Did It Their Way
Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner prove that Sundance still embraces their type of idiosyncratic, shoestring-budgeted work.
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The classic Sundance Film Festival story goes something like this: A gifted young filmmaker—say Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith—maxes out his credit cards, and pours everything he’s got into a debut feature. The film premieres at the festival, in Park City, Utah, where it’s embraced as a bold leap forward for American cinema. Agents and distributors come calling, helping to propel the director into a lucrative Hollywood career, and his second feature has a considerably bigger budget.
Then there’s the story of David and Nathan Zellner, the filmmaker siblings from Austin, who prove that starry-eyed Sundance still embraces deeply idiosyncratic, shoestring-budgeted work. After screening some of their short films at the festival, the filmmakers premiered their eccentric debut feature Goliath there in 2008. A comedy about an aimless thirtysomething (played by David) whose life begins to come unglued after his cat goes missing, the film received encouraging reviews and eventually secured a video-on-demand and DVD release through IFC Films.
But the brothers didn’t immediately book one-way tickets to Los Angeles. Instead, they chose to remain in Austin, where they continued to make shorts and direct music videos for their favorite local bands. On Monday afternoon at Sundance, they will premiere their second feature, Kid-Thing, a strange, fable-like drama about Annie (Sydney Aguirre), a ten-year-old girl who encounters a woman trapped at the bottom of a well. Financed partly through Kickstarter, and shot on weekends to accommodate the schedule of their young leading lady, it’s arguably even more of a textbook “indie” than the brothers’ previous feature.
“Ultimately, we’d like to do all kinds of films, in terms of the subject matter and scope and the size of the budget,” David said in an interview with his brother a few days before they were set to head to Sundance. “But rather than sit around and wait for those to happen, we want to continue to do things that interest us.”
The Zellners were born in Colorado but moved as children to Texas, where they both attended college. (David, 38, studied film at the University of Texas; Nathan, 36, studied computer science at Texas A&M University.) In the early 2000s in Austin, they began to make a series of droll comic shorts, usually starring themselves.
Since Goliath, they have been trying to get a number of bigger-budgeted projects off the ground but have been delayed by the usual money restrictions. Eager to make another feature, they turned their attention to the modestly scaled Kid-Thing, which secured some of its financing through Kickstarter. The website, first founded in 2009, is an online pledge system that has become popular among indie filmmakers, who post descriptions of their films in the hopes of soliciting donations.
“Kickstarter definitely has very quickly started playing a big part in independent films,” Nathan said, adding, “Knowing what we know now, we might have done a longer campaign.” (Nine other features at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—including Mosquita y Mari, which raised more than $80,000 from 888 donors—used the site.)
The Zellners said the $10,368 raised on Kickstarter was only a small portion of the film’s final budget, which also came from grants from the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund and individual investors. (The Zellners declined to say exactly how much Kid-Thing cost, only that it was “less than $500,000”—a low number even by the standards of Sundance, where the average cost of a film is usually about $1 million.)
But their use of Kickstarter seems fitting for a project that was so resolutely homegrown: David wrote and directed the movie, Nathan produced and served as cinematographer, and both have supporting roles. They cast Sydney—the daughter of a friend—after working with her in a music video for the Austin band Ola Podrida.
According to John Bryant, a writer-director in Austin who has worked as a crew member and actor on a number of the Zellners’ films, that do-it-yourself attitude has earned the brothers considerable respect in the local filmmaking scene.
Bryant recalled one of his own projects that required shooting off fireworks indoors. “David let me build the set in his garage,” he said. “Who does that? They’re definitely down for the cause.”
The Zellners’ approach to their second feature film is not without potential pitfalls. In an era in which the most successful films at Sundance, like the thriller Winter’s Bone and the dramedy The Kids Are All Right, are often low-budget variations on familiar Hollywood genres, a movie as far out as Kid-Thing might get easily lost amid the crush of 117 features being screened this year. (It’s certain to be the only title in the 2012 lineup to feature lingering shots of a little girl making multiple peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.)
Those who know the Zellners and their work aren’t necessarily concerned that they might get labeled as filmmakers only capable of small, esoteric work.
“They are following their own muse,” said Paul Stekler, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas and a longtime observer of the Austin film scene. “Is there anything better than being able to support yourself doing what you want to do, rather than what someone in Hollywood tells you to do?”