Austin is known as the USA’s live music capital but this arty, laidback city also has a flourishing film scene. In fact, for film-types like myself, it was an indie movie, Richard Linklater‘s Slacker, about a day in the life of 20-something Austin Gen X-ers, that put the city on the map.
Successful Austin-based directors include Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Fast Food Nation), and Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico,Â From Dusk Till Dawn, Predators), while young filmmakers to watch include Mark and Jay Duplass, Bryan Poyser and Emily Hagins.
The city has fantastic film festivals, such as the Austin Film Festival and South By Southwest (SXSW), quirky cinemas, an active film society (founded by Linklater), and the excellent Austin (film) Studios.
When we meet Joel and Dani Rasmussen, owners of our second Austin holiday rental, Joel gives us a DVD of a documentary film to watch, Before the Music Dies. It turns out it’s his documentary film. Joel is also a scriptwriter, producer and editor.
In addition to being owners of several holiday rental properties, Joel, along with Dani, a designer, are, in typical Austinian-style, busy working on a number of creative projects: making more movies, publishing books, and developing mobile applications.
As Terence and I were filmmakers in a former life (our low-budget feature film, a gritty road movie called Come By Chance premiered at the same time as Rodriguez’ first feature, the low-budget El Mariachi), I couldn’t resist talking movies with Joel and getting an insider’s guide to the Austin film scene.
Q. What’s your connection to Austin?
A. Dani and I have lived in Austin for over a decade. We love it! I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q. What makes Austin special?
A. There is really nothing like Austin. It’s always been this hive of amazing creativity for most of its history, and that creativity with a counterculture twist is woven into its fabric. I think it’s the unique combination of entrepreneurship mixed with university culture that seems to be a magnet for creative people. It’s so vibrant, sometimes the streets almost seem to hum.
Q. You made a film about music…
A. For me, music and film have been literally connected from the very beginning. My first job was working for the company that makes ProTools, the first successful system for recording and editing audio on a computer. While I was there they were acquired by Avid, which made the first successful editing system for film and TV. I took advantage of that opportunity to learn both music and film editing, and that gave me my start as a digital creative.
In Austin I think the connection between music and film is strong, largely thanks to South by Southwest (SXSW). What started as a music festival morphed into what is now one of the most important film festivals in the US, and it’s even gone further to encompass interactive media, mobile computing, and almost anything on the cutting edge of our digital lives. I feel very fortunate to have SXSW in my backyard.
Q. Is Austin really the live music capital of the world?
A. A few years back a New York Times writer took a swipe at Austin’s title of ‘live music capital of the world’ and the mayor’s office here took him to task and actually did a study. The results proved that there was more live music in Austin on any given night of the week than in New York City. But petty rivalries notwithstanding, I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve never seen another city anywhere that has the sheer variety, talent, and level of musicianship that you can find in Austin.
Q. What inspired your film Before the Music Dies?
A. My partner in the project, director Andrew Shapter, is a successful photographer, and for a while was shooting for both the music and fashion industries. He noticed this trend where the bands started to be more concerned about their look than spending time on their sound check. He had a conversation with his brother John, a musician fighting a terminal illness, who was really distraught about the state of the music industry. Their last conversation was his observation that the labels seemed to be so risk averse, or profit oriented depending on your perspective, that the only acts being promoted by major labels seemed to be these carbon copy Britney Spears-like teen stars. The bands that we grew up with would never get signed today.
Q. Tell us a bit about the film.
A. With that inspiration as our starting point, the film is the story of us looking for answers. We go around the country talking to anyone who will talk to us, trying to figure out what’s going on with music these days. Is it truly the train wreck it appears to be or is there some light at the end of the tunnel? We were fortunate to be able to interview some up-and-comers in the industry as well as some of the biggest names that have been leading the charts for decades. We spoke with Les Paul, Elvis Costello, Eric Badu, Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton… and got a wide range of opinions about what’s happening with music right now.
Q. Do you see a future for the music industry?
A. I hope it’s not all doom and gloom. We weren’t sure what we would find when we started the project, and if you’re a true music fan there’s a lot to dislike about the current state of affairs. But what we found, quite by accident, is an incredibly vibrant independent music scene that seems to be thriving in every corner of the globe. The film was enough of a hit that we were fortunate to be invited to tour it around the world, and the common discovery everywhere we went was that independent music is exploding. Whether that’s because of, or in spite of, the demise of the majors is anyone’s guess, but our conclusion is that there has never been a better time to be a music fan.
Q. Your next film?
A. I have a project in the works. It’s self-funded so they take a bit longer to complete. It’s an exercise that takes as its premise that there are already existing solutions to most of the problems our planet faces: climate change, poverty, hunger, energy… and we try to imagine what it would look like to live in a world where we’ve solved those problems. It’s human nature to get caught up in the drama of our challenges, but I’ve found it’s very difficult for people to imagine what it would look like if we solved them. We’ve conducted some mind-blowing interviews and I look forward to the finished project.
Q. Describe the film scene in Austin in a word?
A. Exploding. It’s funny…the street in front of my house is blocked off right now for a film shoot, which happens all the time here. There are so many great projects in the works it’s hard to keep track.
Q. Any up and coming local filmmakers to watch out for?
A. Choosing a favourite filmmaker in Austin is almost as dangerous as choosing a favourite musician. There are too many, and if I named a few I would upset the ones I left out!
Q. Best places for visiting film types like us to mingle with local film buffs and filmmakers?
A. I would suggest joining or even just checking out the Austin Film Society. They have events open to the public, and several levels of membership for people who love film or make it their career. It’s a great organization.
Q. Best places to see films in Austin?
A. My personal favourites are the Alamo Drafthouse and the Paramount Theatre.
Q. Austin’s most quintessential films?
A. The city is most well known for Austin City Limits, the longest running live music show in existence. It’s television, not film, but I have to mention both because it’s fantastic, and because it has done more to cement Austin in people’s minds as a great city than perhaps anything else. And then there are all of the other great films either set in or filmed in Austin: Slackers, Sin City and all of the Rodriguez films, Mike Judge’s body of work, the recent Drew Barrymore-directed Whip It, Stop Loss, and, of course, Before the Music Dies. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Coen Brothers remake of True Grit because their production staff stayed with us during the shoot, and it sounds like it’s going to be a great film.
Q. Best place to rent a movie to watch at home?
A. Check out Vulcan Video.
Q. Best place to buy movies?
A. Head straight to Waterloo Records.
Q. Best souvenir?
A. A badge from the SXSW film festival. It will be a reminder for years to come of what a great time you had and an incredible film festival, and you will have undoubtedly seen a slew of great films and rubbed elbows with some truly amazing and inspiring individuals.