It took about six years for Harris County native Robbie Pickering to give birth to his new feature film, "Natural Selection," which premiered at the South by Soutwest Film Conference and Festival on Sunday. But just about everything in his new movie deals with a difficult birth.
Filmed in Smithville, the movie has one of the most bizarre openings ever.
A large lawnmower glides across the grounds outside a Texas prison. It has a big bag for grass attached to it. And when the man with the mower takes a break, the big bag begins to rumble, then rip open. It holds a convict who has been hiding in the bag and is ready to be reborn as a free man.
"That scene was in my head from the beginning," Pickering says. "But I never wrote it in the script. Then one day when I was in the director's lab, and I realized that the movie was all about rebirths. So I asked Matt O'Leary (the actor who plays the convict) to do it. He's allergic to grass, but he was committed to the scene. He was all swollen when we finished filming it."
From that auspicious opening, Pickering takes us through another rebirth — that of a Christian East Texas woman whose husband has a suffered a stroke while secretly making a donation at a sperm bank. He has been doing this for years, she learns. She also discovers that her husband has an adult son through one of his donations. So she sets out on a journey to find him.
"Linda (the wife) is middle-aged, and no one in Hollywood wants to make a movie about a middle-aged woman," Pickering says. "She's the heart of the movie, and I guess that's why it took so long to get financing. There were lots of rejections and disappointments along the way, but it's very rewarding in the end."
Pickering lucked out when he found the perfect actress to play Linda: Rachael Harris. Most people probably don't know who she is, but she'll look vaguely familiar.
That's because she played the controlling girlfriend of Ed Helms' character in the 2009 hit movie "The Hangover."
Harris' character in "Natural Selection" is nothing like that of the girlfriend in "The Hangover."
"Rachael has amazing, unbelievable comic timing," Pickering says. "I honestly don't think there's another actress who could play the role as well as Rachael. She's able to be this cherubic, honest, pure creature — sort of like how every little boy sees his mother."
It's only a matter of time, of course, before the paths of the middle-aged woman and the escaped convict converge, and that's what sets the action of "Natural Selection" down its comic path.
Although he grew up in the Houston suburb of Jersey Village, Pickering has been living in Los Angeles for a little more than five years. "I went to the University of Texas, but I transferred to NYU. I was making a living doing shorts, but I decided to move to Los Angeles."
He knows it might sound like heresy, but he likes Los Angeles more than New York, Pickering says.
"Everybody says that they hate driving and all the traffic in L.A., but I remind them that I grew up in Houston."
On Tuesday, the film won the grand jury prize in the SXSW Narrative Feature Competition. Stars Harris and O'Leary were named breakout performers in a narrative feature. And "Natural Selection" won prizes in the same category for screenplay, editing and score. It also won the narrative feature audience award, which is voted on by festivalgoers. "Natural Selection" screens at 4 p.m. Friday at the State Theatre, 719 Congress Ave.