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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

The Austin film scene is a cozy one, familial enough that at their Tribeza photo shoot, even the directors who hadn’t previously met knew of one another, and discovered that they shared friends or actors. Though Austin is growing, its film scene remains collaborative, tight-knit, and warm—when asked what they loved about making movies in Austin, every single filmmaker responded that the community was supportive or ego-less or even a little maverick. The six projects and nine directors, writers, and producers featured in these pages are wildly different, but they share the same goal: To move, inspire, ignite. We’ll be ready to cheer when they catch fire.

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Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews: In Praise of Nerds

Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews are self-proclaimed nerds, but not in the hip, mimicked-by-the-mainstream way. They’re people who met in their high school’s media department and bonded in college on public access sets. Their first dates were spent watching bootlegged copies of Troll 2 (widely regarded as the worst movie ever made) or Mr. Show on VHS. And though they’re from L.A., they left the land of the slick for Texas—and never looked back.

In fact, Graham and Matthews’s movie careers really took off thanks in large part to Troll 2. They loved the terrible cult classic, and by posting a mock trailer—back then, Graham explains, a novel tactic—they impressed the film’s former child star (turned director of a documentary about the film). They were brought on as DP and editor, and that’s how they ended up in Austin (pulling a reverse commute, of sorts, from the typical Hollywood trajectory to L.A.). The doc, called Best Worst Movie, premiered at SXSW in 2009. And, yes, Graham and Matthews do heartily recommend both the flick and the doc it inspired.

Leaving the West Coast wasn’t a tough choice for them. “We grew up in L.A., and for Andrew and me there’s something about the place that is so deeply uninspired,” Graham says. “There’s just something in Austin that’s kind of electric.” In L.A., Matthews explains, the Industry looms everywhere physically (via endless billboards) and mentally, emotionally. They feel much more at home in Texas, in a film scene they call not necessarily ambitious, but definitely “hungry to create stuff.”

Their most recent creation is a film called Zero Charisma, about a Dungeons & Dragons–playing, metal-loving nerd whose character is based on countless people Graham and Matthews have met over the years. “We’ve always known and loved the character of the know-it-all nerd,” Graham says. “You don’t like them; they’re kind of vulnerable and obnoxious at the same time. We just kept talking about how they never had their own movie or a spotlight on this particular kind of character, where he’s not just comedy.”

In fact, Graham and Matthews have both played—and still play, with a group including several other area filmmakers—D&D. “I wouldn’t have tried to make this movie if I didn’t play,” Matthews says.

They’ve found a warm reception to Zero Charisma in Austin (it won the audience award at SXSW in 2013). “Austin is a town that celebrates nerdery, unlike L.A., which is a little more ‘cool,’” Matthews says.

The duo is currently writing a couple of screenplays together. And even though it might be tough to cobble together the funds to bring these future projects to fruition, they wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’d rather be constantly making small things than having meetings about the same project for ten years,” Matthews says.

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Yen Tan: Small Towns, Hidden Stories

Yen Tan clearly remembers some of his early road trips through Texas, driving from Houston to Austin or Austin to Dallas. The Malaysian-born director and writer was shocked at the number of small towns along the highways. “I thought, ‘People actually live in these small towns,’” Tan says with a laugh. In Malaysia, Tan had always lived in big cities. He came to the United States for college in Des Moines, Iowa, but nothing prepared him for the truly rural landscape in between Texas’s major metropolises. He started wondering about the people who lived in these towns, about their lives. Then he had a thought: What would it be like to be gay in a small town?

“It was a mind-boggling thing to imagine,” Tan says. “So from there, I started some research. I reached out to people in the LGBT community who lived in small towns, and I got a sense of what kind of lives they had. I then wrote and crafted a story out of what they were telling me.” The result is Pit Stop, a feature that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Among the storylines that emerged: Many gay men in small towns were married to women. A number of them had children. “So those were things we explored in the film,” Tan says. He heard over and over again about the desire of small-town LGBT folks to leave, but also about the strong ties of home. “They want to leave, but at the same time they feel very grounded there, and that was very fascinating to me,” Tan explains.

Film itself has long fascinated Tan as well—when he was just six, his mother took him to see The Elephant Man, and he still remembers the experience, and the reaction he had to the imagery. Then at 16, he saw Thelma & Louise, which pretty much sealed the deal. “During the last five minutes of that movie, my skin was crawling,” Tan says. “I didn’t know movies could actually do that to you, and I just wanted to be a part of that process.”

But his parents had something more practical in mind, which was partially a matter of cultural expectations, he says. “Growing up in Malaysia, creative stuff was so overlooked, and frowned upon,” he says. So he majored in advertising and mass communications as a compromise, and worked for years as a copywriter for Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Three years ago he moved to Austin and quit his corporate job to pursue his passion. The experience in marketing has been beneficial to his filmmaking. “In an ideal world, a filmmaker wouldn’t have to worry about that kind of stuff,” Tan says, “but it helps when you’re developing your film to think about who it’s meant for.”

Pit Stop is available for download and on DVD. For more info, visit www.pitstopthemovie.com.

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Michael Tully: Garage Sports with a Beat

Michael Tully had wanted to make Ping Pong Summer, his latest feature film, which debuted at Sundance in February, since he was in high school. Growing up in Maryland, Tully worshipped two things: hip-hop and Ping-Pong. “The pitch or premise of Ping Pong Summer is to take an ’80s movie like Karate Kid and insert my own personal upbringing, which consisted of playing Ping-Pong in the garage and hip-hop before it was really mainstream,” Tully says.

Even after the creative satisfaction of making his other movies, like Cocaine Angel (2006) and Septien (2011), the untold stories of his youth tugged at him. “Every winter I would say, ‘I’m going to make Ping Pong Summer this summer,’” Tully says. “Then by March I’d realize I was broke and couldn’t do it.”

His break came after Septien made it into Sundance and he sold it to Sundance Selects, a label under IFC films. An IFC rep picked Tully’s brain at Sundance, asking if there were any other movies he wanted to make, any pet projects. Tully explained the Ping-Pong movie, and the rep was thrilled. “He said, ‘Wait, your dream project is an ’80s movie with Ping-Pong and hip-hop in it?’” It was both accessible and a reasonable financial proposition, and the rep promised to help Tully raise the funds necessary to make it.

In the end, the time it took to make the movie was a good thing, Tully explains. “Because I started it in 1992 and rewrote it every year, it became a kind of Rorschach test of where I was in my life. And luckily, I got far enough away from it where I thought, what can make this distinct is if I get very personal. It’s not 100 percent autobiographical, but it’s very personal, and if I’d made the movie when I was younger I would’ve shied away from that stuff.”

Born on the East Coast, Tully spent years living and making movies in New York City before moving to Austin about a year ago. All of his films have screened at SXSW, and each year he’d come to Texas, escape the East Coast winter, and meet more and more people. “I was badly looking for an excuse, and when my wife [Holly Herrick, associate artistic director at the Austin Film Society] was offered this great job, I thought, ‘Thank you, world.’ That was the nudge we needed.”

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Kat Candler: Movie Theater Magic

From the age of 15--and all the way through college--Kat Candler worked at a movie theater in Jacksonville, Florida. “I’ve lived and breathed movies for as long as I can remember, and I had no clue that it was possible to actually make them,” Candler says. But a few things changed that. First, a creative-writing professor told her a piece of her short fiction might make a great screenplay. Then, while still at the theater, she started working on the film sets of the Florida State kids who also worked there. “It was kind of a one-two punch, getting in on their sets,” Candler says. “I realized, this is actually pretty magical.”

As she began working on her own projects, Candler was confident—at least at first. As a creative-writing major, she knew storytelling, after all. But, she says, “when I moved to Austin and started to make movies, I thought, ‘I know everything, I can totally do this, no problem.’ I hadn’t studied screenwriting and I was quite shaken. I had to go back and study all of that, immerse myself in books and even good and bad movies both, making sense of what makes a story compelling or not.”

Candler took two film workshops, but the rest was trial and error. She wrote and directedLove Bug (2009) and the 2013 short Black Metal. She also wrote and directed a six-minute short film called Hellion, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. That film morphed into her most recent project, a feature-length film of the same name that just premiered at this year’s Sundance. The story is based on a real-life tale her uncle Frank would often tell: “He and my two other uncles set fire to my grandfather’s Jeep when they were little,” Candler explains. “I always had this very jovial image of my grandfather as a sweet, kind man, but as I got older my mom started telling stories. He was a very fallible man and made mistakes and struggled as a working-class parent.” As she developed and deepened Hellion into a feature, the complexity of his stories resonated with Candler. In order to live in the world of the film, she spent some time in southeast Texas, hanging out with refinery workers and interviewing barbershop owners and police officers. “I tried to immerse myself as much as I could to get the details right,” she says.

The film will screen at SXSW, and Candler and her producer, Kelly Williams, are currently ironing out distribution details. Candler is also at work expanding Black Metal into a feature. Find more on Hellion at www.candlerproductions.com.

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Andrew Disney: The Unlikely Heroes of Flag Football

Andrew Disney says everyone has one “epic-if-only-to-them” sports moment, whether it’s a game-winning three-pointer or just a perfectly aimed beanbag toss in a game of cornhole. “We’ve all had these moments; we’ve all felt like there’s a thousand fans in a stadium watching us,” Disney says. And those moments are exactly what Intramural, a film in which “fifth-year seniors go for one last shot of glory in intramural football,” is all about.

“The thing I always say about this movie is it’s an epic sports movie for guys who don’t deserve one,” Disney says. “We thought we could film these epic flag football scenes just like it was Any Given Sunday.”

Disney and the film’s writer, Bradley Jackson, had several mutual friends when they met on the festival circuit years ago. Eventually, Jackson shared the script for Intramural with Disney. “I thought it was hilarious,” Disney says. “It reminded me of Wet Hot American Summer or Hot Rod, the kind of fun, cult movies you can’t stop quoting.”

If the first essential for a truly funny film is good writing, then a close second is the actors who bring those words to life. Disney hunted down talent he thought worthy of the material. He and his team sent out video offers to actors they loved, touting the reasons why they should come to Austin and be in the film. It worked—they nailed actors includingThe Office’s Jake Lacy, Nikki Reed (Twilight), and Kate McKinnon and Jay Pharoah fromSaturday Night Live.

Austin played a big part in the movie, both on location and after. “When we were cutting the film, the very first thing we did was take it to the Austin Film Society and have a test screening there,” Disney says. “It was so great to show that cut because so many other filmmakers came out to watch it and gave us great feedback. It was so much fun to see the filmmakers, too—they’re genuine and they want to help you and share ideas.” Thanks to the advice he received at AFS, Disney was able to cut more than 15 minutes from the film, leaving it at a lean 1 hour, 35-minute run time.

When we spoke, Disney was in the final production stages of Intramural (the film will debut later this year). After spending 10 days in Los Angeles finishing the color correcting on Intramural, he was happy to return to the land of breakfast tacos and “filmmaking magic.” “People are making movies here in Austin because they love it,” Disney says. “Texas just has this kind of maverick quality about it.”

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Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin, and David Hartstein: The Confluence of Old and New Texas

It’s no secret that Austin is changing. A new film written and directed by Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund and produced by David Hartstein explores just that—alongside a whole heap of psychological drama and suspense, too. Set in the Hill Country, La Barracuda is the fictional story of the daughter of a deceased singer-songwriter and what happens after the day a strange woman appears on her doorstep, claiming to be her half sister. “It’s a suspense story, and a narrative revenge ballad,” Cortlund explains.

But it’s also a metaphor of sorts: Old Texas vs. New Texas, the first generation of singer-songwriters who rose to fame in this town vs. their children. In the mold of writers like Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, Cortlund and Halperin explore the intense psychological relationship between the two women as a way to look at a town they’ve called home since the mid-’90s. “We’re more interested in the observational approach to film,” Cortlund says, “and making more character-driven stories.”

In case you think “character-driven” means short on plot or suspense—it doesn’t. David Hartstein, director of Along Came Kinky and producer of La Barracuda, says even the movie’s outline sucked him in when Halperin and Cortlund approached him with it. “There are these really visceral film elements, suspense and explosions of violence, in addition to this emotional relationship between these two really great, amazing, strong female characters, and it’s an exciting thing to explore.”

Longtime admirers of one another’s work (Halperin and Cortlund previously wrote and directed 2012’s Now Forager, a fictional love story about mushroom foragers in New York), Hartstein and the pair had often shared works-in-progress as unofficial consultants. They got the chance to work together officially, and in close quarters, after winning entry to the 2013 Biennele College Cinema projects. For two weeks, the three worked on the script in what Cortlund describes as a “pressure cooker.” They got input from mentors, and did exercises like using Legos to help explain and tweak their story.

“It was an accelerated process,” Cortlund says. “It helped weed out the weak.” “And strengthen the strong,” Halperin adds.

Next, the trio will work out producing elements. Halperin says they hope to begin shooting in about a year. “We want it to be about this place,” she says. “This is our chosen home and where we’ve lived for the better part of the last two decades. You don’t want to make a film about Texas and have somebody from L.A. score it—this is very much connected to the landscape here and the connection between Austin and the Hill Country and what’s changing, and what’s good and bad about that.”

Credits

Photography by Matt Rainwaters

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