I recently directed and edited this documentary and accompanying music video for Princess Darlene Murray through Lost Pines. She was a joy to collaborate with and I'm proud of the work we've done these last few months.
The greatest of directors in the canon of cinema are not those who see their work as primarily being with actors, locations, shot-designs, or even story.
The great directors are those who see time, and the construction of it in cinematic language, as their primary material.
Ackerman, Linklater, Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, Weerasethakul, and Tarr are all carefully constructing a reality in the films they direct.
This reality inevitably involves performance, the camera, and some form of narrative, but much more vital and perhaps even informative to all those other elements is the way that these filmmakers construct realities scaffolded over the passage of time itself.
Time is that force which never leaves us. It lurks inside every moment of our experience. In the cinema, authorship means creating a succession of images that can only be understood over the course of seconds, minutes, and hours. Through this eventuality, the medium grants unique privileges to filmmakers to inform our understanding of the very cosmic forces to which we ourselves are always beholden to.
Unlike other inescapable forces, the perception of time and the passage of time are uniquely subjective. In life, and in the cinema, we all experience the passing of moments, and the memory of experiences, with unique latitude.
It is this realm that a cinema informed primarily by time can transcend mechanics and enter the arena of poetry.
For a filmmaker like Linklater this means observing the effects of time on people and places. The Before Trilogy remains one of the greatest examples in cinema of the human experience of time. Each film exists like a capsule, floating in-between the nine years of silence that connect and inform each continuing episode.
For Ackerman, time is something that dictates each grueling moment. It is recognized as an oppressive force, deadening our reality and imprisoning us alongside so many other cultural and economic forces.
Davies’ experience of time is more concerned with the construction of memory, and how our subjective experience of moments takes on its own life and power. There is a sacredness to the vignettes that comprise his best known works. They feel like recovered documents, recounting a lost past that has defined the author’s present.
Each of these directors is keenly aware of the power and flexibility of the whole language of cinema. But rather than remain content solving narrative problems with the tools at their disposal, they meditate on the forces of nature themselves which are at the core of the DNA of cinema.
The cinema is multifaceted. It can express many different kinds of experiences, tell many different kinds of stories, and there are certainly directors whose work may be described as conventional but nonetheless contain unique splendors which have little to do with the manipulation of time.
That said, I think that for a film to offer something extraordinary, or something uniquely cinematic to the audience, it must account for time. It may choose to do so subtlely or incidentally, but it cannot ever truly escape the burden owed to time, no more than it can ignore the necessity of light to expose an image.
Understanding these things has helped me come to terms with the cinema of Tarr. When I first encountered Tarr I had not endured nearly as much of slow cinema as I have now enjoyed. I found the experience grueling, and grating. I am used to films that demand a lot out of the audience, but watching Damnation I felt as if I had met a film that was asking too much.
Revisiting Tarr in the Turin Horse, I find a filmmaker who is anything but deadening. His images, his construction of moments, seem now vividly alive to me. There is intensity and certainly a demanding quality to the film, but letting the film work on me and tuning into the wavelength of the film’s conception of time, transported me emotionally in a way only Tarkovsky, Davies, Malick, and Linklater have done.
These masters of time offer us experiences that speak to the core of our humanity. They aspire to make poetry out of the nature of our consciousness.
In the words of Pynchon: “…yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.”
I recently wrote an article exploring Texan cinema as a cohesive scene and film community. The article was printed in Almost Real Things Magazine's first quarter of 2017 edition and was featured on their website. I've frequently been surprised how few of my fellow Texans have been made aware of the interconnectedness and the richness of our local film communities, so the article hoped to explain these connections to someone with only a small background in film viewing. I hope it convinces more locals to put a high value on the good work that is being done here by filmmakers.
A FIELD GUIDE TO TEXAN CINEMA
by TRAVIS LEE RATCLIFF
Austin is a city most commonly praised for its music scene, its tacos, and its many species of rare and exotic facial hair, but the truth is that beneath the Austin and the Texas you might expect is one of the richest communities of filmmakers working in American cinema today.
In 2015, Austin was named by Moviemaker Magazine as the best American city to live and to work as an independent filmmaker. Despite the climate of innovation and the diverse cache of exciting new film voices in the Texan community, many are unaware of the storytelling that has become concentrated here.
In this article, I intend to examine my local film community and explore the rich filmmaking that is happening here outside of traditional film institutions or cities.
I believe in Texas we’ve set an example that can be emulated in other regions of the United States for the establishment of film scenes that speak to the local culture while reaching a broader audience outside of its place of origin.
WHY DO LOCAL FILMMAKERS MATTER?
It may not be immediately apparent to a casual fan of the cinema why local filmmakers are important or valuable.
The reason is simple. The stories we tell shape the way we see ourselves.
The way we represent our communities in our culture of images plays a vital role in forming our identity as persons of a specific time and place.
Local filmmakers are capable of molding and challenging our vision for ourselves in a way that has an enduring impact on how we think about and describe our culture and communities.
For the first century of its existence, the American cinema has been and remains heavily concentrated on the West and East coasts. While filmmakers frequently bring productions to regions around the United States, these visitations often represent the localities they photograph as backdrops for whatever story was being told at the moment.
Only in the last several decades has it become possible and inevitable for communities outside of Hollywood and New York to produce and sustain viable enclaves of filmmakers.
These communities are interested in the regional culture to which they belong.
Out of the specificity of these local spaces, new and innovative stories can be discovered. The resulting films often have broader appeal beyond their locality, while still speaking to the immediacy of under-represented communities in our midst.
At the forefront of this development in localized filmmaking and cinematic storytelling is the rise of filmmaking enclaves in Dallas, Austin, and around the state.
Let’s explore some of the filmmakers that make Texas a frontier in film today.
At the top of the list, we have an obligation to mention the filmmakers who have laid the groundwork for the cutting edge film community we now enjoy.
These filmmakers helped create the language that has emerged as a part of the unique Austin and Texas film culture. In addition to the work they’ve done on screen, many of these filmmakers have built the institutions that have allowed filmmaking as a craft to flourish throughout the state.
A discussion of film in Austin is almost inevitably a discussion of the work and influence of Richard Linklater. The filmmaker’s extensive list of accomplishments include: Slacker, Boyhood, The Before Trilogy, School of Rock, Waking Life, Bernie, Dazed and Confused, and this year’s successful spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused: Everybody Wants Some.
Linklater’s fascination with the impact of the passage of time in cinema is evident in his best films. His ability to walk the line between his experimental sensibilities and his humanist character-driven narratives are what make him one of the great film voices of his generation.
In the context of Texan cinema, he has almost always prioritized the exploration of unique stories and representations of our local culture. His decision to remain in Austin after his early successes with Slacker and Dazed and Confused have helped create a viable example of pursuing a successful career outside of Los Angeles and New York for filmmakers all over the country.
For local filmmakers and film lovers, Linklater’s contributions to the cinema are almost overshadowed by the incredible work of the institution he’s built in the Austin Film Society. The Austin Film Society, of which Linklater was a founder and remains an artistic director, has perhaps been more influential than any other institution in the state for promoting and building a sustainable community of independent Texan filmmakers.
Rodriguez made a name for himself out of his fierce independence from studio filmmaking. In order to fund his first feature film, Robert Rodriguez participated in medical experiments. El Mariachi, made famously for $7,000, helped establish the first waves of indie-auteur success in the 1990s.
Like Linklater, he refused to yield to the temptation of establishing himself with Hollywood filmmaking and remained based in Austin in order to build his own studio infrastructure.
With the recent launch of his own television network, El Rey, and his continued success in producing his own feature films, Rodriguez has laid down an infrastructure that has in many ways allowed for the expansion of the local film community.
As Rodriguez has continued to produce work in Texas, including television shows like From Dusk Till Dawn, the viability of living and working as a filmmaker in Texas has been substantially increased.
It has almost become cliché to call attention to the influence of Terrence Malick on contemporary cinema. The visual language he established in early films like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and refined in late-period masterpieces The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life, seems inextricably woven into the visual stylings of contemporary independent cinema.
Malick came of age in Austin, attending St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, before studying philosophy at Harvard and Oxford with an emphasis on the work of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.
After departing Oxford, Malick began his film career with one of the most memorable debut films of the 1970s: Badlands, a love on the run thriller starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.
Malick’s narratives are often loose, free floating, atmospheric exercises. A pre-occupation with plot is de-emphasized in exchange for a more abstract, almost spiritual exploration of theme and tone. The presence of the natural world is more powerfully felt in Malick’s cinema than in almost any contemporary auteur in the American cinema.
In looking at contemporary Texan filmmakers there is often a clear reaction or absorption to the language of Malick’s films that is often commented on by critics and writers on independent cinema.
Malick has been protective of his privacy throughout his career, making virtually no public comment on his work since the debut of his first film. He remains based in Austin and frequently sets his films in Texan communities.
THE RISING STARS
These filmmakers have broken through and made names for themselves nationally as independent filmmakers who are shaping the conversation around cinema today. All of them have either built their reputations here in Texan cinema or remain here to quietly pursue their work.
David Lowery has most recently come to prominent attention in the American cinema as a result of his successful 2013 Sundance film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and his critically successful 2016 Disney film Pete’s Dragon. Prior to his recognition on the national stage, Lowery created many short films and collaborated frequently with filmmakers in the independent film scene in Texas and around the country.
Lowery is one of the iconic filmmakers to emerge out of an enclave of Dallas and North Texas in the last ten years. This community included rising cinematic talents Shane Carruth, Eric Steele, Toby Halbrooks, James Johnston, and Yen Tan, among others.
His work often provokes comparisons to Terrence Malick for his atmospheric and tone-poem style minimalist aesthetic, but there is no doubt that the cinema he has created stands totally apart from comparisons to other American auteurs.
His work has often been deeply reflective of Texan environments. The atmospheric quality of much of his films gives the viewer an intense emotional connection to the worlds he explores.
His 2011 short film, Pioneer, is one of the strongest Sundance short films of the last several years, and features Lowery’s incredible ability to work with child performers.
However, perhaps what is most ripe for re-discovery is his debut feature film St. Nick.
St. Nick is one of the most lyrical and powerful films to come out of Texan cinema in the last fifteen years. Following two children on the run from an unknown danger, we follow their near silent escapades through North Texan landscapes and abandoned houses.
The film provokes comparisons to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter but placed against the backdrop of our own Great Recession.
St. Nick is a film riddled with innumerable mysteries and wonders and it remains a great curiosity that it is not better known.
Lowery is a master of creating disillusioned fairy tale landscapes. Darkness and majesty go hand in hand in his cinema. There is a powerful romanticism and nostalgia to every frame, but parallel to it is always this looming sense of loss and sadness whose causal roots remain illusory to the characters and to the audience.
At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival he reunited with his Aint Them Bodies Saints leads, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, for the debut of his newest feature film: Ghost Story. Shot on the sly in Dallas, the film represents a return to his independent filmmaking roots, and received widespread acclaim as one of the great discoveries of 2017 Sundance crop.
No one was more shocked to learn Carruth had won the Grand Jury Prize at 2004’s Sundance Film Festival than Shane Carruth. It was an unlikely victory, at least according to Carruth’s own expectations for the evening. Primer was an underdog at the festival. The scrappy $7000 movie was the debut feature film by the writer, who also served as the film’s director, lead actor, editor, and composer.
The film was a remarkable success, developing a cult following and becoming one of the most rigorously logical time travel films in the history of science fiction cinema.
Carruth manages, with Primer, to take the mumble core aesthetic and bring it to life within a genre. The characters are totally unique in science fiction cinema for their disregard to explain their thinking or their logic to the audience. They speak in the technical language of the world they live in and the film dares the audience to keep up with them.
This is the nature of the puzzle box cinema of Shane Carruth. The audience is never talked down to or given easy answers to complex problems.
While the do-it-yourself mode of production arose primarily out of the low-budget nature of the work, it would continue into Carruth’s second feature film Upstream Color.
After years of struggling to finance a follow up to Primer, Carruth went back to the fiercely independent methodology that had allowed him to succeed with Primer. Upstream Color debuted at the 2013 Sundance film festival and is a marvel of a film.
Carruth once again wrote, directed, scored, acted in, and worked on the editing of the film. This time, he did have the assistance of producers and a co-editor in Dallas filmmaker David Lowery.
The resulting film is like the effervescent free floating amtospherism of Malickian cinema seen through the lens of totalizing paranoia.
Upstream Color follows two individuals who are drugged and brainwashed by a hypnotist who strips them of their identity and all of their financial resources. Clueless, the characters are left to re-build their lives and re-discover their identities. The film explores the nature of identity and attempts to uncover what is at the core of our identities.
While exploring these themes, the film captures North Texan suburban landscapes and interiors with a specificity that creates a greater portrayal of alienation and loneliness in the contemporary world.
Carruth is currently in post-production on his follow up to Upstream Color known at this time as The Modern Ocean.
Previously he was based outside of Dallas, Texas in Plano.
Based in Austin, Jeff Nichols graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts and soon after began making powerful independent dramas and thrillers. His films include Shotgun Stories, Mud, Midnight Special, Take Shelter, and the recently released and academy award nominated: Loving.
Nichols is originally from Little Rock, Arkansas but is based in Texas and has recently taken to setting his films in the state.
Nichols has had a great track record of producing and directing the sort of medium budget independent films that were once quite common, but have recently evaporated from the American cinematic scene.
Bujalski is commonly referred to as the godfather of the American mumble core movement. His early films do seem to predict the wave of movies that would gain popularity out of South by Southwest in the mid 2000s. Bujalski’s movies in this period include: Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha, and Beeswax.
After re-locating to and basing himself out of Austin he began to take an even more formally experimental direction with his filmmaking.
2013’s Computer Chess adopted some radical visual choices, including using early cathode ray tube digital cameras to build a totally unique visual aesthetic for his period piece set against the rise of computers competing against chess masters in the 1980s.
Computer Chess took advantage of the director’s brilliant way of adapting improvisation into the tapestry of his films, building the entire film off of what originally existed only as an eight page treatment and using a cast of non-professional actors to give radical realism to his film.
Bujalski remains in Austin and released his most recent film, Results, which was also set in Austin, in 2015.
Hertzfeldt may be most iconically recognized for the viral success of his “Rejected” cartoon series, which was originally nominated for an Oscar in 2000, but achieved a cult status with the rise of video sharing and YouTube.
His influence as an animator can’t be overstated. His 2012 debut feature animated film: It’s Such A Beautiful Day was named runner up for best animated film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and named in 2014 by Time Out as ranking #16 on their list of the one hundred best animated films of all time.
The way that Hertzfeldt takes a tactile, hand-drawn approach to the medium of animation, while simultaneously playing with black humor and existential dread make his work totally unique in the field of animation.
Hertzfeldt, in what is now no doubt becoming a characteristic trend amongst these selected Texan filmmakers, is also unique for his fierce independence from traditional institutionalized filmmaking or animation. Hertzfeldt animates his work by hand, by himself, and often self-distributes or directly distributes his work to his audience. He has successfully built a brand for himself with his own cult following in a way that sets him apart from other animators working in cinema today.
His 2015 short film The World of Tomorrow was nominated for an Oscar for Short Animated Film and ranked by Rolling Stone at number ten for best animated films of all time. The film marks a shift in his style and a transition into a digital arena that is both exciting and deeply moving in the context of the story he’s chosen to tell.
Hertzfeldt is based in Austin.
These filmmakers are doing some of the most exciting work in independent filmmaking around Texas, right now. While many of them have been working in cinema for much of the last fifteen years, it is exceptionally exciting to see what they will produce next as they are given bigger and bigger canvases from which to tell their unique stories.
For years, Nathan and David Zellner have been producing, directing, and acting in short and feature films that are incredibly rich with humor, energy, and a distinctive voice.
Their work is voluminous and has been awarded grants by the Austin Film Society, selected by Sundance and South by Southwest, and received limited theatrical distribution.
Despite the high output they’ve maintained and the institutional attention the Zellner brothers have received, it still seems far too often that their work is less known than it should be. I feel their films are essential viewing for anyone interested in independent cinema in Texas today.
Over the last eight years, they’ve given us three incredible feature films, all worth watching.
Their debut feature film, Goliath, is a character study in a man whose marriage has broken down and whose cat has gone missing.
The 2011 follow-up to Goliath, Kid-Thing, follows a young girl who discovers a woman who has fallen down a well.
Most recently, their 2015 film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, was a breakout success. The film follows a Japanese girl who interprets the film Fargo as a treasure map and travels to the United States to seek out the lost treasure depicted at the end of the film.
The hallmarks of their filmmaking are the incredible minimalism and restraint in the way their stories and scenes are constructed as well as the wicked sense of wit and wry humor that each film contains.
Nathan and David Zellner are based in Austin.
TREY EDWARD SHULTS
Upon first viewing Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha earlier this year, I could barely prevent myself from immediately buying another ticket and watching the film a second and third time. The intensity of my experience with this debut feature film can’t be overstated.
The film, which follows an estranged family member returning for a Thanksgiving dinner, only to be haunted and undermined by her demons, dazzles you with its performances, its elegant balancing of an ensemble cast, and its dizzying sense of subjectivity.
Borrowing some of the best elements from the cinemas of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Terrence Malick, Krisha emerges from its influences still feeling totally unique and new.
Perhaps what is most exciting about Shults’ debut film is his incredible use of his own family members (his aunt, his mother, his father, etc.) as his principal cast members, while also appearing in the film himself. The story, inspired by his own life and experiences that happened to a family member at a family reunion, accomplishes a sense of intimacy that is hard to rival.
Shults was born and raised in Houston, Texas. The film, set in his family’s Houston home, manages to paint a powerful picture of suburban Texan life simply by the specificity to which it pays attention to the landscape of the home it’s set in.
Shults learned some of his craft working under the camera department for Terrence Malick’s most recent film: Voyage of Time and Jeff Nichols’ recent film Midnight Special.
The film debuted at South by Southwest and played with great success at the 2015 Critics Week program adjacent to the Cannes Film Festival before being acquired by A24 Pictures and given a limited theatrical release across the United States.
When you speak to young filmmakers in Austin, chances are very high they’ve studied under Kat Candler at the University of Texas. Her influence as a mentor to young filmmakers can’t be overstated.
As a filmmaker, her work represents one of the most exciting voices in Austin today. Her stories are often grounded in what feels like under-explored Texan communities. Candler built her reputation directing some of the best short films to come out of Sundance in recent years (Black Metal, Hellion).
One of those short films, Hellion, was adapted into her 2014 feature starring Aaron Paul. As a film, Hellion seemed to crystalize the talent she has for humanist character studies that feel deeply engrossed in the atmospheric world building of their locality.
Most recently, she has joined the exciting roster of female directors for Ava DuVernay’s television series: Queen Sugar.
Yen Tan is a Malaysian born filmmaker who immigrated to the United States at age 19. Prior to his film career, he worked as a graphic designer in Dallas. Yen Tan has been at the heart of the rich community of filmmakers that have emerged out of Dallas in the last fifteen years, collaborating with David Lowery, James Johnston, Eric Steele, and Toby Halbrooks among many others.
Yen’s work is exceptionally poetic. 2013 saw the release of his feature film Pit Stop. Set in rural central Texas, Pit Stop follows two gay men who slowly build a meaningful relationship at a gas station they both frequent. The film premiered at Sundance.
Pit Stop is one of the most beautifully restrained and emotionally rich portrayals of the human experience in rural Texas that I can recall seeing in cinema, and it is beautifully photographed by Texan cinematographer Hutch.
Pit Stop is a perfect example of the complex emotional balancing act that Yen Tan manages to effortlessly accomplish in his work. Yen’s immense talent as a director is in his ability to bring out intense vulnerability in his characters while also showing their reluctance to exhibit that vulnerability.
His most recent short film: 1985, was one of the break out successes from 2016’s South by Southwest film festival and a perfect example of why Yen’s filmmaking is so exciting to lovers of independent cinema. 1985 follows a dying man who seeks out the aid of a consultant to cover up his symptoms before he returns home to see his mother.
Yen Tan is currently based in Austin.
There are many more filmmakers who could and should be profiled extensively for their work in telling innovative films in the Texan community. Consider this an introduction to the richness of creativity that can emerge in a non-traditional scene.
In the time of deep alienation we are confronted with, there are few things that have the power to bring us together once more into a public square than shared stories in the cinema.
The darkened theatre surrounded by your fellow community members remains one common space where we explore and try and make sense out of our culture together.
As filmmakers, we have often built our careers on competing for the limited resources and attention of external institutions. We pack up our cars and move to Los Angeles or New York City, we apply for grants and one in a thousand slots in festivals, we compete alongside every filmmaker in the nation for scarce success and national attention or glory.
In Texas I see another model for us to explore and perhaps emulate. Rather than assuming the distant dream of Hollywood is the only path to success, we may instead consider building our local film communities, and creating new institutions and opportunities outside of traditional pathways.
It has worked for a great many of the filmmakers here in Texas, and could perhaps help us changing the landscape and economics of modern independent cinema in a positive way.
British film journal "The New Current" interviewed me about my film, Inertia, which is featured in the Cannes Film Festival's Short Film Corner this year. It was a terrific opportunity to talk about the lessons I learned in making the film, and the changes that have occurred in my perspective about filmmaking in the years that have since passed. Thanks so much to The New Current for reaching out and taking the time to interview me, it was such a pleasure to share my experience with their readers.
You can check out a transcript of the interview on this page or check it out on The New Current's website here: http://www.thenewcurrent.co.uk/#!cannes-2016-travis-lee-ratcliff-/cn3d
"Inertia" Synopsis - 1929, a month before the stock-market crash. Jack O’Connor decides to leave his career in crime and move back to the small town he grew up in. He soon finds something key is missing.
Hello Travis, thanks for talking to tNC, how's everything going?
Thank you for having me. Everything is going well here in Austin, Texas.
Congratulations on having Inertia part of this years Short Film Corner, what does it mean for you to have your film at cannes?
It’s a great honor to be able to show the film at Cannes. I’ve always admired the festival and dreamt of being able to present my work there. The first feature film set I worked on was a French-American co-production that filmed in Paris and Soissons, so I’ve always felt like France is where I first learned the craft of filmmaking. To be able to take this project back to France is very special to me.
Are any nerves setting in ahead of the festival?
Not particularly. Unfortunately, one of the challenges of being an independent filmmaker is making difficult choices about how your limited resources will be allocated. When I ran the numbers on traveling to represent the film at the festival, it just didn’t make financial sense. I was faced with a choice of putting those resources to my next project or attending the festival, and I chose the former.
Tell me a little bit about Inertia how did the film come about?
“Inertia” takes place in the months before the Great Depression. It follows a brutal, hired killer who decides to retire, end his career in organized crime, and settle in the small town he grew up in. He takes up painting. He pursues a relationship with a girl too young for him. Despite his wealth, his freedom, and his relationship, he feels totally unhappy and unfulfilled. He misses the excitement and brutality of his earlier life. The film asks the question: can a man change himself? What is the nature of our character? Does it define us, or can we escape the gravity of our life choices?
Home from university on a long holiday break, I decided I would take on a thirty day series of writing exercises. Each day, I attempted to complete a short screenplay between five and fifteen pages. The goal was to work so quickly, so frantically, that I would be unable to censor myself or over-consider my impulses. The result was a lot of half ideas. But that wasn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Some of them felt like interesting half-ideas. One of those scripts was the original germ of what would become “Inertia.”
I re-worked the script over the course of a year, and showed it to many of my collaborators and fellow directing students. With a lot of notes, I began to develop the project as one of my major directing projects for my second to last year in school.
What was the inspiration behind the film?
There was a saying that I learned in my high school ethics curriculum: “Your choices become your habits, your habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny.”
It was said with a lot of enthusiasm. I found it horrifying. It was like describing a prison that we each build for ourselves, without realizing we are doing it.
As I began to write “Inertia,” I kept that quote in the forefront of my mind and was interested in seeing the fate of a man who, wants to change who he is, but discovers he can’t. This seems even more haunting to me considering what little real choice many people have in determining their life’s path. Some of us do what we must to survive in order to make the best out of a difficult situation.
What was the most challenging scene for you to write and film?
One subplot in the film is the arrival of the Great Depression in October of 1929. The script describes a bank run that occurs in the small town our protagonist has made his new home. At the moral climax of the film, a discussion between Jack and his brother, there is a juxtaposition between the run on the bank and their conversation. Even in Savannah, Georgia finding a period style bank was extremely difficult. We ultimately settled on an excellent location in Vidalia, Georgia, hours away from Savannah.
What we failed to consider was how difficult this would make rallying extras. What was originally supposed to be a large set-piece of a scene had to become something very different on the day of shooting.
We re-arranged our blocking and lensing and staged the scene in extreme close-ups in slow motion. By shifting our attention to the details: hands grabbing frantically at money, faces screaming, we were able to pull off the scene with only three or four extras.
The visual dynamic shifted into a much more surreal and emotionally driven perspective, even though we lost the production value the larger scale scene was intended to convey. I felt it turned out to be one of those happy accidents that can really benefit a film, but one that also leaves you terrified after wrapping up the day.
Looking back is there anything you would do differently on this film?
Absolutely. In the time that has passed since I made this film, I’ve learned an enormous amount about myself, the kind of films I want to make, and my craft. I’m very thankful when I look back on this project for the opportunity to learn and grow through making it, but there are fundamental changes in my work as a writer and director that have taken place since completing it. And of course, there are the limitations you have at the time, such as crammed schedules and a narrow ability to see exactly how the aspects will fit together. You always ask yourself, if you’d had an extra day to take on a particular scene, what would you have been able to achieve?
However, one thing I can say with certainty is that I am still so incredibly proud of all the contributions my collaborators made to this project. The performances, the cinematography, the amazing original score, the excellent sound design, and all the work of every individual crew member still shine through to me when I watch the project. So beyond mulling over my own limitations as a director, I mostly feel gratitude for the help I received from so many talented, creative people.
Has it been hard to let go of the film and give it up to audiences?
It can be difficult. I still feel dread when watching the film screen in front of audiences. It’s something I’ve experienced all of the eight years I’ve been making films. If it were possible, I would probably avoid being present for the screening of most of my films. That said, I love discussing the projects with audience members during Q&A sessions, and that continues to drive me to follow my films to festivals when I am able.
It's hard when you observe the film a year, or more, after having completed it. At that point, you’ve moved on from it. Because I treat projects like personal areas of myself that I want to explore, confronting them after time has passed is jarring in the same way that hearing your own voice or seeing old photos of yourself can feel uncomfortable. It’s a reflection of you, but it isn’t you anymore.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
No, originally I began working on theatre productions at a very young age and had a deep passion for that work. When I was sixteen my directing mentors encouraged me to try making a short film. That experience was life changing for me.
I felt so engaged by the whole act of making the film, from pre-production through post-production that I spent the rest of my time in high school making short films. My school helped me tremendously in building a portfolio that made it possible for me to attend film school and continue being mentored by professionals and peers with experiences beyond my own.
What was the first film you saw that made you think ‘yeah this is for me’?
There were films I loved growing up. They impacted me on a visceral and thrilling level. I don’t think I loved them as films however, I loved them as stories, as worlds, and as adventures. Films like Star Wars were probably the first bolt of electricity that made me excited about experiencing what the movies had to offer, but I don’t know if that’s the same thing as falling in love with the artifice of cinema itself.
I also first came to making films through directing and acting in theatre productions, so I think I may have fallen in love with cinema years after I had started directing and showing my first short films at festivals.
If I had to pick out one film that I firmly believe changed my life, I think it was Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” That film was unlike anything I had ever experienced at the time. I first watched it in a class at university called Language of Cinema, where we explored different films and discussed the visual language behind the movies. Watching that film was like an out of body experience.
It was so rich with ambiguities, a point of view, and a mesmerizing tone that overpowered the plot in the best of ways. I thought it was magical. Before that, I don’t think I understood that films could be that way. The film was working on an almost spiritual level. Since then, I’ve always sought out films and a process of making films, that aspires to emulate that kind of cinematic experience.
Some years after that, I encountered another film that changed my life and work in a similar way to “Days of Heaven.” In 2013, right after graduating film school, I found Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” Here was a film that not only seemed to be tapped into the same wellspring of energy that Malick’s “Days of Heaven” was working with, but it had been taken to even further heights.
For a film to be that powerful, that innovative, and be produced on a microscopic budget, made me look carefully back at the films being produced in my home state of Texas. I decided to move to Austin because of the incredible microbudget filmmaking that is happening in Texas in the cinema of David Lowery, Augustine Frizzell, Kat Candler, Yen Tan, Toby Halbrooks, Andrew Bujalski, Trey Edward Shults, as well as many others, and that is very much supported by Richard Linklater and the Austin Film Society. I felt, and still feel, like something incredible is happening here that is underreported, and that it may be brilliantly subversive to the way we make and watch films.
How much has your approach to writing and directing changed since your debut film?
Every film I make seems to completely change the way I look at writing and directing.
So far, I’ve only produced and directed short films, so I can’t even imagine how my perspective will change once I finish my first feature.
As an overall theme, I’d say that when I began making films I was obsessed with planning and designing every facet of the film in advance, to the point where it was hurting the filmmaking. You sort of have to be that obsessive when you’re just learning the technical dimensions of the craft just to avoid shooting yourself in a corner you can’t get out of. However, as I gained more experience and made more films, I started to become fascinated by what I perceived was being lost in our over zealous planning.
A film can be perfectly executed and still be totally spiritually dead.
“Inertia” was the first moment in my filmmaking where I felt we had planned enough that we had the luxury of listening to the film, so to speak, as we were producing it on the set.
My cinematographer and I found that as we watched the performances and the framing, and listened to our instincts, we could discover totally new things about the film right alongside our crew and performers, and we could adjust our designs to incorporate these epiphanies into the filmmaking. That was a tremendously exciting revelation.
The way that the process of making the film, informs and enriches the film you are making, has totally radicalized the way I make films now. While I still plan out as much as I can in advance, I’m very conscious of allowing the process to engage with our preconceived notions of what our work is exploring.
What have been the biggest lessons you've learnt so far?
Community is everything. I could never have made this film without the incredible filmmaking community I was a part of in Savannah. Moving to a new city, this has been one of the most important lessons to re-learn. We are all in this together, and we all have to help one another in order to succeed. Another person’s success is not a bad thing. When one of us is successful, we all are successful.
We have to maintain that attitude as filmmakers. We have to be as giving as is possible to one another. This kind of work can be brutal. Without a strong community that cares about your mission and that you yourself are also willing to contribute to, I don’t think a sustainable cinema is possible.
Now you can be reflective what advice would you offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think I’d tell fellow filmmakers to only pursue this if you feel like you have no other choice. It’s very difficult, and the industry we are a part of has some deep economic dysfunctions that make the gap between the successful and aspirational very wide.
Another piece of advice I’d give anyone who is looking to make an impact on this industry is to think about the how emerging digital distribution and financing methods can be used in innovative and exciting ways.
We absolutely have to put more of our energy into building a better economic infrastructure and toolset for ourselves and our film communities. We have to take some of the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley startups and put it to use in the service of the cinema.
I feel like there is an enormous opportunity for filmmakers to take advantage of this disruptive moment in distribution and financing. We have to build and experiment with new ways of funding our content and distributing our stories.
By doing so, we can bring about a powerful shift in how we survive as filmmakers. For example: the invention of Kickstarter may have been more important to independent filmmaking than most of the films released since then. Companies like Austin based film distribution startup “Tugg” are also great at demonstrating what the potential is to fundamentally change how distribution or financing work in this industry.
And if anyone can do it, filmmakers can.
I’ve never met harder working people than I have in the independent film world, where there is never enough time or money, but the shot still gets in the can. I can’t help but feel if we put even half that energy into improving and innovating in the economic structure of our business we might all have an incredibly easier time in our life as filmmakers.
I’d advise any fellow young filmmakers to exploit this moment and build new tools, take advantage of existing digital tools, and tell stories for communities that feel under served by the conventional moving picture industry. And if you do, tell other filmmakers about your experience. We are all explorers and we have to learn from each other’s experiences.
And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?
I hope everyone takes something different away from the film. I’ve shown it to a lot of audiences at this point and am thankful for all the positive responses I’ve gotten, but so many of the readings of the film are totally different than anything I could have expected or designed.
I think what I love most about the cinema is the way it can function as an opaque looking glass. We can all look through it together and see totally different things.