East Texas has a growing reputation for producing talented, big-name musicians. Could it one day have the same reputation for filmmakers? If three Tyler-based directors have their way, it just might.
Justin Mosley, R.J. Parish and Samuel Haun are three directors who, combined, have a fairly diverse set of accomplishments under their belts. Mosley, 31, has directed a feature-length western horror, “The Merchant,” which screened locally. Parish, 25, has completed multiple short films, including “Papa Bear,” which received the Chairman’s Award of Cinematic Excellence for East Texas Films” award at last year’s Downtown Tyler Film Festival. Haun has directed short films, worked with director Richard Linklater and is currently filming a Web-based television show, “Serial Suburbia.”
These three ambitious gentlemen sat down in a roundtable setting to illuminate their thoughts on the state of movie making in East Texas, what drives them as filmmakers and what it might take for the region to become a hotspot for the industry — the way Dallas and Shreveport are. Making movies around here is no easy task, as resources and experienced crews are often difficult to find, and yet these three push forward, often with little more than their imagination and burning desire to tell stories providing the fuel.
On the desire to make films:
Stewart Smith: How did you get started making movies?
Justin Mosley: It was short films. I started out with short films and making mistakes. Failing miserably. Listening to people, and eventually making better short films because of it. Then we started winning some awards from some small film festivals. The Dallas Indie Film Festival, I figured, if they say I’m all right, I guess it’s time to really try and go at it and make that monster of a feature. Not being afraid to fail (is important) because you’re going to. Have that cast iron skin. You’re going to need it.
SS: What about you, when did you realize that filmmaking was something you wanted to push toward, and it was something you could make a go of, with ideas you wanted to put on a movie screen.
R.J. Parish: I guess about two years ago was when I figured I had the expertise and the background to make something real. I didn’t want to jump out into the feature world just yet, because that requires a larger investment. But about two or three years ago was when I wrote the short story for “Papa Bear.” I thought, “Oh, that might make a good movie.” Which, as it turns out, not so much. But I started then.
SS: What’s pushed you forward since then? What is it that drives someone who wants to present these stories and these images?
RJP: When I go to the movie theater and I don’t usually like what I see. Not out of arrogance, but I don’t particularly enjoy the things being made. Or you go sit in a film and you notice little things. “Oh, if he had just turned this way when he had said that, it would been a totally different ball game.” Or, “The director could have done this a little better.” Little things like that. If I’m noticing that, why not go try it?
Samuel Haun: Seven years ago in film history class, we were watching old black and white movies. I dunno. … I started chasing any project I could, from music videos to live work, commercials, shorts. Getting more into the photography side, which got me onto film sets. Then just networking, networking, networking and meeting more contacts, meeting other actors, other directors. You can’t stop. You get addicted to it.
RJP: It’s true.
SH: And then you gotta do it again. It’s not about money. Money doesn’t have anything to do with it. Obviously you want money one day to pay your bills and feed your children.
RJP: And not have a day job.
SH: Yeah, the day jobs aren’t that fun. You spend the whole job day dreaming. … But being on other sets, you see the director and you realize there’s nothing stopping me from doing what they do and doing it better.
On making movies in East Texas
SS: Tyler and East Texas are not known as being a filmmaking Mecca of any sort. It’s not a destination for that sort of thing in any sense. So being in this area, what are some of the specific challenges that are intrinsic to the area you face in trying to make these projects happen?
RJP: Finding people, specifically. Everybody wants to work on a film, but nobody knows how to do certain things. A lot of things, not just acting. We just made another short film but we had to go out of Tyler to find people. You can only have so many (production assistants). … We had to go to Shreveport, to Dallas, to Austin to get those people. A lot of that stems from the fact that we have three colleges and none of them have film programs. All of them have big art programs but no film programs. That would help, if those colleges had programs to train those people. … Equipment is another thing. I wish there were an equipment house where you can rent things, though that’s more of a pipe dream.
SH: Until more film happens.
RJP: Until more film happens, yeah.
SH: … People go where the work is. So if there were more feature (films) here, more work in general that people can get paid for, people relocated. That’s why people move to Dallas or move to Austin or move to Shreveport or wherever. They go where the work is. So if the work grew here, we’d get them to relocate and then other people can learn from that. What’s your chance to work on a film? Go to Dallas or Shreveport. And there’s not a lot of people can do that, of really committing to that lifestyle and do that freelance.
RJP: It’s cyclical. Like you said, more features and you attract better crew members and talent, but you’ve got to make them first.
SH: It’s money! In order to have that you have to have more examples that it can exist here otherwise they’re just going to hold on to their wallets.
SS: So how do you foster that sort of fertile community to bring that stuff in.
JM: I’m a glass half full kind of guy. We live in an area that is construction-based. Everybody owns a construction company around here. … You can find electricians. You can find people to do these things. It’s marketing. You take somebody who has this great skill and you apply it to what you need. And that’s what we did (with “The Merchant”). We simply found people who were qualified to do the job and had no idea what they were doing (on a film set), but that’s where I came in and introduced them to world of where they were at and applying their expertise to the project. So there are people who exist here who have a ton of talent. When I made the movie, I didn’t bring any (crew) in from anywhere else.
SH: And the crews are here, too. They’re slowly coming out of the woodwork. I met a really awesome gaffer. Josiah Sage. He’s done some feature work. He came on-set and worked, and the sets he wasn’t on you could see the difference because lighting is an art form. As much as running a camera or directing. They really get into what they do and they focus on that. But you can teach them, too. You just have to have more opportunities.
RJP: Another problem is that everyone wants to direct, and that can get annoying.
SH: (Sarcastically) What? It’s the easiest job on set!
RJP: Right. It’s the easiest thing. That’s what they think. We need to educate people about the different jobs. A buddy of mine initially went into film because he wanted to direct. But he worked as a (director of photography) and he enjoyed that way more.
SS: And I think that raises a really valid point. I’d say that a lot of people don’t know the breadth of positions that are necessary to make a film happen. Like, does anyone know what a best boy is? I’m seriously asking here because I always see that in the credits but no one knows.
RJP: There are two, actually. There is one on the gaffer side who helps the gaffer (with lighting) and then there’s one on the grip side who helps run electricity.
SS: Thank you!
On East Texas’ strengths
SS: So why invest in this area? Why not move to Dallas or move to Shreveport or move to Austin? What is the benefit in trying to make your films here?
RJP: There are so many people in those locations.
SH: It’s like what Justin said. We have everything here. It’s an open market and it just takes people getting open to it and adjusted to it. Plus, if we wanted to get a location. In L.A., you go somewhere, they start pulling out their release forms that they’ve had for 20 years. Here, you get it for free. “Oh cool, just make sure you put my business in the credits.”
RJP: Like, Rick’s (on the Square), they let us shoot in front of their little mural for the trailer (to “Lunettes”) for nothing. We just put them in the credits.
JM: I got a whole western town for nothing. We didn’t even know it existed. The guy, his name is Rudy Lee, and he owns a western town in Gilmer. He was, at the time, running a steakhouse out of it and doing re-enactments. It was just his passion. We were introduced and he was excited about the idea. He just loved it. And like R.J. was saying, we could go to Austin, but it’s so saturated. Especially with the advent of digital. The digital revolution.
SH: The other plus on the location stuff with it being free, take “American Karma.” We’re going to shoot that in October. We get money, awesome. We get no money, not so awesome but you make it happen. Shoot every weekend if you have to. Two months of weekend shooting and you’ve got 90 minutes of footage if you map it out and schedule it right. But let’s say I go to The Coffin Shop and I use that because I want to shoot this rave sequence which shows up and it’s this real creepy, scary (Clive) Barker moment. How much would it cost me to shoot at a place like that? If I can get it for free, that money goes toward the value of the film, production value. It’s not just about it looking good.
RJP: You have to be careful, though, that you don’t sacrifice the aesthetic of the film, that you get what you want. So many times, my producer would say, “Oh we can just shoot in front of that tower in the plaza area,” and I would be like, “No, that does not look French we cannot shoot there! That looks like an East Texas square.” It would have been free to shoot there, because the aesthetic of the film would have been thrown off. So we shot in front of the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas.
SH: That’s a great place. It’s like “The Shining.” You go into the bathrooms there and you’re just like, “I’m going to die!”
RJP: Yeah, it is!
SH: But I agree with that, because you want to get what you can get. Like with “American Karma,” we’re digging around and looking for diners. We’ve gone around to five or six places. Well, one would work but it doesn’t have the look or it’s too modern. There’s one on Broadway, but it doesn’t have that classic diner look. You can get it for free but it would hurt you.
RJP: There’s a good balance there.
SS: Is there a certain bit of personality that you’ve been able to infuse into your projects that you might not have been able to find being in LA or Austin or somewhere like that?
RJP: I’ve noticed this. You go to Dallas and you say “Film!” and everybody is all, “Huh? What?” You go to Austin, “Huh? What?” Los Angeles, nobody will even give you the time of day. You say that in Tyler, Texas and people go nuts. “Oh, you’re making a film! I’m ready to help out!”
SH: “What can I do for you? Here’s my daughter!”
RJP: Yeah, “Here’s my daughter, she can star!” So much excitement around even the possibility of making a film here helps a lot.
JM: When “Bernie” came through here, that was a huge deal. Nobody does that thing around here. “Jack Black’s where?!” It was a big deal. People get excited about that sort of thing. It’s kind of like if you say, “Oh, I’m in a rock band” no one cares. But film is a different medium and a new frontier. It’s easier to find a nice, genuine Southern accent here, too. That’s free!
SH: Movies always excite people. Even in the worst of times, people still go to the theaters.
RJP: But if it’s the good times they don’t.
On making ET more attractive to the industry
SS: So what do you see as the future for filmmaking around here. Do we stand a chance at being another Shreveport or another Austin?
RJP: Give a $50,000 film prize and you will. They are getting a ton of submissions … Louisiana Film Prize is offering $50,000 to the first- place winner of their short film contest in Shreveport. And (the winners) are getting all kinds of stuff with it, too, like iTunes distribution.
JM: I think this place would awesome with more incentives. Give more incentives like tax breaks and things like that. If we’re in Tyler and making a movie, it may not be a lot of revenue because you’re not going to have a million people eating at Taco Bell, but have some sort of incentive. Maybe, if the taxpayers wanted to get behind art and film more, build a soundstage. Give better access so we can make this a place that would be a better, more attractive place for filmmaking.
RJP: I think that Downtown Film Festival is a good start. That’s one direction to go. They wanted to offer a venue to see local filmmakers, so that’s a start right there.
SH: Make things more accessible. Sometimes you just drive by these old buildings and you think, “Oh god, who do I have to go through to find out who owns that thing?” And then they might not even call you back and take you seriously. Or maybe have a local commission and help find potential investors here.