Filmmaker Brandon Dickerson takes an unexpected path to his feature debut
Brandon Dickerson thought he was committing career suicide. He also knew it was the right thing to do.
After directing music videos and commercials in Los Angeles for eight years, the California-born filmmaker moved his family of four to Waco in 2009 to be with his wife's mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer.
They were headed on a straight line out of the epicenter of the film world and into obscurity. Or so Dickerson thought.
If Hollywood is the heart of the film industry, Waco could be lucky to be considered the small toe.
"As you can imagine, nobody ever said, ‘Hey, I bet that film thing really takes off once you get to Waco. Don't be surprised if you're making a movie within a year,' " Dickerson said recently by phone from Los Angeles, where he was shooting a music video for Disney star Raini Rodriguez. "What would have been crazier?"
But that's exactly what happened to Dickerson, who had plied his trade for almost two decades and had yet to make a feature film.
On his drive from California to Texas, Dickerson immersed himself in the visual and evocative music of friend and fellow Baylor University alumnus Wes Cunningham, a fellow California exile who was back living in Waco. The songs would eventually serve as the soundtrack to Dickerson's feature debut, "Sironia," which won the audience award in the Texas Independents category at last year's Austin Film Festival. The movie screens Monday night at Alamo Village as part of AFF's new Audience Award Winners Series.
After arriving in Central Texas, Cunningham introduced Dickerson to his friend, Baylor University professor Thomas Ward. The three men talked over coffee about the possibility of using Cunningham's music as the basis for a feature film. Cunningham gave Ward and Dickerson 40 songs, 20 about conflict and 20 addressing resolution, and the groundwork was laid.
The three men started meeting daily to work on the script about a musician who, disillusioned with the fabricated stars churned out by the industry, decides to pull up stakes and leave Hollywood for Texas. Dickerson said he found instant freedom and inspiration to create.
"I really enjoyed being outside of Hollywood; I found it to be more creative," Dickerson said. "Just because when I lived in Hollywood, you're always in it; so as interesting as it was, it was liberating to be in a nonfilm town."
Cunningham's semiautobiographical songwriting serves as the framework for the tale of musician Thomas Fisher (Cunningham). Tired of constantly chasing success in a fickle industry, Fisher and wife Molly (Amy Acker) impulsively decide to move to the fictional town of Sironia. The story echoed Cunningham's flee years earlier to Fredericksburg on the heels of his own disappointments in L.A.
Thomas and Molly's move not only serves as an escape from Hollywood but as a desperate grab for something tangible and real. Having given up his dream, Thomas wants to move to middle America to find an authentic life. Instead he finds disappointment, depression and a self-pitying path that puts his marriage in jeopardy.
"Sironia's" fish-out-of-water story also mirrored the Dickersons' experience. Having moved from the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood to a town that turns out in large numbers for mutton busting competitions at the rodeo, Dickerson was fascinated and charmed by small-town Texas life.
Waco was the last place Dickerson expected to find support for his first film. After almost a decade of constantly taking meetings and crafting pitches for studio executives who were always "this close" to pulling the trigger, Dickerson found backing in the most unlikely of places.
A dinner meeting with a couple interested in his wife Kirsten Dickerson's design company, Raven + Lily, led Brandon Dickerson to an introduction with Curves Fitness owners Gary and Diane Heavin. The couple, inspired by Brandon Dickerson's passion, agreed to serve as executive producers of the film. The 20-day shoot took place in Waco and Los Angeles in May 2010, two months after Kirsten Dickerson's mother lost her battle with cancer.
Dickerson says that Thomas' road to resolution in "Sironia" and his own journey to making his first feature film can be encapsulated with one word: surrender.
"Not trying so hard. Being diligent and working and doing your work and honing your craft, but there's just this posture of surrender that's far more creative and liberating," Dickerson said. "I think Wes in his music career had to finally let go of what he was holding on to so tightly. For me, moving to Waco was letting go of what I held onto so tightly, as well as reputation. It wasn't cool, either, to be phoning in from Waco when I was dealing with my commercial and music video career. When I finally didn't give a (expletive) about status and just felt very much this posture of surrender, it was just kind of beautiful. And it's really amazing that it kind of happened out of that, not out of me trying to so hard to put every meeting together and trying to pitch myself."
A few months after shooting wrapped, the Dickerson family left Waco for Austin during the post-production stages of "Sironia." Dickerson said he didn't know much about Austin, but what little he knew of the town and its indie film scene persuaded him to relocate.
Though he has yet to fully integrate himself into the scene in Austin, Dickerson said he appreciates the vibe of the town and feels there is a mutual support in the creative community. He has already secured financing for his follow-up to "Sironia." Co-written by Ward, Dickerson's next feature will be a biopic about a Puerto Rican kid who comes to Brooklyn in the '60s and has to overcome gangs and heroin to fight for his family.
"When I got my second film, people in Austin were excited; they're excited for you," Dickerson said. "It's like a win for me is a win for Austin. And in L.A., I feel like a win for you is a loss for me — you got a film, that means I didn't. There's a competition I don't miss."
"I had people telling me that moving was career suicide, and I actually did believe it was career suicide," Dickerson said. "I was like, ‘Wow, I don't know where this leads,' but the last place I thought it led was to a movie."
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986 Twitter: @Odam