Saturday, December 31, 2011

My top 10 stories of 2011

I did some interesting nonfiction writing in 2011, but also found the opportunities for a free-lancer to be teasingly ephemeral like a batch of bright fake flowers appearing from a magician’s sleeve then as quickly evaporating. Here are my highlights from the year:

10. I’ve been penning a The Dallas Morning News column about the film industry for the past six years and previously wrote similar columns for the Austin American-Statesman and The Austin Chronicle dating back to 2000. It was a long run, but I decided to stop with my December column. I need to focus my energies elsewhere, in particular on my fiction writing.

9. Writing about writing was a hallmark of the year. My long interview with Tom Grimes appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, the magazine of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), and I got to talk to some writers I admire a lot, including A.G. Mojtabai.

8. The Austin Chronicle was kind enough to ask me to do some pretty extensive coverage during this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. And, yes, I got to meet both Pee Wee Herman and Elmo!

7. I've been reporting on the Texas Film Hall of Fame festivities for The Dallas Morning News for years, but I know you'd really rather see the photos.

6. Austrian filmmaker Barbara Eder told me about how her dangerous experience as a foreign exchange student led to the film Inside America.

5. I've tended to do more book interviews than reviews, but I somehow managed to transform myself into the Austin American-Statesman's go-to reviewer of Texas fiction. At least until the bottom dropped out and the paper pretty much stopped generating its own reviews and replaced them with wire service reviews. And then the editor changed (see my note above). Ouch! My favorite book to review? Mat Johnson's Pym.

4. Actor Paul Giamatti is a cool guy, but interviewing Win Win director Tom McCarthy along with Giamatti was a double treat.

3. My wife Tiffany is a big fan of the TV show The Waltons, so I planned a surprise trip to Schuyler, Virginia, the home of the very autobiographical story’s author, Earl Hamner. The Dallas Morning News asked me to write this piece about the small town intrigue surrounding the show's local roots and also ran a lot of my photos.

2. I’ve been blogging at The Austin Chronicle about the Texas Longhorns football team for a few years now. I shared the chore this year and tried to advise my counterpart to write as if no one is reading, to play with the form, to never ever make it boring. My favorite sports piece this year actually had a point to make about coaches training their defensive players to lead with their helmets.

1. The writing I’m most proud of from this past year wasn’t officially published anywhere, and it wasn’t necessarily my best work. It was instead personal and it had to do with loss. Jacob Payne lived much of his life in a wheelchair and had many lessons to offer all of us about living fully. I have now written obituaries for both of my parents and my brother Casey, who died in an accident on Halloween. I’m still processing it all, Last night I dreamed I was dreaming about my mother and Casey. No doubt Casey enjoyed the trick of visiting me in that complicated fashion. Casey’s friend, the singer/songwriter Bob Livingston, said Casey’s death is a reminder to all of us to hold tight to this “sweet, sweet life.” I couldn’t say it better.

My top 11 photos of 2011

I rediscovered a love of photography in 2011, had a photo displayed on and in the Houston headquarters of Stage Stores, put together a small coffee shop photo show and generally had fun with it. See all eleven of my favorite images here.

My favorite photo of the year is of an older gentleman I spotted at the Dairy Queen in Karnes City, Texas. I stopped him on his way out the door, and he looked amused by the notion of posing.

I worked to get a bee in action above some Texas sunflowers that stayed hearty through at least the early stages of our Texas summer drought.

In a non-dry period in Austin, I turned off my windshield wipers on the upper deck of Interstate 35 to catch this dreamy scene.

More to come in the new year...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

SHOT IN TEXAS: TV replaces films as local moneymaker

After a 12-year run--the last six in The Dallas Morning News, but previously for both The Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman--this is my final Texas film industry column. I'll still be blogging, but I want to spend more time concentrating on fiction writing and other projects.--Joe

Special to The Dallas Morning News

Janis Burklund was in full action mode last week. Khloe Kardashian had, without notice, posted online that she was organizing a toy drive for the Children’s Hospital of Dallas, and Burklund’s Dallas Film Commission office was suddenly besieged with phone calls.

It’s a clear sign of the present and likely future of the Dallas film scene: television rules and reality TV buzzes. Feature films? Not so much.

Lamar Odom’s trade from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Dallas Mavericks brought his Kardashian wife and reality show Khloe & Lamar to town. More than 2,000 people crowded Dallas City Hall to donate toys after her web shout-out.

Meanwhile TNT’s Dallas is bringing some old-school attention to the city with its 10-episode shoot—production is on hiatus until 2012 with three episodes to go.

Burklund’s three-person office can’t afford a proper media tracking service these days, but it only takes a quick web search to see interest in the show that doesn’t air until June.

“It’s been ongoing for about a year with constant news and publicity about the show,” she said. “There’s lot of interest overseas.”

The Dallas Film Commission tracks its fiscal year from September to September, and Burklund is just now getting solid numbers for the last year and slightly more of both plusses and minuses: network television series shoots came and as quickly went with the quick cancellations/non-renewals of Lone Star, The Good Guys and Chase.

The controversial Dallas-set show originally known as Good Christian Bitches, later as Good Christian Belles and most commonly as GCB produced a pilot in North Texas but then retreated to Los Angeles for the series shoot.

“When all three shows didn’t stick, we had to wait for new ones to create again,” Burklund said. “We had to go through another cycle, and luckily Dallas was already in the cycle.”

The commission tracked 292 projects in its last fiscal year, including $73.6 million in direct spends on television and film, plus another $26.3 million in videogame projects. The way that money reverberates around the economy leads to an estimated almost $230 million economic impact.

“It was a good year,” Burklund said. “It was well above the last six or seven years.”

But feature films continue to be a no-show both in North Texas and the state as a whole. Texas film incentives haven’t slowed the flow of projects to states like New Mexico and Louisiana that offer a lot more.

“Our incentives program works best for television,” Burklund said. “Television understands in a different way about having the good crew base, good talent base, diverse locations and easy access through DFW (International Airport). They may be here for years, so they have to think, ‘If all incentives went away today, where would we want to be?’ ”

Feature filmmaking in Texas has thus turned into a mix of low-budget independents and higher-profile projects by primarily Austin-based Texas auteurs like Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and to a lesser extent Mike Judge and Tim McCanlies.

Perhaps add to that list reclusive Austin resident Terrence Malick, who is quickly losing his rep for waiting a decade or more between projects. He shot likely Oscar nominee The Tree of Life largely in Smithville (and partly in Dallas) in 2008 and took three years to release it, but actually shot another as-yet-untitled film starring Ben Affleck in Oklahoma in 2010.

Now Malick has publicly announced two more upcoming projects: Lawless and Knight of Cups. In September he shot scenes with Christian Bale during the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and followed that in November filming Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest. The shots have been reported to be for Lawless, but Malick never releases plot details or future filming plans if he can help it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can the Texas Longhorns beat the Baylor Fire Bolt?

I've been blogging the University of Texas football seasons for The Austin Chronicle for about four years now. This Saturday is the last game of this season. Here's my latest blog post (which doesn't mention unsubstantiated rumors that Mack Brown will retire as Texas coach after Saturday's game):

Texas fans nibbled on Thanksgiving turkey and expected the worst. The Aggies could taste this win. They wanted to end the rivalry with forever bragging rights as they shuffled off to the SEC and leave the Longhorns with the beer-soaked, early-morning regret that is the Big 12.

My die-hard UT fanatic brother-in-law feared a blowout. “It’ll be close,” I said. He shook his head with a grin that spoke of my naiveté. You know what happened next.

Aggies complained of a bad call, of the injury that kept Cyrus Gray out of the game. But the truth is the Texas defense finally rose to the level necessary to offset the befuddled Burnt Orange offense. Special teams did, too. We’re talking points off of turnovers. Quandre Diggs’ 81-yard punt return. A defense that battered the Aggies and their seasoned quarterback Ryan Tannehill, capped by a Kenny Vaccaro interception that led to a rare touchdown.

The rag doll named Case McCoy did the rest with a gutsy gallop into the Texas A&M defenders, who smacked him this way and that as he struggled for any yards they’d cede. Enough to get Texas in field-goal position. It worked. Justin Tucker made up for a night of horrendous punts by finessing the ball through the uprights from 40 yards out as time ran out.

In College Station you can find billboards still up in summer heralding the last win over the t-sips. In Austin, we marvel at the strange traditions: the overalled cheerleaders with their odd gang signs, the incessant “howdy,” the constant standing and swaying at Kyle Field. That cute little dog they worship. We’ll miss every bit of it.

Read the rest here.