Huntsville had Old Sparky and the top football team in the state, while Houston offered the latest movies and the symphony. I got the best of both places.
GROWING UP, I HAD the best of two worlds. My parents split up when I was seven, so I lived with my mom in Huntsville grades four through eleven, and then I finished my senior year at Bellaire High School, in Houston, where my dad lived. The two places gave me a unique reservoir: As a filmmaker, I can tap into small-town and big-city experiences without having to employ the usual stereotypes.
When I think of Huntsville, of course, I think of the prison. That and Sam Houston State University; my mom taught there. The prison weighs on the town a little bit. And yet the townspeople who aren’t working there aren’t that influenced by what goes on at the prison. It’s the state’s business, not the city’s business. The local economy benefits from it, but mentions of executions aren’t any more prominent than anywhere else in Texas.
Still, the prison affected me personally. I grew up parking cars at the prison rodeo every Sunday in October. I had a stepfather who was a prison guard. I had friends’ parents who were held hostage in the ’74 prison siege. We weren’t worried about prison breaks when we lived there because we knew that an escaped convict wouldn’t want to stick around. But we’d go see Old Sparky and hear these titillating stories as kids. I remember one story that took hold of my young imagination: I heard that these two women broke out of the Goree Unit and flagged down a truck driver and raped him at knifepoint. That sounds like a Roger Corman B movie, right? These tales made their way around town. Any institution—especially one that old—is going to become mythic.
Another thing that’s mythic in Huntsville is football. We were football obsessed. The coach, Joe Clements, was legendary, and the team never had a losing season in the nineteen years that he ran the program. They were always in the playoffs. Clements played in the school’s first state championship and then coached the only other championship. When I played with the team, we were number one in the state, then got upset in the playoffs.
I was better at baseball than I was at football, though, so my senior year I moved to Houston to live with my dad because Bellaire had a great baseball coach, Ray Knoblauch. Culturally, living in Houston, I felt way ahead of my old friends. My grandma took me to the museums and the symphony, and I’d see a movie in Houston six weeks before it would play at Huntsville’s picture show. And the general tolerance of eccentricities in the city—it’s not the Wild West, but the mentality is—soaked into me.
After high school graduation, I went back to Huntsville because I got a baseball scholarship to go to Sam Houston State. That was a whole other experience. We just had a reunion last year, and one of my teammates made a copy of our old team photo and sent it to me. I was showing it to my daughter, and she asked, “Do you remember any of these guys?” I said, “Not only do I remember these guys, I can tell you everything about them.” When you’re a team, you practically live together. You care about each other. You like some members more than others, but you accept everybody. You’re a platoon.
I returned to Houston after college to work as an offshore oil worker for about two and a half years. I saw the city from a more adult perspective then, the industrial Houston. It was during this period that I started getting interested in film. Anytime I wasn’t offshore, I was at the theaters in River Oaks, Greenway Plaza, and the Rice University Media Center. That was my life. I was just watching movies. I didn’t really know anybody. I met a lot of crazy, fun people on the rig—guys who were painters, writers—but I was going through a solitary phase.
East Texas is its own special world. When you’re growing up, it’s just your life and you don’t analyze it. But I’m grateful now that I can draw from my experiences. I definitely have a couple of East Texas movies in me. A lot of Dazed and Confused is based on things in Huntsville. The town claims it. The high school initiation rituals, a pool hall called the Emporium—that’s all very specific to Huntsville. Nowhere in the film does it say, “This is Huntsville,” but anyone who grew up there knows. I think it took a generation for people to like it. At first it was like, “Yuck.” That could be my paranoia, but we got our worst review from the Huntsville Item. Now they’re more affectionate.
I’ve also written a football story based on a fictional town that’s like Huntsville. The screenplay follows a football team, starting with their senior year. And in the second half of the movie, after graduation, one of the former players ends up in prison and one of his former teammates is a guard. That was the reality in Huntsville. I’d see the football star from last year’s team back in town because he was hurt or didn’t like college or whatever, and the local job that paid better than Wal-Mart was the prison. Just as a Pennsylvania steel mill attracts the local residents, the prison draws on Huntsville, in front of the bars and behind the bars.
Until I was twenty, I wasn’t thinking of film as any kind of career. I wanted to be the first pro baseball player who was a serious novelist. I failed on both fronts. But I wouldn’t trade my past for anything.