'The Blazing World,' shot in Dripping Springs in pandemic summer, hits Sundance in Austin
Oh, you baked sourdough bread early on in the coronavirus pandemic? Brinton Bryan and his team made a movie.
Don't feel too bad. Adapting to strange circumstances is normal for now, and the film industry is no exception. We saw local film festivals like Austin Film Festival, AGLIFF and Capital City Black Film Festival go virtual in 2020. Area cinemas stayed closed for a good chunk of last year, and film release schedules got absolutely zonked. The majority in town have reopened in some limited capacity by now. An exception is Austin Film Society's AFS Cinema, though the arthouse organization has held some socially distanced outdoor and drive-in screenings.
Sundance Film Festival, a venerated proving ground for the latest new cinema every year, also rethought its model for 2021, transitioning to both the digital space and several "satellite screens" across the country, in a bid to offer hurting local film communities a little silver screen support. AFS is one of those satellite screens. They'll show a series of Sundance films on a drive-in screen at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms from Jan. 28-Feb. 1, as well as hold some online panels.
"The Blazing World," produced by Bryan under his Greenbelt Films company, is one of those Sundance flicks making an era-appropriate debut, virtually and at the drive-in. Starring Carlson Young, who also directed it and co-wrote the screenplay, the film tells the story of Margaret, who's haunted by the memory of her sister's drowning death. On the brink of suicide as an adult, Margaret takes "an epic journey down the smokiest and scariest corridors of her imagination," according to the official description. The feature-length outing, Carlson's directorial debut, is based on her Sundance short of the same name from 2018.
Bryan says the whole film was shot in Dripping Springs starting in July, "in the thick of the pandemic." Young had come to Austin to scout locations last January, with the help of a list put together by the Texas Film Commission. The spot they picked, in the wedding venue capital of Central Texas, was the first they looked at, and Bryan said the location proved "serendipitous."
"We established a quarantine out there," he says. "We shot the movie in one house." Like many film productions, the cast and crew formed a tight quarantine bubble, all staying together and working in the same nearby retreats, which normally would have been booked up by nuptial ceremonies had the pandemic not hit.
"We felt like we had our own little backlot," Bryan says. "We couldn’t shoot it anywhere else under the circumstance."
Shooting a movie in a few months during a pandemic, as you might imagine, requires moving some chess pieces around the board. Bryan says they had to scale the crew down from 75 to 35, which meant the people brought on board had to wear multiple hats.
"Every single person that signed up had to do multiple jobs," he says. "We had to find people who were willing to step out of the comfort zone." Another consideration, he adds: finding people who were "the right personality fit," since this crew were about to spend a lot of time together in isolation.
It was a feat of homegrown filmmaking for Bryan, who grew up west of Dallas in Granbury and graduated from Westlake High School in 2000. An industry vet, he moved to Los Angeles in 2001, but Texas film is an indelible part of his journey, too. He was a stand-in on Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" and a production assistant on Richard Linklater's "Bad New Bears." One of Greenbelt's films, "12 Mighty Orphans," filmed around Fort Worth in 2019.
Bryan started Greenbelt Films, he says, as a way to write and film projects in his home state. ("You write what you know," he says.) After some time flying back and forth between California and Texas, Bryan and his wife decided to put down roots in Austin while expecting a child. Greenbelt Films is now based here in town, and Bryan says he lives in the same neighborhood as local film luminaries Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols.
"I don’t look at it as a competition in any way shape or form," Bryan says of the Austin film industry. "Texas offers so much diversity in landscape and cultures. I'm looking forward to bringing in a new voice and perspective. Not everything we do has got to be Texas-based, but it’s going to be the backbone."
Greenbelt Films has about six projects in the works, but "The Blazing World's" Sunday debut is a special one. "Just being able to make content in 2020 was such an accomplishment," he says.
When the team found out that Sundance wasn't happening in a normal way, it seemed fitting — finding out the movie would have one of its first showings at an Austin drive-in was the best-case scenario for the current moment, he says, especially given his own ties to the city and the cast and crew's experience together in Dripping Springs.
"It’s the best version of how we could have premiered this film," he says.
Sundance Film Festival in Austin
When: Jan. 28-Feb. 1
What: Drive-in screenings are at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, 10621 Pioneer Farms Drive. On the schedule:
• "Son of Monarchs," 7 p.m. Jan. 28
• "The Pink Cloud," 7 p.m. Jan. 29
• "How It Ends," 6 p.m. Jan. 30 (technically sold out)
• "Censor," 8:30 p.m. Jan. 30
• "At the Ready," 6 p.m. Jan. 31
• "The Blazing World," 8:30 p.m. Jan. 31 (technically sold out)
• "Users," 6 p.m. Feb. 1
• "Judas and the Black Messiah," 8:30 p.m. Feb. 1 (technically sold out)
Find ticket information, as well as RSVP for online panel discussions, at austinfilm.org.