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No cowboy hats

From Sundance to the art house: Houston movie dispels Texas stereotypes and gets picked up worldwide

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Bastian Gunther, Houston, Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
Houston producer Martin Heisler, from left, director Bastian Guenther, composer Michael Rother and cinematographer Michael Kotschi are photographed on the red carpet at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Alfred Cervantes
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013
German actor Ulrich Tukur has an awakening of sorts in Houston. Photo courtesy of Lichtblick Media
Bastian Gunther, Houston, Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013
News-CMH Staff-Clifford Pugh

PARK CITY, Utah — Only moments before Houston premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Bastian Gunther admitted he was nervous.

"It's a big moment. We spent five years on the film," he told an audience in the sold-out 324-seat theater. "Now is the moment to let it go. We have no control over it. People may hate it. People may love it. We'll see."

The audience seemed to like the film — a moody, meditative piece about an alcoholic German headhunter (played by Ulrich Tukur) who is sent to Houston to recruit a reclusive corporate CEO — and, during a Q&A session, asked thoughtful questions about the themes of addiction, the economy and why it was filmed in Houston.

"I like the city. It is very visual and it fits the story," Gunther explained. "It's a city that's all about profit and the next good thing."

 There isn't a single cowboy hat in the movie and Houston is portrayed as an urban city with all its riches and flaws, not as a one-dimensional place populated by yahoos. 

Critics had a more mixed reaction. The Hollywood Reporter said the "tale of white-collar desperation is less tense than it sounds" and Slug magazine said, "Houston falls into the cinematic trap of an unpleasant protagonist where it’s hard for audiences to care whether he discovers redemption or not." Scene Stealers called it "an interesting movie with a well-paced plot, fantastic acting, and thoughtful direction, (but) Houston doesn’t quite bring it all home."

I liked the film more than most — if for no other reason, that it breaks the stereotypes that are often used to portray Houston and Texas. There isn't a single cowboy hat in the movie and Houston is portrayed as an urban city with all its riches and flaws, not as a one-dimensional place populated by yahoos.

Gunther, who divides his time between Austin and Germany, believes that living in Texas for much of the past five years helped him to present a more nuanced look at the Lone Star State.

"It's an outsider's perspective, but it's not a cliche," he said a party to celebrate the movie at Cisero's Ristorante following the premiere. "I hope that people find this view interesting."

Gunther purposely shot the movie on 35-millimeter film, using hard-to-find lenses in Los Angeles and Europe, to give it a dreamier quality and represent the lead character's confused state of mind. It's a technique that is rarely used in the digital age; one crew member told Gunther the last time he had worked with 35-mm film was when the Coen brothers shot No Country For Old Men in Texas six years ago.

"Everybody is shooting digital now. But (35-mm) gives such a nice atmosphere," Gunther said. "And the concentration of the whole team during the shoot was much higher because they know that money is running through the camera every second so everybody is focused. You can't just shoot random stuff. You have to be prepared to make the film."

Much of the shoot took place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Houston. One complicated shot involved a shirt that floated through the wind amid the skyscrapers outside of Tukur's room. One team stood atop a skyscraper with a fishing pole and 600 feet of line while another team stood on the blocked-off street with the same amount of fishing line to manipulate the shirt.

 In writing the movie, Gunther said he was inspired by Apocalpyse Now, which in turn is based on the classic Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness. "It's a classic set-up for a journey into your own darkness," he said. 

"It's all real. There is no digital effect," Gunther recalled. "I'm so happy it worked out."

In writing the movie, Gunther said he was inspired by Apocalypse Now, which in turn is based on the classic Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness. "It's a classic set-up for a journey into your own darkness," he said.

He also looked to seminal New Hollywood movies made in the 1970s, including Two-Lane Blacktop, Zabriskie Point, The Deer Hunter, The Last Picture Show ("a great Texas film") for inspiration.

"All these films inspired me so much because they were very political, but in a very artistic way. I think this is what our film is too. It is a very political film that  tells a little bit about our modern way of life and how we live and how fucked it is sometimes."

The ending, which is a technically demanding three-minute shot in the middle of the Art Car Parade, is intentionally ambiguous, Gunther said.

"I fought for this ending for five years," he told the audience after the movie. "Most of the financiers didn't like it. It gives room for interpretation. The director shouldn't tell you what to think."

Good news for the Houston team: The film was purchased by London-based HanWay Films, which has promoted such art house films as An Education with Carrie Mulligan and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. A screening is planned in Houston, hopefully in the spring, Gunther said.

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