The CultureMap Interview

Houston is ready for its close up: City is the star of a hot Sundance film — with a German twist

Houston is ready for its close up: City is star of hot Sundance film

Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013
Ulrich Tukur in Houston Photo courtesy of Lichtblick Media
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013, Bastian Gnther
Director Bastian Gnther Photo by Emily Lundin
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Garret Dillahunt, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013
A scene from Houston with Garret Dillahunt, left, and Ulrich Tukur Photo courtesy of Lichtblick Media
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, January 2013, Bastian Gnther
Sundance Film Festival, Houston, Garret Dillahunt, Ulrich Tukur, January 2013

PARK CITY, Utah —Nothing grabs the attention of a Houstonian attending the Sundance Film Festival faster than a film called Houston.

Premiering as one of 12 entries in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, the film (partially in German with English subtitles and partially in English) focuses on German corporate headhunter Clemens Trunschka, who is sent by a client to Houston to recruit a CEO from a major energy company.

Trunschka, an alcoholic with a troubled marriage and disturbed pre-teen son, sinks into depression and a distorted reality as he wrestles with failure, addiction and the isolation typical of those who are on the road away from the comforts of home for long periods of time.

 "After a couple of days in Houston, 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."  

Not surprisingly, given the title, much of the film takes place in Houston. We caught up with German screenwriter and director (and part-time Texan), Bastian Gunther, to learn more about filming in Houston.

CultureMap: What is the underlying story for Houston?

Bastian Gunther: 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: How long did it take to film?

BG: The film itself took 34 shooting days: 20 in Houston and El Campo and 14 in Germany.

If you shoot in two countries, you of course have two pre-productions, so three months pre-production in Houston and two months pre-production in Germany. So, you could say we were almost half a year constantly in pre-production or shooting, with a break in between of two months. Interestingly, we shot the Houston part of the film first, though the film begins in Germany.

CM: What is the difference between filming in the U.S. and Germany?

BG: It is a big difference. In the United States, you have a first assistant director; we have an assistant to the director which is a different thing. In Germany, the assistant for the director is only there for the director and the first assistant director is more like running the set and supervising a little more.

Also, in Germany, there is no problem if somebody picks up a cable who is working for the sound department, but the cable belongs to the electrician. Here in the U.S., it’s very strict. Each is its own department, but I think we did a good job of being a little loose about it because we were used to our European way.

In the beginning it was a little confusing for the team, but we had a good group and working process.

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.

CM: Do you have future plans for more films in Texas?

BG: My wife and I divide our time between Austin and Berlin. I’m working right now on a new film, which will be filmed in Texas.

One of the biggest challenges is funding. We financed Houston with funding from the German government. We were able to take part of the film budget of 1.7 million euros (about $2.5 million) and use it to film in Houston. It would be harder to get German film funding if the whole film took place entirely in Texas.

The U.S. government doesn’t fund films, so I need to look to private people who like film and have money to support art.