When Toby Halbrooks went to Sundance earlier this year, he didn’t know where to stand. A year removed from bringing the double bill of “Upstream Color” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” to the festival as a producer, along with partners James M. Johnston and David Lowery, who together form the Dallas-based filmmaking team Sailor Bear, Halbrooks had come back with another producing effort, Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Phillip” and a short film he directed himself, “Dig.” During the annual brunch for directors, Perry had to remind him that he was among peers.
“I was right in there with my director Alex Ross Perry, who directed the feature and [he told me], ‘Slow down, and be like, oh goodness gracious. Son, you’re here,’” recalls Halbrooks. “I definitely was very proud in that moment.”
There’s no question Halbrooks belonged in the room. Having once belonged to the Polyphonic Spree, little has been lost in translating his voice to the screen with “Dig,” a slightly wondrous and mischievous bauble about a man (Jonny Mars) who decides to excavate to his backyard for reasons only he knows and perhaps his young daughter (Mallory Mahoney), who looks on as his neighbors take him to task for violating the local building code. As the young girl becomes fascinated with her father’s dig, Halbrooks becomes fascinated with why she’s fascinated, ultimately revealing a beautiful expression of what unconditional love means.
Before “Dig” debuts in Halbrooks’ home state as part of SXSW, he took the time to talk about making the film in the midst of a whirlwind 2013, using his own home for the shoot and the film’s touching dedication.
I had intended to make a short film for a while and it’s hard to find time to do my own thing, obviously, because we’re doing our thing. We saw this short little window where I’d be able to pull this off, and I did it in three days in Dallas. I knew we were about to go start doing the release for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It took a while to edit, because literally the day after we shot it, we left town and I was gone for two months.
The film itself actually has a timeless feel, except for perhaps the modern look of the cop car at the end. Did you not want to tip audiences off to a certain period?
Yeah, actually, the cop car is actually a special effect. We couldn’t afford to get a cop to come and park there, and they certainly wouldn’t do it, so it was an effect and the person who was doing it for me, I didn’t specify what kind of cop car to do. But it makes sense that these people just live this way — timeless. Coincidentally, that was my house and I just live in a really old house in a really old neighborhood.
So you were the one that was left with a giant hole in his backyard.
Precisely. I did have that. A lot of time was spent by me filling that hole over the course of a week.
During the shoot, did Jonny Mars actually do all his own digging?
Kind of. We pre-dug the hole. We hired some guys, and we did a lot of it ourselves, but we just knew we weren’t going to have that big of a crew and we weren’t going to wear everybody out, so it took three dudes an hour to dig the full version of the hole. And immediately it rained, and filled the hole because we thought we were doing Johnny a favor there to make it easier to dig. Not the case at all. [laughs] We ended up screwing him over really bad because he ended up lifting up mud. It became very difficult. The hole was completely unwieldy and a giant pain almost all the time.
I’ve heard you asked Jonny to come up with a reason for why his character was digging, but didn’t tell him your own. I wouldn’t want to spoil the film, but did he ever share with you his?
I very, very specifically told him I didn’t care because I don’t. I don’t necessarily think that that’s spoiling anything because everybody’s going to come up with their own reasons to why he was digging. Sure, I’ve got my own reason, but it just didn’t have anything to do with the actual story, so I just decided to leave that part out and by leaving it out, it may make it seem like that that’s what this is about, but really, it’s just a little bit of a misdirection, and highlighting what the film is really actually about.
Since it debuted at Sundance and on YouTube simultaneously, has it been interesting to see what people have come up with? Libertarians, in particular, have seemed to embrace it.
Absolutely, it’s been the best. We never would have guessed that we would have gotten such a huge reaction, and that people would have dissected it in that way. In any way, really. There are essays written about it, which is just miraculous and people claiming it’s this or claiming it’s that, and not even necessarily they were nasty to each other in their disagreements, which is just the best. Who would have thought that anyone that watched it and cared enough about it to write anything? I’m flattered. It’s a wide-open enough metaphor that anybody could ascribe whatever meaning they wanted to it or at least find some meaning for themselves in it. It belongs to an audience now. I’m happy for that.
Is it true “Cool Hand Luke” was an influence for the score?
That was the influence beyond the score. I had the idea, and I knew I didn’t want it to be an obsession of people’s of why this guy was doing it. Of course, in “Cool Hand Luke,” nobody knows why Luke does anything. I thought this was the same thing, so that’s what I would tell people. This is “Cool Hand Luke” meets “The Sandlot,” that world where you don’t know the guy’s motivations, and they can be ascribed to much grander [meaning] than maybe they possibly really are, especially from the point of view of a kid – that what this guy’s doing is important when this guy’s probably not actually being important at all.
If it’s not prying, you dedicate the film to “Ben” at the end. Was he an influence on the film?
Ben is one of my very good friends. We grew up together and he was in a band called School of Seven Bells. He had T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma and he was really, really sick during the editing process [of the film]. Ultimately, he died in December. When I was shooting “Listen Up Phillip,” Ben was in New York, so I’d go to the hospital often and hang out. Even before he died, I made this dedication for him because he watched a rough cut.
There was a 15-minute version with this movie and I had written this essay for the Austin Film Society trying to get it funded [with a grant]. I didn’t know the deadline was at 8, and it was 6:10, and I looked at this long essay and looked at the clock and it was 10 by the time I got everything done. I said screw it and didn’t turn it in, but I had this director’s statement, and after Ben watched it, he was like, “Man. That was just great.” I was like, “Does it make sense?” And then he basically recited my essay back to me about what it was about [without ever having read it].
It was literally the first cut and of course, we just knew each other so well that we always got each other’s work. I was just happy to dedicate it to my friend and after he passed away, be able to honor him in that way. I didn’t feel like I needed to make it some really sad thing, like putting a date and his last name. I’ll just make it a personal thing. If people care to ask, then they could ask.
It’s a beautiful tribute and I’ve been so excited about everything you’re up to. I got to talk to David last year for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” You guys are doing incredible things.
We’re just trying to do something. [laughs] If there’s any minor lesson that I’ve learned this year it’s that life is incredibly, impossibly unfair. And if anything good is happening to you, all you can do is run with it and don’t look back. And try and be as gracious as possible, and keep running. I’m certainly just running.