Slack and Slash Cinema

by Published on
photo courtesy Austin Film Society and University of Texas Press
Director Tobe Hooper on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The history of Austin film is a tale of industry outsiders. Twelve hundred miles and a world away from the deep pockets and intrusive hands of the Hollywood studios, Austin filmmakers and film patrons have been building their own language for more than 30 years, coming up with their own ways of funding, writing, directing, screening and distributing movies.

Take Tobe Hooper, the godfather of Austin independent film. In the early 1970s, when he was trying to figure out where to get the money to shoot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the idea that a Hollywood studio might be interested in a project coming out of Texas was absurd. Instead, the young director managed to persuade a small group of bankers, lawyers and politicians to fund his gruesome, ultraviolent movie about a psychopath who enjoys wearing other peoples’ skin. Only in Texas would a state senator invest in a slasher-cannibal movie that would end up being distributed by two pornographers with ties to the Brooklyn mafia.

Hooper was the quintessential independent filmmaker, using all kinds of questionable business deals and catch-as-catch-can filming techniques to get his vision on the screen. It was only after his little project had made millions of dollars and become a midnight-movie favorite that safety-first Hollywood came calling with an eye toward bottling whatever cinema magic was suddenly appearing in Central Texas.

The tension between the unadventurous Hollywood studio system and the shaggy-dog, experimental Austin film scene is on nearly every page of Alison Macor’s excellent first book, Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids. Macor, a former film critic for the Austin Chronicle and an instructor at the University of Texas at Austin, charts the history of the city’s independent scene from Chainsaw through the career of Robert Rodriguez. She lovingly catalogues three decades of achievements and failures that all lead back to one simple and immutable truth: The ability to make and present movies is always in danger of being crushed by the demands of commerce.

To prove her point, Macor wisely focuses much of her book on the triumphs and struggles of local hero and indie archetype Richard Linklater. While shooting his breakout film, 1991’s Slacker, Linklater assembled an ad hoc crew and cast made up of friends and Austin characters. Working with a bare outline of a script and mostly borrowed equipment, surviving on snacks paid for with a Shell gasoline credit card, Linklater and his team shot their film with an improvisational flair foreign to Hollywood executives.

Following the surprising success of Slacker, Hollywood came courting with promises of wide distribution and possible riches. And by 1992 Linklater was working on his follow-up, a studio-funded comedy based loosely on his high school days in Huntsville, Texas—a film nearly as shaggy and meandering as Slacker. Only this time he had a real budget and a professional cast (which included Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey). What could have been better?

Turns out anything would have been better for Linklater, who found himself not a golden boy but a victim of the harrowing Death of a Thousand Nitpicks. Studio executives sliced the director’s budget, demanded script rewrites, objected to foul language in the script, called for a less “arty” style, stole his soundtrack royalties, marketed Dazed and Confused to the wrong demographic, and generally did everything they could to undermine Linklater’s approach to making movies. Over the next decade, Linklater’s contentious relationship with the studio establishment nearly ended his career several times.

Unlike Hooper and Linklater, however, the third star of Macor’s book, Robert Rodriguez, was both an artist and a businessman. He wasn’t aiming for modest festival success with his first shoestring-budget feature, El Mariachi; he had a business model in place before he ever shot a frame. Learning from those who had suffered before him, he realized that the best way to ensure no studio meddling is to become the studio yourself. In doing so, he would help drag Austin out of indie obscurity and into the mainstream.

In some ways, Robert Rodriguez is the apotheosis of the whole Austin DIY film aesthetic. And as Macor sees it, ever since his arrival, the city’s film scene has had to balance regional integrity and industry power-brokering. In the world of filmmaking, the name of the game is freedom, power and money. And as Rodriguez proved, the only way to mix art and commerce is to make sure you’re in control of both.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.