Wednesday, February 23, 2011

'Alamo' film set confirmed in Austin

This is when I took a drive out to Hamilton Pool and was the first to find the set being built. It was on the front page the next day.

Word is, filming of 'The Alamo' will fall to Texas; There's no official comment, but locals say workers are building sets near Hamilton Pool

Austin American-Statesman
(May 18, 2002): pA1.

If you build it, will they film?

That's the sticky question surrounding construction of sets for Ron Howard's proposed Disney remake of "The Alamo" north of Dripping Springs, near Hamilton Pool in western Travis County.

"Yes, they're hiring people and, yes, there is activity out there," said Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission. "But we're still sitting like everybody else waiting for them to say yea or nay."

A metal gate leads to the private ranch where a flurry of activity has been noted this week. A security guard blocks the entrance and freely admits what is the worst-kept secret in the area: They are building the "Alamo" film set inside. But admittance is strictly limited to workers.

Speaking at the Governor's Mansion in March, Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment said they were interested in geographic accuracy but hinted that the lure of filming incentives in Canada is enticing to studio executives dealing with a potential $100 million movie.

"It wouldn't quite make sense to make it anywhere else," Howard said then of Texas.

Since hobnobbing with Gov. Rick Perry, Howard went on to win Oscars for best director and best picture this year for "A Beautiful Mind." The director, also known for his roles on "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," directed "Apollo 13," "Backdraft" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" among other popular movies.

A spokesperson for Imagine Entertainment at the film's Los Angeles production office said no comment can be made on the official shooting location until a publicist is assigned to the film.

In the neighborhood around the construction site, caravans of trucks are a familiar sight. At Hamilton Twelve, an events facility, owner Georgia Coleman has had inquiries from Imagine about rentals for luncheons but nothing definite. "There's a little bit of a buzz in the neighborhood," she said. "Mostly it's talk of how much beer sales will go up at Bert & Ernie's."

The sign outside Bert & Ernie's General Store, a convenience store, restaurant and pool hall, advertises beer, ice, bait, groceries and movies. No movie stars so far have been spotted (none have been cast), but "Alamo" workers who stop in for a cold one make no secret about what their business entails.

"A lot of people stop in here for lunch or on their way out there," Sandra Soto said from her perch behind the cash register. "I hear little bits and pieces from them."

Soto has seen a slew of gravel and cement trucks go down the road and was among the first to know when phones lines were installed on the set. "It's fixing to get real busy," one worker said as he handed her cash in exchange for a six-pack of beer.

Joe Gieselman, Travis County's executive manager of transportation and natural resources, said the county has only limited ordinances to govern construction of the set, but he is scheduled to meet Monday with an engineer for the project.

Unconfirmed word is that up to 80 buildings and an Alamo replica will simulate 19th-century San Antonio. Some say the newly built old town will be burned to the ground during filming, which is not likely to begin until fall.

That is, if filming does indeed occur.

Copeland, familiar with the fickle turns of the movie industry, says it's important to remember that the film business is a business. "We feel confident everything is going to work out," he said, "but as far as a formal announcement, there isn't one."

Film review: 'A Slipping-Down Life'

Holding on to 'Life'; Austin-shot adaptation of Anne Tyler's book makes it to theaters six years after filming

Austin American-Statesman
(May 28, 2004): pE3.

Consider Evie Decker a disciple of Joel Goodson's dad or, even better, of Otter.

You remember Joel. He went gonzo in "Risky Business" and played pimp for the evening, or, as his dad always told him, "Sometimes you have to say 'what the heck.' " And great sage Otter of "Animal House" fame taught us that difficult times require "a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part." Verily, Bluto agreed.

In "A Slipping-Down Life," indie goddess Lili Taylor plays Evie, a youngish woman whose life is one gaping yawn. She puts on a grimy bunny suit to dole out hot dogs at the low-rent Kiddie Acres amusement park in small town North Carolina. She lives with her widowed dad (Tom Bower), a man so stunted his primary communication with the world is through a short-wave radio.

Then Evie hears a voice on her radio. Nobody musician Drumstrings Casey says, "You think you're invisible, but I see you." Evie knows he's talking to her and heads out with her pal Violet (Sara Rue of television's "Less than Perfect") to the local skanky dive to meet her new Jim Morrison-esque messiah, who babbles disjointedly between songs. Uh oh. Sexpot Shawnee Smith has her eye on the hunky singer (Guy Pearce).

What's an invisible girl like Evie to do? Say "what the heck," go to the restroom and carve his name in her forehead. Unfortunately, Casey becomes "yesac" on her noggin since she does the deed while staring into a mirror.

Fleeting small-town fame ensues and, more importantly, Evie realizes she can take charge of her own existence.

"Slipping" is a life-affirming and often laugh-out-loud funny film that sometimes loses its footing, but regains traction with the aid of fine acting from its leads. Taylor, famed for quirky performances in everything from "Six Feet Under" to "Household Saints," makes Evie a nervous ball of insecurity and desire. Long-maned and buff, Pearce is unrecognizable from earlier star turns in "Memento" and "L.A. Confidential." He presents Casey as a walking contradiction, both salivating over and repulsed by elusive fame. And the Aussie -- himself a singer/songwriter -- has the chops to pull off songs by the likes of Joe Henry, Ron Sexsmith and Robyn Hitchcock. Look for an all-Pearce soundtrack album in stores any day now.

Filmed in the Austin area in 1998, "Slipping" played at the Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals in 1999. Artistic disagreements between first-time director Toni Kalem and the film's producers left it on the shelf for years before Lion's Gate was able to snap it up.

The time lag hasn't hurt this adaptation of one of Anne Tyler's earliest novels, perhaps because Evie's world is one smudged with the grime and regrets of time lost. Everyone seems to drive cars rescued from the '60s and '70s. Home furnishings look even more outdated. Overtly Southern supporting actors like gum-snapping floozy Smith and scene-stealing Irma P. Hall as Evie's maid/surrogate mom seem straight out of a Flannery O'Connor short story.

Therein lie both the truth of this film and the quirkiness that viewers will either love or find over-the-top goofy.

It's the same divide that separates fans of Tyler's novels from their detractors. Pro: Tyler aptly delves into people suffering the pain of intense isolation and the odd folks who come along to snap them out of it. Think "The Accidental Tourist" and its funky dog trainer Muriel who saves the day for a grieving dad. Con: Overly sappy. Glacially slow.

The same arguments can be made about this adoption of "Slipping." The film slips into melodrama in its third act as odd couple Evie and Casey get married. Now the tables are turned and Casey finds his life and dreams of stardom slipping away, while Evie becomes more and more in charge. Then we amble toward a rather unsatisfying and forced ending.

Tyler fans also make take issue with how Kalem, who wrote the script, transformed Evie from the book's overweight teen into an older, thinner Evie. However, in the hands of Kalem, who spent 20 years trying to bring the story to the screen, it rings very true.

Film review: 'Bartleby'

The cubicle life: Like Bartleby, you'll soon become bored

Austin American-Statesman
(June 14, 2002): pE3. (341 words)

"I prefer not to" is the mantra of the title of character of "Bartleby," and potential viewers should answer in kind. Jonathan Parker set out to update Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," which is a mainstay of college lit classes. Unfortunately, he chose weird over nuanced, and viewers are left to suffer the tiresome consequences.

Following Melville's lead, Parker tells the tale from the point of view of the bureaucratic boss (earnest David Paymer) of a records maintenance company who hires pasty-faced Bartleby to keep the meaningless paperwork machine humming. Unfortunately for the boss, Bartleby quickly loses interest in much more than staring blankly at air-conditioner vents and "prefers not to" either work or leave the premises.

Crispin Glover is an obvious choice for the lead and gives an obvious performance, essentially an inert version of Rubin Farr in "Rubin and Ed." Rounding out the cast are fellow drones: sex kitten Glenne Headly, obnoxious Joe Piscopo and inept slob Maury Chaykin, whose humorous antics almost bring life to the film.

The setting, a stylized almost-inaccessible monstrosity of an office building on a hill, gives early hope of a fun take on the numb horrors of cubicle life, but the film is ultimately a one-noter.

Worse, Parker chose to eliminate the nuanced ideas of Melville's story -- is Bartleby a hero for standing up to the man or a pitiful character whose decision to sit out life is a tragic waste? -- in favor of a didactic and thoroughly obvious message.

Work bites. This is news?

"Bartleby" had its world premiere in 2001 at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival; coincidentally, a far superior take on the same idea, Mike Judge's "Office Space," also got its start here.

Rent the Austin-made film today and fire "Bartleby."

Hanging in a Hawaiian treehouse

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Austin American-Statesman
(June 20, 2002): p28

Matt and Melissa Breault stole our Hawaiian treehouse. But that didn't stop us from honeymooning in what Chris Smith's documentary "Home Movie" calls the most beautiful spot on Earth.

Linda Beech opened the Waipi'o Treehouse -- the odd hotel 25 feet up in a monkeypod tree -- in the late '70s in a lush back corner of the sacred Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Two years ago, it was the perfect honeymoon spot for my bride Tiffany and me. I called Linda, but it was taken. Not to worry: "Anthony Kiedis prefers the cottage," she said, dropping the name of the Red Hot Chili Pepper.

We arrived at Kukuihaele and found the Breaults, treehouse-bound honeymooners from Dracut, Mass., enjoying an ice cream cone. Grrrr.

Linda's employee Shawn engaged the four-wheel drive for the slow descent at a 25 percent gradient into the valley below. At the bottom, we took a deep breath, assuming the hard part was over. Then we crossed the river once, twice. Beech's 12-year-old dog Suki barked a greeting and led the way. At the next water crossing, we turned and drove down the river itself for a mile.

Momentarily back on ground, Shawn, a former ski bum who had lived on the beach for a month before Linda hired him, slowed the SUV and grabbed fresh coffee berries from a tree. As we sucked on the red fruit, he told us maybe 60 people live in the valley amid taro patches and mango trees. He said we'd have no phone, no television, no air conditioning, no door locks, but plenty of running spring water and electricity -- both thanks to Papala Waterfall.

We dropped the Breaults at the treehouse first and took a look. Forty steps up we entered a 20-by-10-foot room with a tree trunk dominating its middle. Amenities included a hot plate and a gorgeous view of Papala rushing down the cliffside. A flushable toilet and bath facilities were in separate sheds at the bottom of the staircase.

Tiffany and I gritted our teeth at their luck and made the trek down the road a few yards to the cottage. It was much more spacious than the treehouse, and we knew the Chili Pepper guy was right.

Filmmaker Smith chose Beech's treehouse as one of five odd homes to highlight in "Home Movie," which looks at people living on the fringes of society. There's a missile silo home, a house teeming with cats and a gadgety abode where everything is machine operated. But Smith's personal favorites were an alligator salesman who lives in a houseboat on a Louisiana swamp and the late Beech, an eccentric former cult actress in Japan who until her recent death rented out her idyllic Waipi'o lodgings so travelers could sample this primitive and beautiful rain forest.

At nightfall, a sleepy haze clung to the clifftops. Birds sang, the waterfall roared.

A light rain fell as if on cue and the sun dipped into the horizon. We soon discovered the biggest problem -- bugs, bugs and more bugs. Both the treehouse and cottages were separated from nature only by well-worn screens and a few pieces of Plexiglas. The Treehouse also had Plexiglas in its roof so guests could stare up from bed at the twinkling stars. Mosquito rings and multiple cans of bug spray were provided and necessary. At dusk, a dozen geckos covered the screens to gorge on the bugs that soon began to assault our lamps. Unfortunately there were a lot more bugs than geckos. By 8 p.m. we turned the lights off, crawled into the loft and gave in to the rhythms of the jungle.

We arose at dawn and walked down an overgrown trail to Papala. As the water descends the cliff, it collects in pools. At the bottom, we rested our backs against the rock and let the brisk water flow over us. A 30-foot climb with the aid of a rope is all it took to get to the second, larger pool, which was touted as a remote spot to skinny dip. A very steep and muddy 210-foot climb ended at the third pool. I got about two-thirds of the way up on a morning whim before giving up, my heart beating out a disco song.

Back at the bottom we found a huge, barrel-chested Hawaiian man clad only in shorts and a boar's tusk necklace. His face and arms were tattooed in the traditional Hawaiian arrowhead style. He smiled and told us his family had been taro farmers in the valley for generations. He was back now to care for their graves.

The Waipi'o Valley is considered a sacred place by Hawaiians. Many kings were buried in caves along the steep cliffs.

Their life force is said to protect those who live there. Locals point to a 1946 tsunami and a 1979 flood that devastated the area, but took no lives.

"Feel the mana?" our new Hawaiian friend asked, stretching his arms wide. "It's life. This place has life.

The new Texas frontier (With A/C and a jacuzzi)

Austin American-Statesman
(July 25, 2002): p4. (872 words)

We're three miles from Enchanted Rock, and on the radio Tish Hinojosa is warbling something about the real West. We turn toward the Crabapple Community Center, and I realize I am a fraud. A Texan by birth maybe, but I do not fit.

An old man is exiting his truck in that wobbly, ponderous way that says: "I'm from here. My grandparents were from here. And I'm in no hurry to get inside." Metal chairs are in rows under a gingham tent on the lawn. Men are guarding the barbecue pits while women huddle off to the side and tell stories. Our car creeps past and they look up for a moment, just enough time for the gaze of curiosity to ripen to resignation. We are not from here.

Down the road we turn onto a gravel road into an Old West tourist town. The Tin Star Ranch is a group of log cabins, an ancient church and a plastic-bottomed pond. We are staying on the end in the Frontier Cabin. A creaky porch with requisite rocking chairs leads inside to a chair made of cow horns and animal hides. In the bedroom, under a poster for Buckskin Bill's Wild West Show is our rustic bedroom and Jacuzzi tub. I turn the air conditioning down to arctic, and my wife Tiffany and I settle in.

This is our latest Hill Country getaway. When Austin, the city of my birth, gets too hectic, we head to the Gastehaus Schmidt reservation service in Fredericksburg, plop down a credit card and take up residence in nature, or a reasonable facsimile of it.

We've spent the day wandering around Fredericksburg, a place we've been coming to for a decade but have begun to talk about it in the past tense. The Admiral Nimitz birthplace on Main Street was our first favorite bed and breakfast, its walls thick with permanence. I picture my wife, then a new source of beauty in my life, sitting cross-legged in the doorway holding a glass of wine and gazing into the courtyard at the light rain drizzling atop an old-fashioned well. Now the house is full of shops.

Fredericksburg's former hospital, which remained open as a doctor's office until recently, is filled with more shops. Cabinets that once held patient charts are stuffed with trinkets. The nurse's window serves up coffee and snacks. Down the street, the Palace Theater logo still promises once-nightly first-run features. We wandered inside, fondly recalling the sticky floors, salty sweet snacks and squeaky seats. Instead, we found an upscale clothing store. The screen is now painted with a Southwestern motif of clouds and mountains. The balcony holds a faux pueblo dwelling reeking of New Mexico.

We stopped at the Main Book Store and flipped through the Texana section. Tiffany, the daughter of German and Czech pioneers of Texas, bought a book about her ancestors. I grabbed "Southwest Stories," a compilation of short fiction by people who all seem to be from somewhere else. Chicago's Sandra Cisneros writes about San Antonio. Kentucky's Barbara Kingsolver opines about the Arizona heat.

Back at the Tin Star Ranch we pull up rocking chairs and read amid the neener-neener-neener of playful birds. Grasshoppers pop over our feet. Across the pecan bottom, authentic longhorns moan as if asking wwwhhhyyy? Why are you here?

Silly cattle, I'm here because I'm a Central Texas city boy like my father before me, like his father who transplanted his Irish clan from Chicago. Like my mother's wild Louisiana brood who crossed the border seeking something lost to time. Not long roots like Tiffany's, but they're growing every day amid the cedar, pecan and live oak trees that smell like home.

Near sunset, the summer heat melts into dusk. We walk the fence line toward a pair of beige horses. They turn away from us and nibble at the unseasonably ample grass this damp summer. Two semi-tame deer look at us curiously (Why are you here?). I hold a tiny crab-apple in my palm, and the braver deer sniffs my fingers for a moment before turning away.

As the sky fades to fingerpaintings of pink and purple, we stroll toward the faded wooden church. A hand-painted sign on the gate says SALOON and points into an empty field. The ads in town touted live music and an exact replica of the Alamo. We never find them, but glimpse the skeleton of new structures high on a hilltop.

Darkness drops like a knife and we take refuge in the Frontier Cabin. We stick frozen dinners into the microwave oven, pop the cork on a bottle of Fall Creek Mountain Blush and surf the satellite TV offerings before settling for the ironic synchronicity of "Frontier House," PBS's reality program that simulates life in 19th-century Montana.

After a comfortable sleep atop Ralph Lauren linens, we pop the tops on tiny bottles of Dr Pepper (real sugar; none of that modern-day corn syrup for us true Texans) and dine on German pastries purchased yesterday in town. Cows dot the tree-covered hillside. A light rain commences. We rock in our chairs and drift. This is Texas. This, my friends, is why we are all here.

On the set of 2002's 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'

ON LOCATION; 'Chainsaw' production revving up; Filmmakers hope they'll end up with a terrifyingly beautiful movie

Austin American-Statesman
(Sept 6, 2002): pE3.

By Joe O'Connell

It's almost midnight at a closed mental hospital on the outskirts of Austin. A curvaceous blonde in flared jeans and a tight T-shirt tears across a field and bangs her open palms on the door of a rotting trailer home.

"Please let me in!" she screams. "Please help me!"

Cut. Marcus Nispel, director of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," yells for more smoke and what looks like a Weed Eater on steroids whirs to life in front of a giant fan. On the video monitor this hillside spot under a giant oak tree gets suitably eerie.

"Quiet all around, guys!"

The blonde, Jessica Biel of television's "7th Heaven" fame, bangs on the door again. This time it is opened by Heather Kafka, an Austin actress best known as Chloe on the late MTV series "Austin Stories." Biel seeks refuge in the trailer from you know who, the man who's fond of wearing human skin.

In a case of truth neatly aligning with fiction, the former home for the mentally infirm is real. A hillside field of sunken graves belonging to its former residents overlooks a prison just a few feet from the make-believe of the set. All goes unnoticed by the hive of crew members trying to get the perfect, scary shot.

Welcome back to Austin, "Chainsaw." After a handful of sequels, this time the gang from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes production company is in town to remake the 1974 low-budget creepy that is either the scariest film of all time or a goofy, hippie-generation memory of the Austin that was.

"I hope everybody gives it a chance," Biel says between takes. "Just give us a shot. I think we'll shock people by how good we make this. We're really trying to make it realistic, terrifying and beautiful at the same time."

Biel was attracted to the part for its action, and the strong character she plays in the film.

"We don't really think about it," she says of Tobe Hooper's original film. "This is a different interpretation. We do want the cult following of the movie to be able to respect it."

For the generation that doesn't know the original but was weaned on grinning homages like "Scary Movie," Biel sees a clear motive: "We want to scare them to death."

Count Morgan Dover-Pearl, a recent Southern Methodist University theater grad, on the list of "Chainsaw" virgins. And her uncle Daniel Pearl is The Link.

Sure, original director Hooper and his co-writer Kim Henkel are credited as co-producers and provided the first draft of a script. But Pearl, the 23-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears cinematographer on the first film, is back in the same role at age 52, his goatee streaked with gray, his head now shaved clean.

"People ask me, 'Is it going to be as gritty and grainy as the last one?' No. I did that," Pearl says. "There's no point in making the exact same film with the exact same look."

And his return has more to do with a long working relationship with Nispel on music videos such as The Fugees' "Ready or Not."

"The intended audience -- I shoot for them," Pearl says. "It's not a stretch."

Proud mom Marietta is on the set today. Her other son, Austin lawyer Tom Pearl, is playing a detective -- and she was there with advice about Daniel Pearl's return to "Chainsaw."

"I said, 'I think you should do it. It's been very good for you on your resume,' " she says as the family joins the movie crew under a tent during a dinner break.

What did she think of the original?

"I thought it was funny," she says.

"It was supposed to be," Pearl responds.

"Well, you made it," Marietta says.

Brad Fuller, clad in a Hutto track team T-shirt, surveys the set and looks more like a gaffer than one of the guys in charge. He and fellow producer Andrew Form have fallen for Hutto, the tiny town they drive past on the way to film locations in Taylor, Circleville and Walberg. Shooting continues in the area until, appropriately, Friday the 13th.

"The Fighting Lady Hippos," Fuller says. "You've got to love that."

Fuller joined with Form and college pal Bay to create Platinum Dunes with a goal of making films for less than $15 million each. "Chainsaw" should come in at under $10 million, he says, and the horror genre fit perfectly with their plans.

Filming days are long, but Nispel is efficient, Fuller says.

"A lot of people think remaking a classic film is a no-win proposition," Fuller says.

"We don't agree. In our minds we are retelling a story based on Ed Gein's life. We're trying to tell a little different story than they told in the original."

Gein, a 1950s mass murderer from the Midwest who wore the skin of his victims, is seen as the inspiration for film characters ranging from Norman Bates in "Psycho" to Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs" to Leatherface in the many "Chainsaw" films.

Leatherface isn't on the set as Biel runs from him to the door of the decrepit trailer. If he were, you likely wouldn't be reading this because the media has been kept at a distance from the villain's latest incarnation. A Texas Monthly writer was asked to leave for fear he'd reveal Leatherface's newest look. Rumors are that his human skin mask is kept hidden until the camera rolls.

But there is no doubt he is somewhere lurking behind Biel as she cowers in the trailer. Cut. A production assistant hands out Krispy Kreme doughnuts, while another doles out mosquito spray. Biel exits the trailer and prepares for yet another take. Smoke billows across the set and dissipates among the very real graves of the dearly departed.