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A Conversation with Keith Maitland

This year at South by Southwest, Austin-based filmmaker Keith Maitland is premiering two very different films. Tower is a mostly animated documentary about the 1966 UT Tower shooting that combines eyewitness interviews with historical footage. The harrowing story has intrigued Maitland since the seventh grade, when he first heard about the shooting from his history teacher, an eyewitness. Meanwhile, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story is a celebration of 40 years of the Austin-based PBS music series.

We sat down with the Emmy-nominated Maitland on a sunny February day at the “compound” (as his wife and co-director of photography, Sarah Wilson, calls their expansive east side office/home/studio property). Though both of Maitland’s films are premiering in less than a month, and the couple’s three-month-old, Theo, is napping a few feet away, the filmmaker is surprisingly at ease as we chat about work, inspiration and the state of filmmaking in Austin.

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It’s been quite a year for you. Can you catch us up on it?

It’s really just been a process of juggling these two [films]. They’re kind of the two biggest [ways] that Austin in the ‘60s, and then in the ‘70s, interacted with the rest of the world. Back when Austin was a sleepy little college town, these were the two things that broke it out. [Tower] is a story that I wanted to tell for a long time… and I knew that I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of people that were there, and I knew that I wanted to work in this animation style because it would allow us to transcend time and place and put viewers right into the pocket of the story, with a real sense of immediacy.

Tower isn’t a typical documentary. How would you describe it?

It definitely breaks the form of documentary in certain ways. It bends it at the minimum, being a mostly animated documentary. There have been one or two of those before, but it mixes animation with archival footage seamlessly, which I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that anywhere else. There’s a wealth of archival footage from that day. In some instances, the people who are our characters in the film, there’s footage of them from 1966, but it’s usually from a distance. [For the film,] we shot these animated recreations that are like the close-up of that same scene, and we cut back and forth between them, treating the archival footage and the animation equally.

You said that ACL and the UT Tower shooting were the first things to happen in Austin that brought the city national attention. Did you set out thinking, ‘These are the two things I want to make films about?’

No. Tower was my film. The ACL film was started by [PBS], and they did a search for a filmmaker. I pitched to them an idea about focusing on their past, present and future. And I just saw that film as an opportunity to see a ton of music. I was like, ‘Look, if this means I get to go hang out with Willie Nelson then yes, I wanna do it.’

Was there anything that especially struck you during your interviews with local artists?

We talked with Shakey Graves, and he grew up here in Austin, and Gary Clark Jr., and they spoke about what it was like growing up in a town full of music and kind of coming of age just as it felt like the town came of age.

And even if the scene is changing, ACL is actually something that hasn’t really changed in that sense.

Totally. A lot of people talked about that loyalty, continuity. A lot of [the film] is young artists realizing they’ve kind of joined this pantheon of incredible performers like Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who graced that stage.

You’re a younger filmmaker in Austin. What’s the pulse out there?

You’re being generous by calling me younger; I just turned 40 last month. I think Austin has an incredible scene for independent filmmakers in that there are a lot of us here, and it’s a pretty supportive network of individuals. We all share gear, we share producers, we share editors, we socialize. You know, I went to the University of Texas at Austin and I graduated in 1998, and I felt like when I graduated, to have the kind of career I wanted, I couldn’t stay in Austin, so I went to New York and was there for almost 10 years. Austin is a destination now. When I graduated it was New York or Los Angeles. Now it’s New York or LA or Austin.

SXSW Film played a big role in establishing Austin as a film town.

There are great film festivals all over the country and all over the world, but there’s only a handful of festivals that actually engage with the industry, that bring in agents, producers, executive producers, studios. SXSW is one of those places.

To take these two films that are so Austin based and that I think both have an audience of people across multiple generations here in Austin that care about these stories, [and] to be able to present them here in town, it’s thrilling.

That’s great. Congratulations.

Thank you. Just to get to do this kind of work is a privilege. On Tower in particular it’s so meaningful to me. When you turn on the news and you see that kind of conversation [about shootings] continuing seemingly more and more frequently, an opportunity to understand the impact of that, what it means to people who go through it, [that’s] what drove me to want to make the film. The film Tower is not set out to solve the problem of school shootings. But if I could spark a dialogue that inspires a conversation, maybe there are smarter people out there than me who can take something from that and work towards figuring out a way to start solving this problem.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

CREDITS

Photographs by Sarah Wilson

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