AFTER THE SURPRISING SUCCESS of such independent Texas films as Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Hollywood studios quickly envisioned a winning formula: take an unknown director, add a script full of quirky characters, throw in an atypical leading man (say, the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi), and then spend lots of dough to achieve a cheap, edgy feel. Their cloning efforts, however, have turned the phrase “independent filmmaker” into almost meaningless buzz. So what do you call a director like Austin’s George Ratliff, someone who really does operate on a shoestring budget and makes films his way? “Nondependent,” Ratliff says. “So-called independent features are really just studio movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator.”
Don’t mistake Ratliff’s attitude for sour grapes: The 28-year-old has done quite well, thank you, living under his declaration of nondependence. He shot his first film, 1994’s Plutonium Circus, for only $50,000, but the documentary on the Pantex nuclear plant near his hometown of Amarillo won the best documentary feature award at the 1995 South by Southwest film festival and praise from industry insiders. “There’s a clear intelligence behind his work,” says Ruby Lerner, the executive director of the New York—based Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. Ratliff’s follow-up, Purgatory County, just wrapped this summer, and this month he is finishing a final cut for submission to the Sundance Film Festival. Shot near Taylor, Purgatory County is the noirish story of an easily corrupted sheriff who plots with his sister-in-law to kill his mother and cheat his drifter brother out of his inheritance. Ratliff penned the screenplay at the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen. “I spent a lot of time staring out the window George Hennard drove through,” he says, referring to the madman who gunned down 23 people there in 1991.
Though Purgatory County is clearly low-budget, Ratliff will not divulge the exact price tag. All he’ll say is, “It looks like a three-million-dollar movie but was made for less than one million.” Most of his funding comes from investors of the Panhandle oil family variety, which is one of the reasons his film company is called Wildcatter Productions. “Investing in movies is a lot like investing in oil,” he says. “It’s a long shot, but if it hits, there are big returns.” Recently Ratliff also received $5,000 from the Austin-based Texas Filmmaker’s Production Fund.
Still, distribution remains a problem, which is why Ratliff and other Austin filmmakers have started 4X, an Internet site where Texas directors can post news about their upcoming projects and brainstorm about the business (http://www.eden.com/indiefilm). But even if he manages to strike it rich with Purgatory County, Ratliff insists he won’t bow down to the Hollywood hotshots. “Historically, innovation has always come from indies,” he says. “They can’t kill us. They need us.”