“Also Starring Austin,” which makes its Austin Film Festival premiere this week, is an eye-opening documentary about movie-making culture in this city. It is also a movie about Austin and how the city grew up with its film industry.
Using clips from more than 120 films and TV shows shot here, as well as key interviews, it is about so much more than a creative industry that helped define modern Austin. The documentary reminds us of the local movie pioneers of the 1960s through the '80s who led the way to cult hits such as "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Slacker," as well the ways in which the music and movie scenes melded, turning Austin into a beacon for talents such as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan and Mike Judge who did not fit into the Hollywood mold.
Along the way, it calculates the impact of Willie Nelson's early films, the arrival of TV series such as "Friday Night Lights" and the manner in which the Austin area's varied locations — including an emptied-out downtown that could appear post-apocalyptic — played parts in the growth of film production here.
One of the documentary's many surprises, for instance, was to remind viewers of all the TV movies made here in the 1990s and how they helped establish a permanent "crew" of skilled workers who could handle multiple feature films, TV shows, digital games, music videos and commercials at the same time.
"Former Texas Film Commission director Tom Copeland calls it the 'Potsie effect' because one of the first TV movies that shot in Central Texas was called 'The Lone Star Kid' and it was directed by Anson Williams, who played Potsie on 'Happy Days,'" says the documentary's producer-director-co-writer Mike Blizzard. "He really enjoyed Austin and was able to find capable crew here, so he went back to LA and told everyone, 'You have to check this place out,' and a sort of cottage industry was born."
Those Austin-made "Movies of the Week" also almost changed one key career. Lee Daniel, who shot all of Linklater’s early films, worked on the TV movie “Save the Dog” that is featured in the documentary.
"Rick Linklater auditioned for a role in that film," Blizzard says. "Imagine how Austin might be different today if he had gotten that part."
Even viewers who are not film buffs or industry insiders will appreciate the many ways that Austin, the city, comes off in the clips. The physical cityscape has changed dramatically, of course, over the past 50 years. But each movie made here tells us something about changes in local culture as well.
We asked Blizzard, who has played many civic and creative roles in Austin over the past few decades, about his broader vision and how the documentary came together.
American-Statesman: You’ve laid down not just a history of Austin film production, but also a larger cultural history. Did you set out to do that?
Mike Blizzard: The film production history is interesting and sort of a necessary part of the story, but it’s not meant to be a comprehensive history of that. The intent was always to demonstrate how these films reflect Austin, but at first it was more how they showed the dramatic changes in Austin over the past nearly 50 years of filmmaking here.
However, as we watched all these movies, we realized there was something maybe more interesting going on in that these films reflect not just change but constants as well. There’s a persistence of Austin’s culture in the face of all this change, and a certain feedback loop between the city and its creative artists. Austin isn’t only a place that has been filmed a tremendous number of times; its culture has also encouraged that kind of thing. So the final film is much more grounded in that cultural story than I had initially intended.
Affordability, freedom and a permission to be creative seem to be the themes for 1970s pioneering efforts such as Tobe Hooper and Eagle Pennell in movies such as “Eggshells,” “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Whole Shootin’ Match.” Please elaborate.
Sonny Carl Davis quotes Eddie Wilson as saying the success of the Armadillo World Headquarters in the 1970s was based on “cheap pot and cold beer,” and Tobe and Eagle were part of that ethos, though Tobe a bit more a product of the 1960s. His first film, “Eggshells,” is an incredible snapshot of late-1960s and early-1970s Austin and brought together people like Wayne Bell and Kim Henkel, who would not only then play key roles in the creation of “Chain Saw” but on some of Eagle’s films as well. They’ve also remained active in the Austin film scene for decades. So Tobe and then Eagle tapped into this 1970s Austin cultural milieu, and out of that came not only one of the most influential horror films of all time but also, in Eagle’s case with “Whole Shootin’ Match,” one of the inspirations for Robert Redford to create Sundance. This has had a lasting impact not only on the local film scene, but also on world cinema.
Author Alison Macor and editor-producer Louis Black appear to have been essential in assembling the spine of this documentary as sources.
Alison’s book “Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids” was an incredible resource for us and was how I initially learned about the silent film era in Austin. Through the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, we were able to get some home movies shot by two of those early filmmakers, the Tilley Brothers, and have Alison narrate that section. She was also a great resource for sections about Tobe, Eagle, Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, because she had written about all of them as well.
As for Louis, he is one of the great cultural forces in this city, and this film absolutely would not exist without him. It’s not just his incredibly knowledgeable commentary in the film and his support of the concept from the get-go, but I wouldn’t know about much of this history except for Louis. His work restoring and promoting “Eggshells” and Eagle’s movies are how I first learned about them. Arguably, he’s done more than anyone in promoting Austin film and music culture. He’s also a fantastic storyteller.
The melding of the music and movie scenes seems crucial to the early music videos, the many Willie Nelson films and the founding of a technical crew colony in Austin in the 1980s. How did that happen?
As Louis says in the film, “The musicians and filmmakers were often one and the same.” Willie is an obvious example of that, and Sonny Carl Davis also got his start as a member of the Uranium Savages. Many of the early ‘80s filmmakers whose shorts were curated by Jonathan Demme in his “Made in Texas” program were part of the local avant-garde and punk scene. “Slacker” is full of musicians, with members of Glass Eye, Poi Dog Pondering, Butthole Surfers and Water the Dog in the movie just to name a few. So there has always been that cross-pollination between film and music, and I think that’s because Austin is the type of place that encourages and allows that kind of thing. It also continues to this day.
Willie’s films in particular also contributed greatly to the development of a professional crew here in Austin, especially with the development of the western town out in Luck. He had several large productions here in the 1980s like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Songwriter,” and “Red Headed Stranger” that provided a consistent level of work, then he got into TV movies as well.
It’s kind of shocking to see Austin’s semi-abandoned downtown — I remember it well! — as a location for so many movies during the early years before the current building spree. I guess that should be included with the city’s proximity to deserts, hills, forests, farmlands and small towns among the locational “plastic to mold into what was needed."
In our outline, one section of the film was always called “Desolate Downtown.” “Roadie,” “Future-Kill,” “Blood Simple” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” certainly rely heavily on it. In fact, the bulk of “Chainsaw 2” was shot in the abandoned American-Statesman building that was downtown at the time.
Probably the best example of it, though, is “Slacker.” If you juxtapose scenes from that movie — especially the ones on Second Street and West Sixth and Lamar — with what’s there today, it is truly mind-boggling.
Rick Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan are, of course, key figures in creating Austin’s can-do film scene. What is it about their personalities that clicks with Austin?
I think the fiercely independent spirit of Austin really fits all of them, and they’ve in turn bolstered that spirit. Robert said in our interview with him that he didn’t want to go to LA “to learn by other people’s rules” but instead “stay here and create our own rules.” The importance of this for the film scene can’t be overstated. When Rick, Robert and Elizabeth became successful and opted to stay in Austin rather than go to Hollywood, it fundamentally changed the Austin film industry, and arguably Austin itself. A certain amount of infrastructure, like Troublemaker Studios and Austin Studios, was also created, and they became an inspiration to many others that you can make films and have a career here.
I think audiences, even if they are not film or history buffs, will go crazy seeing all the familiar sites in so many different movie contexts. I include “lost” parts of the city.
When we screened at the Dallas Film Festival, we had some Austin expats show up from different eras, and honestly the audience got a little raucous at times responding to seeing places that otherwise only exist in their memories. I can’t imagine how the Austin audience will respond. The film also covers many decades, so whether you moved here 45 years or five years ago, you’ll probably react strongly to some part of the film. We’ve actually gotten some great reactions from people who are very new to Austin, in part because much of this history is new and interesting to them.
Often these movies may be the only moving images of some of these places. The legendary music venue Soap Creek Saloon that appears in “Outlaw Blues” and Eagle Pennell’s “Hell of a Note” is a great example. To our knowledge, no other footage of the interior exists, and certainly nothing of this quality. It is definitely recorded history, and many cities don’t have that. Only a handful of cities in the country have been filmed as continuously as Austin.
The “Friday Night Lights” section seemed a little rushed.
“Friday Night Lights” ran for five seasons and had a major impact on the local industry and economy and helped put Austin on the map for additional TV series. In earlier cuts of the film, we had more on that production impact, but it felt a little like a mini-documentary about the show and interrupted the flow, especially coming near the end when you want the pace to pick up. We had the same issue with the roller derby section. So we cut it back pretty substantially to focus more tightly on how Austin, and especially East Austin, became Dillon, Texas. We hope we still do it justice, especially because it has a very passionate fan base. The Austin Film Commission says the most requests they get for people wanting to visit local filming locations are for “Dazed and Confused” and “Friday Night Lights.”
You end on a hopeful note, that, despite the radical changes in the city in the past decade or so, the spirit of creativity and ingenuity lives on.
It does reflect how I feel. I see young people coming here all the time who are seeking a place where they can find themselves and express themselves. People just like that worked on this film. But documentary filmmaking is really a form of montage art, and we’re taking this archival material and mixing it with interviews, and there’s no narrator, so it’s really the story that the movies and interviewees themselves tell that is a hopeful one. It definitely acknowledges the change and some of what’s been lost, but also what endures. I get goose bumps at the end every time I watch it, and I hope others do too. There is certainly something very unique about this place.