DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER PAUL STEKLER was the unlikely darling of the local media at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Faced with a shortage of homegrown filmmakers at the January event, Utah journalists covering Stekler’s new documentary, George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, eagerly played up his five-month stay in nearby Alta twenty years ago.

At the time, Stekler was driving cross-country with his girlfriend, Cassie Levitt, and they stopped in the small ski town, where her family owned the Alta Lodge. Toward the end of their visit, Levitt’s father, who was also Alta’s mayor, offered him the job of town marshal. “They needed an Andy Griffith type, a wise person who could talk people out of their . . . whatever,” says Stekler, laughing.

Although he says he liked the idea of wearing a badge, he chose academia and filmmaking instead. The Wallace film has been generating buzz since winning the Special Jury Prize for Writing for Documentary at Sundance. The 47-year-old Stekler produced and directed it in partnership with filmmaker Daniel McCabe and co-wrote it with McCabe and writer Steve Fayer, who are both based in Boston. It had its regional premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival in March, and on April 23 and 24 it will be broadcast in two parts on PBS’s The American Experience.

Since 1996 Stekler has headed the production program in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, where his dream is to raise between $15 million and $20 million to create the Texas Center for Documentary. The center could enhance UT’s profile as one of the country’s top film schools and, according to department chairman Thomas Schatz, distinguish the RTF program from its competitors’, which concentrate almost exclusively on narrative fiction filmmaking. Unofficially, the Wallace documentary serves as the center’s showpiece, and the response it generates could determine the center’s — and Stekler’s — future.

The eldest of four children, Stekler was born in Philadelphia and spent most of his life on the East Coast. He has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard and taught political science for five years as an assistant professor at Tulane University in the eighties. Stekler cut his teeth as a filmmaker on the 1990 civil rights series Eyes on the Prize II, and his four-hour documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America won a George Foster Peabody Award in 1997. He moved to Austin from New York City partly to escape his successful but stressful life as an independent filmmaker.

Stekler exudes a confidence that occasionally borders on self-importance. But when he’s feeling especially optimistic, he can be quite charming. “He has no fear,” says McCabe of Stekler’s approach to filmmaking. But the cliquishness of Sundance can breed insecurity. Black clothing and cell phones are ubiquitous. Stekler had neither. He was dressed to brave the elements in a button-down shirt, a navy pullover, and a kelly green ski jacket. And when he leased a cell phone for the festival, it didn’t work. Stekler’s frustration was exacerbated by the general nervous tension that hung over the festival like dense smog. Grizzled veterans knew the locations and passwords for the cool, celebrity-studded parties, but Stekler wasn’t privy to this information. These soirees, of course, are not to be confused with the boring “official” parties that are open to anyone with a festival badge. One night during dinner Stekler joked that his badge wouldn’t get him past the restroom.

At the documentary’s first public Sundance screening, however, there was no trace of insecurity as Stekler prepared to address the audience, despite the fact that he and McCabe were exhausted. They had finished the film only hours before the festival.

Stekler’s authoritative voice calmed the restless audience that had assembled for the nine o’clock Sunday night screening — a time slot that couldn’t have been worse for a film that comes in at just under three hours. Stekler delivered some witty introductory remarks about the documentary’s fifteen-year odyssey. Then the more reserved McCabe quipped, “This film needs no introduction.”

The lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled. Suddenly, the screen was filled with an unsettling close-up of Wallace’s face, recorded less than a year before his death in 1998. His skin is covered with liver spots, and his eyes are milky with age. He puffs slowly on a cigar, and the smoke drifts lazily toward his eyes, which gaze away from the camera. Even in old age, Wallace’s face retains much of the hardness so familiar from news footage and photographs of the sixties civil rights struggle. He still looks as defiant as he did when he blocked the door at the University of Alabama. This initial image calls forth all the complicated feelings viewers may have about Wallace, and it works brilliantly.

The film combines nuanced political commentary with a surprisingly poignant personal biography of Wallace. “The man we think we know is a stereotypical evil character,” says Mark Samels, a senior producer for The American Experience. “The man that this film is about is a much more complex, more interesting and important figure in American history.”

Stekler credits McCabe, whose previous work includes two episodes of the PBS series Rock & Roll and The American Experience biography Nixon: The Fall, with the difficult job of humanizing their subject. “I come at this through politics,” he says. “I think Dan was more interested in the personalities.” Broadcast journalist and UT alum Bill Moyers, who has known Stekler since 1993, says of Settin’ the Woods on Fire: “I see something in it that I didn’t see in his other work. Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics [an award-winning 1991 documentary about the state’s unique political history] had a certain on-the-surface vitality. So did Vote for Me. But what he’s done with this film is to take it to far deeper levels. He’s placed the decisive moments — the turning points in Wallace’s life — in a narrative that gives those moments the connected feeling of a novel.”

Stekler sees Wallace and his views about race relations as a metaphor for contemporary politics. “We live in a country that’s still very far from working out its problems over race after two hundred-plus years,” he says, “where Wallace’s politics are pretty easily seen in the rhetoric of today’s presidential politics.”

Although two of Wallace’s daughters did not participate, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who appears in the film with her older brother, George, Jr., says she and her husband, Mark, had no qualms about the documentary. “We just kind of opened up to Paul,” says Kennedy, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama. “I trusted him, and I think he considers us friends.” Kennedy and her husband had planned to travel to Utah for the festival, but her fiftieth birthday celebration intervened. “I actually took the schedule to the beach with me,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “It may sound juvenile, but every day at that particular time when the film played, I was praying that everything was going well for them.”

Stekler had always been fascinated by Wallace’s career, but it wasn’t until 1985 that a chance encounter with a PBS researcher during the promotion of his first film, Hands That Pick Cotton, introduced him to the Wallace family’s collection of raw archival footage. Stekler was immediately captivated by Wallace’s dynamic on-screen presence. He and McCabe started pre-production on Settin’ the Woods on Fire in 1994, and last March they took a rough cut to Boston to show PBS executives and make their case for a three-hour documentary that would be broadcast on one night as a special presentation. After a tense meeting, the executives agreed. Months later, however, they reversed their decision and announced that they would air the documentary in two parts. “A three-hour block about George Wallace would have been more of a challenge for an audience,” explains Samels, who says the decision was influenced by how other three-hour programs had fared with audiences over the years.

At first Stekler and McCabe were angry about the decision, but at Sundance, Stekler was philosophical. Because they consented to split the film in two, he said, PBS let them have two extra months to edit. Everyone agreed that Part 1 should end in 1968, just after the death of Wallace’s first wife, Lurleen, who campaigned for and won the governorship of Alabama so that her husband — who by law could not succeed himself — could retain political control of the state. At the same time, Wallace was embarking on his first campaign for the presidency. Samels thinks that dividing the film at this point is the key to sustaining an audience’s interest, which is crucial in this age of channel surfing. “We had both an emotional ending to night one and a political cliff-hanger to propel us into night two,” he says.

A thornier issue was the documentary’s voice-over narration. Though many viewers associate the authoritative voice of David McCullough with The American Experience, both Stekler and McCabe wanted something different. After hearing Lyle Lovett read at a tribute to Horton Foote, Stekler decided the singer’s voice had the right Southern cadence to balance Wallace’s fiery rhetoric. “I’m a fan of his as an actor, and I was really touched by just how perceptive he was in taking a look at the film,” Stekler says of their initial meeting in Austin last December. Lovett recorded some of the narration, and Stekler sent the tape to Boston.

What happened next embarrassed the filmmakers, made the gossip column in the Austin American-Statesman, and reinforced for Stekler the importance of having control over all aspects of a production. PBS executives balked at using Lovett as a narrator and threatened to rerecord the narration with someone of their own choosing. With only a month to go before the film’s screening at Sundance, Stekler flew to New York over the Christmas holidays to record actor Randy Quaid, whom he and McCabe had initially considered for the job. It is a testament to the filmmakers’ reputation that they could find another narrator on such short notice.

Stekler had called Lovett earlier in December to break the news about PBS’s decision. Although he received a gracious call from Lovett congratulating him on the Sundance award and reassuring him that the unfortunate episode was “water under the bridge,” he still anguishes over it. “We hit a road block at the eleventh hour,” Stekler says with a sigh. “I could not convince the folks in Boston. God knows what the reason was, but we were exhausted, we had to finish, and I couldn’t figure out a way to convince them.”

Samels defends the decision, contending that the documentary’s soundtrack — which features raw, electric rock music by composer Mason Daring and guitarist Duke Levine — “really requires a certain type of voice to cut through those wailing guitars and drums and the sound effects of crowds, bullets, and screams. We knew that Lovett would have brought a lot to it,” Samels says. “It’s one of those calls that you hope you don’t have to make.”

Weeks after returning from Sundance, a weary Stekler is holding office hours in a former motel that is now a university building. Affectionately known as the Doc Motel, it currently houses the documentary filmmakers on the RTF faculty and was originally selected as the site of the proposed documentary center. But its lease expires in two years, so in addition to hitting up private donors for the center’s seed money, Stekler probably will have to find a new location as well.

As he fields calls from graduate students requesting recommendations and advice about their own projects, Stekler reflects on his whirlwind trip to Park City. One of the last screenings of Wallace was attended by his former girlfriend Cassie, who now lives in Salt Lake City with her own family. He talks about having glimpsed a different path that his life could have taken as he looked out at Cassie sitting in the audience, a life that might have included a wife and kids but not necessarily filmmaking.

Meanwhile, Stekler waits to learn whether Wallace will help him build the Texas Center for Documentary. He is cautiously optimistic about its future and, by extension, his own. “One of the allures of Austin,” he says, “is that everything seems possible here.”

Alison Macor wrote about Madeleine Stowe in the June 1999 issue of Texas Monthly.