I'll give it up completely, but I may have to give it up as a permanent residence. It's a decision I'll have to make by the end of the year."

Texas finally joined the incentives race in 2007, when the film industry banded together as the Texas Motion Picture Alliance and convinced the Legislature to approve a two-year program funded at $10 million a year, with an additional $2 million set aside for creation of a state film archive, crew training programs, and administrative costs. It came after a 2005 program that was approved without funding by the Legislature and offered a scant 5% rebate (the original bill asked for 20%) and included a befuddling, bemusing clause that precludes payment for films that "portray Texas or Texans in a negative fashion."

Belsky, the outspoken union president, admits that even that wasn't easy to come by. "It was by the skin of our teeth that it passed," he says, despite a lack of any real opposition.

New Mexico reacted to the news by upping its 20% incentive to 25%, the same amount offered by Louisiana. New Mexico has seen a leap in film production from $1.5 million in 2001 to $80 million in 2003 to about $400 million in 2007, while Louisiana claims an economic impact – a hazier figure to pin down than a direct spend – of about $600 million in 2007. New Mexico takes it a step further than most states by also offering interest-free loans for as much as $15 million in return for a share of profits. Texas, meanwhile, relied on $67 million from television shoots and close to $110 million from commercials, corporate films, sports broadcasts, and animation to keep the industry alive in 2007. Another $108 million came in from a growing video-game industry, according to Texas Film Commission figures.

The worst-kept secret in the Texas film scene is that an increase from a 5% to a 15% incentive is the goal for the 2009 Legislative session. Bob Hudgins, head of the Texas Film Commission, admits that the current incentive level is primarily attracting commercial shoots, which fall under the radar of Louisiana and New Mexico incentives, and is perhaps helping keep some television work here. The industry's savior the last two years has been filming of the television shows Prison Break in the Dallas area and Friday Night Lights around Austin. Despite incentives, Prison Break is moving production to Los Angeles this year to follow a new plotline. So far, 95 completed projects, including the two TV series, have applied for Texas film incentive funds for a pending payout of $6 million. Of the applications, 72 are for commercials. "The reason we haven't used as much as we've had available," Hudgins explains, "is frankly because our 5 percent is not competitive with what other states are doing."

Belsky's dream is to build the crew union up to 900 members and attract eight to 12 productions with budgets of $15 million or more a year. He's less sure about the need to build more studios like Villa Muse, the large studio project that promises to break ground this year in Texas, just no longer in Austin (Villa Muse failed to come to an agreement with the city; see "Villa Muse Rolls the Credits," News, May 9). "There's an ancient proverb: 'If you build it, they will leave,'" says Belsky. "You can see it out there. Arizona built studios, and, poof, they were gone." And, yes, movie studios are popping up in both New Mexico and Louisiana.

The original dig on our two neighbors when they enacted film incentives was that they didn't have a crew base to support it. Over time they have developed one, says IATSE Local 484's Rector, through training new people and recruiting established workers, many from Texas, others from California seeking to leave the rat race. "They're short on diversity of locations, but they have the crew base now," Rector says. He muses that the last Oscars would have showcased a Texas filmmaking powerhouse if our state had incentives to keep Texas-set stories like No Country for Old Men from New Mexico and Charlie Wilson's War and The Great Debaters from Louisiana. He believes 50% or more of the work opportunities for Texas crews have gone elsewhere since the state incentives game started being played in earnest. He and Belsky aren't opposed to piggybacking onto New Mexico's incentives program, to Texas' advantage, and made a recent trip to El Paso to promote training of new crew members along the Texas-New Mexico border, with El Paso providing the big city look for films shooting in nearby Las Cruces.

Louisiana has proved that incentives are mightier than the storm. New Orleans was on track to be a major U.S. film hub when Hurricane Katrina tore it apart in 2005. Into the void stepped Shreveport, a former oil town now best known for its riverboat gambling. With a population somewhere between Waco and Corpus Christi, it has fashioned itself now as Hollywood South. Jerry Henery, a film construction coordinator from the Terrell, Texas, area, now keeps an apartment in Shreveport, claims dual residency, and is looking at buying land there after more than 20 years in the Texas film business. "I've basically been working in Shreveport for the last three or four years," he says. "There's been no work in Texas. Last year I was [in Texas] for two months. The two years before that I wasn't there at all except for holidays." He brings with him to Louisiana a construction crew of four and sees familiar Texas faces in other departments, like paint and props. "Lots of people are doing the same thing with dual residency," he says.

Jeff Nightbyrd glimpsed the film industry's Louisiana future and opened a second office of his Austin-based Acclaim Talent in New Orleans in early 2005. When Katrina hit, the city of Shreveport offered him free offices there until he found the space he wanted. Since then, he's also opened the Actors' Cafe, bringing to Shreveport a touch of the arts scene of the "weird" Austin. Nightbyrd, a longtime Austinite (and occasional Austin Chronicle contributor), thinks Shreveport took advantage of New Orleans' loss in a way savvier Texas cities might have. "Austin could have jumped on it," he says. "The improbable thing is Shreveport did. Strangely this has become the third film production center in the country. Los Angeles, New York, and Shreveport? That's absolutely jaw-dropping. We have more than 30 films on our boards, and they're shooting three Hollywood films right now in a city about the size of Waco – actually a little larger than Waco. I've had people doing table reads with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker." In one cruel twist, Shreveport is doubling for New Orleans, still considered an iffy filming location, in Microwave Park, a story set among post-Hurricane Katrina gangs.

Most Texas actors aren't relying on films to survive, says Linda Dowell of the Screen Actors Guild's Dallas office, so they aren't seeing the need to move out of state like crew hands are. "We experience a number of performers commuting back and forth for day play or weekly parts," she says. "We see it in all parts of the state. Most of our talent have not moved, but we see them go over for auditions, sometimes second auditions."

When Nightbyrd first considered opening a Louisiana office, he spoke to Mark Smith, former director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Film and Television Development. "My first impression was, 'Damn, this guy is smart,'" Nightbyrd says. "He had a vision." Smith also had a corruption problem and pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and accepting inflated film expense reports for film projects. He reportedly diverted about $10 million from the incentives program to fund three Louisiana music festivals. Louisiana offers filmmakers state income-tax credits, not straightforward payments like in New Mexico, which means the 25% credits must be brokered, reducing the actual amount claimed by filmmakers. Hudgins of the Texas Film Commission says 18% is a more realistic take in the end.

Nightbyrd thinks Louisiana's main advantage is one that Texas can't overcome: It's smaller both in geography and population, so coming to a consensus on funding film incentives proved easier. Meanwhile, Texans in areas not normally known for film production are harder to convince. "The state will never pass a meaningful incentives bill," says Nightbyrd. "Why? Only two cities will benefit – Dallas and Austin. Why would Texarkana vote for something that doesn't benefit them?" He has long said the cities must be the ones to offer competitive incentives in Texas. "The deal is that Austin used to be the center of independent film," he says. "The city could have generated their own program."

On the other hand, Rector says the real potential beneficiaries of a larger Texas film incentives program are not the large cities. "You go to a small town where a movie is shooting, and everyone is happy," he says. "The value of a dollar is much higher than in Dallas and Houston." Those areas outside of the larger cities get a boost in the current Texas incentive to 6.25% as underutilized areas. Plus, Rector claims Texas is offering a larger incentive, but film studios are not regularly taking advantage of it – an 8.25% manufacturing sales-tax rebate that is seldom talked about, because it requires filmmakers to keep track of retail purchases.

But even with those added amounts, Texas is offering far less than other states. Michigan recently approved an eye-popping 40% incentive, and New York, aiming to fend off film losses to neighboring Connecticut, matched that state's 30% incentive. Even the industry's base in California is feeling the heat. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is urging an increase in that state's incentives to keep the studios filming at home, while others there are concerned about giving away too much during tough economic times. Gary Bond of the Austin Film Office recently attended a Locations Expo in Los Angeles, where the ever-growing incentives were the main topic of discussion. "You wonder about folks not being able to quite justify the incentives they're offering," he says. "It may level off before very long. There's only so much money coming back. Do we end up with the old cotton allotment where we pay people not to make movies?"

Belsky sees a future for the Texas film industry "if the planets align." But he believes the threat is very real. "I don't want to overstate the urgency because of fear of crying wolf," he says, "but we're on the cusp of it turning so far away from us. Every additional increment we fall behind these other states as they build up their infrastructure, it's that much harder to say we still have something to offer." Belsky sees hope through Hudgins, who replaced respected longtime Texas Film Commission leader Tom Copeland in 2006. "Tom Copeland was everybody's godfather," Belsky says. "I was nervous when he left, but this guy Bob Hudgins is so sharp, so motivated, and so on point. If everything he's trying to do comes together, it won't be too late."

Out in Granger where Thornton lives, that urgency is very real. Even in the country, film permeates his life. One day a few years ago, his wife caught some young boys peeking in the kitchen window. They were in search of the area house used in Platinum Dunes' recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes. "It [was] a great career change for me until now," Thornton says. "Until we started losing shows. I was able to stay at home most of the time and watch my family grow. It's not going to pay the bills with all of the movies going away."

Proposed ABC series 'The Deep End' films in Dallas

November 8, 2009

By JOE O'CONNELL
Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

The camera doesn't see this: David Hemingson, creator of new ABC television series The Deep End , slaps a pink Post-it on his forehead. Visible through the glass of the law-office conference room, his arms flap wildly and a grin creeps across his face. The five sharply dressed actors – including Tina Majorino ( the ponytailed Deb of Napoleon Dynamite ), Austin native Mehcad Brooks ( True Blood ) and Matt Long (Jack of Jack & Bobby) – huddle around a conference table littered with pizza remnants and soda bottles and intently watch him before breaking into laughter.

The Deep End was taping its fourth episode last Tuesday in a positive sign of life for what recently has been a slow time for Texas' film and television industry. The series is about five newly minted lawyers trying to survive in a powerful law firm; it mirrors the early experiences of Hemingson, an attorney turned comedy writer for shows including How I Met Your Mother and Family Guy . Our scene is on an upper floor of the Arco Tower in downtown Los Angeles , only it isn't. The pilot for the ABC series produced by 20th Century Fox was shot in Los Angeles. This is a reproduction created in the Studios at Las Colinas, complete with " Star Trek doors," Hemingson says as he touches a button that magically zips open a massive wooden gateway.

Outside the windows, the Los Angeles cityscape twinkles, except it's a series of photos taken from the windows of the real office building. Inside, the offices are polished marble, massive abstract paintings and glimmering wood that reek of money and power. But above, one can see scaffolding and lights through the ceiling, and the reality sinks in. We are in North Texas shooting six episodes of the "dramedy" series that Hemingson describes as L.A. Law with "the back-stabbing of The Devil Wears Prada and the sun-drenched bed-hopping of Entourage." Perhaps there's a bit of Grey's Anatomy as well.

"Our job is to move you, hopefully to move you to tears and to get you to laugh out loud," Hemingson says. In a few weeks, after ABC executives look at the first episodes, a decision will be made on expanding the number of episodes.

"It's significantly less expensive to shoot here in Dallas just because of the cost of doing business here" as opposed to Los Angeles, says Garry Brown, the show's co-executive producer and a driving force in both persuading the Texas Legislature to recently increase the size of financial incentives for filming in the Lone Star State and Fox to shoot in Dallas.

The irony of Dallas stepping in for Los Angeles is that films portraying Texas have lately been shot out of state. The Dallas Film Commission fought to have a film based on the television series Dallas shoot in North Texas (the film has never materialized), and rumors are now rampant of a modern-day version of the Dallas series that may or may not shoot in its title town.

Brown first came to Dallas to work for a year on Chuck Norris' Walker, Texas Ranger . That year stretched to six. After a few subsequent years back in LA, he found himself in Chicago shooting Prison Break. Brown persuaded that show's producers to move it to Dallas, where they would have no trouble finding an experienced film crew and diverse locations. That experience led The Deep End to Texas.

"I believe in them," Brown says of North Texas crews. "The film community we have here in Dallas deserves to work here."

Enter suave Billy Zane (Titanic), clad in a natty gray suit and shiny gold tie, from stage left. He portrays Cliff Huddle, one of the law firm's leaders, a seminefarious character with his eye always on the bottom line.

"David discusses Cliff as a three-dimensional chess player," Zane says. "There's always a clear motive behind his actions. He believes in tough love. He's the coach you love in retrospect but hate in the day."

Zane loves Dallas and spends time with castmates hanging out at the Havana Social Club in Victory Plaza, or screening classic films such as His Girl Friday and Road to Bali that include the snappy dialogue the show hopes to emulate. Consider Zane's recent itinerary: Watching the Dallas Cowboys play from Jerry Jones' private box; rocking to AC/DC from a front-row seat at American Airlines Center; and watching the Dallas Mavericks from courtside. "I am smitten with your fair city," says Zane, who has flirted with television work (Charmed) but is now jumping in head first.

"It's nice to actually originate a character," he says. "These days television is the medium that has proven itself to be where the best writers live."

Back in the conference room, Timothy Busfield, the Emmy Award-winning Thirtysomething actor turned frequent episodic TV director, enters from stage right, singing "You're just too good to be true." He surveys the scene and notices the soft-drink bottles on the table. "Wouldn't we have beers?" Busfield asks Hemingson. Two beer bottles quickly appear on the table.

Busfield follows Adam Arkin as an episodic director, and he says he enjoys helping to steer a new series. "There's a certain responsibility in the first 13 [episodes] to help find the voice of the show," he says. "When you come in during year two and three, it is what it is."

During a break, the actors step away. Blond beauty Leah Pipes (Sorority Row) spends the free time knitting, while North Texas resident and costuming crew member Tina Lawler shoots photos of the actors' outfits to make sure they match each time the cameras roll. Cameramen roll into place, while other crew members scurry about.

Stand-ins fill the actors' seats at the conference table. Dallas actress and model April Barnett takes Pipes' chair. She is also portraying a law-office secretary. "I love it," Barnett says. "It's long hours, but you don't realize it. They clip away, and you start to get to know everyone as a family."

The camera does see this: The actors return to their seats. The five young lawyers slap colorful Post-its on their foreheads and bond as they try to guess what one word their colleagues used to describe them. Australian actor Ben Lawson's word is "sensitive." Soon, the party breaks up. The other actors abscond with the pizza but leave the mess. Majorino is left sitting alone, a Post-it still prominent on her forehead. "I paid for that, you guys," she says of the pizza, and pouts. "Thanks for all of the fun. I'll clean all of this up." Cut. Print it.

Film Treatment for the Really, Truly (No Kidding This Time) 'Last Picture Show'

The Austin Chronicle
AUGUST 26, 2005

BY JOE O'CONNELL

FADE IN: A two-lane highway a few miles from Archer City, Texas. The red dirt on the roadside has been stripped bare for construction of additional lanes. The camera finds our intrepid reporter at the wheel mulling his mission – a pilgrimage to the promised land of Larry McMurtry, the author's hometown and the setting/source for a 1950s-set tale of the death of small-town Texas with its stew of high school football, drunken road trips to Mexico, oil wells, gossiped-about sexscapades, and tumbleweeds. On the satellite radio the Ramones are singing "I Wanna Be Sedated." Black-and-white Holstein cows dot the horizon. It's 5:10pm as we enter the city limits and linger on the town's one blinking red light. A man in a blue work shirt exits a truck toting the small ice chest that had served as his lunch pail. It's Friday, and the workday is done.

CLOSE UP of the Royal Theater Marquee. It reads The Last Picture Show. See the goosebumps rise on the writer's arm. This is Archer City, the town that snubbed Peter Bogdanovich's film version of McMurtry's novel, forcing many scenes to be shot in neighboring areas. The theatre is a shell, gutted long before filming, its outer brick wall torn asunder. Here the camera finds Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse impresario, kingpin, dreamer. He scurries about, instructing a worker in the fine art of popcorn. Laying out T-shirts. Hammering in lights. Positioning the inflatable movie screen. League is at the start of a three-week adventure – his vacation, really – that includes odd screenings like this across the West: It Came From Outer Space in Roswell, N.M.; Bullitt in San Francisco; Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil's Tower, Wyo.

CUT to the Onion Creek Grill. The walls are lined with Texas license plates from the Fifties and a few stray deer heads. The girl behind the counter wipes sweat from her brow and looks with wide eyes at the ever-growing crowd of strangers from Austin, Dallas, and other places so far from here. In the background, Hank Williams sings "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)," as if straight from The Last Picture Show soundtrack. By the register is an autographed photo of Jeff Bridges. This film has seeped into Archer City's soul.

PAN around the town square to discover the four buildings McMurtry has filled to the brim with books, creating a tourist attraction that brought new life here. His recent threat to close Booked Up sent nerdy bibliophiles scurrying forth, but now he's changed his mind. "I said to Larry, 'We should have done this a long time ago,'" says Mary Webb, proprietor of Lonesome Dove Inn and McMurtry's high school classmate. "It's kind of like Cher's last tour."

CUT to the grassy field next to the Royal Theater. More than 200 folding chairs bloom as the sun dips to the horizon. Slap at bugs. The theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey blares through the speakers as the portable film screen inflates to its full majesty. An attractive, 50ish woman, her husband, and friends from nearby Wichita Falls (where the naked swimming-pool party takes place in the film) nestle in and douse themselves with mosquito repellent before spotting friends. "I tell you what, your daughter gets prettier every day," the husband says. "She gave me a hug and I about popped a button. You ready for football season?" To the side of them Mary Webb, her little brother, and his new family are late arrivals. They have never seen the movie together and will nudge each other throughout with the insider knowledge that so-and-so really did do that. They don't have to look far for proof. Their sister Ceil Cleveland is commonly believed to be the model for young sexpot Jacy Farrow.

"This is the first time people have been able to watch a movie inside the Royal Theater since it burned down in the later Sixties," League points to the small contingent actually on the theater's old slab. "This is a historic moment in Texas film history." He introduces Polly Platt, film producer and Bogdanovich's then-wife, who asks how many in the crowd are actually from Archer City. Perhaps a dozen hands raise. "I was hoping the generations had brought more friends to The Last Picture Show than we had," she says. "Nobody would talk to us, I swear." The camera finds Platt's eyes as she remembers that first trip here: an hour before sunset, the hard chill of winter just like in the film's opening scene. "It was dead empty," she recalls. "I thought, how could a guy like Larry McMurtry come from a place like this? It's so dead. But you've brought it back to life." Platt tells of using McMurtry's high school yearbooks as a guide for set design, and Mary Webb nudges her brother again. This is their story, the story of their town and generations of its people. "Larry would sit and listen to the old men on the corner and he'd remember," Mary says. "I don't think he was vindictive at all. He was just telling their stories."

PULL BACK to reveal a full moon in a twinkling, cloudless sky. A puffy tree partially obscures the screen. The red of the Royal Theater marquee can be seen from behind. The audience is lost in the flicker of the screen.

City Life: `The Goonies,' a cave and the Feldman

By Joe O'Connell
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Thursday, June 13, 2002

Before you enter the cave, you must do your best Truffle Shuffle. Pull up your shirt, flap your elbows like chicken wings, shake it all about and yelp like you mean it. Enter, true believer; you are one of the few, the proud, the embarrassingly committed to '80s teen-movie magic.

Welcome to Longhorn Cavern near Burnet. You will watch "The Goonies" in a cave with film brethren and then sit before its star, Corey "Mouth" Feldman while eating passable barbecue and reveling in retro childhood joy.

Upon arrival you get a checklist of film minutiae, a Baby Ruth bar just like Chunk's and your instructions: "Don't eat the Baby Ruth bar in the cave." "Don't leave any litter." "Don't breathe." (Just kidding.) "Keep your voices low so as not to wake/scare the bats."

Jenny Ridenour welcomes the Alamo Drafthouse's call for this quickly sold-out adventure. "I can't remember the Truffle Shuffle, so I'm a little nervous," she says.

Two people toting huge reels of celluloid walk past you into the dark hole. Remember the edict of Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League: "Video is the medium of the devil and has no place in the ultimate 'Goonies' experience." Amen. Jenny does her Truffle Shuffle before a video camera (the results will be posted to www.rolling- roadshow.com.) and you and more than 100 pals are in. As sayeth Goonie Mikey, "Down here it's our time!"

Beware the low areas and booty traps, ur, booby traps as you venture down, down, down. "Don't touch anything but the floor," you are told. Sarah Hopkins, a 20-year-old with red boots and magenta-tinged hair sprouting in ponytails a la Chrissy Snow of "Three's Company," has seen "The Goonies" 10 times and expects an "awesome" experience. She saw a television report late last night featuring the Feldman-Michael Jackson feud and wants facts.

Los Lobos plays through hidden speakers as you settle a blanket on the Indian Council Room floor. Behind you, League is a T-shirt clad wizard fiddling with dials. The dirt is cool to the touch, the air a constant 68 degrees.

Look up at the mottled rock and imagine. Be a child. Over there: praying hands. Everywhere: bumpy layers of thinly sliced pastrami compressed by time. To your left: gray, wrinkled elephant knees and slimy chicken rolled in flour and ready to fry.

After many delays, the boyish League, grease covering his shirt, says this odd event isn't the last. "The Big Lebowski" will be shown in a bowling alley parking lot in July (tickets go on sale today), followed by "Jaws" in Lake Travis in August. Your eyes widen.

Finally League makes today official. "We've got a few Corey Haim --" The crowd gasps at his boo-boo. "Please swear you won't tell the other guy," League begs. Then he introduces once-coming attractions from Feldman's once-precocious career. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." "Gremlins." "License to Drive," with the other Corey. "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter."

Lights flicker across a white screen. Cyndi Lauper sings the theme song. Jeff Cohen as Chunk does the authentic Truffle Shuffle! Feldman as Mouth strolls in wearing a Members Only jacket and you are transported to a dimension of goofy gadgets and pirate treasure hidden in a cave. The air is damp and water drizzles upon your head as your cave melds with the "Goonies" cave on screen. Chunk hands his Baby Ruth to the freakish man named Sloth and becomes buddies for life. Bats attack from on screen and you look above expecting real ones.

When the credits roll, you stumble from the cave into the next crowd of "Goonies" lovers. They study you like a soldier returned from the front lines. Their eyes convey respect? Envy? Soon they will understand.

"Was it so cool?' one person blurts out. You nod. It was.

You eat barbecue on a park bench. Feed the deer. Corey arrives and perches his tiny frame atop a picnic table. Questions fly. A "Goonies" sequel? Maybe. "It's got to have the same feel as the original," Feldman says. "If it doesn't have that, it's not worth making."

Sarah hits him with the Michael Jackson report. He explains a fight that led to Jackson barring him from a bus leaving New York City on Sept. 11. Feldman sneaked on anyway. Why the fight? "I wrote a song about him on my new album called 'Megaloman,' which is short for megalomaniac. I was upset at him for being a disrespectable human being." Sarah smiles at the insider scoop.

Favorite film of Feldman's career? In terms of artistic value, he picks "Dream a Little Dream" (again with the other Corey). But "The Goonies" was the most fun.

You and your new "Goonies" family accept this truth as Gospel.

'Friday Night Lights' cast relieved to play second season

TV: With one season behind it, 'Friday Night Lights' keeps same lineup but adjusts game plan

October 4, 2007

By JOE O'CONNELL / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Brian "Smash" Williams takes the handoff. Crack! A defender immediately levels him. A confused and angry Smash shakes off the hit and looks around the practice field in defiance. Nearby an assistant coach chants, "Hit squad! Hit squad!" and high-fives players. Cut.

A scene at the old Del Valle High School stadium, just southeast of Austin, catches series star Kyle Chandler studying game clips.

Actor Gaius Charles, a.k.a. Smash, has fake sweat applied to his arm and then does it all again.

The tackle is as close to real as it comes on television's Friday Night Lights. And the added layer of sweat is downright unnecessary while intense heat radiates on the Austin set this September day as the critically acclaimed show fights its way into a second season, which premieres Friday on NBC.

Nothing has come easily for the show that suffered through high expectations and so-so ratings its first season. Cast and crew were left hanging as network officials waited seemingly until the last minute to pick up the series.

"All of us expected to come back," says Scott Porter, who portrays Jason Street, a former player now in a wheelchair. "We knew what we'd done qualitywise. We try not to pay attention to ratings, but we know we live in a fast-food world."

Street faces bigger challenges in Friday Night Lights' second season as some feeling returns to his hands. "The new coach calls him the mascot," Mr. Porter says of his character. "He looks at him as handicapped and not as a real person. [Street] has recurring dreams of walking, and that sends him on a soul-searching journey."

More changes

The second-season pickup comes with other changes. Producers say the show will focus more on character relationships and less on football. And six days are allotted to shoot each episode, rather than the eight days allowed during the first season.

"The style still has not changed. We're still on the fly," says Brad Leland, the Dallas actor who plays sleazy booster Buddy Garrity. "It's like we never left."

Indeed, the show has spread its roots at the site of the former Del Valle High School, which was closed and moved when a former Air Force base was transformed into Austin's airport a few years ago. Action on Hermann Field slows as another airplane dips toward the nearby runway.

An end zone sign brags of the fictional 2006 state championship and 55 consecutive games won, following on the tradition of state titles in '68, '78, '81, '82 and '98. Ads tout businesses in fictional Dillon such as Lucky Tie Cleaners. The plastic smell of the squishy artificial turf, which is interspersed with blades of dead grass and dirt, radiates in the blaring sun.

The crew hides from the sun whenever possible under a few umbrellas on rolling carts as a standing Mr. Porter escorts his wheelchair to the field. "I told you he was faking," jokes Kyle Chandler, the coach who leaves his team for a college job at the start of the season.

Nearby, Zack Gilford, who plays quarterback Matt Saracen, tosses the football to Jesse Plemons. Yes, the Dallas native's quirky character, Landry Clarke, is suited up for football this year.

Drink up

"Is there water down there?" a crew member asks.

"That's the question of the day," another replies.

The camera tracks Benny Ciaramello as he runs back and forth on the field. Mr. Ciaramello is Santiago, a troubled kid trying out for the team. The exertion got to him earlier in the day and Raigen Thornton, the set's paramedic, had to be called in.

"Every day there's someone who won't drink for 30 minutes and they get in trouble," Mr. Thornton says. "The biggest thing is to keep up with the rehydration."

Mr. Thornton is an example of what Friday Night Lights has meant to the Austin film industry, much as Prison Break has made an impact in North Texas.

He was working on an offshore oil rig in 1994 when he first noticed the listing in a movie's credits for a paramedic. The former Odessa police officer, who also fought fires in Kuwait with Red Adair, has since worked on 72 projects, including 53 films.

"I'm sleeping in my own bed," he says of working on Friday Night Lights. "I get to see my wife and my kids growing up."

Cut to the field house.

Signs on the wall read "Tradition never graduates" and "Your opponent got better today, did you?" In the head coach's office, game tape plays on a television screen. Issues of Texas Football magazine are scattered on the coffee table. In the next room the season football schedule lists imaginary games against imaginary cities Harp, Brickhouser, Chicon. On the wall is again the listing of Dillon's state championships with – oops – a couple more added for '58 and '62.

Coaches and players gather around the weight room as bad boy Mr. Ciaramello easily bench-presses 275 pounds. An assistant coach attempts to add more weight but fumbles with the latch.

"Coach, I don't believe you spend enough time in here," Mr. Chandler says with a grin. The added weight in place, Mr. Ciaramello huffs and puffs and hoists the barbell aloft. "Let's see if he can paint a house," Mr. Chandler says.

The weights are made of plastic, and the assistant coach is Charles Green, whose real-world job is in an Austin restaurant. He answered an online Craigslist ad last year for extras and ended up as Mr. Chandler's stand-in and with occasional stints as an assistant coach roaming the background.

"Almost everybody you see here was here last year," Mr. Green says, pointing at the other assistants, including shoe salesman Pablo Flores, who wears a bandage on his arm to cover a tattoo that came in handy when he portrayed a thug at a Dillon neighborhood party in season one.

"My goal is for this to be full time," says Mr. Green, who is trying to hire an agent. "I joke that I'm working on the show until my bartending career takes off."

The show's actual stars remain tight-knit. Mr. Porter shares a home with Mr. Gilford, and the cast is apt to spend downtime together at Lake Travis or playing basketball. "We're from all parts of the country, but we are a family here," Mr. Porter says.

Joe O'Connell is an Austin-based freelance writer.

On the Pflugerville set, 'Friday Night' actors and crew get ready for the season

Printed August 2006

By JOE O'CONNELL
Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas – The stand-in quarterback tosses a perfect spiral toward the end zone to an anxious receiver. Touchdown. Cut. Send in actor Aldous Hodge, who lets fly a wobbly dying-duck of a pass that falls a few feet away. "I'm not James Brown," he offers to his fellow players in explanation.

Welcome to Friday Night Lights, the television series spawned by the film that was based on the book, which was based on real, honest-to-God Odessa Permian High School football. Oh, and for the record, the stand-in quarterback is indeed James Brown, the former University of Texas star who is helping bring reality to the make-believe tale set in fictional Dillon, Texas.
Friday Night Lights

"We run a four-second play, wait five minutes, run a four-second play, wait 10 minutes, then go to lunch," Mr. Brown explains during a Sunday break on the sidelines at Pflugerville High School's stadium. "My job is to show the actor all the fundamental points of football, just to trick the camera. I'm proud of him."

Indeed, Mr. Hodge, who admits he's more adept at playing the violin, looks closer to perfect on his next toss.
The NBC series, which is set to premiere in October, began filming early in August using handheld cameras, with minimal lighting and without rehearsals. And it clearly adheres to a model set down by Peter Berg, who directed both the pilot and the big-screen film. That means lots of on-set improvising by actors and bringing in nonactors to play smaller roles.
"Our goal is to make it as real as possible and as honest as possible," said Jeff Reiner, who has directed the other two completed episodes. "It's liberating not to have the typical constraints of filmmakers."

It also makes it quicker, reducing a usual 14- to 15-hour day to as little as nine hours. That's a plus for the series, which is expected to pump $20 million into the Austin area economy before its 12-episode run ends in November. That's when NBC will decide whether Lights gets "back nine" episodes to complete the season. A former high school field near Austin's airport is being prepped just in case the series has legs.

Words of wisdom

"You don't force excellence; it's just something that comes," Taylor Kitsch, whose character, Tim Riggins, is the brooding bad boy from a troubled family, tells fellow actor Gaius Charles in a break from filming.

"Who said that?" asks Mr. Charles, who portrays confident running back Smash Williams.

"I just came up with it for you," says Mr. Kitsch of his ad-lib dialogue. "I told the director it's what Smash would say."

A group of relatively unknown actors makes up the cast. Mr. Kitsch is a hockey-loving Canadian with a small part in Snakes on a Plane.

"It's an actor's dream to play a kid like this," he said. "Tim's an introverted guy off the field who comes from a poor socioeconomic background and struggles with any relationships he has. On the field he has a sense of purpose. I believe there's a piece of him in everyone."

Meanwhile, Mr. Charles, a recent Carnegie Mellon University grad from New York City, is not much like the confident guy he portrays.

"I don't know if I'd be cool enough to hang out with him," he says.

Mr. Charles prepares by listening to Texas rap artists, playing football video games and tossing the pigskin around.
Hot and heavy

Aimee Teegarden, a perky blond 16-year-old who plays the head coach's daughter, leans over and raps on Mr. Charles' football helmet.

"Don't be so glum," she tells him.
"I don't blame him," a nearby crew member says. "It's only 100 degrees."

The heat has been a major factor for the cast and crew. A first aid cart is a sideline fixture with signs on it announcing "cold, wet towels," "ice and cold packs" and "electrolyte drinks." A small cot next to it awaits the fallen.

"It only clicked into me after about a week that this isn't breaking," Mr. Charles says of the weather. "I stay inside."

The mostly twentysomething actors have become a team, said Scott Porter, whose Jason Street is the saintly Dillon High quarterback who can do no wrong as the series opens. (The name is an apparent homage to University of Texas quarterback James Street from the 1969 national champs.) The cast members go to the movies, bowl, barbecue and play tricks on each other.

The cement that holds them together is unlikely father figure Kyle Chandler, who looks much younger than his 40 years.
"I pass on words of wisdom," he said. "I'm a father to some, a parole officer to others."

A plum guest role on Grey's Anatomy last spring earned Mr. Chandler an Emmy nomination and caught the eye of Mr. Berg, who originally had someone else in mind to take on the head coach role that garnered solid reviews for Billy Bob Thornton in the film.
It's also the first time Mr. Chandler has fully drawn on his own background as a husband and father to enrich a character.
"I'm an actor, and I love actors," he said. "Now I'm a football coach, and I love my players."

"Nobody on our cast in any way, shape or form is a diva," said Mr. Porter, who hews more closely to his character than most in the cast. He caught the game-winning ball that sent his real-life high school team to the Florida state playoffs.

"I miss playing," he said. "We all have something to prove. We keep hearing that sports shows can't succeed. We think America is going to love it."

Discs beguile, but consumers not biting: that's the early word from Austin retailers.(The EZ-D Test)

Video Business
September 29, 2003


By JOE O'CONNELL

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Metal helmets with wires snaking out of them encase the craniums of two men staring blankly into an audience. A huge tape titled "Video Rental" is shoved into an ancient machine. Horrors! But, wait, a mysterious man--a guru? a sumo wrestler?--produces a shiny box and opens it to reveal: EZ-D. The announcer intones the mantra: "No late fees. No returns."

Thus goes the TV spot airing nightly during evening news programs here in Austin, one of four cities in which Buena Vista Home Entertainment is participating in a test of Flexplay Technologies' limited-play EZ-D discs.

With the education process in its early stages, retailers visited in the second week of EZ-D's availability said consumers appeared interested in the disposable discs but not ready to buy.

A Buena Vista spokesman declined to discuss the test except to say that the studio is "compiling and closely analyzing store data" and that it has always expected the test to be lengthy and thorough.

Although deep discounts on standard DVDs are common at a wide range of retail outlets, most of the EZ-D merchants surveyed in Austin were initially pricing the disposable DVDs at the $6.99 suggested retail price, rather than discounting to get closer to the price of a movie rental. Meanwhile, in-store positioning and merchandising varied widely.

One Papa John's Pizza outlet in Austin had the most unique offer, selling a large two-topping pizza with breadsticks and one EZ-D for $17.99. The discs also were available individually for $5.99 with any order at the Papa John's store. The "pizza and a movie" offer was cheerfully promoted both on the recording heard by customers calling the store and by the staff member that came online.

At a 7-Eleven convenience store in middle-class North Austin, a petite clerk was busy stocking the candy aisle. A rack of EZ-Ds near the cash register needed no refilling; only one had sold in the first week.

"Most of them look at it, say 'that's cool' and put it back," she said of customers. "My personal opinion and that of a lot of customers is that it's twice as expensive as renting and it doesn't last long."

At a Walgreen's drug store near the University of Texas, signs on the door promoted "Non-drowsy allergy relief" and "The 48-hour, no need to return DVD." Inside, however, the small rack of EZ-Ds was hidden in a low-traffic area between bottled water and unopened cases of T-shirts.

"It's a convenience thing, but you're paying for the convenience," said a store clerk. "For that price, I'd rather go to Blockbuster, because it's on my way home."

A staff member at Suncoast in Barton Creek Mall said he sees promise in the EZ-Ds. The discs rested on top of a soda cooler near where the clerk, sporting black earrings and spiked hair, fielded DVD questions from knowledgeable customers.

"It's a pretty cool concept," he said. "They mostly want to find out how it works. They're in awe of it."

Few customers are buying, however, in part, he believes, because of the limited EZ-D selection. Along with such recognizable titles as Frida, Signs and The Hot Chick are lesser-known films including Heaven and Equilibrium. According to sources, however, Buena Vista will release several new titles in a few weeks.

The Suncoast clerk said he's hopeful heavy TV advertising will drive more people to actually buy the EZ-Ds. "If it were $3.99, it would sell like crazy," he said.

Helmer auditions Texas: Howard vows version to deal with historical complexities

From VARIETY

Published March 19, 2002

By JOE O'CONNELL

AUSTIN -- Ron Howard remembers the Alamo as well as "The Alamo."

Though he remains mum whether a retelling of the tale for Disney will be his next film, he is scouting Texas locations for the film with producers Brian Grazer and Todd Hallowell.

The helmer held a press confab here Monday, discussing the project with Texas Gov. Rick Perry before a portrait of Sam Houston in the Governor's Mansion.

Howard and Grazer's Imagine Entertainment is based at Universal, but occasionally makes films for other studios, such as the Touchstone pic "Ransom."

Howard vowed that his version, penned by John Sayles, would deal with many of the historical complexities -- including the Mexican point of view -- that were glossed over in John Wayne's 1960 film.

Also to be dealt with would be Alamo heroes William Barret Travis' serial marital infidelities, Jim Bowie's slave trading and Davy Crockett's overall political incorrectness.

"I believe audiences are ready to embrace the complexities of the film, but it still boils down to heroism," Howard said. "The simplistic approach is not appropriate and it's not interesting. We know there will be limitations and controversies."

Previous reports have had filming of a Sayles-penned script beginning as early as this summer near Austin and in North Carolina.

But Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission, said it might be fall before filming could begin, because of the massive sets that would need to be constructed.

And Howard said he still has to convince studios to shoot in Texas, not Canada.

"It wouldn't quite make sense to make it anywhere else," said Howard, who added that actor Russell Crowe suggested he discuss the project with Perry.

Australian Crowe has become an honorary Texan himself. "Texas" is the name of the documentary about Crowe's band, 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts. The pic, which follows the band's performance at an Austin club, screened at last week's SXSW Film Festival. The band also performed at the birthday party of Perry's daughter.

Copeland said it would be a major blow if the legend of Texas were filmed elsewhere, particularly if it falls victim to the filming incentives and devalued Canadian dollar that have sent so many U.S. productions across the border.

"We're just pleased they're here and considering it as strongly as they are," Copeland told reporters huddled in the Governor's Mansion entrance -- just a few feet from a massive painting of the Alamo battle in which Crockett wields a rifle butt as a weapon against the attacking Mexican Army.

Howard, who shot the telefilms "Cotton Candy" and "Skyward" in Texas early in his career, said he hopes to hire a large percentage of his crew from the Lone Star State if his plans work out.

'Alamo' movie down to final days of filming

Originally published on May 4, 2003.

By Joe O'Connell
Special to the San Antonio Express-News

DRIPPING SPRINGS -- More than 300 Tejanos frantically scurry past the church of San Fernando. Mothers cradle children, and dusty men in top hats clutch tattered suitcases and jugs of whiskey. A team of longhorns aims a rickety cart forward. Somewhere behind them Santa Anna's men are lurking, and the only escape is across a bridge and into the Alamo compound.

William Barret Travis, natty in a sky-blue suit, and his slave Joe aim their horses toward a doorway where Juan Seguin is loading sacks of corn on a mule-drawn cart.

"Capt. Billy Goat, get your men to the Alamo," Travis says.

"Go to hell," Seguin says. "We're eating corn."

Cut!

A grin crosses the face of "Alamo" director John Lee Hancock. The crew around him erupts into laughter.

"We get a little loopy on Fridays," he says of the joking improvisation from Patrick Wilson (Travis) and Spain's Jordi Molla (Seguin) during the scene rehearsal.

A month to go and all is calm on the set of the biggest budget film production to ever come to Texas - the official number is $90 million - and certainly one that drills to the core of the Lone Star State's mythos. Floating above it all are the ghosts of John Wayne and the seventh-grade Alamo history lesson that every Texas boy and girl has learned for generations.

"I try not to look at the horizon too much for fear of not getting out of bed," says Hancock, a Texas native casually clad in baggy khakis, a T-shirt and sneakers. "Somebody once said, 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.' I'm eating it one bite at a time."

Filming began in January, but the project percolated long before, first as an idea by original screenwriter Les Bohem, then through re-imaginings by John Sayles, Stephen Gaghan and finally Hancock when he took over directing from Ron Howard (Howard continues as producer through his Imagine Entertainment).

Next, the 51-acre set sprouted out of ranch land here. Production designer Michael Corenblith, who grew up in Austin the son of a seventh-grade Texas history teacher, has tacked to his office wall a photo of himself at age 9 crouched in a niche of the Alamo where a statue of St. Dominic once stood (and does again in the film). Nearby is a photo of the set superimposed with a quote from Goethe: "Be bold, and powerful forces will come to your aid." It was Corenblith's motto as he conceived of centering filming in one spot.

"My prejudice that the film should be done in Texas was no secret to Imagine or Disney," says Corenblith, who presented Disney with photos of four location finalists culled from 80: Montana, Sacramento, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., Dripping Springs - without telling them which was which.

"The choice was unanimous and immediate," says Corenblith, who garnered Oscar nods for his work on "Apollo 13" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

To re-create the town of San Antonio de Bexar and the Alamo compound, Corenblith and his design crew relied heavily on 19th century paintings such as one by Thomas Allen with chickens frolicking and residents lunching with a pink church of San Fernando as their backdrop.

"There is no architectural detail, no color that we can't point back to a painting from that period," Corenblith says. "This is not going to look like what people expect of the Alamo."

Still to come is a compound of 17 buildings that will be San Felipe de Austin and double as Gonzales; a Cherokee village set will be at Wimberley's Blue Hole. And Bastrop will serve as San Jacinto for the film's final act with Dennis Quaid portraying Sam Houston. Quaid arrived on the set last week.

San Antonio de Bexar was a half mile from the Alamo in reality, a quarter mile on the set. The orientation of the sun is different to accommodate the cameras. The Alamo chapel is moved up in relation to the long barracks that exist next to it to this day. Otherwise, all is eerily 1836.

Longhorn cattle wait in a raised corral, dead (plastic) rabbits hang from ropes outside a storefront. Everywhere horse droppings litter the ground. A dirt-smudged extra snoozing outside a cantina is a ghost from the past.

Tejanos slurp bowls of beans on the porch of the house where Santa Anna lived while in San Antonio. It is one of a few finished-out buildings used for interior shots.

Down the road and across the dry creek bed that portrays the San Antonio River, workers on cranes replace thatch on the Alamo complex roof. It burned in cannon blasts when the final battle recently was filmed, but must be restored for a few scenes to come.

The 18-pounder, the cannon left behind by Santa Anna's brother-in-law Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos and used to hold off Santa Anna for a time, sits ready atop a ramp. Inside a building, Bowie's solemn death bed awaits, surrounded by gold drips of candle wax, a crucifix, crew members' discarded water bottles and an empty potato chip bag.

Back at Bexar, extras carrying flintlock rifles bide their time until the next take, while a worker wearing a cap bearing the name of Hancock's directing debut, "The Rookie," collects film cables.

Frank Thompson, an author of numerous Alamo books, including the upcoming novelization of the film, looks on with glee and points out how extras aren't wearing coonskin caps but top hats and frock coats more appropriate to the time.

"I've been studying this since I was 8 years old," Thompson says. "I'm like a kid in a candy store."

He points to the male extras, many sporting sideburns so huge Elvis Presley would be jealous, one sipping at a Gatorade bottle.

"I've only seen two guys with beards," Thompson says. "Anglo men in 1836 did not wear beards. I'm just delighted by this."

In fact, extras were instructed to grow out their beards and hair just so they could be shaved back into the period look the stars also sport.

Billy Bob Thornton is not on the set today and is now done filming his role (he marked the end with a visit to the real Alamo in San Antonio), but his presence as Davy Crockett is already legend. Thompson witnessed Crockett's death scene - the details of which are a closely guarded secret.

"If he doesn't get an Academy Award nomination, I'll be very surprised," Thompson says.

Thornton was said to often stop and regale extras with his latest joke; at one point he was reportedly surrounded by the Mexican army, happily doling out autographs.

"Billy Bob is so Crockett, it's scary," says Stephen Hardin, a Victoria College professor who serves as a historical consultant for the film. "He has the same magnetism Crockett had. All these other guys are acting; he's channeling."

Thornton's natural accent from his youth in northern Arkansas is a dead ringer for how someone such as Crockett from Tennessee would speak, Hardin says.

Hardin and fellow Alamo historian Alan Huffines went through the script looking to excise any words such as "OK" and "yeah" that weren't used in 1836. A Spanish linguist did the same for Spanish dialog.

Hardin scoffs at contentions this "Alamo" aims to take John Wayne's 1960 version and transform it with political correctness by also portraying the Mexican side of the story and showing how Mexicans fought both with the Anglos and against them. He sees the Texas Revolution as one theater of the larger Mexican civil war.

"The truth is that Anglos and Texans had been getting along for 15 years, thank you very much," Hardin says. "There is a sensitivity to Hispanics while never crossing the line to pandering. It's just historical accuracy. If that's political correctness, I can deal with it."

That attention to detail is what excites Marc Blucas, who portrays Alamo messenger James Bonham, about the film. He says the enthusiasm has infected crew members, who often engage him in Alamo history discussions.

Bonham's "actions defined a lot of themes of what this movie is about," says Blucas, who played basketball with the Spurs' Tim Duncan at Wake Forest before turning thespian. "Courage. Believing. Commanding. That's what we've talked about a lot as a cast."

Blucas, Thornton, Wilson, Jason Patric (Jim Bowie) and others loaded in a rented motor coach and drove to watch college basketball's Final Four teams compete in New Orleans. Much of the talk there and back was of the film, Blucas says.

"We've all examined the question of why these guys stayed," Blucas says. "Beyond their belief in what they were doing was a fraternal bond between men."

Back on the set, Hancock is ready to film a close-up of Travis' moment with Seguin. Extras are told to remove their 21st century sunglasses. An odd patch of rainbow hovers over the set.

Hancock is aiming for an "Alamo" with a large scope that still remains a character piece. He believes it's working. He's taking that elephant bite by bite.

But there are moments when reality blurs into the past, moments like when they filmed the Mexican army breaking ranks and heading toward the Alamo's north wall for the final assault.

"For a moment you're not a director," Hancock says. "You're just sitting back and living it."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quentin Tarantino gets creepy in person

Yes, I'm the unnamed reporter mentioned here. A very creepy night very accurately reported by the venerable James Hibberd. I share this in honor of the Dobie...


The dice keeps rollin', the HOs keep hion', the money keeps flowin'
Just another night at the Dobie with Quentin Tarantino


BYLINE: james hibberd
DATE: January 22, 1998
PUBLICATION: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
EDITION: Final
SECTION: XL Ent
PAGE: 43

FADE IN: 6:55 p.m. -- Dobie food court
The Austin filmmaker leans forward, going in for the kill.

``Here's the deal: For this kind of production, you need lots of friends to pull it off, and I have lots of friends to pull it off. I also have access to cameras. I have access to guns. I have access to all sorts of equipment. And if it all works out, I'd like to play the main character, too.''

``Yeah,'' says his mark. ``I'm starting to get that impression.''

``Now I'm not trying to tell you this is gonna be the most glamorous thing. But this is definitely your chance to work on a project that can make you, you,'' he points, ``pretty f---in' famous.''

The filmmaker looks about 21 years old.

CUE OPENING CREDITS AND '70s MUSIC: 7:20 p.m. -- Dobie Theatre

I'm reporting live from a dusk-'til-dawn not-so-classic exploitation film marathon with host Quentin Tarantino.

``This is zero hour of the marathon,'' says Tarantino, addressing the near-full auditorium. ``This is going to turn the Dobie into a New York, downtown, 42nd Street grind house!''

The audience, about 85 percent male, hoots in delight.

This is the second film series at the Dobie to be presented by Tarantino -- or ``Q'' as he's called on the show tickets, on signs marking his reserved seats and by his close and personal friends here tonight. Both of his mini-festivals benefited the Austin Film Society, although the director doesn't suffer for this worthy cause. After all, isn't this gig an ex-video store clerk's ulitmate fantasy?

During his previous life before he died and went to video geek heaven, Q was one of those anxious clerks who tells every customer that John Woo's ``Bullet in the Head'' is the best friggin' movie ever. Now Tarantino is dead, and there is only the godlike Q, lord of the cinematic second chance. Q wants prints of his favorite obscure films -- he gets them. Q wants a movie theater to accommodate four nights of private screenings at short notice -- he gets that, too. Q wants an appreciative audience who'll hang on his every word -- heck, we'll even pay $75 for the privilege.

Which brings us to the crowd. The crowd is more interesting than Q. The movies screening tonight, the names of which were not released before the show, are ``forgotten B-movies.'' Which, in my book, makes them C-movies at best. Many would beg the question: Why?

``All these people paid all this money,'' says one attendee. ``They wouldn't care if it was just the movies. It's all about him.''

Perhaps. But for a crowd only here to see a celebrity, these die-hard cinemaphiles aren't worshipping his Q-ness. There's little of the usual fawning and resume hurling that often greets filmmakers at such events. In fact, other celebs sitting in the back row -- Mike Judge, Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez (J, L and R?) -- are practically ignored. And as the projector begins to unspool the blaxploitation flick ``Bucktown,'' it's apparent that fans are here to enjoy the ride.

Growls an onscreen character: ``No one in Bucktown cares just as long as the dice keeps rollin', the hos keep hoing and the money keeps flowin'!''

The crowd goes nuts.

10:45 p.m. -- Dobie Theater

We're watching ``Gates Of Hell'' and giggling.

For some reason, a scene in a small-town park has stock Tarzan jungle noises, complete with squawks from exotic birds and monkeys. Obviously, it's not supposed to be funny. But we have now entered a bizarro cinematic universe where bad movie moments are badass movie moments. Every bit of cliched dialogue, clumsy camera handling and stoic line delivery is celebrated. Half the theater gives a standing ovation to a continuity error. I wonder how many in the audience are struggling filmmakers taking a special delight in knowing that, no matter how clumsy their first feature, they would never make cinematic goofs like this.

Grinning in the back row, Q takes delight in the audience's reaction to his cheesy favorites. After the festival, he would summerize his love of exploitation flicks. ``I liked `Citizen Kane,''' he said. ``I loved `Ghetto Freaks.'''

1 a.m. -- Dobie Theater

``Police Woman'' has just ended and Tarantino is wielding a club. Not a real club, but an imaginary club. He's using it to excitedly re-enact a fight between two female characters.

``Oh man, she picked up that club and was like: Boom! Boom! Boom!'' he says, striking repeatedly. ``Not even in a Hong Kong movie have I seen chicks getting that f---ed up!''

Most of the audience has left the auditorium to get marathon fuel at the snack bar and stretch their joints (or smoke them). Some fans approach Q, who is very cordial, inquiring if you're having a good time, whether you liked a film and answering your carefully selected inquiries (``Just one question,'' says a fan, ```CHiPs' or `Hawaii Five-O'?'')

Q is less accommodating for regional press, as is his tendency. When a reporter from another Texas paper finds him momentarily alone, Q refuses any Q&A.

``Hey, this is like a party at my house, all right?''

Which is interesting. I only charge $60 when I have friends over.


SLOW DISSOLVE TO: ``Pulp Fiction'' premiere party and a Q-esque shift in narrative sequence

Seeing the reporter dismissed takes me back to my first sellout Austin Film Society-sponsored Q event. My assignment was to review ``Pulp Fiction'' for ``The Daily Texan,'' but I had gone to the postscreening party strictly as a wide-eyed fan.

Tarantino (he was just a man, then) was scarfing buffalo wings while yakking with admirers. He was a hungry filmmaker, and a hungry filmmaker without napkins to boot. If you thought that ear-slicing scene in ``Reservoir Dogs'' was gory, you have not seen Tarantino with spicy wings.

Anyway, I was waiting for my moment. I had blown $40 on an advance mail-order ``Pulp Fiction'' poster. I thought, Wouldn't it be the coolest if Tarantino signed my poster? I could hang it by my word processor -- a writer's inspiration!

So I worked my way through the throng of admirers and gingerly approached the wing-gobbling auteur. I sto>od, poster in hand, and waited until the next conversational pause.

My moment.

``Um, excuse me? Mr. Tarantino, sir?'' I asked, my heart thudding. ``Would you mind so much signing my poster?''

He looked up at me with those big brown eyes, those eyes that were the last thing a plate of helpless buffalo wings ever saw, and said, ``Please don't ask.''

And turned away.

I went back to my apartment. Grinding my teeth, I dutifully gave ``Pulp Fiction'' 41/2 stars and dubbed it the best movie of the year.

I hung the unsigned poster in my bathroom.

BACK TO THE PRESENT: 4:55 a.m. -- Dobie Theater

The crowd is stiff with resolve: Must. Get. Through. Marathon. Looking down at my notes, I'm not surprised to find they have gradually suffered a ``Flowers for Algernon''-like deterioration.

Currently screening is a surreal drug trip called ``Ghetto Freaks'' (a k a ``Love Commune'') and the senses are dulled by ongoing '70s exploitation bombardment: Visual input is hippies and bad lighting. Olfactory is popcorn and smuggled beer. Audio is the endless soundtracks of bongos and wah-wah peddle guitar riffs along with Q's rapid-fire ``heh-heh-heh-heh'' laughter.

Things perk up a bit when ``Ghetto Freaks'' loses a reel and sound problems set in: Grind house nirvana is here.

6:10 a.m. -- Dobie Theater

The final movie, ``Girl on a Chain Gang.''

Linklater, Rodriguez and Judge throw in the towel and two-thirds of the audience remain. And now, perhaps unavoidably, the Issue has arisen.

I should point out that I've enjoyed sexploitation romps from ``Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'' to ``Showgirls.'' It takes quite a bit to offend me and this event is, after all, an exploitation film marathon. But after ``Eager Beavers'' (a k a ``Swinging Barmaids''), the casually misogynistic air in the theater turned pork-scented ugly.

In that film, a maniac kills cocktail waitresses, ripping off their clothes during lengthy and titillatingly> filmed attacks. The director's obvious attempts to arouse viewers during murder and rape scenes caused squirming even in this audience, which so far has been hooting at every tight sweater.

For his part, Q demonstrated his appreciation of the opposite sex, surprising the two pretty blonde fans sitting behind me by plopping down between them to watch the last movie.

``I've been sitting in an aisle seat all night,'' Q says. ``It's so nice to change seats.''

Truly, it's a line that could only work on a woman who's just watched 11 hours of brain-numbing exploitation flicks stuffed with come-ons like, ``Hey baby, let's make it.''

From the audience, there are grumbles of frustration with the surprisingly chaste and misleadingly title ``Girl on a Chain Gang.'' But suddenly things are looking up: A corrupt small-town sheriff is stripping off his uniform and advancing on a female prisoner cowering in her cell.

``Wooo!'' yowls the audience.

Behind me, Q's blonde ambition gives our testosterone host a deserved kick where it counts.

``I find it very disturbing,'' she says, ``when guys get excited by impending rape.''

Pow!

EPILOGUE: 8 a.m. -- Dobie Food Court

``Daylight'' -- that's what everyone says as they exit the theater into the sunshine-filled food court. It is, in so many ways, such a contrast to the theater. On a table, donuts are waiting and Harry Knowles makes a beeline.

``By the end,'' says Q, his seemingly boundless energy finally ebbing, ``it was like: Who's going to win? You or the movie?''

Fans say they won. Walking out onto 24th Street, one declares, ``Sundance, eat your heart out.''

FADE TO BLACK