Texas as The Third Coast

"Where the cool kids were": Alison Macor examines the Austin film scene

"Where the cool kids were": Alison Macor examines the Austin film scene

Alison Macor wrote the book on indie moviemakers and moviemaking in Austin — literally — and now she’s coming to Houston to tell us all about it.

In her provocatively titled Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas, Macor – a freelance writer and former film critic for the Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman — offers a fascinating account of the state capital’s improbable development as a “Third Coast” production center, culled from dozens of interviews with homegrown talents, acclimated transplants and frequent visitors such as Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew McConaughey, Tim McCanlies and George Lucas.

The book offers entertaining anecdotes — and revealing stories behind the stories — about the making of Linklater’s Slacker, Dazed and Confused and The Newton Boys, Rodriguez’s El Mariachi and Spy Kids, McCanlies’ Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, Mike Judge’s Office Space and, of course, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But wait, there’s more: Macor also details the storied production of The Whole Shootin’ Match (1979), a seminal filmed-in-Austin indie directed by the late Eagle Pennell.

Macor will discuss Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids during a free presentation at 6:30 pm Tuesday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Following the event, she’ll hang around for a book signing and reception at MFAH. But since we couldn’t wait to hear what she has to say, we called her at home in Austin to get a preview of the program.

CultureMap: This seems like such an obvious subject for a book. Are you surprised no one beat you to the punch?

Alison Macor: A little bit. But maybe it’s because people thought it had already been done. I had been writing about Austin film for about seven years when I first started thinking about doing this book. And at the time, I was sort of aware that nothing like this had been done. But I was surprised to find so many people were telling me, “Oh, that’s been done already.” Because it really hadn’t. I guess people presumed it had, and simply assumed they just hadn’t seen it yet.

CM: What do you think there is about the overall vibe in Austin that has made it so hospitable for filmmakers?

AM: Well, I realized pretty early on that I was going to have to know a little bit more about Austin’s history, going back to when it was first founded. So I checked out this book called To Wear a City’s Crown: The Beginnings of Urban Grown in Texas. It was written in the late 1960s, by an author named Kenneth Wheeler, and it talks about all the big cities in Texas. And Wheeler sort of argues that their personalities were all pretty much set from the beginning.

He describes Austin as — well, while cities like San Antonio were trying to get the railroad, the people in Austin were sort of like, “Eh, if it comes, it comes. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” I thought it was incredibly fascinating that this kind of laid-back quality that so many people associate with Austin — especially after Slacker came out — was there right from the start.

So there’s that, plus the University of Texas is here, it’s the state capital, and there’s the music scene. The music scene really is part of that same laid-back vibe. In fact, a lot of the people who came here and later got involved with film were drawn here by music. Like, you know, the South By Southwest Film Festival grew out of the music festival.

You have all of this, and there are all these different arts communities — music, film, art, theater — that appeal to people. I grew up in New Jersey, and went to undergraduate school in Indiana. And it was a real culture shock when I came here for grad school (in 1994). You see, I grew up right outside New York City, so I knew the vibe of a big city, and wanted something like that. Only a little bit smaller. And that’s what you get here.

CM: The funny thing is, even though you’ve got all these filmmakers from the same place — sometimes even working in the same place with, presumably, the same influences — they’re as dissimilar as the various auteurs of the French New Wave.

AM: Yeah, it surprises me that you have so many filmmakers who are so different. There’s a big difference among people like Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge and Richard Linklater. They each have a sense of humor in their work. But they’re different senses of humor. That’s amazing to me, and refreshing at the same time, that we’re not constantly seeing the same Austin stories over and over again.

CM: Near the start of his book The Kid Stays in the Picture, producer Robert Evans wrote: “There are three sides to every story — my side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.” How did you deal with that problem while reconciling different accounts of the same events?

AM: Well, one of the other books I read pretty early on to prepare myself for this project was The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne. And I really liked the way Dunne sort of let the quotes speak for themselves. And I tried to do the same thing myself in cases like, for instance, if was a “he said/she said” or “he said/he said” thing. Specifically, in the chapter on Dazed and Confused, where (producer) Jim Jacks and Richard Linklater seem to contradict each other. I really just put the quotes out there because I figured, you know, the real story probably includes both of these viewpoints.

And I also wanted to capture everybody’s unique voice. Like Quentin Tarantino. His actual inflection and syntax is so him that I wanted to get that in there as accurately as possible.

CM: Finally, have you ever detected any … any … well, any jealousy on the part of people in Dallas and Houston film communities because all the attention Austin gets?

AM: Yeah. In fact, I got that even back when I was reviewing. And whenever I interviewed a filmmaker who was based in either city — especially in the late ‘90s, when Austin was sort of heading toward its peak. The thing is, Houston certainly has SWAMP and other resources for independent or up-and-coming filmmakers. And Dallas, I’ve always felt is a more commercially oriented place.

But you know, when I was researching the book, it seemed to me like the bulk of the work, the actual production work, that enables people to make a living in the film industry, year after year, was being done in Dallas and Houston back in the 1980s. And I remember asking Rick Linklater in one of our interviews: “Why did you come here? You were based in Houston in the ‘80s, you knew other stuff was going on.”

And for him, it was a bunch of things. Number one, of course, was his wanting to get into UT, to get into the film program. But he also thought of moving to San Francisco at one point — and he just saw Austin as a similar place, in terms of culture and feel.

It’s funny: I talked with someone who worked with the Texas Film Commission back in the ‘90s, and she said that even back then, she was already getting phone calls from people who wanted to be listed in the production manual. But even if they were based in Houston or Dallas — they wanted to be listed in the Austin section. Because they felt people who were looking for production crews — they were looking in Austin first. That’s where the cool kids were.

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