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Austin's film history exposed

In her new book, Alison Macor explores the myths and missteps of Austin's moviemaking lore

Chris Garcia

Here's what happened in 2001 in Austin film: Richard Linklater's "Slacker" celebrated its 10th birthday with noisy fanfare. The star-studded Texas Film Hall of Fame was born at the new Austin Studios, an ambitious multistage facility created to draw major feature productions. And Robert Rodriguez's Austin-made "Spy Kids" broke the magic $100 million blockbuster lid at the national box office.

It was an exciting time, apparently delivering the promise the previous decade of local movie activity had made. Austin and Texas were being prematurely proclaimed showbiz's Third Coast, a filmmaking epicenter where celebrities would flock and the art of movies would thrive.

Like a lot of us, local film critic Alison Macor had to wonder: "Is Austin going Hollywood?"

"Things are changing," Macor recalls thinking. "Austin's getting bigger. It's not that tight little community any more."

Monied types who wanted to see and be seen started attending the newish tradition of ritzy premieres of locally made movies at the Paramount Theatre, which served as fundraisers for the Austin Film Society. Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey moved to town. Magazine covers trumpeted Austin as THE new hotspot for making films.

"This weird shift made me wonder if Austin film would have to change to keep up with the marketplace," Macor says.

And it triggered the idea for her definitive new book, "Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas," out now from the University of Texas Press.

Macor, who earned a doctorate in film studies at UT in 2000 and has written freelance movie reviews for the American-Statesman, knew that Austin movie culture hadn't popped out of a vacuum with Linklater's epochal "Slackers" in 1991, the picture that most conspicuously put Austin on the map. To begin with, the Texas Film Commission was founded in Austin in 1971, a little horror flick called "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was made in the early '70s in the area by Austinites and, in the '70s and '80s, a young Texas filmmaker named Eagle Pennell was making scrappy, highly influential independent movies, such as "The Whole Shootin' Match."

"This is the story of a community that has been shaped as much by (Warren) Skaaren's creation of the Texas Film Commission in 1971 as by Matthew McConaughey's relocation to Austin in the late 1990s and the blockbuster success that launched the 'Spy Kids' franchise," Macor writes in the book's introduction. "In the decades between these events, Austin's film scene changed radically."

And it would continue to change, quickly. History was unspooling even as Macor was writing. In fall 2003, three movies by Austinites landed in the weekend's Top 10 grossing films: Linklater's "School of Rock," Tim McCanlies' "Secondhand Lions" and Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."

"That was a big deal, but making blockbusters obviously wasn't how Austin had earned its reputation," Macor says.

The author mulls this and more in "Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids," which wraps into its fleet narrative milestones from Linklater and Lee Daniel's founding of the Austin Film Society in 1985 and Bill Wittliff's making "Red Headed Stranger" with Willie Nelson in 1986 to Harry Knowles' launch of Ain't It Cool News and Mike Judge's bumpy ride making and distributing "Office Space."

Fine-grained and peppered with vivid anecdotes, the book takes hold of worn myths and legends, fleshes them out and situates them in their accurate historical place, with a clarifying rinse. Macor doggedly follows the money trails and, from more than 200 interviews of her own, wrests telling quotes from industry players, Harvey Weinstein, Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas included.

(Macor rues that Willie Nelson and shy "Texas Chainsaw" director Tobe Hooper denied her entreaties. And she admits her worst interview was with a splenetic Ann Richards, the late Texas governor and avowed movie-lover. "Why am I talking to you?" Richards snapped. "Who's going to buy this book?" Says Macor, who idolized Richards: "It was horrendous.")

The book is so animated by fresh details and hard-earned candor that it's even impressed readers versed in the local lore. "They've told me, 'I knew about such and such, but I didn't really get it until I read the book,'\u2009" Macor says.

The author digs into the battles between Linklater and studio heads during the making of "Dazed and Confused" and doesn't flinch quoting a Hollywood type saying Linklater was "full of himself" following "Slacker." She describes the "tough shoot" of Rodriguez's "Desperado" and the purported tantrums the director threw during production. She cites Vincent D'Onofrio's disillusionment making Linklater's critical and box-office disappointment "The Newton Boys," quoting him saying "We all screwed up" after the film's failure.

This is good reporting, and Macor would be remiss not to present the notorious ugly side of filmmaking, a rabid and pitiless business.

"There's nothing in there I regret including," Macor says. "I weighed what I needed for each situation." She took inspiration from such insider industry books as Hollywood histories by Peter Biskind and John Gregory Dunne's classic "The Studio."

After almost nine years of researching and writing the book, Macor says Austin hasn't fulfilled the rosy prophecies of its becoming a mini-Hollywood.

"There's this tension that makes Austin Austin," she says. "It's just cool enough, but it will never really cross over to become industry in the way it needs to to compete. As Bill Wittliff points out in the book, the centers of finance are on either coast and will never be here, which is a valid point. He was saying this in the '80s. The money's not here, and it will never be here."

Austin's film power "comes in waves," she says. She looks to a later generation of local moviemakers — Kat Candler, the Zellner brothers, Bryan Poyser, even students the sometime-instructor has taught — to sustain the scene.

"Who's to say that one of those kids won't become the next Rick or Robert?" Macor says. "People have been on the brink of being big here over and over again. We saw it in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Yet even when they break through, it's kind of not about that. It's about continuing to lay down the foundation that will support the next wave of people."

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649