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Producer falls in love with Austin and decides to stay

Jane Sumner
A scene from 'ExTerminators,' which stars Amber Heard, left, Jennifer Coolidge and Heather Graham.

That's right, she's not from Texas, but Texas wants her anyway. That's because New York transplant Suzanne Weinert makes movies in the state.

We met the lively screenwriter-producer recently at her favorite Austin restaurant, Botticelli's on South Congress.

Not only is it a location in her dark comedy "ExTerminators," recently released on DVD and video on demand, but it's also the workplace of manager-bartender-actor Tim Brown, who plays the guy who gets torched in the film.

In the R-rated feature, Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge and Austin rising star Amber Heard play women who meet in a rage-therapy group, then wreak havoc on all the Texas men who've wronged them.

Shot in Austin with a largely Texas crew, Weinert's script for "ExTerminators" is a kind of a Lone Star "Arsenic and Old Lace" with younger, sexier leads, Matthew Settle in place of Cary Grant and Drena De Niro, Robert De Niro's daughter, as the avenging group's therapist.

"Suzanne is funny, genuinely nice, down to earth and very professional," says veteran Texas agent Linda McAlister of Waxahachie. "She's in demand and could shoot anywhere in the world. We are grateful to have indie writer-producers like her bringing business to the state."

"With independent films, it's all about the money," Weinert says. And she credits fellow producer Jay Michaelson with finding the funding to make "ExTerminators." Unlike her other projects, which are Texas investor-based, the film was financed by UTV Motion Pictures in India.

Emmy-nominated cinematographer John Inwood directed the film about "a girls' club with a killer attitude." Texas singer-songwriter Charlie Robison plays both the first victim and "Flatland Boogie" on the soundtrack.

In 2003, Weinert says, the Independent Feature Project picked "ExTerminators" as one of the year's 25 best unproduced screenplays.

"That was what really started the ball rolling. People optioned it, and then I came here in 2006 for South by Southwest. The script had just come back to me, and a friend suggested I shoot in Austin."

Because "ExTerminators" was written for New York City, she says, "I literally went home and re-wrote it for Austin. I was going to shoot it in 2007, then the writers' strike happened."

Instead, she produced the films "Clown Hunt" and "Javelina" for her friend, actor-director Barry Tubb, in Snyder. Both are now in post-production.

"When I go out with Barry," she says, "girls come up to him and say, 'You were in "Top Gun."\u2009' And I'm laughing because that was 24 years ago." Still others recognize the former junior bull riding champ as lovesick Jasper Fant in the TV series "Lonesome Dove" (1989).

The day the writers' strike ended, Weinert says, she finished re-working "ExTerminators," then shot it in 2008. Besides Botticelli's, locations include Nasty's, the Herb Bar, ABC Pest Control, Chez Zee, Scarbrough's and Dr. Mark Sweeney's dental office.

Weinert first came here in 2001 as a finalist in Austin Film Festival's comedy screenplay competition. "I always wonder what happened to the guy who won because I'm still here," she says. "That's when I fell in love with Austin."

Nine years later, she has one Texas-made film released on DVD and on-demand video, one coming out next year, another readying for a spring shoot, two in post-production and two in development.

"We just finished 'The Legend of Hell's Gate: An American Conspiracy' that we shot all over the state," she says. "That was a big deal." Snyder writer-director Tanner Beard's Western, about how two towering cliff formations in Possum Kingdom Lake came to be called Hell's Gate, stars Eric Balfour, Lou Taylor Pucci and Henry Thomas.

"Suzanne really impressed me with her support of first-time director Tanner Beard," says actor Glenn Morshower, a Dallas native, who's in both "ExTerminators" and "The Legend of Hell's Gate."

"Tanner is a young man whose vision she truly trusted. So much so that she raised the money for the film and sat by his side every day, assisting him in obtaining his vision."

Weinert's script for "One in a Million," about a kid who dreams of being a NASCAR driver, is set to shoot in the spring of 2011. Co-written with Jay Michaelson, who'll also direct, it will shoot for four weeks around Austin and a week and half at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

Other projects she's nurturing include Beard's historical crime drama "Black Thursday," and her former student Brennan Mulligan's historical drama "The St. Patrick's Battalion," the true story of Irish immigrant John Riley. Weinert taught screenwriting at Fordham University and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

While earning an MFA in film at Columbia University, she landed an internship working for director Ron Howard on "The Paper" (1994).

"I learned I didn't want to be in production," she says. "But that experience with, no joke, the nicest man in the film business sealed the deal."

After graduation, Weinert went to work for Julia Roberts' Shoelace Productions, now called Red Om Films. "Julia made a ton of movies in that time. We made wildlife documentaries with a British company called Tigress Productions and it was a blast."

For "Orangutans with Julia Roberts" (1998) on the TV series "In the Wild," Weinert journeyed to maritime Southeast Asia. "Borneo was having terrible fires and drought. Orangutans knew that we would have water on us. A orangutan came up to a member of the crew, took off her backpack, opened it up and took out a big Evian bottle. If Evian only knew, it's the preferred water of orangutans."

For "Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts" (2000) on the TV series "Nature," she roughed it with the nomads of the steppes. "When you land, it's like Mars," Weinert says. "I fell in love with Mongolia; I want to go back. People were loving and kind. You're literally out in the desert."

At Roberts' company, where she was vice president of development, Weinert read scripts offered the popular star. "I always say I read the first 30 pages of several thousand screenplays, because every single person who wrote anything imagined her in it even if the leading character was a 13-year-old African American boy."

But it helped her understand what makes a good script. "If you're not loving it by page 30, it's unlikely anything will happen to make you fall in love with it," she says. "If you don't care enough to read past Act One, the writer hasn't done his job."

The amount of talent in Austin amazes her. "That's why I love working here. I meet people all the time who have scripts. They've written a first draft, but they're not sure what to do next. Or they have this great idea, but they're not sure how to actualize it."

That brings her to a screenwriting course she wants to conduct in Austin next year. "You bring in 10 pages every week for 12 weeks and by the end of class, you have the first draft of a script. It would be for people who have some experience writing scripts. I've got skin in the game because I could find a great script from someone and option it. I want to keep working here."