Monday, January 28, 2013

'Grace Jones' bio explores one woman's big life

I was a young punk newspaper reporter when I met Grace Jones. I can’t remember the assignment, but it took me to her chic clothing store in Salado. Ms. Jones greeted me with an air of sophistication that was slightly intimidating. A rich woman from the East who somehow landed in Texas, I guessed. I was very wrong.

Mary Margaret Quadlander’s biography Grace Jones of Salado makes that abundantly clear. Jones was Texan through and through. Her life is straight out of Giant or perhaps a Larry McMurtry novel. It was big and got bigger.

Born Willy Grace Rosanky (her father wanted a boy) in the town bearing her family name near Lockhart, she was raised on a ranch by a hard-drinking, risk-loving entrepreneur who was flush with cash one moment, down on his luck the next. It was a swirling chaos that helped form Grace Jones’ live of both success and tragedy.

Quadlander was my graduate fiction-writing student at St. Edward’s University and already then a fashion designer of note when she first told me about this project. As the book tells it, Jones helped put Quadlander on the fashion map and a friendship was born. With it came great responsibility when the late Jones bequeathed her papers to Quadlander. The result is this fine book.

It tells of Jones' quick path to adulthood: marriage to WWII pilot-to-be, the loss of their twin children just after birth, a detour to a University of Texas sorority house, and a LOOK Magazine article that sent everything spinning.

That article spoke of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, a program where women would be trained to pilot and deliver airplanes stateside while the male pilots saw action overseas. Grace talked her father into letting her sign up in support of her pilot husband. She was soon in the air, semi-earning her wings, though the female pilots weren’t taken seriously enough for actual wings to arrive in Jones’ mailbox until the ‘70s.

But like a good novel, Jones’ life was a back-and-forth progression of wins and losses. Her husband divorced her for a woman he’d met overseas. She hightailed it to New York City and became a successful fashion model, then the wife of an even-higher profile pilot Jack Jones whose career led Grace overseas. When he retired they ended up in Salado, Texas, where they opened Grace Jones of Salado, an improbably successful, ultra-pricey home to high fashion. Celebs like Henry Kissinger and the actress Loretta Young jetted in.

Jack Jones turned from flyboy to errand boy for his famed wife. He couldn’t take it and divorced here. Grace kept her chin up as she’d always done. But underneath the story, Quadlander reveals, there is a deep sadness. It’s however tempered with the full joy and bravado of Grace Jones’ life. Jones said, “There are those who seek and those who wait. I’m a seeker. I have always been curious, not just about fashion but so may other things that interest me…. I took advantage of being in the right place to learn about all of these things that interested me. And I also took advantage of anyone who could teach me something new.”

There’s a lesson there. Perhaps a warning, too. Quadlander has captured it well in this compelling book about a compelling life. Quadlander believes it would make a good film. I believe she's right.

Sublett reinvents the novel with 'Grave Digger'

Jesse Sublett knows noir. He’s a student at the feet of Chandler and Hammett (he named his own son Dashiel) and penned three respected mysteries about an Austin, Texas, based musician/private dick named Martin Fender. He’s also a heck of a musician who led the seminal Austin punk/garage/new wave band the Skunks. What happens if those two parts of his persona crash together in a post-apocalyptic world with elements of dystopian sci-fi, poetry and outsider art? Grave Digger Blues is born, my friends. It’s not so much a book as an experience, particularly if you spring for the iPad version with all the bells and whistles.

Last year I wrote in the San Antonio Express-News about Sublett’s efforts to do something similar with the re-release of the Martin Fender novels. But here he’s taken it a large step further.

You’ll be thrown into the world of the Blues Cat, an a down-and-out jazz musician, and Hank Zzybnx, a private detective haunted by Marilyn Monroe’s ghost. It’s a wild ride into despair with bouts of frivolity. All along the way the Blues Cat keeps the beat pounding and Jesse Sublett keeps pulling the strings somewhere behind the curtain. Hop on this train. You’ll like where it takes you.

Louisiana Film Prize eyes Texans

What? First Louisiana lures Hollywood in to shoot movies that once upon a time chose to lens in Texas. Now it wants Texans to come and play the Cajun way? That's Gregory Kallenberg's insidious plot, friends. Kallenberg, a tech writer for the Austin American-Statesman when I first him in the late '90s, is now a respected documentary filmmaker residing in Shreveport. He believes in the Shreveport area so much as a perfect filming locale that he's backing that with $50,000 in cold, hard cash. That's the payout to the prize winner. The only catch is the entered short film must be shot in the Shreveport area. Post production, etc. can happen anywhere. The rough cut must be submitted by July 9.

It's the second year for the prize, and Kallenberg says entries last year came from as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago. Teams also came from Dallas and Houston, but nary a one from Austin. Check out the details here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Texas indie filmmakers score big

It's been a good week for Texas independent filmmakers.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.
At the Sundance Film Festival, IFC purchased domestic rights to Dallas auteur David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints and sent his already soaring career into orbit. It stars Rooney MaraCasey Affleck and Ben Foster, and is about "an outlaw who escapes from prison and travels across Texas to reunite with his wife and the daughter he's never met before."

Meanwhile, HBO ordered a comedy pilot from brothers and former Austinites Mark and Jay Duplass. They'll write and direct the half-hour pilot titled Togetherness. It's about "two couples living under the same roof who struggle to keep their relationships alive while pursuing their individual dreams."

Maybe that MovieMaker Magazine love has some merit, but perhaps they ought to extend it statewide.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Austin is the best city for indie filmmaking?

That's the word from MovieMaker Magazine's latest ranking of the top 10 cities for independent filmmakers. Austin ranks No. 1 followed by New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland.

The criteria include: “Film Community” (scored on a 10-point scale), “Access to New Films” (10-point scale), “Access to Equipment” (7-point scale), “Cost of Living” (reverse 5-point scale), and “Tax Incentives” (4-point scale).  Austin got 32 point out of a possible 36.

New Orleans, last year's No. 1 on the list (Austin was No. 2 in 2012) dropped out of the top five. 

The reaction among Austin filmmakers on Facebook today wasn't that rosy. "Wait, WHAT? Is this from 5 years ago? I'm so confused! Or maybe it's the best place to be a moviemaker because there is so much amazing behind-camera talent looking for work here these days?" one industry insider said after Gary Bond of the Austin Film Commission posted a notice of the list. 

Another called it nothing but hype. "Actors, in particular, need to get themselves to a bigger market and fast. Great talent pool, absolutely. Opportunities for said talent to make a living in the biz... little to none."

But the comment that got the most notice came from major Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, who brought Hope Floats to Smithville in the late '90s and Heartbreak Hotel to Taylor before that. "It's certainly my favorite place to make a movie but it's rebates are too far below the norm to compete with the bad places to make a movie," she wrote on Facebook. "If you match NM everyone, but everyone will be back in tonnage."

So why is Austin No. 1? Bond points to the currently in action at the Sundance Film Festival which is teeming with Austin (and Dallas) filmmakers this year, both fairly new faces and the old standbys of Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Help us complete the ultimate stuntman documentary!

 OK, it's official. The IndieGoGo campaign to fund the completion of my doc Love & Other Stunts about stunt legend Gary Kent is a go as of this very moment. (Hat goes out and bumps you in the chest.)
Please visit the site and consider dropping a few dollars in the coffers here:

Here's more info you will find on the site.--Joe O'Connell


The most interesting man in the world

I was at a writing conference in the late '90s when I met a white-haired hustler with a Burt Reynolds mustache and a knowing grin. He introduced himself as Gary Kent and told me about a cult biker film he'd starred in called Satan's Sadists. That night I tracked down a copy of the film and watched it, then I tracked down Gary and wrote a couple of articles about his unique film career doubling Jack Nicholson and Robert Vaughan,  and staging stunts and special effects sequences for notable directors Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, Richard Rush, Al Adamson and Don Coscarelli for movies including Hell’s Angels On Wheels, Psych-out, Targets, Bubba Ho-tep, and the noir Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.

One day I told Gary someone should make a documentary about his life and career. Then I realized that someone is me. Gary agreed and opened his archives of personal photos and home movies to me and provided contacts for his long-time film industry friends and his family.
I've written about the film industry 15 years, including as a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman and The Austin Chronicle and as a contributor to Variety and Video Business. I'm also an award-winning fiction writer, novelist and photographer. I'm a storyteller.
The documentary begins following Gary's journey with the release of his memoir Shadows and Light: Journeys with Outlaws in Revolutionary Hollywood. But I soon realized this film is about more than a guy who makes movies. Gary has faced bigger challenges in his personal life: his wife and soulmate's battle with alcohol and an abusive mother; his own struggle to sucker-punch cancer. The documentary gets to the heart of a survivor who learned how to take a fist to the gut, stand up and try life again.

It's time for the martini shot

We've got a lot of footage in the can, but this campaign will fund final shoots, editing and permissions to use film clips in the documentary. An editor is lined up and waiting. Gary is on board 100 percent, and isn't shying away from the grittier parts of his personal story being revealed. Your donation will assure this project is completed.

Why you should help

Gary Kent's story is one worth telling. You'll see from the brief video above that he is a compelling, charasmatic, good guy with an amazing film career and personal story worth telling. My aim to see this film screen at both mainstream and genre (horror, biker, sci-fi) film conventions like Cinema Wasteland. Both domestic and foreign televisions, DVD and streaming sales will follow.
Did you check out these perks for participating in our campaign? First edition copies of Gary's memoir are at this point ultra-rare. Come have lunch with us, pretty please?

Spread the word!

Please post a notice of this campaign to your Facebook page. Blog about it. Send a note to Filmnewsbyjoe at yahoo dot com and ask me questions. Let's cement Gary Kent's place in film history.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Texas Sundance entries have Dallas pedigrees

(From today's Dallas Morning News. Stories are behind a pay wall, so I present it for you.)

Texas Sundance entries have Dallas pedigrees

Special to The Dallas Morning News

            Austin gets the Texas indie-film buzz, but the Lone Star State contingent at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival is full of North Texans.
            Yen Tan worked in marketing for Neiman-Marcus in Dallas until he trekked to the Capital City in 2010 with a plan to make a living as the go-to graphics guy for indie film poster art. His third feature film Pit Stop, the parallel stories of two blue-collar gay men in small-town Texas, premieres at Sundance later this month. Tan co-wrote the script with Dallas’ David Lowery, whose feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is in dramatic competition at Sundance.
12-year-old Elise Gardner, star of Spark poses for
a film blogger as her mother Mary Catherine watches.

            “It’s like winning the lottery,” said Tan of Sundance in Park City, Utah, which carries the mystique as a magical place where independent film dreams come true. “I’m scared to have expectations. I don’t want to be disappointed.”
            Tan said he quietly flew under the radar in the North Texas film scene with Lowery and Fort Worth’s James Johnston, a Pit Stop producer, before decamping to Austin.
Indie film proves a small Texas world with Austin-based Kelly Williams—yet another Pit Stop producer—programming Fort Worth’s Lone Star International Film Festival while keeping his hand in seemingly every independent movie of note, including Kat Candler’s latest Sundance short Black Metal about a rocker/dad who must deal with the guilt when a killer’s actions are linked to a love of the rocker’s music.
“We’ve all grown up together,” Williams said following a press screening in Austin of Pit Stop clips, Candler’s film and two shorts set to premiere at Sundance satellite festival Slamdance. Williams, Tan and Candler and many others share space at an Austin film production site where relationships bloom and ideas tumble back and forth.
“It’s so incestuous,” said Candler whose short Hellion played at Sundance in 2012 and is being expanded into a full feature. “There’s not a competitiveness about the community, yet everyone’s voice remains unique to them.”
Part of it is the shoestring nature of independent film that require the wearing of many hats to make a living. Candler’s two Sundance shorts were crowd-funded with donations through Web site IndieGoGo. Both star Jonny Mars, arguably the most intriguing actor in Texas indie film. The former Dallas resident also produced Black Metal and directed the 2012 documentary America’s Parking Lot about rabid Dallas Cowboys fans.
Andrew Irvine is Candler’s teaching assistant in the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film program. His frank and funny short Hearts of Napalm, about a young couple’s sexual miscommunication, will screen at Slamdance. Irvine, 30, is seeing a dream forged as a Plano teenager come to fruition.
“I’m old enough now to realize that since this is the first time it will probably never be this good again,” he said of his upcoming Park City adventure.
UT film student Annie Silverstein, whose background is solidly in the documentary form, will see her fictional short Spark screen at Slamdance as well. It’s a touching story of a boy left to deal with the daughter of his father’s love interest and some tempting fireworks.
“Sometimes using fiction you can say things that are more true than in a documentary,” said Silverstein who founded a program that taught Native American youth to use film to tell their stories.
“I’ve lived in many different cities before, and I’ve never felt so accepted so quickly,” she said of Austin. “I feel lucky. That’s not normal in artistic communities where anxieties and egos can get in the way.”
These filmmakers mark a second Texas indie film wave. The first will also be represented this year at Sundance with Richard Linklater premiering Before Midnight and Robert Rodriguez screening his 1993 debut El Mariachi. Austin’s latest “it” film director Jeff Nichols’ Mud starring Matthew McConaughey also is slated, along with works by newish Austin transplants Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) and David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche with Paul Rudd).

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Zombies, unicorns and some fine writing

Manuel Gonzales' debut story collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories took a while to hook me, but then it dug in deeply. It's got zombies, a werewolf, a unicorn and an airplane that will never land. Oh, and that tiny spouse is pissed. Watch out! What's not to love? Read my review in today's Austin American-Statesman.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My top 10 stories of 2012

The Swim Test
I  continued to pump out writing both personal and about film/literature in 2012. Check it out, with the lede (it's in the photos) buried at the end.

(Here's my 2011 list, as well my top 10 stories of the 2000s.)

10. I've been blogging about the University of Texas Longhorns football team for The Austin Chronicle for a few years now. This year I decided to chronicle the rise of the school that shall always be known as Southwest Texas State as it advanced to Big-Time Football. My rule? Write as little about football in the blog as possible. Sometimes I even write about murder.

9. SEX! Yes, I said SEX! As in talking to Suzy Spencer about her new book Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, which is part memoir, part journalistic look at SEX. That includes orgies, hookups and, yes, SEX. Did I mention SEX?

8. Jim Sanderson is one of those Texas writers whose work comes out from the smaller presses, but is indeed worth checking out. I talked with him for the San Antonio Express-News. In 2011 I had reviewed another of his books for the Austin American-Statesman.

7. I don't get to actually write reviews enough, but that's been changing. I enjoyed reviewing Don Coscarelli's new film John Dies at the End for The Austin Chronicle. Also a pleasure to put my two cents in for the Austin American-Statesman on Carolyn Osborn's lovely new novel.

6. The Austin Chronicle gave me some great opportunities for star gazing and listening during the South By Southwest Film Festival. Willem Dafoe proved smart and interesting, and a joy to photograph. I also got to hear from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane who brought along a surprise guest when talking about his film Ted.

5. Everyone else was interested in Matthew McConaughey moving to Austin, but no one but me seemed to pay attention when Dallas native Meatloaf also moved to the Capital City. I reported on it for The Dallas Morning News during the Texas Film Hall of Fame ceremonies. I also took some good pix.

4. Certainly one of the more interesting assignments during SXSW was to talk to the director of Girl Model, which looks at very young and very poor women plucked out of their Siberian homes and taken to the Japanese modeling world, most likely to be cast aside shortly, shaken and broken.

3. I voluntarily dropped my Texas film industry column from The Dallas Morning News a year ago. That follows columns in The Austin Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman on the subject dating back to 2000. I continue to blog about the film industry here (and write the occasional scoop about the industry elsewhere), but it's the personal pieces like the touching story of my friend Louise Shelby that matter more.

2. I was given a nice year-end gift from The Austin Chronicle when I was asked to go to the set of indie Western Red on Yella, Kill a Fella AND take photos there, including of cult actor Michael Berryman. Notice photos creeping more and more into this yearly list?

1. The most important piece I wrote this year is the most personal. It's about my son teaching me a lesson as he learned to swim. It ran in The Williamson County Sun.

Here's to 2013, where I'm continuing to put pen to paper (or more likely keystroke to computer). Look for more news soon in the way of fiction writing....

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My 21 best photos of 2012

It's a tough statement to make when you take photographs every single day, but these are the 21 favorite photos (as of this moment) I shot in the year that just ended. I participated in the 365 project on Flickr as well, and these photos were probably all in this larger, daily-photo set.

Hattie was my favorite portrait of the year (see my 100 Strangers project here). She is 88, cares for her blind husband in Granger, Texas, and was dressed up for an outing to the HEB grocery in Taylor when I asked to take her photo.
Newly-hatched cardinals

I had just seen a cardinal mother outside my window leave her nest with a chunk of eggshell in her mouth and knew I had to take this shot of the fresh baby birds. The third, unhatched egg? It's not a cardinal. See the full story in photos of the birds developing here.

My wife and I went to see Tom Petty perform in Austin, Texas, but found ourselves instead mesmerized by the woman interpreting the show for the hearing impaired. Her name is Barbie and she is now my friend on Facebook.

I was looking to shoot some sort of daily photo at sunset when my son took off across this field behind our house. The light was perfect and reminded me of an Andrew Wyeth painting and/or a shot from a recent Terrence Malick film.

Sign language
My Wyeth painting

See my full set of top photos from 2012 here. Happy New Year!