Between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood on the big screen and the second season of Friday Night Lights on TV, the Third Coast enjoyed a fertile year in 2007.
But there’s also a vanguard of emerging talent nipping at the heels of our established artists. For this year’s survey of new Texas directors—which we offer in anticipation of the South by Southwest (March 7–15) and AFI Dallas (March 27–April 6) film festivals—document- arians take center stage. It’s an appealingly old-fashioned lineup, too: Our selected nonfiction filmmakers are much more inspired by the patient style of Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) than they are by such noisy muckrakers as Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) or Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). A mini-renaissance appears to be afoot, one that should be exciting to follow. That said, fans of fiction filmmaking need not despair: Indeed, the strongest entrants this year are David and Nathan Zellner, who exist in their own uniquely absurdist realm.
Our criteria for inclusion: (1) Directors must be born, educated, or based in Texas, (2) their work must have played at nationally respected festivals like Sundance or SXSW, and (3) they must have a new feature premiering in 2008. And while we believe strongly in the notion of tough love when it comes to evaluating our youngest artists, this year’s Action Heroes made our job easy: There isn’t one bum apple in the bunch.
1 Margaret Brown
Age: 36 Hometown: Mobile, Alabama Education: Brown University, New York University Film School Credits: Be Here to Love Me (2004), The Order of Myths (2008)
Brown settled in Texas in 2000 and soon became a fixture on the Austin film scene. For her first feature, she tackled an iconic Texas subject, the Fort Worth—born folk singer Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 after a lifetime of addiction and mental illness. Be Here to Love Me displayed a tenderness and calm that set it far apart from most rockumentaries—and left many of us eager to see what Brown would do next.
Her follow-up, alas, is a bit of a disappointment: The Order of Myths, which premiered at Sundance, focuses on Brown’s hometown of Mobile, site of the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in America, where festivities continue to unfold along racially segregated lines. Make no mistake: Brown elegantly captures the sights, sounds, and characters of Mobile and starkly illuminates the differences between its white and black sections. But the director’s muted, observational style proves a little too low-key, and there’s not quite enough drama to justify a feature-length film.
The bottom line: A natural-born filmmaker who’s also a vivid visual stylist, Brown needs to focus not just on finding great subjects but also on crafting compelling narratives.
2 David and Nathan Zellner
Ages: 34, 32 Hometown: Greeley, Colorado Education: University of Texas at Austin (David); Texas A&M University (Nathan) Credits: Goliath (2008)
Since 2002, Austin residents David and Nathan Zellner have written, directed, and produced nine comic shorts, including 2007’s Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane (about two brothers, one circumcised, the other not, arguing with their mother about her “lack of consistency in choices”) and 2004’s The Virile Man (about a married man who calls a telephone astrologer to confess a gay love affair). These sometimes cute, sometimes irksomely quirky curios have been well received, but a lot of us were beginning to wonder if these guys were ever going to make a feature.
The wait has been worth it: Goliath, which premiered at Sundance, begins as just another ultra-low-budget indie, about a hapless thirtysomething (played by David) whose already fragile existence comes unhinged when his cat goes missing. But the Zellners display a remarkable comic assurance, and what begins as something slight and tossed-off turns increasingly strange and more cutting.
The bottom line: An arresting debut—though here’s hoping that in the future the Zellners will avoid the preciousness that has infected the recent work of Wes Anderson, whose Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are obvious influences.
3 David Modigliani
Age: 28 Hometown: Boston Education: Harvard University, James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin Credits: Crawford (2008)
You expect something ambitious from a guy who studied history and literature at Harvard, then screenwriting and playwriting at the Michener Center—and who decided to make a documentary despite having virtually no filmmaking experience. And, indeed, whereas most first-time directors crafting a movie about Crawford might have opted for a Michael Moore—style hit job, Modigliani takes the higher road. Crawford is a nuanced look at the past eight years of American history as seen through the eyes of Crawford’s residents—some of them Democrats, many of them Republicans, all of them befuddled by the scrutiny their town faces each August when George W. Bush arrives for vacation. Editing has just been completed, but based on the rough cut we saw, the film is likely going to make a serious splash at SXSW.
The bottom line: An intuitive storyteller with a wry (but never condescending) appreciation for rural Texas life, Modigliani might easily make the shift from documentaries to features.
4 David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
Ages: 35, 25 Hometowns: Mansfield (Redmon); Washington, Connecticut (Sabin) Education: Texas Christian University, SUNY-Albany (Redmon); Pratt Institute (Sabin) Credits: Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), Kamp Katrina (2007), Intimidad (2008)
Socially conscious documentaries are usually a surefire cure for insomnia, which makes the achievements of Redmon and his romantic and creative partner Sabin all the more considerable: They actually show us how “big issues” like immigration and poverty affect ordinary lives. Redmon’s solo debut, Mardi Gras: Made in China, was a smart look at the Chinese factories that produce Mardi Gras beads. He returned to New Orleans post-Katrina, this time co-directing with Sabin, for the uneven Kamp Katrina, a look at a woman who houses a group of displaced residents in her backyard. Their latest, Intimidad—a portrait of a couple in Mexico trying to save enough money to reunite with their young daughter—is their strongest yet. Despite a sometimes shapeless narrative, it’s a documentary with its heart (and brain) in the right place.
The bottom line: Naturally curious and prolific (the pair hope to have another documentary completed in time for September’s Toronto International Film Festival), Redmon and Sabin should only get better with experience.
Texas Directors, Class of ’08: Where to see their movies.
Margaret Brown: Be Here to Love Me is on DVD. The Order of Myths will play the festival circuit, including SXSW, as Brown shops it around for theatrical distribution. David and Nathan Zellner: The siblings’ shorts are all viewable on zellnerbros.com (don’t miss 2005’s ingenious Flotsam/Jetsam). Goliath will be featured at both SXSW and AFI Dallas. David Modigliani: Crawford will have a high-profile opening weekend premiere at SXSW and also play at AFI Dallas. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin: Mardi Gras and Kamp Katrina will be released on DVD later this year. Look for Intimidad to premiere at SXSW and also screen at AFI Dallas. Bonus update: Jay and Mark Duplass (Action Heroes ’07) finally delivered their latest, Baghead, at Sundance this year. A kind of mumblecore version of Scream that slyly manages to spoof shoestring-budget indies and horror movies, it got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Look for it to hit theaters sometime in 2008.