Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Dallas-based actress shines in 'No Letting Go'

Cheryl Allison's long, successful career has taken her to Broadway, but she's back in Dallas and finally breaking out on the big screen as the anchor of the film No Letting Go, which is being released on demand on cable television starting today.

It's a harrowing tale based on a true story of a mother who struggles to keep herself and her family together as one of her three sons suffers from an anxiety that blossoms in his teen years into a full-blown bipolar disorder combined with haunting depression.

Allison knows the role well. She starred in the short Illness that won so many honors on the festival circuit that filmmaker Jonathan Bucari chose to expand into a full feature film. It's inspired by the real-life experiences of Randi Silverman, who co-wrote the script with Bucari. She co-founded a support group for parents raising children with anxiety, depression and/or mood disorders. The group has served more than 800 families in the past five years. Silverman talks about that experience here.

No Letting Go provides a perfect showcase for the realities these parents face. It's beautifully shot and ably acted, with Kathy Najimy particularly shining as a no-nonsense therapist. The cast also includes Richard Burgi of Desperate Housewives and a number of soap operas, and Janet Hubert of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Silverman's real-life son Noah Silverman stars as the 14-year-old suffering from mental illness. His brother's story is the film's inspiration.

In Fort Worth, Allison is regularly seen on stage at Casa Manana, but she might see more film roles coming her way once word gets out of her strong performance in No Letting Go. It's a film that rates seeking out for its frank treatment of a topic that people are often unwilling to openly discuss.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Robert Rodriguez sends 'From Dusk Till Dawn' to New Mexico

Rodriguez and Linklater (photo by Joe O'Connell)

Cuts to Texas film incentives have a new casualty: Austin-based Robert Rodriguez likes to shoot at home, but he's setting up the third season of his El Rey network's From Dusk Till Dawn series in New Mexico with filming beginning as I type this. The first two seasons shot in the Austin area, of course. But money talks and Rodriguez walks. As have other recent Texas-set shows.

This is what happens when the Texas Legislature slices and dices its two-year film incentive program budget from $95 million to $32 million. In recent years, the incentive program has been most effective at attracting TV series to the state, including Austin-shot American Crime and The Leftovers. The former shot in Austin for both of its two seasons, while the latter shot its second season around Central Texas. The Leftovers already has a third season commitment while American Crime's future is unknown. Will either return to Austin? Stay tuned, but don't get your hopes up. At least we still have Richard Linklater. Right, Rick? Gulp.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Pee-wee Herman is back

Photo by Joe M. O'Connell
My interview with Paul Reubens in advance of the Pee-wee Herman's Big Vacation premiere in the Austin Chronicle:

Paul Reubens never once breaks into Pee-wee Herman's voice during a telephone interview ("I know you are, but what am I?"), but the odd manchild character fills the empty space around Reubens' words begging to be defined.

Kid show innocent? Subversive prop gag comedian? Pop culture icon? Early Nineties tabloid scandal-sheet cover boy? Pee-wee/Reubens is all of these things. He is both vintage, punk rock kitsch and smooth, white innocence. More importantly, he's back in Pee-wee's Big Holiday, an only somewhat unlikely collaboration with Judd Apatow that premieres at the South by Southwest Film Festival before airing on Netflix starting March 18.

"I'm part of Austin culture," Reubens said, reminding us that a big chunk of 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure was shot in Texas. "There's a famous sign that says 'Keep Austin Weird.' I'm represented on that artwork, and I tell it to people proudly." He's not certain of the sign's locale, but Pee-wee's image can be spotted in a Home Slice Pizza mural on South Congress emblazoned with the admonition "Don't Hate."

In 2011, Reubens also appeared at SXSW in support of HBO's The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway, a televised version of his stage show, which revived and essentially rebooted Pee-wee.
"I did that stage production with the idea that enough heat would happen to attract someone to make a Pee-wee movie," Reubens said. "Judd Apatow saw the show, and we set up a meeting. He was a big Pee-wee fan. He very early on said, 'I feel strongly that it should be a road movie somewhere in the same wheelhouse as Big Adventure.' That's what we did."

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Son" set to rise in Austin with Sam Neill

 Look for a 10-part AMC TV adaptation of Philipp Meyer's novel The Son to set up shop in Austin for a summer shoot. 

The acclaimed novel has been described as a "multi-generational saga of power, blood, land, and oil that follows the rise of one unforgettable Texas family, from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the to the oil booms of the 20th century." University of Texas prof Don Graham regularly includes the novel in the his well-known Life and Literature of Texas course along side the works of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

Sam Neil plays Eli, the family patriarch who was kidnapped and raised by Comanches, an experience that colors his world view.

Also in the cast are  Henry Garrett (Poldark), Zahn McClarnon (Fargo), Paola Nunez (Reina de corazones), and Sydney Lucas (Fun Home). The show was written by Meyer, Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy. It's expected to air in 2017.

Now if someone would finally adapt Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place (which is also on Graham's syllabus) for TV or film we'd be set with major Texas novels being brought to the big (or little) screen. Oh, I could also go for a faithful adaptation of Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough minus the silly new age twaddle added to the Burt Reynolds version. Pretty please?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

'Kill or Be Killed"

Duane Graves and Justin Meeks finally get an Austin screening for their dark western Kill or Be Killed just prior to its DVD/stream release, and I sat down to talk with them for The Austin Chronicle.

The film has been a few years in the making. I visited the filmmaking duo on set, and you can see the story here and the rest of my set photos here

Justin Meeks, Michael Berryman and Duane Graves (Photo by Joe O'Connell)

They had 13 blank bullets to shoot in the crucial scene. It was 3am on a frigid morning at Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, a living history museum on a swath of tree-filled acreage surrounded on all sides by a residential North Austin neighborhood. Duane Graves and Justin Meeks were in the middle of filming their dark Western Kill or Be Killed.

Go. The explosions barked toward the houses and echoed. Go again. Four takes in all before the police cars arrived.

"It wasn't our first rodeo," Meeks said and recounted an earlier short film production halted when police arrived at a rural creekside just as an actor was yanking a fake heart out of a bloody chest.

Kill or Be Killed was originally called Red on Yella, Kill a Fella, but retitled for release March 1 by RLJ Entertainment on DVD, streaming and in Redbox locations. First they'll have an Austin screening Feb. 29 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. It's the latest step in a slowly widening career for the unlikely filmmaking partnership that began in a college classroom and now finds both with wives and children.

Graves is the self-described emotional one who takes it all a bit too personally. Meeks is the charismatic actor/filmmaker with hair flowing down to his shoulders and an easy grin. He stars in Kill or Be Killed as outlaw Claude "Sweet Tooth" Barbee. Meeks' early work was dark, dark, dark. Graves first gained note when Slamdance screened his heartwarming and funny 2000 documentary Up Syndrome, chronicling his childhood friend Rene Moreno, who was born with Down syndrome. It includes VHS footage of the pair shooting goofy horror films in their backyards on a camera Graves begged his parents to buy him.

"Being co-directors is not for everyone," Graves said. "You need to know when to yield."

Have they ever come to blows? No, they say. But there have been disagreements.

"There are two egos here," Meeks said. "You have to put it in check."

"We end up laughing about it later," Graves said. "Two brains are better than one."

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Urban Cowboy' TV pilot to lens in Austin

The 1980 film Urban Cowboy is being dusted off and set in the modern day for a Fox television series. No word on casting yet, but  the pilot will shoot in Austin in September with Craig Brewer, who also brought us a Footloose film remake, behind this re-imaging of a modern Cissy and Bud.

If picked up for series, it could air as soon as mid-season or not pop up until next summer. No major casting has been announced (will John Travolta's hairpiece and Debra Winger's smirk make cameos?), but we can expect the pilot to be loaded with twangy music.

Meanwhile, John Ridley's American Crime is gearing up for its second season shoot in the Austin area right now. Yes, right this moment. Learn how to be an extra over at Brock Allen Casting's Facebook page. You soon will find extra info for Urban Cowboy there as well.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'Mockingbird' and a friend from long ago

With the release of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman today, it a good time to post this essay I read on KUT radio in Austin, Texas, on the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's release in 2010. It's about my old friend Jennifer, loss and growing up. Give it a listen.

(On the air, they used the first paragraph as an intro):

I've been thinking a lot this week about the book To Kill a Mockingbird and my old friend Jennifer Manley. Jennifer was a pretty girl I met on the bus at Austin High School a million years ago. To Kill a Mockingbird was the book we all had to read in school. It was supposed to guide us down the path to adulthood.

The rest can be listened to here. Or you can read it here.