For a generation of young Texans eager to write and direct their own movies, the message has long been the same: Head to Austin, that promised land of Slacker and South by Southwest and the ever-expanding Alamo Drafthouse franchise. With its high-profile residents—among them Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Terrence Malick—its myriad film festivals and the University of Texas film program, it is a city known for its worshipful devotion to a certain brand of independent-spirited cinema.
More recently, though, Austin has shared a bit of the spotlight with Dallas, where a close-knit group of young filmmakers is making a mark on the film scene. With the steadily gentrifying Oak Cliff neighborhood as their home base, these artists, who have attracted notice from beyond the state’s borders, are giving the city of Dallas something it has never quite enjoyed before—a burst of indie street credibility.
“This is a group of doers,” said Eric Steele, a Dallas-born writer, director and actor who recently premiered a stage show-short film hybrid called “The Midwest Trilogy” in collaboration with the Dallas Theater Center’s Second Thought Theatre group.
In 2010, Steele joined with three Dallas-based friends, Barak Epstein, Jason Reimer and Adam Donaghey, to reopen the Texas Theatre, a long dormant movie palace on West Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, a few miles southwest of downtown. (The theater is best known as the place where Dallas police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.)
The idea was to give Dallas an art house similar to the Alamo Drafthouse, mixing first-run indie titles with off-the-beaten-track repertory selections. The formula is successful, according to its owners, and the theater is turning a modest profit. Beginning June 14, it will also play host to the inaugural Oak Cliff Film Festival, a four-day event that will screen more than 70 shorts and features.
According to Reimer, a multimedia artist and film composer originally from Chicago, the quartet also wanted the Texas Theatre to function as a kind of beehive for local filmmakers, a place where people could exchange ideas, develop projects and even find potential crew members for shoots.
That strategy also seems to be working. Among the theater owners’ increasingly expanding circle of collaborators is Clay Liford, whose 2011 comedy, Wuss, was filmed in nearby Garland and produced by Steele, Epstein and Donaghey. (Liford has since moved to Austin, but he said he still spends a considerable amount of time working in Dallas.)
Perhaps the most high-profile member of the Dallas indie posse is David Lowery, a fixture at Texas Theatre screenings, whose second feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, will begin shooting this summer, with a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Casey Affleck. Although budget considerations forced Lowery to produce the film in Louisiana, he still considers Dallas his home base.
“I think enough people persevered here for long enough, and it just so happens that they didn’t leave for Austin,” said Lowery, whose first feature, St. Nick (2009), was shot in Fort Worth. “I always found it was easier to make my films here.”
Those at the center of the Dallas indie scene insist that there is no competition between their city and Austin, and that filmmakers in both places are constantly working on each other’s projects. But Lowery said one of the reasons indie production in Dallas is flourishing is because it still feels like a novelty, for both the artists working there and for the people providing the money and services.
“There’s the old saying, no one ever lets you shoot your movie in their house twice,” he said. “In Dallas, people are more excited to invite you in and help you. You’d find that in any small town, but it’s hard to find that combined with the infrastructure of a big city, where we also have access to equipment, and productions services, and good actors.”
(Even if it has not had much of an indie scene in the past, the city has long had a healthy film and television production industry, and in recent years has played host to a number of high-profile network series, including Fox’s Prison Break and TNT’s upcoming reboot of Dallas.)
The members of this group are already gaining the notice of tastemakers, both local and national. A gushing review of Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy in the Dallas Observer ended with the question: “Why aren’t there more evenings of theater as great as this?” Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was workshopped at the Sundance Film Festival’s Screenwriting Lab. Liford’s Wuss won the audience award at last year’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
What remains to be seen is whether a city that has a reputation for embracing the new and shiny—and then casting those things aside as soon as the shine has worn off—will continue to support an indie film community. And, of course, if the artists who helped build that community will continue to resist the lure of Los Angeles, New York or Austin.