Action Heroes

Our first annual search for the next great Texas directors.

DON’T GET US WRONG: The Third Coast is real and thriving. Prison Break and Friday Night Lights are being shot in Dallas and Austin, respectively; Texas-set films by the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson recently wrapped production; even Dallas might finally get made. But for all the activity, something’s noticeably amiss. In the decade-plus since Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, and Wes Anderson burst onto the scene, no new major Texas directors have emerged to succeed them. Is our state still capable of producing original, off-kilter talent?

With the fourteenth edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival upon us, the time has come to answer this question. We present our first annual survey of rising filmmakers who might (or might not) become the next big Texas thing. Our criteria: (1) Directors must be Texas-born, -raised, or -educated, (2) their work needs to have played at nationally respected festivals like Sundance or SXSW, and (3) they must have a feature-length film on the festival circuit or in commercial theaters in the next year.

We make no claims of comprehensiveness, but if there’s a new Rodriguez or Linklater out there, we’re determined to find him (or her). Oh, and if there’s an artist following in the footsteps of San Antonio’s Stephen Herek (you know, the director of Man of the House, starring Tommy Lee Jones), well, just remember that Hollywood, TX pulls no punches.

1 David Gordon Green

Age: 31 Hometown: Richardson
Education: North Carolina School of the Arts
Credits: George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004), Snow Angels (2007)

Ever since his hallucinatory debut, George Washington—about a group of kids who accidentally kill one of their friends—Green has been regarded as the Lone Star State’s most promising talent. He wasn’t educated here, and he’s yet to shoot a film here. But no other young director so aggressively channels the Texas tradition of Terrence Malick ( Badlands), especially that director’s rigorous attention to landscape and fondness for acid-trippy narration that plays over gorgeously abstract imagery.

But did all the early praise go to Green’s head? His next two works—the dewy romance All the Real Girls and the thriller Undertow—sank beneath the weight of their own mythopoeic pretensions. In January the director turned up at Sundance with the drama Snow Angels, starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell as a separated couple whose child drowns in an accident. While Green resists his impulses for pretty-picture making and empty philosophizing, this static new movie also reveals that he has little interest in character or story.

The bottom line: This would-be emperor isn’t wearing any clothes—and is in danger of turning into a one-hit wonder.

2 Laura Dunn

Age: 31 Hometown: New Orleans
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: The Unforeseen (2007)

Perhaps the most unfamiliar name in our survey is Dunn, who spent four years on her documentary about the battle between real estate developers and environmentalists over Austin’s Barton Springs. Despite the film’s regional focus, it earned a spot at Sundance, perhaps because its executive producers are Robert Redford and (yes, him again) Terrence Malick. (Malick actually suggested the idea to Dunn, after seeing a number of her documentary shorts.) The film, which will screen at SXSW, has its share of wonky passages, but it’s also surprisingly compelling. The director refuses to take sides, portraying even embattled developer Gary Bradley with empathy. It helps, too, that cinematographer Lee Daniel captures Austin so strikingly, lending its skyline an almost surreal burnish.

The bottom line: A promising debut. It will be important for Dunn to reach beyond Austin next and not pigeonhole herself.

3 Jay and Mark Duplass

Ages: 34, 30 Hometown: New Orleans
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: The Puffy Chair (2005), Baghead (2007)

Here’s a story about why it’s sometimes necessary to leave the well-feathered Texas nest: The Duplass brothers (Jay directs, Mark produces and often stars, both of them write) moved to Austin for college and spent several years working there, creating a series of well-regarded shorts. (A program of them will screen at SXSW.) But it wasn’t until they moved to New York City that they fully realized their potential, with The Puffy Chair. A gentle-spirited comedy about a rudderless guy (Mark) who takes a road trip with his needy girlfriend (Kathryn Aselton, Mark’s real-life wife), Puffy occasionally degenerates into Gen Y navel-gazing. But Jay displays a knack for the slow-burning comic set piece (note the sequence in which the three main characters attempt to sneak into a motel room), and Mark has an ordinary-guy charm that might translate into a serious Hollywood acting career. Indeed, the future looks bright: The Duplass brothers have since moved to Los Angeles, where they are developing a feature with producer Mary Parent ( You, Me and Dupree) and a TV show with Paul and Chris Weitz ( American Pie). And they’ve already shot their second feature, Baghead, which they hope to premiere at Sundance next year.

The bottom line: Imagine the Wilson brothers (except less annoying) crossed with the Coen brothers (except less hipsterish), and you get a sense of the potential here.

4 George Ratliff

Age: 38 Hometown: Amarillo
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: Plutonium Circus (1995), Hell House (2001), Joshua (2007)

And here’s a story about why the grass isn’t necessarily greener in New York: Ratliff made a witty, if occasionally clumsy, debut with Plutonium Circus, a documentary about a nuclear weapons facility near Amarillo. He then took a leap forward with his underappreciated second doc, Hell House, about a religious-themed haunted house in Cedar Hill. Ratliff has spent the past six years trying to break into features, and he reemerged at Sundance with Joshua, a thriller about a Manhattan yuppie couple (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) whose son (Jacob Kogan) doesn’t take well to a new baby in the house. The movie was one of the biggest commercial successes of the festival (Fox Searchlight paid a reported $3.7 million for distribution rights), but it’s little more

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