No single style or sensibility drives our third annual look at up-and-coming Texas filmmakers, in which we profile practitioners of both no-budget indies and multimillion-dollar Hollywood popcorn fare and praise both earnest social dramas and deadpan comedies. It’s a fitting snapshot for an uncertain era, as rapidly emerging technologies are transforming the way entertainment is created, distributed, and consumed.
Our criteria for inclusion: (1) Filmmakers must be raised, educated, or based in Texas, (2) their work needs to have been released by a well-known commercial distributor or screened at nationally respected festivals like Sundance, and (3) they must have a new feature premiering in 2009. This year we’ve bent those rules slightly to include a director whose deeply unnerving debut emerged out of nowhere last May and a pair of producers of some of the most vital indies of the decade. Especially these days, some talent needs to be acknowledged precisely because it thinks outside the box.
While this probably isn’t our strongest Action Heroes crop to date—none are as naturally gifted as David Gordon Green (class of ’07) or as deeply humane as documentarian Margaret Brown (’08)—it is a uniquely homegrown bunch. Drawing on traditions old (Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is nothing if not a nod to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and new (John Bryant’s The Overbrook Brothers pushes the Austin-centered “mumblecore” movement in splendid directions), these artists truly have Texas in their bones.
1. Ben Steinbauer
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
Education: University of Kansas; University of Texas at Austin
Credits: Winnebago Man (2009)
The sole documentarian in this year’s lineup, UT-Austin film lecturer Steinbauer cut his teeth making shorts, including The Next Tim Day (2006), about an ex-con from Galveston who becomes a mini-sensation after creating his own TV network called Hood News. But his splendid feature-length debut should bring him a national audience. Winnebago Man (which had its world premiere at South by Southwest, in mid-March) chronicles his attempt to track down a man named Jack Rebney, whose profanity-laced temper tantrum, captured on video, was a viral phenomenon. What begins as a slightly wonky inquiry into the power of the Internet morphs into a bizarre, shape-shifting mystery; it’s like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man for the YouTube set.
The bottom line: Steinbauer is so fascinated by outlandish tales of the digital age that one wonders if he’ll be able to top himself. But both of the projects he’s developing (one about a French con man, the other about a group of Germans who reenact Native American rituals) sound terrific.
2. Bryan Bertino
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: The Strangers (2008)
We’ve grown so accustomed to young Texas filmmakers rising up out of the indie trenches that it’s easy to forget there’s an alternative route to glory: the old-fashioned Cinderella story. Such was the case for Bertino, whose harrowing screenplay The Strangers—about a young couple whose house is invaded by a trio of mask-wearing torturers—was sold to Universal in 2004. Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) was supposed to direct but dropped out for budget reasons, at which point the studio rolled the dice on Bertino himself. The result is another of this decade’s relentlessly grim horror pictures (see also Wolf Creek and Hostel) that tap right into the existential despair of our times. Bertino directs with impressive control, generating shrieks of terror out of thin air, and the deeply felt lead performance by Liv Tyler lends an unexpected emotional weight.
The bottom line: With a patient but crackling style that owes a debt to early Spielberg (Duel, The Sugarland Express), Bertino seems like a natural entertainer who has the potential to go very far.
3. John Bryant
Hometown: Cedar Park
Education: University of Texas at Austin
Credits: The Overbrook Brothers (2009)
Earlier this decade, propelled by high-profile screenings at South by Southwest, we saw the birth of a movement called mumblecore: a series of exceedingly lo-fi comedy-dramas about the foibles of angst-ridden twentysomethings, directed by the likes of Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs), and Jay and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair). Enter Duplass disciple Bryant (he was a producer on their mumblecore spoof, Baghead), whose charming debut, The Overbrook Brothers, seems designed for those of us who have been frustrated by the mumblecore tendency toward navel-gazing and plotlessness. The film, which premiered at South by Southwest, follows two feuding brothers (Mark Reeb and Steve Zissis) who find out they’re adopted. Like most mumblecore efforts, this one is occasionally grating, but Bryant has a gift for slow-burning comic set pieces, and the generosity he displays toward his oddball characters proves infectious.
The bottom line: So far, so good, though Bryant needs to be careful not to lapse into the twin traps of the mumblecore movement: self-indulgence and repetitiveness.
4. Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen
Ages: 34, 30
Hometowns: Galveston (Van Hoy);
Aarhus, Denmark (Knudsen)
Education: University of Texas at Austin (Van Hoy); Aarhus School of Business (Knudsen)
Credits: Old Joy (2006); Gretchen (2006); I’ll Come Running (2008); Treeless Mountain (2008); Lovely, Still (2008); Don’t Let Me Drown (2009)
This column has previously celebrated only directors, but it’s rare to find producers with such a distinct artistic sensibility—and a commitment to Texas filmmakers—as Van Hoy and Knudsen. The duo met in New York while working for über-producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) and later formed their own company, which, in just five years, has been a driving force behind some of the most daring works of the 2000’s (including the Austin-based projects I’ll Come Running and Gretchen). Their latest collaboration, Cruz Angeles’s Don’t Let Me Drown, which premiered this year at Sundance, is a warmhearted portrait of the romance that blossoms between a Mexican American boy and a Puerto Rican girl in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The bottom line: Van Hoy and Knudsen have a proven eye for emerging talent. It will be interesting to see if they can expand the scale of their projects and transition from the indies to the majors.
The Class of ’09: Where to see their movies.
Ben Steinbauer and John Bryant: Winnebago Man and The Overbrook Brothers continue to play the festival circuit while their respective directors search for theatrical distribution. Bryan Bertino: The Strangers is available on DVD. He also has a new horror project, titled Alone, that’s scheduled to go before cameras this year. Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen: No distributor yet, either, for Don’t Let Me Drown, but another of their projects, the drama Treeless Mountain, will be released by Oscilloscope Pictures this month. Alumni update: David Gordon Green (Action Heroes ’07) turned out last year’s Pineapple Express, an appealing, daffy mash-up of a Jerry Bruckheimer action thriller and a Cheech and Chong stoner flick that was unlike anything he had done before. Jay and Mark Duplass (’07) have gone into production on their first bona fide Hollywood comedy, thus far untitled, starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Marisa Tomei.