Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fact, fiction collide in 'Texas Rising'

My piece in today's Austin Chronicle:

©Joe O'Connell
David Marion Wilkinson never expected to be at this place. He's a novelist with a tilt toward the historical. A stubborn novelist. A novelist determined to carve out a long, successful career. But he's also got to eat, and suddenly Hollywood came calling. Soon his life was entangled with the History Channel's 10-hour miniseries Texas Rising, a sometimes historical, sometimes quite fictional account of the Lone Star State's battle for independence from Mexico, that premieres May 25.
Wilkinson's son Dean ended up in Los Angeles after graduation from the University of Texas. In the interconnected world where it matters whom you know, Dean played in a band with a guy who was dating the daughter of a producer. Soon Dean was working for her father's production company. One day he saw two of his father's books – the historical novel Not Between Brothers and the biography One Ranger – on the bookshelf. Wilkinson's son was told they were among a hundred books consulted as research for the show, which began with a focus on the formation of the Texas Rangers. But soon Wilkinson was called in as a historical consultant by Executive Producer Leslie Greif, famed as one of the creators of TV seriesWalker, Texas Ranger and producer of HC's mini-series Hatfields & McCoys. Greif was brash and confident, the cliche Hollywood producer who gets things done. Wilkinson soon found his role grow to include work on the script and ultimately a co-producer credit.
"The executive producer – a native of Los Angeles with a lifetime in the entertainment industry – and, I suppose, the original screenwriter, Ted Mann, laid out their 'vision' of the original story," Wilkinson says. "They had chosen, for instance, to accept the Emily West [Yellow Rose of Texas] legend in its original conception in the Fifties, even far exceeding that myth, totally beyond the slim historical record left behind by the real Emily West. My first job was as a historical consultant, and I argued passionately for them to reconsider their decision. When they refused, after I came on board as a screenwriter, I set my mind to take their story and their characters and run with them."
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'Destination Unknown' examines biggest taboo

Somehow I became the death guy.

It happened after a penned the novel-in-stories Evacuation Plan, a book I never planned to write. I was chosen as part of a group of writers and artists to go into Hospice Austin's Christopher House to tell the story of the dying, their families and the people who work in and around this place of last days. I applied for the project because I was working on a mystery novel with a plot that dealt with death.

I didn't plan to write my novel, and I wonder if John H. Clark III set out to write Destination Unknown (it's free on Amazon as an ebook as I write this) or if it just forced itself on him. Either way he's the new death guy. "What happens to us when we die?" the cover blurb asks.

It's the big unanswerable. My novel took knocks for not having enough death in it. Clark's book faces the same challenge; it can't tell you how to die, but it does tell you everything you need to know about how we think about dying.

The consummate interviewer (he and I worked together years ago as newspaper reporters), when Clark has a question, he sets out to get the full answer. He interviewed more than 40 people for their takes on the final curtain. He talked to people from many different walks of life, many religious faiths or lack thereof. Some are hopeful, some are fearful. There are no easy answers in this book, and that's OK. Just taking time to think about the big questions is enough.

Clark professes to once being "scared to death of God." He flirted with organized religion at different points in his life, but still wrestles with the questions inherent in a Bible that is often full of cruelty. How do we reconcile this? Perhaps we just keep asking questions. "I have screwed up a lot of things, but I’ve also done a lot of things right," Clark says in the book's closing.

At Christopher House I met a 40ish guy full of anger. When he died, the nurses told me, he was holding on to this life, kicking and screaming, full of regrets. Clark's thoughtful book leaves me with this message: Live a life you can be proud of now before it's too late. You won't find happiness in making a whole lot of money (though I wouldn't recommend being poor either!) or drowning in kudos from others. You're going to have to live the life of a person whom you'd be proud to meet. The rest is gravy.

Get this book while it's still free or slap down some cash if you have it. It's full of important ideas told in a refreshingly honest way.

'American Crime' returns to Austin for second season

When I interviewed American Crime creator John Ridley for The Austin Chronicle prior to the show's 11-episode run on ABC, he hinted that a second season was possible and that it likely would lens in the Austin area as the first season did. Correct on both. 

(Read down for even more TV shooting in Austin....)

According to Deadline, both Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton will come back for season two, which will center on an entirely different crime. The first season was an ambitious telling of the impact of a double murder on the lives of the victims' and suspects' lives. Ratings weren't spectacular, but it received plenty of critical acclaim and is expected to garner award nominations for its deft handling of issues of racial and class divides in America.

"TV has overtaken film here of late," Gary Bond of the Austin Film Commission said of the welcome Austin film industry news. 'I like it. Steady work for our crew. The gift that keeps on giving."

Indeed, Robert Rodriguez's series From Dusk Till Dawn is shooting its second season around town, and HBO's The Leftovers relocated and is currently lensing its sophomore season to Austin. ABC's Shonda Rhimes pilot The Catch shot here recently and just got picked up to series. No word on if the series will shoot in Austin, but insiders say it is a distinct possibility.

The American Crime announcement also comes as the Texas Legislature hammers out just how much funding in the coming two years will go to the state's Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, which allocates bucks to attract films, television and video game production to the Lone Star State. Some of the official silliness has including attacks on actor Sean Penn's political views (he had a role in Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life, which shot in Texas five years ago) as an excuse to cut funding. Those in the know have said in recent years that current Texas incentives are more attractive to television productions than films, which often veer across the Texas border to Louisiana or New Mexico.

Ridley told me incentives were indeed a factor in bringing to the show to Texas. They'd also looked at Georgia and both Louisiana and New Mexico. A lot of that was the wide variety of locations, with Ridley praising the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos in particular as a welcome find for the many judicial scenes. 

"There were other places where we could have done a good job, but Austin ended up being the right place," he said. "Beyond our headline cast there was a really, really deep group of actors that delivered."

Look for the series to shoot in July, when Texas temperatures soar. It's something Ridley told me he did not look forward to in a second season. "Everything else is wonderful, it’s a terrific environment, but the weather…," he said.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Last Day at Austin's Highland Mall

It was the first indoor shopping mall in Austin, Texas, when Highland Mall opened in 1971. It has gone into decline in recent years with the last big-box stores closing in 2011. I went into the mall for its final day and snapped photos. The mall is already in the process of being transformed into a giant campus for Austin Community College. More photos here.

©Joe O'Connell

©Joe O'Connell

©Joe O'Connell

©Joe O'Connell

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The movie extra passes on

My piece about Odell Grant over at The Austin Chronicle begins like this:

Photo by Joe M. O'Connell

Nobody had a face like Odell Grant. The lines curlicued and dug deep like an etching of the totality of time. Then he’d break into a grin and his light eyes would ignite with mischief and reckless youth.

Odell only semi-jokingly called me his agent. I’d written a 2006 Austin Chronicle story about his life’s improbable last act as a film and television extra capable of stealing a scene, and he was convinced with my guidance he could become a story. Two years ago we met for lunch for the last time and he regaled me with tales from the set. “I was embalmed and buried in the low-budget film Elvis and Annabelle,” Odell says of the film in which he is featured as a dead coach. “I had my funeral. Nobody I know of has met their pallbearers.”

That was just a test run. Odell died for real Tuesday at age 79 surrounded by family and Jeanne, his wife of more than 50 years. The couple used to travel the state selling crafts at Sami shows, their daughter Lisa continuing the family tradition before she turned real estate agent.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why your cell phone photos aren't art

 My mini-rant over at The Austin Chronicle:

"Caroline was at the hospital waiting for word on her daughter. At 77, Caroline's face was distinctive and beautiful. I approached from across the room, took a knee, and asked if I could take her portrait. I was testing out a medium format film camera I'd bought on eBay for cheap, I explained. From her purse, Caroline pulled out a photo of her with her husband in 1955 and held it in her lap. Snap. Then I took a digital pic. Snap again. Email to Caroline's family. Post on Facebook.
Here's the deal you already know: That film camera is a relic. It takes beautiful photographs, but I haven't had a home darkroom since the Nineties, so the film will go into the mail (once I get around to it) to a processing house which will snail mail it back to me. The pink of Caroline's cheeks will likely be more vibrant, the soul reflected in her eyes more soulful, but time will have marched forward."
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fear drove Hitckcock, author says

My conversation with Michael Wood about his new Alfred Hitchcock bio for  Kirkus Reviews:

The famed director Alfred Hitchcock’s secret to success? He was afraid.
That’s Michael Wood’s take in Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much, a thoughtful peek into the director’s work and psyche released as part of the Icons series, which has in previous volumes delved into everyone from Jesus to Stalin to Edgar Allan Poe. Hitchcock is most famed as the master of suspense, and the book submits that it points back to his youth when Hitchcock was consumed by the fear of being stopped by a policeman.

Read the rest here.