For the past two decades, virtually all the cinematic energy in Texas has been centered in Austin. Indie darlings such as Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater continue to call the city home. The South by Southwest Film Festival, which kicks off its seventeenth edition on March 12, gets more crowded each year. Most recently, the town has given birth to “mumblecore,” an entire mini-genre that involves chatty tales of hipster angst (see the works of Mark and Jay Duplass, Andrew Bujalski, and Joe Swanberg, all of which have been aggressively promoted at SXSW).
But as our fourth annual survey of up-and-coming filmmakers illustrates, Texas is a big place, with a multiplicity of perspectives. So, yes, we have chosen one mumblecore-y Austinite, who enters the big leagues with his wickedly clever second feature. But this year’s Action Heroes also celebrates filmmakers who hail from El Paso, Richardson, and Fort Worth and who venture into the psychological thriller, the war drama, and the sci-fi fantasy.
Our criteria for inclusion: (1) Filmmakers must be raised, educated, or currently based in Texas, (2) their work needs to have screened at well-respected festivals like Sundance or Toronto, and (3) they must have a feature premiering in 2010. The field was especially crowded this year, and we had to overlook some worthy talent. But we take heart from this embarrassment of riches: As filmmaking begins to flourish in every corner of the state, the future looks very bright indeed.
1. Chad Feehan
Hometown: Fort Worth
Education: University of San Diego; American Film Institute
Credits: Wake (2010)
The Houston-born, Cowtown-reared Feehan was one of the producers of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, an ingenious neo-slasher flick that’s been stuck in distribution limbo since 2006. When he saw his fellow Mandy Lane alumni, director Jonathan Levine and writer Jacob Forman, land big Hollywood gigs, Feehan decided he wanted to try writing and directing himself. The result, Wake, is a sly thriller about a young couple (Josh Stewart and Jamie-Lynn Sigler) who checks into a creepy motel. Wearing his horror movie influences proudly on his sleeve (the brand of cigarettes in the film is Overlook, a nod to Stephen King’s The Shining), Feehan neatly ratchets up the tension without ever devolving into Hollywood cheesiness.
The bottom line: A superb debut, and his next project, an adaptation of William Gay’s acclaimed Southern Gothic thriller Twilight, sounds even more promising. (And, yes, he plans to change that title.)
2. Ryan Piers Williams
Hometown: El Paso
Education: University of Southern California
Credits: The Dry Land (2010)
Although he spent time working for the Austin Film Festival, Williams is currently based in Los Angeles, where until now he’s been best known as the boyfriend of Ugly Betty star America Ferrera. That should change as more people see his feature directorial debut, The Dry Land, about an Iraq war veteran (Ryan O’Nan) with post-traumatic stress disorder. The movie, which premiered at Sundance, bears some resemblance to a few other recent Iraq-related dramas, including Stop-Loss and Brothers, but Williams deserves credit for tackling a tough subject and doing it eloquent justice. A scene set at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in which O’Nan’s character learns the details of an ambush that he’d blocked out, is simply devastating.
The bottom line: On the basis of his accomplished, if earnest, debut, Williams clearly takes himself seriously—a good thing. But a little levity might serve him well in the future.
3. Bryan Poyser
Hometown: raised in Connecticut, calls Austin home
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: Dear Pillow (2004), Lovers of Hate (2010)
A longtime staffer at the Austin Film Society, Poyser seemed in danger of becoming one of those people whose early promise never fully blossoms. His debut, Dear Pillow, was a striking but uneven drama about a bored teenager and his sex-obsessed older neighbor; his screenplay for 2006’s The Cassidy Kids (directed by Jacob Vaughan) was a conceit in search of a story. But his moment has at last arrived: Lovers of Hate, which premiered at Sundance, follows an aimless thirtysomething (Chris Doubek) whose novelist brother (Alex Karpovsky) puts the moves on his estranged wife (Heather Kafka). Set mostly in an enormous house in Park City, Utah, where the characters attempt to elude one another, this is a screwball comedy with a savage bite.
The bottom line: Poyser has a terrific grasp of people behaving badly, but he needs to push himself outside his talky comfort zone. His next project, a psychological thriller set within the confines of an elevator, sounds like the right move.
4. Clay Liford
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: A Four Course Meal (2006), Earthling (2010)
The oddest filmmaker in this year’s lineup, the Dallas-based Liford previously focused on short films, including the four comedies about cannibalism that make up A Four Course Meal. His 2008 short, My Mom Smokes Weed, an inspired romp about a young man who drives his mother to buy marijuana, played at Sundance this year. Now Liford takes an aggressive left turn with his feature debut, Earthling, a moody sci-fi drama about a schoolteacher (the superb Rebecca Spence) who discovers that she’s a member of an alien race. The movie is sluggish in spots and finally much too nerdy. But Liford conjures up an intriguingly weird mood that keeps you watching and guessing.
The bottom line: Talent this offbeat tends to flower into visionary genius or completely flame out; either way, Liford will be interesting to watch.
The Class of ’10: Where to see their movies.
Feehan: Wake will have its official premiere at South by Southwest. Williams: Though a release date has not yet been set, The Dry Land will be distributed later this year by Maya Releasing. Poyser: Lovers of Hate will play at South by Southwest as he looks for theatrical distribution. Liford: Earthling will premiere at South by Southwest and also play at the Dallas International Film Festival (formerly AFI Dallas) in April. Alumni update: Mark and Jay Duplass (Action Heroes ’07) premiered their first studio release, the amiable comedy Cyrus, starring Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly, at Sundance; it will arrive in theaters later this year. David Modigliani (’08) has begun production on a new documentary called 61 Bullets, which centers on the assassination of Huey Long. He hopes to premiere it in mid-2011.