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After years of working his way up through the system to direct his first feature, it was an unfortunate detour that led Brandon Dickerson in the right direction. When his wife’s mother contracted cancer, the filmmaker, then based in Los Angeles, didn’t give it a second thought before uprooting his family to care for her in Texas.
“People were saying it’s career suicide to leave Hollywood,” said Dickerson, whose family resettled in Waco within ten days of the news. “But my friend Wes Cunningham and I had reconnected because we were friends in L.A. and he left for Waco too.”
Like Dickerson, Cunningham risked a promising career in music by returning to his roots in Central Texas and taking his unique blend of nouveau rockabilly and melancholy balladry with him. But two years later, along with co-writer Thomas Ward, the two have made a sweet symphony together with “Sironia,” a film that feels out of sync with most rough-and-tumble onscreen tales of musicians, though hardly off-key.
While there’s one instance of ill-considered drunken revelry at a roller skating rink, the only addiction singer/songwriter Thomas Fisher (Cunningham) has to battle is that of his former life, going through the withdrawal of his impulsive decision to move to the fictional small town of Sironia where his wife (Amy Acker) hails from in preparation of the birth of their first child. Although the welcoming sign by the side of the road reads “Sironia: Where Everybody is Somebody,” Fisher can’t figure out who he is exactly if he’s not playing music and despite the missus’ insistence that he pull out his guitar, he gets lost in all the curiosities offered by Texas such as the availability of queso and Big Red and the fact that people actually go outside to mow their lawns.
The film itself is a reflection of being caught between two worlds, feeling intimate even as it’s laced with bursts of discovery of a place we’ve rarely seen before onscreen. But it also benefits from a veteran cast of actors from Hollywood provenance surrounding Cunningham, utilizing the underappreciated likes of Robyn Lively and Tony Hale, who appear as Thomas’ in-laws, and Courtney Ford and Carrie Preston, who are helping hands along Thomas’ journey, to play the film’s grace notes. It’s a lovely debut that’s as unexpected as the way it got made and shortly before the film’s premiere at the Austin Film Festival, Dickerson sat down with me to discuss how it came about.
Where did the initial idea for the film start?
I’ve been a director for a long, long time — commercials, music videos and documentaries — but the hope since I was a kid was to do narrative feature filmmaking, so everything I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to work towards that. [Wes] literally was helping me unpack bags when we moved and I was listening to the music that he had been writing because he had gone off the path and had just written songs in obscurity. He introduced me to Thomas Ward, who’s already a stage play writer [and a professor at Baylor University in Waco] and we all got together at this place called Café Cappucino. At that meal, we just came up with the idea for writing a film based on Wes’ music because [Thomas and I] both really thought there’s so much story in the things Wes was writing about and nobody had heard these songs. He was writing just for his love of music. So the first time we all met, we decided to write a screenplay and the three of us just dove into writing a screenplay that was "Sironia."
Was it different coming from a music video background to find the context around the songs rather than solely from within them?
Probably the truth is that my music video work always looked like a frustrated film production because I was always trying to put too much in. This is what I always wanted to do. Music videos, it was never fully satisfying for me. I was always trying to tell stories in three minutes or 30 seconds, but to have music to base the screenplay on and then having the full 90 minutes to have a character arc and dive in was just liberating for me.
Did Wes slip into the actor part fairly easily? It seems like since it’s based on his music, it would be easy, but at the same time surreal to be living out songs that only existed in his head.
It was and in truth, we finished the script and then we found funding and none of us thought that would happen. Then we all agreed that no role was guaranteed, so we had this shift where I all of a sudden was a director and Wes and Thomas both had to audition and fight for their role. Wes got very, very serious about it and when we did a screen test, I knew he was the guy because of the authenticity of the music and then as you see in the film, what he did is he took the idea of stage performance and I would direct him like, okay, this is like a stage performance, but turn it into a film performance.
So he was able to translate the idea that he’s always been a performer [into being] a screen actor. And he loved it. He wants to act again. For him, it was not just a one-off. He found that he loved acting, he loved the craft and he really loved the parts of the story that aren’t him because there are parts of the film that are very much not Wes. Wes is not from California, moving here. We took the truth of his journey and crafted a story around it.
Obviously, the physical move to Texas gave you a different perspective, but also you and Wes both seem to be at that age you’re neither young and idealistic or old and set in your ways. Did you find you had that in common when you reconnected?
Huge. And it’s interesting because as the film is getting out there, we’re finding people are just really connecting with it in their own lives. Wes was describing it as this idea of where you hope that you would be and where you really are and the truth being somewhere in the middle of finding contentment outside of your circumstances. The three of us were totally going through that. I was a fish out of water – okay, now, I’m in Waco. What’s this mean for my career? Wes had already gone through it and then Thomas was the same way because he’s a professor at Baylor and he always wanted to be in New York doing stage plays. That’s why that theme is so heavy is because you have three writers going through that in their journey.
There seemed to be a really strong connection to the community in putting this film together – Tony Hale actually spoke at Baylor at one point, among other things. Was that important to you?
The community was incredibly supportive and Waco’s been so beat up by the media, anybody coming in there with a camera, it’s all been about the 20-year-old Koresh story, right? So when they realized it had a love letter quality and was steeped in [the city] being a character, they became very supportive. Then Baylor had an internship program and the film department there had a very supportive role.
Was there a dramatic change in tempo or the feel of the production when you moved from Hollywood to Waco?
Totally changed. We shot 15 days in Waco and then five days in L.A. and it was a night and day experience. The hardest part of filming was trying to bring as much crew out there. In Waco, we were shooting locations that had never been shot. It’s not like you’ve seen Skate World in five movies and the Common Grounds in five movies. But we go to Hollywood and it’s Hollywood, so we tried to embrace it. I actually lived with my family at Sunset and Vine and then shot music videos at the Avalon where we shot the [concert scene that opens the film], so it was a different pace, but I surrounded myself with familiar territory from my career shooting in Hollywood.
Upon moving to Waco, did you experience a similar shock to the system as the main character does in the film of learning about things so endemic to Texas such as queso [a cheese dip] and mutton bustin’ [competitive sheep wrangling for children at rodeos]?
Oh yeah. Three days in [living in Texas], my wife and I went with her sister, who the Robyn Lively character is based on, and sat there for [mutton bustin’] and I was like, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. This has to be in a movie. I think it had been a year when we filmed at the same mutton bustin’ thing that I was at the year prior. And then the queso, my wife is from Texas, I’m from California and any time someone from California comes to Texas, they’ve never heard of queso. I’ve had that conversation 20 times, like queso, what is this?
Must’ve been nearly as magical for them when they find out as the experience you’re having now. What’s it like to premiere your first feature?
It’s so fun. The idea that I tried so hard in L.A. for all these years [to make a feature] and then I just sort of did what I thought was best for my family and then I got a film, I’m excited to tell that story. I love this idea of that palms up thing that’s in the movie, this idea of surrender. To be here and to have the world premiere [at the Austin Film Fest] is just kind of a great story behind the story.