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Revisiting Houston: Sundance Festival selection comes home for closer scrutiny

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Houston, movie, Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
Ulrich Tukur plays an alcoholic German headhunter who is sent to Houston to recruit a reclusive corporate CEO. FilmGuide.Sundance.org
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013, Bastian Gnther
Director Bastian Günther found Houston to be the perfect location for his movie. Photo by Emily Lundin
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Garret Dillahunt, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013
Garret Dillahunt and Ulrich Tukur in a scene from Houston. Photo courtesy of Lichtblick Media
Houston, movie, Sundance Film Festival, January 2013
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013, Bastian Gnther
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Garret Dillahunt, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013
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Houston, the movie, is coming home.

The film, a German/American production which was shot in the Bayou City and El Campo, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to an appreciative audience. As I wrote after seeing it at the festival in Park City, Utah, it's 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 loses his grip on reality.

The reviews were mixed — it's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year — but I liked it more than most because it doesn't resort to the stereotypes that are often used to portray Houston and Texas.

Houstonians will get a chance to judge the film for themselves this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with screenings Friday through Sunday. Director Bastian Günther will attend the Friday night screening and mingle with filmgoers at a reception afterwards. (The film previously had its Houston premiere at the H-Town Multicultural Film Festival in June.)

Interesting techniques

From a filmmaker's perspective, the movie uses some interesting techniques. Günther 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 Günther 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," Günther said in Sundance at a party after the premiere. "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."

 "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." 

In writing the movie, Günther 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."

In an Q&A with my colleague, Jane Howze, before the Sundance Film Festival, Günther explained why he picked Houston as the focal point for his film.

CultureMap: What is the underlying story for Houston?

Bastian Günther: I spent several years doing research for the film, and met with different German headhunters. They gave me some insights and tips as they talked about their work. In terms of the city of Houston, I knew that the main character, the headhunter in the film, needed to make a big journey because it’s also a journey into his inner soul.

So, I was looking for a business city in the U.S. where it’s hot and humid in the summer, and which is connected immediately with business or energy. My wife is American and suggested I check out Houston or Atlanta, so four years ago, I came to Houston to do some location scouting.

After a couple of days in Houston (we stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown), it was immediately clear to me that I needed to shoot in Houston. It’s so visual and interesting with no zoning, all the highways, downtown, the ship channel, etc.

It really fitted my idea of the film and how it should look. Of course, the heat and humid climate was good for the character and how he feels. Houston is almost its own character in this film, which is why I titled it Houston, because it’s an antagonist in the film.

CM: And how did the Houston Film Commission play into the filming?

BG: The Houston Film Commission, particularly Rick Ferguson and Alfred Cervantes, were so helpful. I think Alfred drove me around one or two years before we shot the film to show me Houston and El Campo. Rick really helped us get permission to shoot in the Hyatt Regency downtown because initially hotel management was not wild about the idea of having a film team there, which I totally understand, since we make noise and some teams leave behind a mess and destroy things.

But I just needed this hotel. Metaphorically, this hotel really mirrors the main character’s confusion — the hotel is 20 stories and almost looks like a parking garage from the inside.

CM: What other landmarks are featured in the film?

BG: After the main title of the film shows up, the next image is a big Texas style monument at the Ship Channel. We also have a lot of highways and driving in this film. The downtown area was cut out a lot, although there is a pink building next to the Hyatt Regency where we have some crazy shots. And of course there is the Houston Art Car Parade which is in the film.

CM: How did you feel about Houston, the city, after spending so much time here?

BG: I like Houston very much; it’s very different from Austin where I live part-time. It’s crazy in a way, but I liked that Houston has so much art and no zoning. Houston looks different from other cities. It’s very visual. I loved shooting there and could take pictures all day.

I liked the Houston Art Car Parade, which is in part of the film now. The people were great. We didn’t shoot during the Art Car Parade but we found 40 to 50 people to come out and recreate a little part of the parade for the film, and I’m so thankful that these people wanted to be a part of it. I had a very good experience in Houston shooting my first feature film in the U.S. I think Houston looks great on the big screen.

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This article was compiled from two previous CultureMap stories, Houston is ready for its close up: City is the star of a hot Sundance film — with a German twist and From Sundance to the art house: Houston movie dispels Texas stereotypes and gets picked up worldwide.

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