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Austin filmmaker aims small, strikes big

Bryan Poyser's feature 'Lovers of Hate' will compete at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Chris Garcia

In a one-week stretch, Bryan Poyser got one of the best phone calls he's ever received and one of the worst.

His phone rang on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The Austin filmmaker was at work at the Austin Film Society, where he is the group's director of artist services. He was typing the final few words in a blog entry, a sentence, he says, that read something to the effect of "I don't want to say anything about what I've really been thinking about the past couple of weeks, other than to say that I wish I didn't want it so much."

Phone rings.

"I was just about to post the blog when I get this call from California from a number I didn't recognize," Poyser says. "It was Trevor Groth, head programmer of the Sundance Film Festival, telling me they really loved my movie and that they want to play it in the competition."

This was exactly what he wanted so much.

"I was running around the office as he was talking to me and I wasn't really hearing what he was saying and I was pointing at my phone to my co-workers, whispering 'It's Sundance!'"

Poyser's low-budget dark comedy "Lovers of Hate" had beat out more than 1,000 feature films to land in Sundance's prestigious Dramatic Competition. During the festival, Jan. 21-31 in Park City, Utah, the movie will vie with 15 other titles, some starring bona fide stars Mary-Louise Parker, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Orlando Bloom, James Gandolfini and Laura Linney. Poyser's movie stars relative unknowns: Austin actors Chris Doubek and Heather Kafka and New Yorker Alex Karpovsky (who was last seen in Andrew Bujalski's Austin-made "Beeswax," as was Poyser in a small part).

It was one of those nirvana moments that burgeoning filmmakers twist themselves up for, a godsend as coveted as it is elusive. Sundance's tradition of introducing fresh independent cinema to world audiences — "Slacker," "Reservoir Dogs," "Little Miss Sunshine," this year's "Precious" — is legend.

A week after that phone call, almost to the hour, Poyser was again finishing up work at the Austin Film Society. Phone rings. It's his sister, who informs him that their father has died of a heart attack.

The double-whammy of news, an irreconcilable knot of jubilation and sorrow, has thrown things into perspective. "It hasn't knocked the wind out of my sails but it's made me recognize what an amazing opportunity (the festival) is for me and everyone involved," Poyser says. "Still, my life changed a hell of a lot when I got the call about my dad. I'm going to be dealing with not having him around for the rest of my life. It would have been great for him to see this."

In its way, this is a story about death and rebirth. "Lovers of Hate" marks Poyser's return to making a feature film to his personal specifications. He has made several shorts and two features, 2004's "Dear Pillow" and 2006's "The Cassidy Kids," which he produced and co-wrote. (It was directed by Poyser's former collaborator Jacob Vaughan.)

While "Dear Pillow" emerged how he envisioned it, earning festival awards and an Independent Spirit Award nomination, "The Cassidy Kids" was a demonstration of how the vaunted collaborative nature of filmmaking can turn to sour compromise. Poyser and Vaughan joined forces with the University of Texas Film Institute and the now-defunct Burnt Orange Productions to make "Cassidy Kids," but, Poyser says, "There were too many cooks in the kitchen. \u2026 It didn't go very well."

After the $4,000 "Dear Pillow," which Vaughan shot and edited, Poyser and Vaughan leaped at the chance to make a half-million-dollar feature with Burnt Orange. They soon realized part of their job description was to serve the ideas of other people, not necessarily their own.

Though the movie premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and aired on the Independent Film Channel, "It didn't turn out the way I wanted it to," Poyser says over coffee. "I was trying to please all these different constituencies, changing the script to something I thought other people would like."

Poyser was left mulling if he even wanted to keep making movies. He felt chastened. "The effort required is so high and the potential payback is so low," he says.

If he did, he was certain that he would do it on a smaller scale. He shot a couple of short films and wrote a feature script.

But it was while he was at Sundance in 2008 that he struck upon the idea for "Lovers of Hate." In Park City, he was staying in a gigantic four-story, six-bedroom chateau-style home co-owned by Deborah Green, an Austin Film Society board member. He had already wanted to write a script as a vehicle for friend Chris Doubek, but now he had a setting: this massive edifice that could serve as a character.

"I liked the idea that someone could hide in there without anybody else inside knowing it. It's so big," Poyser says.

He used the conceit to develop a grimly comic story about a warped love triangle between two brothers and the estranged wife of one of them. The brother played by Doubek hides in the house only to witness his brother (Karpovsky) moving in on Doubek's willing wife (Kafka). The movie explores the psychological dynamics of watching the one you love in the arms of another who happens to be your brother.

Doubek's character "decides to get his revenge by sabotaging the couple from the shadows, playing little tricks on them, trying to split them apart," Poyser says. Elements of bedroom farce mingle with "uncomfortable humor."

With a five-figure budget, "Lovers of Hate" was shot on high-definition video by Austin cinematographer David Lowery in 19 days in Park City and Austin. (It's produced by Megan Gilbride, and its executive producers include filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass.)

"I wanted to make sure that the logistical challenges were manageable enough that they wouldn't keep me from making the movie I wanted," Poyser, 34, says. "I thought that if I'm going to go through all the effort, time and expense of making a tiny-budget movie, it better be something that I give 110 percent to and that I don't shoot myself in the foot by trying to do something too ambitious."

About the felicity of making a film in Sundance's hometown only to have it accepted to the festival the following year?

"Of course we hoped that it might happen," Poyser says. "Hey, here we are in Park City, shooting a movie. Wouldn't it be awesome if one year later we could come back with the film in the festival? But I really tried to keep my expectations very low and just concentrate on the work and making it good."

He's still keeping his expectations low. Poyser, who graduated with a film degree from the University of Texas, realizes that film distribution has contracted in recent years and that the chance of getting one's film into theaters is slighter than ever.

"We knew we weren't making a movie that we'd be selling to Miramax for a million bucks," he says. "We're willing to recoup its cost by selling DVDs one at a time at film festivals."

The hard facts of the film business and the hard blow of losing a family member have placed Poyser in a contemplative mood that you might call humbly realistic.

"It's been such a weird time for me. It's all made me grateful for this and not to expect everything to change after this moment. And to recognize that we got lucky."

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649