SXSW 2021: 'Without Getting Killed or Caught' reveals the real Guy and Susanna Clark
“I wish I was in Austin, at the Chili Parlor Bar/ Drinkin’ mad dog margaritas and not carin’ where you are.”
That’s the opening line of “Dublin Blues,” a song written by the late, great native Texan songwriter Guy Clark. It’s also exactly where Tamara Saviano was, during South by Southwest in 2008, when she began an epic journey of documenting Clark’s life.
That journey reaches its final destination at this week’s online version of SXSW, which will screen the world premiere of “Without Getting Killed or Caught.” Saviano and her husband, Paul Whitfield, made the 90-minute film about Clark and his wife, songwriter and painter Susanna Clark, after Saviano published Guy’s biography of the same title.
Though it was 13 years ago, Saviano remembers that day at the Texas Chili Parlor like it was yesterday. She was dining with Gary Hartman, then the director of Texas State University’s Center for Texas Music History in San Marcos, when her phone rang.
Saviano had become good friends with Guy and Susanna over the past decade and often spent time with them in Nashville. She knew Guy well enough that she’d set up a special ringtone for his calls. That ringtone was “Dublin Blues.”
“I answered the phone and I’m like, ‘Hey Guy, I’m at the Chili Parlor!’ And he said, ‘Don’t drink the mad dog margaritas, they taste like petroleum and sea water.’
“We all laughed, and I hung up the phone. And that’s when Gary pretty much said, ‘You should write a book about Guy.’”
Saviano balked. She knew that Clark’s 2006 album had a song with the lyrics, “Do not write my exposé, I do not kiss and tell.” But Hartman kept hounding her, so finally she checked with Keith Case, Clark’s manager, just so she could tell Hartman she’d tried. She was startled when Case got back to her: “Guy says he’s in.”
“I’m like, ‘What? That can't be true,’” she recalls. “So I went over to Guy’s and I said, ‘Look, if we're going to do this, you're going to have to tell all your friends to talk to me, you're going to have to introduce me to all your family, you're going to have to let me rifle through all your stuff.’ I made it sound as unattractive as I could possibly make it sound.”
Guy took a long drag off the joint he was smoking, then answered dryly: “Sounds fair to me, Tamara.”
From then on, it was Guy doing the hounding. “If I didn't show up to his house for a few days, he'd call me and say, ‘Get over here, we have work to do,’” she remembers. “I think he knew that he didn't have that much time.”
A deep, complicated relationship between Clarks and Townes Van Zandt
“Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark” arrived via Texas A&M Press in October 2016, five months after Clark died at age 74 from a decade-long struggle with lymphoma. He’d lost Susanna four years earlier, following a 15-year depression brought on by the 1997 death of the couple’s close friend, Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt.
Along the way, Saviano produced a tribute album, 2011's “This One’s For Him,” which won album of the year at the Americana Music Awards. When Susanna died in June 2012, Saviano came to the Clarks’ house the next morning. “Guy had these two boxes sitting by the door," she recalls, "and he said, ‘Take those with you.’”
In the boxes were Susanna’s journals, along with a stack of cassettes Susanna had recorded over the years. Some were essentially audio journal entries; others were “just Susanna putting the tape recorder on the table and letting it roll,” Saviano said.
When she turned her attention to a documentary film after the book was done, Susanna’s tapes and journals took on a central role. Making the movie hadn’t really been Saviano's idea, but Guy was convinced she was the only person for the job.
Her husband, a highly sought-after video engineer who’s handled visuals for Bruce Springsteen’s tours for two decades, agreed to make the film with her. Then two important Austinites got on board.
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Connie Koepke Nelson, who was married to Willie Nelson from 1971 to 1988 and remains deeply connected to the Texas music community, provided advice and encouragement, becoming an associate producer. Entrepreneur Bart Knaggs offered financial help and earned an executive producer credit, but more importantly he ended up writing the screenplay with Saviano.
Whitfield and Saviano believed the film needed to go beyond the book’s focus on Guy’s life and work. The key, they decided, was the deep and complicated relationship between Guy, Susanna and Townes, who’d been the best man at the couple's wedding in 1971 and lived with them for many months after that.
Guy and Townes met in Houston in the 1960s and toured together often, right up until Townes’ death. Though Susanna married Guy, in the film she describes Townes as “my soulmate.”
“When I was writing the book, the relationship between the three of them was definitely my favorite part,” Saviano said. “It was the most compelling story to me.”
The pandemic changes everything
“Without Getting Killed or Caught” was finished in late 2019, just in time for a world premiere at SXSW 2020. The coronavirus pandemic wrecked those plans. Saviano and Whitfield explored alternative options over the ensuing months, but as the pandemic persevered, they gradually decided to wait for the online version of SXSW 2021.
“It was always my dream that our world premiere would be at South by Southwest,” Saviano said. After its debut at 10 a.m. Thursday, the movie will screen on-demand for SXSW registrants through midnight Saturday.
For those not attending SXSW Online, a series of ticketed streaming events will follow, with a revolving slate of special guests. Rodney Crowell joins Saviano for a post-film discussion at a March 23 virtual screening, with five more in April that will feature the likes of Sarah Jarosz, Steve Earle and Kix Brooks. Tickets, $25, are available via the film’s website.
Austinites get perhaps the most special opportunity on May 19, when the Austin Film Society and the Contemporary Austin will host the first in-person showing of the film at Laguna Gloria Art Museum. Tickets for that event are not yet on sale but will be available soon via the AFS website.
After that, Saviano said she plans to essentially put the film on tour. Some screenings will be held in theaters, but she’s also considering music venues that may include nightclubs and arts centers where Guy often performed.
“The only silver lining about the fact that South by Southwest was canceled last year is that I've had a year to really dig deep and research what our options are,” she said. “And during that same year, the film business has changed completely. It’s like the Wild West. So there’s all these opportunities for filmmakers who have a built-in audience to just take it directly to the people.
“I don't want to get lost in the black hole of Netflix and Amazon. I just want to go to Guy Clark fans, and Americana fans, and folk fans, and people who will get this. I don't need the Netflixes of the world to do that. Who knows what'll happen next January, but we've got 2021 pretty well planned.”
'Sissy Spacek is Susanna!'
One thing makes “Without Getting Killed or Caught” stand out from most music documentaries: Its cast includes an Oscar-winning actress.
Saviano and Whitfield had taped hours of interviews with Guy, but more was needed for Susanna’s side of the story. After Saviano and Knaggs — neither of whom had ever written a screenplay — enrolled in Austin script consultant Jill Chamberlain's eight-week screenwriting workshop, Knaggs suggested using Susanna’s journals as the film’s narrative frame.
Saviano mostly set aside Susanna's tapes while writing the book, which focused on Guy’s life and career. After she and Whitfield took on the movie project, they revisited them.
“When we started working on the film and we knew Susanna was going to be such a large part of it, we decided we had to listen to them all,” she said.
Knaggs believed Susanna's journals and tapes were central to the story.
“Even with all the interviews we had with Guy, he did not reveal himself. He revealed himself in his songs,” Knaggs said. “But Susanna was the opposite. She was a fractal into the complex emotions that she and Guy and Townes existed in. I just thought she was the fulcrum for these relationships, and what got created out of them.”
Saviano agreed. They got Susanna’s niece, Sherri Talley, to read passages from the journals. That was the working plan until Saviano and Whitfield were discussing one of Sissy Spacek’s films over breakfast in December 2018.
When Saviano remembered that Spacek won won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in 1981’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the notion hit like a lightning bolt. “Sissy Spacek is Susanna!” she exclaimed. Whitfield thought she was crazy: “Paul looked at me like I had three heads,” she wrote in production notes for the film.
But Saviano and Spacek had a mutual friend in country great Rodney Crowell, who was very close to the Clarks and speaks eloquently about them in Saviano’s film. Crowell connected Saviano with Spacek’s management, and the actress quickly expressed interest.
Here’s where it gets weird. When she asked Crowell about Spacek, Saviano didn’t know that Crowell had produced “Hangin’ Up My Heart,” Spacek’s 1983 foray into country music. Among the songs on that album was “This Time I’m Gonna Beat You to the Truck,” which was written by Susanna Clark. Furthermore, Susanna had grown up in northeast Texas about 100 miles from Spacek’s hometown of Quitman.
Spacek agreed to consider the role as Susanna’s voice, using Talley’s readings in the rough cut as a guide. When they entered a studio in Austin in December 2019 to record Spacek’s narration, Saviano proudly announced to her Facebook group of Guy Clark fans that Spacek was on board for the film.
Here’s where it gets even weirder. “In that thread on Facebook,” Saviano said, “Guy’s first wife, Susan Spaw, wrote in the comments, ‘I taught Sissy how to Travis-pick her guitar when she was 15.’ Sissy had told us the story about how her best friend’s cousin had come through Quitman and taught her how to do the Travis-picking technique on her guitar.” Spacek never knew the woman was Guy’s first wife.
More key players
“Without Getting Killed or Caught” was edited by Whitfield and Sandra Adair, who’s best known for her work with Richard Linklater and got an Oscar nomination for her work on his 2014 film “Boyhood.” When Saviano saw Adair’s own film, “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher,” at SXSW in 2017, she knew she wanted to work with her.
Adair’s schedule is often jampacked, but in mid-2019 she had a project fall through. “She said, ‘I have three months, do you need help?’” Saviano said. “I was like, ‘You’re hired.’”
“By that point, we had what we would consider a rough cut done from beginning to end,” Whitfield said. “She took it from there and tightened stuff up, and then (we) moved stuff around and said, ‘Well, maybe this will work better there.’”
Besides Crowell, a handful of artists with deep connections to the Clarks provide vital perspective and insight throughout the film. Guy’s longtime touring guitarist, Verlon Thompson, speaks eloquently about Guy’s final years on tour, and of being there for Guy’s final breath in 2016. New Mexico songwriter and artist Terry Allen recounts how Guy asked for a sculpture to be made of his ashes after he died. (The result now resides at the Wittliff Collections in San Marcos.)
Another key contributor was renowned artist Mel Chin, who’d drawn cartoons of Guy, Susanna and Townes in Nashville when he was attending Vanderbilt University in the 1970s. Chin got help from students at the University of North Carolina, where he now teaches, to create a few lighthearted animation scenes that balance against the film’s often dark subject matter.
Perhaps most impressive is the depth and breadth of archival content that runs throughout the movie. Photos from Guy’s childhood in the West Texas town of Monahans, and from his teen years in the coastal city of Rockport, commingle with emotional snapshots of Susanna, and of the couple together. Footage from the 1970s film "Heartworn Highways" captures late-night jams at the couple's Nashville home. Susanna's cassette recordings of conversations with Guy and Townes provide intimate insight. This is an extraordinarily thorough and well-sourced documentary.
What's next for Tamara Saviano
Originally from Milwaukee, Saviano moved to Nashville in the mid-1990s and worked a variety of music-related jobs — magazine editor, TV writer and producer, publicist for Kris Kristofferson — before her association with Guy Clark gradually took over her life.
She relocated to Austin part time a few years ago. While here, she launched All ATX Leadership, an immersive program for music business professionals funded by Austin music philanthropist Gary Keller that’s modeled on a similar class she’d taken in Nashville.
Saviano took to Austin quickly, and vice versa. In 2017, the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association presented her with its Darrell K. Royal Texas Music Legend Award for her work with Clark, Kristofferson, Crowell and other Texas songwriters. And in 2020, she received the Margaret Moser Women in Music Award at the Austin Music Awards.
So what’s next? Saviano has been working on a book about the history of Americana music for several years, and has tentative plans to follow that with a book about Crowell. She and Whitfield have considered moving to Austin year-round, though the debacle of watching last month’s winter storm unfold while they were in Nashville has given them pause.
“My apartment lease is up in July and we were thinking we might start looking around for houses, but we're definitely not going to do that now,” she said. “I was really upset, and I still am when I think about it. I just love Austin so much, and it makes me mad.”
Wherever the future may lead, she knows it’s time to leave Guy Clark projects in the rearview mirror. To paraphrase a line from “L.A. Freeway,” the song that gave her movie and book its title: She’s had something to believe in, and now she thinks it’s time for leavin’.
“I'm actually looking forward to having time and space to just think about Guy my friend instead of Guy the subject," she said. "I don't know that I've really grieved him.
“My mom died right after Guy did, and I feel like I've grieved my mom. But I don't feel like I gave myself any space to grieve Guy, because I had to say focused on working on this project. Seeing and hearing him every day, it felt like he was still with us.
"But I am ready to let go.”
SXSW Online is here
Last year, the coronavirus pandemic canceled South by Southwest. This year, the festival has reimagined itself as SXSW Online, March 16-20. Austin360 will be covering all the big-name panels, emerging films and up-and-coming music acts. Find the latest news and our critics' picks at austin360.com.