Michael Bergeron
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Austin Film Festival 2014 part 1

Austin Film Festival 2014 part 1
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Walking across the vast acreage of the French Legation Museum (the oldest house in Austin) last Friday I spotted more than one Houston acquaintance in the crowd assembled for a bar-b-q dinner at the 2014 Austin Film Festival (October 23 – 30). Present were Houston Film Commissioner Directors Rick Ferguson and Alfred Cervantes; S.W.A.M.P Board Members Adán Medrano and Michelle Mower; and Houston Cinema Arts Festival Executive Director Trish Rigdon.

Also seated and enjoying the atmosphere was actor Tom Skerritt who didn’t mind when I introduced myself and bent his ear about M*A*S*H. “I owe my career to that film,” he said.

Friday night was a good time to catch three world premieres. 21 Years: Richard Linklater; Phantom Halo; and One Eyed Girl. Saturday was also eventful with the world premiere of Dawn Patrol, followed by the regional premiere of Miss Julie, helmed by Liv Ullman.

21 Years should be considered a comprehensive retrospective of Linklater’s career. You could call the film a hagiography in the sense that nobody on camera can come up with anything bad to say about Linklater. Having met and interviewed Linklater a dozen times since Slacker I can honestly attest he’s a nice guy; Linklater single handedly started the film scene in Austin in the 1980s, which has since grown to the point that Austin is a hub for major films and commercials. The city of Austin even got on the bandwagon turning the old Austin airport into a world-class movie studio with hangers and offices being turned into studio space. All of Linklater’s films are covered up to Before Midnight, with the exception of his most recent movie Boyhood. Lots of talking head testimonials from the usual suspects: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Keanu Reeves, and Matthew McConaughey. If you’ve followed Linklater’s career or listened to his commentary on DVD releases of his films you’ve heard a lot of what’s said. One new thing is McConaughey’s mother (who had a small part in Bernie) talking about how she keeps pitching an incest-tilted story to Linklater that would star her and Matthew.

Phantom Halo unfolds like a post-modern film noir following a family of con artists who get involved in a counterfeiting scheme. One Eyed Girl, from Australia, concerns a cult that promises its members freedom from their vices but has a much more sinister motive behind their allegiance. At a post-screening Q&A the director Nick Matthews described how rampant cult activity is in Australia.

Dawn Patrol was several years in development and tells the story of the disintegration of an American family through the eyes of a prodigal son being held hostage by the mother of an innocent youth shot dead. The son isn’t really guilty but in the long run everything we see and hear becomes symbolic of the attempts of the lower middle class to hold on to their loose grasp of the status quo. Director Daniel Petrie Jr. fills the story with levels of subtext that give the story heavy meaning at every turn. Lots of surf action accentuates the murder mystery that forms the film’s main thread.

Miss Julie has been made into a film three times, this time with a superb cast including Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. The source material is from August Strindberg, considered the father of modern drama (you could include Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov), and Miss Julie is the template for the modern psychological thriller. The three leads share equal time as they try to one up each other in a class struggle to end all class struggles. I once saw a theatrical production of Miss Julie at a regional theater and it was the worst stage show I’ve ever seen. Not the case with this Liv Ullman directed effort. Obviously Ullman was a muse for Ingmar Bergman who took many of his inspirations and conflicts from the drama of fellow Swede Strindberg. Chastain in particular demonstrates the limits that an actor will go through in order to reach the truth.

Free Press Houston sat down with the director and the cast of Phantom Halo the morning after its packed house screening to talk about the film. Director Antonia Bogdanovich, the daughter of Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich, had made a short film of the same subject a few years ago. She raised the money for a low budget movie that expanded the premise to feature length and even turned it in two days under budget.

Antonia wrote over 40 revisions of the script before it came time to shoot the movie. “After I finished the short in 2011, I was in mourning, it was a double whammy. I had to go deep into these characters,” Antonia said. “As a writer you have to have a bullshit mirror that tells you to stop skimming from the surface and to go deeper. In order to do that you have to rewrite scenes over and over. Some of the scenes I rewrote the most involve the father fighting with his sons.”

In Phantom Halo Sebastian Roché plays the alcoholic father whose sons follow him down the path of corruption. The kids pull scams along the Santa Monica promenade where one of them panhandles by reciting Shakespeare for donations while the other picks pockets of the occupied onlookers. His sons are named Samuel and Beckett.

While writing the backstory of characters as an exercise in developing the script Antonia discovered aspects of the characters she hadn’t realized. “It’s key. Writing it out – we all tend to be a little lazy but that was an important part of expanding the motives of the characters.”

A scene where the characters holds guns on each other in a kind of Mexican standoff ends with more than one person being shot. “We had a guy standing just off camera who would shoot a paint ball to simulate the bullet hit. He said he would shoot me between the second and third button on my shirt and he totally nailed it,” Luke Kleintank who plays Beckett explains. Roché (who most recently appeared in A Walk Among the Tombstones) adds, “My character is a guy who had dreams that never came to pass. I never saw him as a bad guy. On the outside he’s a bit of a bastard, but in the film there’s a point where you see his love for his children.”

Antonia grew up watching classic films. “My father turned the garage into a screening room. I watched John Ford film multiple times. Both of my parents were writers; I knew I would always be a writer.”

The magical thing about films like Phantom Halo or Dawn Patrol is that you feel like you are discovering them on their own merits. Films people will be talking about a half-year down the road.

— Michael Bergeron