Flashback – The Star of Texas: How Austin Became a Filmmaking Capital

Originally published in the Daily Texan on April 21, 2003.

At the fork of an unpaved road that never seems to end, shrouded in dirt and weeds, Michael Corenblith, appears to be in a whirlwind as he simultaneously admonishes actors to keep off the grass while he passes on painting tips to art directors and makes sure the straw roofs of some houses look as though they've been grazed by a cannonball.

"You'd think this is all I do all day, “ Corenblith sighs, but it's obvious the Oscar-nominated production designer and UT alum is relishing what he refers to as "conducting the orchestra." And why shouldn't he? This project is a symphony that played in his head for 22 years before he was able to begin physically realizing his dream project five years ago. A native Austinite, Corenblith graduated from high school here and stayed to attend UT's school of architecture. He was even a cameraman on the pilot episode of "Austin City Limits" before moving on to create the intricate sets for films like "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "Apollo 13" in Hollywood, a long way from his Austin roots. Now he's back home, stretching limits for film production in Texas.

"This is the Alamo, “ Corenblith says with the flourish of a side show barker, as his arm extends toward the set piece of Disney's $80 million production of "The Alamo" which many in the Austin film community are already banking on to be the greatest show on earth. With an eighth of an inch of accuracy between the breathtaking replicas Corenblith has created for the film and the real thing in San Antonio, taking a trip to "The Alamo" set doesn't just feel like walking into 1830s Texas – you might as well duck and hope a stray bullet doesn't hit you. Including details that no audience member, let alone Alamo historians will be able to see, Corenblith takes delight in explaining how the chapel can be seen from Alamo fighter Jim Bowie's house, something that couldn't be done on a soundstage. The film, scheduled to come out on Dec. 25 of this year, is using a primarily Texas crew, being made by a Texas director (John Lee Hancock) and, as many in Austin hope, will be a grand display of Austin's film community for the world.

One of those people is Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission, who explains, "I think the big deal is that people always knew we could do a $5 or a $10 or a $20 million picture in Austin with our people, but now you can do an $80 or a $100 million movie. They've got the expertise, and it can be done. It has also opened up the door for a lot of legislation and a lot of people in this community because this is a huge production, which isn't to say that others in the past haven't been, but this one is just really big."

Richard Linklater, the Austin-based filmmaker of "Waking Life" and "Dazed and Confused" who also serves as the founder of the Austin Film Society, concurs, "Overall, it's just great news for the economy and everybody, and the trickle down from those things is amazing, whether it's an indigenous film like some of mine or Robert [Rodriguez]'s or Mike Judge's or if it's a visiting film. I think that's great. 'The Alamo,' stuff like that, it's great. It's just very important to everybody."

But for a community that embraces film as much as Austin does, the grand scale of "The Alamo" might not be uncommon for locally produced movies in the future.

Lynda Obst, the producer of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Hope Floats" (which first brought Obst into town), admits, "It's the easiest place for me to get actors and directors to want to scout in the world, which is really good since I have a house there." Obst, who splits her time between Austin and Los Angeles, says, "They know it's cool. They know it's rich, and interesting, and diverse, and when I say, 'Do you want to try Austin?' Everyone always says yes."

Since 1993, the Texas Film Commission has estimated that $2.38 billion has been brought into the state and while that figure is derived from the whole state, Copeland pointed out that there's been a definite shift in production location. During the mid-1980s, people calling the Commission with a script to do in Texas would only request Dallas to take advantage of the crews there. He gleefully recalls, "We would suggest Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and they'd say, 'Well, gee, I don't know.' And now when they call, whether they have a script or not, they just go, 'Listen, I've got a film, and I want to do it in Austin.'"

While it's true that 20 years ago not many people envisioned the vibrant film culture that exists today, Richard Linklater is one of the few who believes he saw it coming, "I think people would expect me to say no. But in some strange way, yeah. If you and a few people imagine it and work toward it, it can happen, so I don't know. I think a lot of places have potential and they never really tap into it, so I think a lot of communities could be like Austin in that way and they're just not."

Obst, who is currently developing a film with actress Kate Hudson called "Can You Keep a Secret?" which Hudson insisted on shooting in Austin, described the city as the artistic capital of Texas and went on to explain, "You have this incredibly supportive environment that pre-existed for musicians, that works for artists in general, so you have a musician's community and a university community that began being a nurturing community for artists in general, and that breeds community for filmmakers. Then you have a home that gave rise to a group of filmmakers that wanted to stay home and in general, people who fall in love with Austin want to find a way to stay home, whether it's through film college, or they make a movie there like me and don't want to leave. There's a lot of these people historically who go to the University and don't want to leave. That's a phenomenon."

Evan Smith, the editor of Texas Monthly, who also serves on the executive board of the Austin Film Society, points out another rare quality about the city. "It's hype-proof, “ he insists. "Everything you hear about it is true and 10 times that … It's an extraordinary community. It really does rival L.A. and New York for its intensity, and professionalism, and for the depth of its creativity. It's amazing."

The Austin film scene didn't happen overnight. It evolved from the independent productions in the late 1970s of writer-directors Eagle Pennell ("The Whole Shootin' Match") and Tobe Hooper, whose "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" established a professional crew in Austin as well as a maverick spirit of filmmaking in the city.

Then, according to Copeland, the first film that bridged the gap between Hollywood and what has commonly been referred to as the "Third Coast" was "The Lone Star Kid," a 1986 made-for-television film about the true story of an 11-year-old kid who is elected as mayor of Crabb, Texas. With a cast including Charlie Daniels and James Earl Jones, "The Lone Star Kid" wasn't the likeliest candidate to make cinematic history. However, the film was directed by Anson Williams, better known as Potsie from TV's "Happy Days," who spread the word about film-friendly Austin to friends like "Happy Days" co-star Ron Howard. Subsequently, Howard, who premiered his film "Ed TV" at SXSW and was the initial director on "The Alamo," has had a fruitful relationship with Austin ever since. Williams' word was as good as gold.

Austinites put an equally high price on creativity, which in the years that followed has been the backbone of the cadre of filmmakers that have made Austin their home. Linklater, Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids," "El Mariachi"), Mike Judge ("Office Space," TV's "King of the Hill"), Terrence Malick ("Badlands," "The Thin Red Line") and Tim McCanlies ("Dancer, Texas Pop. 81" and writer of "The Iron Giant") are those who currently live in Austin. The city has also been known to be a pit stop for filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino, who has held an annual film festival in Austin for the past five years (with the exception of 2002 when he was shooting his latest film, "Kill Bill").

"The people who could be in L.A. tend to be in L.A.," said Louis Black, editor of The Austin Chronicle and former president of the Austin Film Society. "Mike could easily be in L.A., Rick could be in L.A., Robert could be in L.A., Elizabeth [Avellan, producer of "Spy Kids" and Rodriguez's wife] could be in L.A., and they chose to stay here because of the lifestyle. It's not because they throw their weight around. None of them are demanding the best tables at any restaurants. They're just here because they like the community, and they're here because they're good, caring people, and they're all-across-the-board, talented filmmakers. It's not one of those where you like the person and you look at the work and you say, 'Well … we're going to say nice things about the work.' I think wherever I would live, I would admire the hell out of most of the filmmakers here in town."

Los Angeles Times' film critic Kenneth Turan seconds that.

"With the film festivals and the filmmakers in Texas, it definitely feels like one of the stronger film cities in the country, without a doubt. The ironic thing is that people in Hollywood definitely know this, but if people in New York know this, it is a different question."

Still, the Hollywood question of attracting filmmakers from Austin is one that lingers over the film scene here like the humidity – and it is just as sticky. Tim McCanlies, whose upcoming film Secondhand Lions" starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment was shot entirely in Austin, was one of the first to attempt to move as part of a Disney screenwriting department that also included future X-Files creator Chris Carter. When McCanlies decided that Hollywood wasn't the right place for him, he came back. At first he had some reservations about his career move, but they were quickly erased.

"I moved back in 1988 to live here, because I went to UT, am a native Texan, and love Austin. This was several years before Robert and Richard surfaced. I remember going to see the first showings of both "Slacker" and "El Mariachi" at the Dobie, before either had gotten distribution. I remember marveling at the fact that someone in Austin actually made a movie. When I got out of film school, the conventional wisdom was that filmmaking cost tens of millions of dollars and was therefore impossible to do on your own; the accepted path to being a filmmaker was to go out to Hollywood, break in as a writer, and then, years later, you might get a chance to direct your own film. Then Richard and Robert came along and broke all those rules."

"It's like the big moment was when I made 'Slacker,' says Linklater, of what many people consider to be Austin's most defining moment, "because I think there had been a history where you would make a film wherever, whether it's Austin or Pittsburgh or wherever and then to really make your next film or to ever be a part of the industry, you had to move to L.A. That's where it was, you sort of had to. And that's really true in the '60s and '70s and a good bit through the '80s, but I think I caught it at a time where the independent world had really come into its own and there was a sense of regional filmmaking, like you could do it anywhere. So to me there was some pressure of other people asking a lot, 'are you going to move to L.A.?' And I just don't like L.A. It wasn't a big decision for me. People act like, 'You're not going to L.A.?' And I was like, 'Me not going to L.A. is like me not moving to Antarctica.'"

Nevertheless, there are the select few that have thrived in Los Angeles. One success story is Catherine Hardwicke, a UT architecture school grad who, like "The Alamo"'s Corenblith, became a production designer on films ranging from "Vanilla Sky" to Linklater's "Suburbia" and "The Newton Boys" and subsequently a director on "Thirteen," one of the most critically acclaimed films at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and scheduled to be released nationally by Fox Searchlight later this year. Although Hardwicke credited her experience at UCLA as the impetus to go into filmmaking, she doesn't consider her time in Austin ill spent.

"When I came to UCLA, I only knew one guy from Texas, and he worked at McDonald's as a cashier. I didn't have a single film connection at the time and just had to forge my own way. My architecture training gave me skills and a portfolio that helped me get jobs right away. Much later in my career, I met Richard Linklater and started working with him and got to come back to Texas. I think being from Texas definitely helped me connect with Richard. Now, I would try a lot harder to make connections with other Texans before coming out. And I do try to help other Texans that are getting started."

Back in Austin, it seems like those who are getting started are getting younger by the day.

"There's a 10-year-old girl that goes to my Saturday morning film club that's just constantly handing me stuff, “ said Harry Knowles, who runs the world renowned film Web site Ain't it Cool News from his house in Austin. "She was desperate to do something this summer that was film-oriented, but all the film events for people her age aren't available until you're 14, 15, and I wound up getting her an internship with some friends of mine that are low budget filmmakers that are making a horror film this summer, so they're going to have this little 10-year-old girl that's going to be sitting there painting blood on people. It's just beautiful, and she's as excited as can be. That's the key thing in Austin. It's not 'Can you lend a brother a dime?,' it's, 'Hey, can you help me up.' And there's a lot of helping up here in town."

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