Saturday, February 28, 2009

Agent Liz Atherton Interview on TFS podcast

The latest episode of my Internet radio show, the Texas Film Scene podcast, is now up on iTunes.

Liz Atherton was a financial analyst and Project Manager for large companies before purchasing a fledgling talent agency in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, 16 years ago. Since then, Liz has built the former Ciao Talents into one of the premier Texas talent agencies. Under the new moniker The Atherton Group, or TAG Talent, the company recently opened offices in Los Angeles, Louisiana, and New Mexico. It appears 10th on a list of IMDB's "power" talent agencies, ranking ahead of much more established players. She is an early member and sponsor of the Texas Motion Picture Alliance, which is working to attract feature film and television production to Texas. She is a wife, and proud mother of four wonderful children. 

She's also my agent.  

Download the episode free from iTunes, or check the show notes, and download directly from here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not far behind

The music industry was the first to deal with all the issues around digital disribution, including piracy, file formats, hardware, DRM, and revenues.

Look for more lawsuits like this one to follow in the movie industry.

Thanks to Nacho at for the heads-up.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Director Jon Keeyes interview on iTunes

My recent interview is now up. You can download it directly, or subscribe in iTunes. Both are free to you. 

From the show notes:
Jon Keeyes left Hollywood so that he could become a filmmaker. His "American Nightmare" is a fixture in the cult horror scene, and in "Living and Dying" (released by HBO), he directed top actors like Edward Furlong, Michael Madsen, Jordana Spiro, Arnold Vosloo, Trent Haaga, and yours truly. Now a staple of independent Texas productions, ranging from $50,000 to $1.2 million, and most recently a new media venture for Warner Brothers, Jon's is a true Cinderella story. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Coen Brothers do it again, dammit

I just watched No Country for Old Men, and was absolutely knocked out... for the first 118 minutes. The last four, as with other Coen Brothers movies, just made me wonder, "Um, what was the point, here?" But then, maybe that was the point.

It's de rigeur to cheer on the Coens as they "buck the Hollywood traditions" (like good storytelling). But my initial reaction was that the movie left the audience hanging in the last scene. I have not read the novel yet, but perhaps there was additional thematic insight to be gleaned there. Perhaps I am old school, or just plain old, but I was really hoping for a theme that was not so cleverly disguised that it cannot even be recognized by NYT book critics.

Don't get me wrong- I do not want a movie to hit me over the head with allegory or jingoism. But I would like to be able to suss out a theme from a story, any story, no matter in what medium it is told.

I watched Rashomon last night, the 1950 Kurosawa gem. The acting was over the top, the score was cartoonish, the subtitle translations were blunt, (though the direction and cinematography hold up very well), and yet, the movie's theme was clear enough to provoke discussion and thought. Rashomon left me feeling satisfied, like the story circle had been completed. Earlier Coen Brothers films also feel this way, like Raising Arizona and O Brother. It's not like they don't know how to deliver a theme; they just sometimes choose not to.

Am I just a slave to the Hollywood formula? Aristotle doesn't think so:
I loved, loved, loved the cinematography, dialog, and acting in No Country. What I didn't like was that (a) I didn't know whose story it was; which is to say, that it suffered from a point-of-view problem, and (b) the story's theme was obscured. Why is (b) important? Well, without a theme, then I'm just watching plot elements- character studies, pithy dialog, pretty shots, random acts of violence. Hell, I can do that by turning on the evening news (in HD, no less). I want a story, dammit, and a good one.

I decided to reach back to the source, poet William Butler Yeats, for some help.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats' theme is clear, yet subtle, and not bludgeoning:
People, particularly elders, are not as revered by the young as the things they make; so, then, how do we best leave our legacy?
As an artist, I fully appreciate Yeats' sentiment. As for the Coen Brothers' movie, they succeeded in getting me to talk about it. So maybe that is their point.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What makes a good movie?

This week, I actually watched a few movies.  Mary and I haven't had the chance to do that in quite a while (like, two years), thanks to the combination of Baby Girl and the loft-like, no-bedroom layout of my Fortress of Solitude (now under contract, thank you).  I also met up with my buddies Joe and Javier, to discuss a joint project.  There were several good ideas floated, but I only wanted to commit to making something that was going to be really good, which begs the question:  what makes a good movie?

The variety of stuff we saw ranged from edgy drama to farce, black comedy to uh, regular comedy, short videos to children's movies.  The things that did not make a movie good included:
  • big name actors
  • big name directors
  • big name writers
  • big budget
  • explosions and car crashes
  • potty humor
  • gratuitous sex and violence.

Some of the things I enjoyed most about the good movies included:
  • big name actors
  • big name directors
  • big name writers
  • big name editors (oxymoron?)
  • big budget
  • explosions and car crashes
  • potty humor
  • gratuitous sex and violence.
Hmm.  Seems like William Goldman was right:  nobody knows anything.  But is that really all we can say about what makes a movie good?

When I watch a film, I watch it as an audience member, but also as an actor/writer/director/editor.  I tend to study the movie, as well as let it wash over me.   Sometimes I need to watch a movie more than once, just to be able to fully enjoy it without being too analytical.

With my auteur hat on, I realize that what I love most about good movies is how the entire package fits together.  A great story premise without great dialog writing will fall flat.  A great script without clear, visionary direction will fall flat.  A great vision without great acting will fall flat.  Same is true for audio, editing, lighting, cinematography, and many other of the dozens of aspects of filmmaking.  Filmmaking is collaborative storytelling.  It is all too easy to forget the collaborative aspect of the process, and only focus on one area. [Even marketing is a collaborative aspect of the film's success, but it is not, strictly speaking, what makes a good movie.]

Big name actors often, but certainly not always, bring good acting.  Big name writers and directors often, but not always, bring good writing and directing.  Not all of these elements need to be great in order for a film to shine, but most of them need to be great.  It's like a balance scale:  if enough of the components are good, it tips the scales in favor of "good movie".  If all of them are good, the scale thumps to one side, like weighing a feather versus a boulder: Oscar-caliber good.  Vice-versa, and you've got a universal stinker.

In most of the bad or mediorce films I saw, not enough of the elements were good to make the film a "good movie."   The only one I saw that was a slam-dunk was Notes on a Scandal, with Dame Judi Dench, among several other excellent actors.

What do you think makes a good movie?

Monday, February 2, 2009

What I want to do when I grow up

I had the pleasure of speaking to some great kids at Gus Garcia Middle School in San Antonio, Texas last week. It was a welcome break from the day-job grind, even if it cost me some money and drive time. These kids were very cool.

My buddy Ray Ayala had asked me to speak to his classes for Career Day. It sounded like a lot of fun at first, but as the day approached, I started to get a little bit nervous. Not because I was afraid of speaking, but because I wanted to be excellent for them, give them something memorable and useful to take away.

The crux of my message was that you really cannot know what you want to do until you stumble upon it. You can intellectualize, dream, study, and plan all you want, but until you are in the trenches of that job, you will not know how it feels to you. I have been blessed to live out modest versions of two of my childhood dream jobs: being a professional musician, and a professional actor. To my utter shock and dismay, neither was a perfect experience. No wonder all those Hollywood stars get hooked on drugs and crash their Porches into telephone poles!

Since we cannot know, I encouraged the kids to try everything they can, even if it is just as a volunteer or an intern. And to use school as a chance to find their medium- math, science, reading & writing, sports, public speaking, or even acting. Put that information in their files, and look back on it when they are 25, to see what patterns form. But most of all, do not rush yourself, and do not assume that you know. And be okay with not knowing; it's normal, it's cool.

These kids were a terrific audience, but you never know if kids are listening to you, especially middle school kids. At the end of the talks, though, the kids swarmed the front like piranhas, clamoring for pictures, and a few CDs and DVDs I had brought along. I must have signed 150 autographs that day.

Pay or no pay, those are the real "rock star" moments you live for.