2011 Austin Film Festival – Day 2
So I’m just a little behind in my coverage. This entry here was technically my 3rd day, but I’m going to put it out ahead of the 2nd because I feel it’s important to get this out there for anyone who wants to catch the encore screening of this film. So this is Day 3, and Day 2 will be tomorrow. You follow?
It’s pretty much impossible to see everything you want to see at a the Austin Film Festival (AFF), even if you block out the entire week for movies. I’ve found out that there’s always going to be two movies that you’d really like to see playing at the same time, so you have to pick your battles. Fortunately, I was able to get a screener of the film “Sironia” and watched it a few days before the festival. As soon as it ended, I sent off an e-mail to try to schedule an interview with the director and lead actor.
Starring: Wes Cunningham, Amy Acker, Tony Hale
Directed by: Brandon Dickerson (debut)
Written by: Thomas Ward (debut), Brandon Dickerson (debut), Wes Cunningham (debut)
When Los Angeles-based musician Thomas Fisher (Wes Cunningham) has a major studio reject his second album and is told his style is not what is currently popular in the industry, he decides to drop his entire life in L.A. and move to the Texas town of Sironia (a fictional town based on Waco) where his pregnant wife Molly (Amy Acker) has family. Thomas takes a job at a local restaurant run by his wife’s brother Chad (Tony Hale) and fights his bitter feelings about not making it in the industry, all while dealing with the struggles of being a new father.
The film is based around true events, with director Brandon Dickerson dropping his career as a music video director in L.A. in order for him and his wife to be with her mother who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in Waco. From there, Dickerson reunited with friend and musician Wes Cunningham, and eventually Baylor University professor Thomas Ward. Together they wrote a screenplay based on their experiences and on 40 of Cunningham’s songs. Shot and scripted in Waco, this is true Texas filmmaking.
The music in “Sironia” is outstanding. Cunningham’s songs bring out the emotional aspects of the film. While audiences might know that Cunningham is a very talented musician, his acting is a revelation. He has never acted before and earned the role by working with an acting coach, going through a standard audition, and screen testing for the part. Cunningham had an idea of what it was like to be a musician who was put through the grind of the music industry and he used it to his advantage, crafting a very strong debut performance. He even pulls off the difficult task of convincingly acting drunk, a skill even veteran actors consider to be very difficult.
The rest of the supporting cast is also strong, particularly with performances by “Arrested Development” favorite Tony Hale and a newcomer Stella Otto, who has a few hilarious scenes as Thomas and Molly’s niece Heather.
The script for “Sironia” is strong and delivers good commentary on how cutthroat the music industry is. If the industry wants to go in a certain direction, you might be left behind. Some of the more humorous scenes involve seeing an L.A. musician transplanted into Texas, where he marvels at culture quite normal to Texans. The struggle Fisher faces is interesting as we watch his disdain for the situation grow into the the neglect of his family.
The story, the people, the music, it was all so charming. First time director Brandon Dickerson has crafted an earnest and warm film that audiences, (especially those who enjoy a good soundtrack with their movies), should really take to.
During my interview with Brandon and Wes, we talked about the ever-changing music and film scenes and what it was like to work with actors who had never actually acted before.
If you’re in Austin, you have one more chance to see the film tonight, October 26 at 6 p.m. at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center. If you can’t make it out, I strongly suggest going to the films website www.sironiafilm.com where you can listen to the entire soundtrack and download three of the songs for free.
First off, I had been reading a little bit about your premiere. You guys were really happy with it. Tell me more about that.
Brandon Dickerson: Sure, what was crazy was it just sold out beyond our wildest dreams, which is kind of cool. They put us into a larger venue and they’ve really been encouraging the Texas Independents and so they put us there, which is one of the larger theaters. But there were so many people there that they brought in 50 extra seats and they still turned away a huge line. So that was kind of humbling, the response to the whole thing. It was just a thrill to see it with an audience that was seeing it for the first time. Everyone enjoyed it. I think we didn’t make total idiots of ourselves afterwards. So yeah, it’s a success.
Wes, I had been reading that you had taken this movie from 40 of your songs. Were these songs from previously in your career that you had recorded already?
Wes Cunningham: Good question. Sort of like the character in the movie, I tried to give up music for about four years, like a cut-off-my-arm kind of thing. At the end four years, a publisher friend of mine called and said I should be making music and encouraged me to do it and offered me a little bit of money. We worked out an arrangement to where I could do it. For two or three years I was just writing songs in my basement. That’s just what I love to do. I’ve got a little recording [studio] set up. So no, in my wildest dreams I would never have thought this guy would move to my town and that we would even entertain the idea of making a movie. I was just writing songs because that’s what I love to do. And there’s songs about my life. I tend to write sort of autobiographically anyway. That was the fun part because they come from a real honest place, the music does. And so we built the story around those honest songs. I think that adds to the authenticity of a movie, as opposed to, “Hey, here’s a big budget. We got this great movie. Why don’t you write a song?” It’s a whole new, different thing. So it was pretty cool how it worked, but it was by no means something I set out to do. I was thinking about this today, the song “Should my luck run out,” is one of the songs in the movie and its sort of a comical sort of love song. It’s whimsical. One of the lines is, “Should you get old, should your teeth fall out, should your hair turn blue, yet will I still love you.” But that song totally informed the scenes in the movie. It was so cool how we wrote the scene around the song. So, that’s an example of how we did it. It was pretty cool.
BD: That one in particular seems so written for that scene. I think it’s really what’s fun about it because [as a music video director] I came from adding visuals to music. And yet, this was by far the most satisfying thing ever. I don’t think you could say, “We’re going to end that movie that way.” I just don’t think it’d be as pure and honest because you’d overthink it. You’d be like, “This is the final scene!” and all that.
WC: A big Bryan Adams number.
BD: (Laughs) Yeah, totally!
WC: Which I love Bryan Adams, by the way.
One of the things is that your character in the film seems to have some sort of contempt for the music industry and he has these conversations about how he’s not relevant and all that. I was wondering how much of that you’ve experienced. Have you had a conversation like that or been told that your stuff wasn’t what people were looking for?
WC: Yeah. That’s a very good question. I’ve got several different answers. Yeah, I think anytime you’re trying to make something that’s original or unique and it doesn’t necessarily fit in to an established pipeline, it’s hard. And I’m certainly not unique. I mean there’s so many people like me that make music and mean what they say and love to create. There’s no avenue for that in mainstream culture. But I do think things are changing so much now, especially in the last two years that it’s almost irrelevant. You can get your stuff out there and if it’s good enough, people will like it. So yeah, I think the character uses that contempt as a crutch. I think he’s sort of almost cynical and bitter towards the industry. I’ve certainlybeen like that in the past. It’s a convenient mantra if you’re not successful to be mad at the machine. But I also think that you get over that and you recognize the mainstream culture for what it is, you can either try to participate in that or you can do what your heart is telling you and hope for the best. And I think ultimately the character comes to terms with that and says – sort of like I did – “This is what I love to do. I’m going to do it regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t” and hope that someone likes it. It’s fun to make money doing what you love, but it’s not the end all be all either.
And Brandon, did you see anything like that within the film industry?
BD: Oh yeah, it’s interesting, the parallel there. The wild thing about this story, sort fo the story behind the story is that I was in L.A. just having good meeting after good meeting. When I moved to L.A. there were like three scripts I was attached to and meetings at studios. I thought it was going to happen for me and then it didn’t. There’s tons of that kind of up and down. It’s a different industry but similar disappointments.For me it would be like saying the studio system is flawed or something like that. But in the same way the film industry is changing just like the music industry. So, these opportunities to kind of do it yourself like we did with “Sironia,” it’s just kind of liberating. For me, life circumstances removed me from Hollywood and it turned out to be liberating. What sort of appeared to be this curse turned out to be this huge blessing. I wasn’t to that point where I was on my own like, “I’m out of here,” cause things were still cranking along and were exciting. It wasn’t until I walked away that I was like, “I’m just spinning my wheels.” I’m going to meeting after meeting. I almost got a feature. I’m attached to this script. I’m attached to that script. This person may have money, you know. I just piled up the exciting meetings and realized I just had a bunch of exciting meetings and nothing to show for it.
Yeah, and you kind of see that in the film when Thomas is thinking he’s finding the right thing that he’s gonna do, whether it’s on the farm or moving to Texas to begin with. So, I guess you guys kind of pulled those kind of experiences and turned them into the film itself.
BD: Yeah. Well, Thomas Ward, who we wrote with, and Wes and I, we just all had a similar worldview. We were all coming from the same kind of place in our lives, but each had a completely unique voice to it. Thomas has these great stage plays that he’s written about a husband and wife talking about marriage, this incredible dialogue stuff that he’s bringing to the party and doing such the heavy lifting of the script. We were all just coming from a unique place. Because it’s a screenwriter’s conference, a lot of people have asked those questions and I think I realize now even more than when we did it just how rare three guys getting together to write could work out.
WC: Yeah, just to speak to that, we all found ourselves in Waco through various circumstances and we all got together and started throwing these ideas around. And it was a labor of love, it was just fun. And we never really thought that we would get a film made. But we were just going to tell a story. It was a real creative think-tank. It was unique because I had never been a part of anything where the best idea wins. There are always egos. I don’t like to write music with other people and somehow this worked. We all were able to come together and would just get excited about it and write it down and meet back again the next day. So, it was a real pure thing because there was no money no involved, no hope of anything. It was just for fun.
BD: And I think that’s what kept it pure too. Almost like, there’s a parallel between Wes writing the songs just because he had to write the songs. There was no release date, no film, no script. There was no hope of getting funding. There was no executive calling us looking for pages. It really was a blast.
WC: And then ultimately, when everything shifted and he became director and we got funding, all of a sudden we’re in the elevator and we’re like, “I can’t believe it!” It was a fantastic moment. At that point he has basically carte blanche to direct and to create the movie he wants to make without anybody looking over his shoulder, which is another amazing gift. It’s pretty special.
BD: I was given such freedom to make the film I wanted to make, it was unbelievable. I think the whole thing from writing the songs to the finished thing, there was no pressure. And it’s amazing what art outside of that pressure can do, right? It was awesome. But now we’ll have the pressure.
WC: Not if we fail miserably.
BD: That might be the best thing to happen!
You had talked about how you’ve been doing music videos most of your career. Are features something you’ve wanted to do for a while? What was the transition like?
BD: Yeah, what’s really interesting is I was that 8-year-old kid that wanted to be a director, a feature director. So I did music videos to learn the tools of feature directing. In fact, if you look at some of my videos they look like a really frustrated narrative director, packing way too much in. I would do music videos that look like trailers to films, you know? And maybe a good trailer for a film that doesn’t exist, but way too much to pack into a music video. So, interesting enough, whereas a lot of guys sort of get into music video and then evolve to features, I was the guy who since the beginning was all about features. That’s what I wanted to do the whole time. It’s been great to make a living doing commercials and music videos. That gave me the opportunity that once the film came along, I was very comfortable with all the technical aspects. There weren’t any questions like, “What’s this camera? What’s that?” And that’s why I chose to shooting on film, too. I had far more experience shooting on film. So one is, the purist idea of it. I thought the film needed the grain structure, but really it was just the paintbrush I knew. I think a lot of people think like, “Oh, I fell on my sword for a purist approach.” I had spent 15 years working with a paintbrush. Digital changes every 15 minutes. I’m really not as techy that way. Like wanting to use the latest technology. So that’s another thing that was great, just getting to shoot it on 35mm. It’s a long way of saying I’ve wanted to do this my whole life.
Wes, you haven’t acted before. How was doing this for the first time and how did you prepare for the role?
WC: Well it was awkward at first. I think it just all occurred to me at once that I really want to do this. So then I kind of had to prove it and I got some acting coaching. But I think it’s like, when you look at one of those pixilated posters and you can’t see it. You stare at it long enough and you kind of glaze over and then it comes to you in 3D. It was one of those kind of, “Oh, okay, I get it” moments for me because it’s really flexing the same muscle as performing music or even writing music because you have to be honest and say what you mean and sort of be in the moment. Once I figured it out it wasn’t about pretending and it was just about talking and being in the scene, it came pretty naturally. It was absolutely thrilling and I want to do it again. Let me say this too, on the record.
BD: (Points at recorder) Is this on?
WC: (Laughs) I just wanted to compliment Brandon…
BD: Oh, no! (Laughs)
WC: …because it was really an unpopular decision to cast me, being an unknown. And I think there were reasons why he ended up doing it ultimately. Hopefully it worked out for the best. But at the time, he was being encouraged to go with other known actors. So he really stuck his neck out. The same thing with another actress in the film: Stella Otto, who also never acted. So you have a couple of unpopular decisions at the time, but I think it worked out for the better.
BD: You can imagine…they’re like, “OK, you’re a first time director,” and there were conversations where they’re like, “Let’s just calm down. I know you’re excited. You’re going to go with a first time actor who is not known and then you also want to cast a first time kid.” And I was like “Yes! That’s what I want to do.” Wes did a screen test and was obviously directable. So then there was no question because the authenticity of the music was already there. I mean, if you looked at that, there was nobody that came close. And then once Wes proved that he could really turn what he had done for years as a performer into a screen performer…that’s what is a little misleading. All these things are like the overnight success thing and all that…the first time actor thing. I think people are blown away. I’ve gotten people that tweet about it. They’re like, “Holy cow, this guy has never acted before?” which is true. However, he brought so much to the party because all his life he’d been a performer. So he was able to turn what is an amazing performance into an amazing performance. And he shifted in the same way he writes these songs. They went from storytelling here to screenplay. So he’s just super talented. He’s one of these guys who could be talented in these various things. It’s almost like getting back to that machine thing. I mean, wisdom would say that we were stupid, but we’re sitting here, you know, a movie that you’ve watched twice. You wouldn’t watch it twice if the acting stunk and the kid threw it away and the music was bad. I’m biased but I think all those choices paid off and I have zero regrets and some wonderful conversations with people who told me not to do that. (Laughs) That’s been really fun. I haven’t said, “I told you so,” but they’ve told me I’ve told them so. Now it just seemed like that’s where the story was going. It didn’t seem like this story about us writing it and then all of a sudden we look at what’s typical in Hollywood. Everything was so organic and natural. Common wisdom would say you need a star and you can’t cast a kid, but I’ve worked with kids for years doing Disney stuff. So when I met Stella I was like, “That’s the kid.”
She was great. For me at least, she had the funniest moments in the film.
(Publicist mentions a scene where Stella falls while kicking a soccer ball.)
BD: The fact that she stayed in character when she fell, I mean obviously that wasn’t scripted. And the fact that she didn’t look at cameras. She just stayed in the moment. And it’s funny. That was just really natural. It’s fun to put those kind of moments in it. And what’s wild is she’s grown up, just cause kids grow up so much. She’s older now…
WC: Yeah, I read a quote where she saw herself and she’s like, “Ah, I look so young!” And when I saw myself I was like, “Ah, I look so old!”
BD: (Laughs) That’s great.
And Wes is playing drunk in the movie and I’ve heard that’s supposed to be one of the hardest things to do.
BD: All actors comment on that. And I told you when you were doing it…
WC: I had lots of experience. (Laughs)
BD: (Laughs) And then I realized as a director, “Oh man, there’s a lot of drunk scenes,” and that’s the hardest thing. It’s like working with kids and drunk and I have both those, and sometimes at the same time. That Skate World scene, we have a bunch of kids and somebody drunk, I was like, “Why did we write this?”
WC: Put in some ponies and stuff.
BD: (Laughs) Exactly, I needed animals. A dog needed to walk in and lick your face and we would have had all of the challenges.
WC: Somebody told me, and it really helped me out, to just be like everything’s funny and take it that way. Don’t try to be drunk but just approach it in a whimsical, this-is-hilarious-kind of way.
Since this film is so personal to all three of you who wrote it…there’s a lot of Texas charm in there that I really liked. I was wondering how important it was to put that in there to show the people that you only find that type of charm here it seems.
BD: Yeah. Well, I think that was very important. Specific to Waco, I think that in media and print and screen, Waco gets so beat up. I joked at the premiere, 20 years cult free or whatever. So I think all of us had this affection for Waco and also Texas in general. And in particular I was like a California boy in Texas. I think the way the three of us wrote was this affection for that and then just realizing when somebody comes into this environment from another environment, how do they view it? Everything from the mutton busting to the queso and the lawn mowing and all those kind of things. We were sort of acting as a foil. But it’s interesting people write about the charm of the town and I think that was super important to us, to kind of make the town a character. I think we succeeded in that. I think the town is a character.
WC: My favorite line is when he says, “Check it out, dude’s mowin’ his yard!”
BD: (Laughs) Which of course, nobody does in LA.
You had a really good cast, top to bottom. What were some of the processes of getting these people involved, like Tony Hale and others?
BD: Well, it’s interesting. Some characters we wrote for and then others that we just cast. As a director in commercials and music videos, casting has always been my thing. If I’m ever talking to anyone, it’s always about casting. There’s famous quotes about 80 percent of your job is casting. I knew that was important. I was attached to a script that Tony had written, still attached to a script called “Tread Water,” and I’ve worked with Tony before and know Tony well. So we actually wrote Chad with Tony in mind. That [role] was Tony’s to lose. I he didn’t want it, then we would’ve rewrote it. I had seen Tony in a film and I had directed Tony before in a music video. I had seen him not as Buster Bluth. I think all of us were fans of Tony’s work.
WC: Yeah, we wanted to see him get mad and throw down, which he did.
BD: Yeah, that scene outside of Skate World.
Yeah, I’ve never seen him do anything like that.
BD: Wasn’t that great? That was purely intentional. We were writing that scene saying, “We would love to see Tony Hale do this.” And then the other kind of funny one was Meaghan Jette Martin. She’s a really great actress who found herself doing music because of the industry’s desire to do that. So I literally showed the guys a video that I had done and we wrote this character to represent the industry’s desire to package. Cause I had seen Meaghan personally go through that. I kind of helped her do that. (Laughs) I’m in this, so there’s no judgment. I paid my rent that month doing such a thing. But anyway, I wrote it for her never thinking she’d do it and she got the joke and totally was into it. Amy (Acker) auditioned from a tape because she was in New York. So Robyn Lively walked in and owned it. Robyn Lively and John Billingsley. I told Emily Schweber, our casting director, “I don’t even have to see anyone else.” The two of them came in spot on. And then looked at a lot of people for Molly. Amy sent in this tape audition that was just amazing, just mind-blowing. So she and I did interviews over Skype, which was really interesting. So it was all over Skype that we talked about the role, talked about how I saw it. She talked about how she saw it, everything. She had a total disadvantage in that, and yet I knew she was it.
WC: And I met her for the first time the night before the shoot. “Here you go, here’s your new wife!”
A quick thing on Tony, and this is just for me. When they first come up and Amy goes up to him and she gives him a “Heyyyy brother,” was that…
BD: Totally intentional.
That makes me so happy.
BD: (Laughs) I literally did it in ADR. It was literally done later, as a complete inside gag. Absolutely intentional, added in post, as an inside joke for people like us.
WC: The thing about Tony is he’ll walk up and he’ll be like, “Heyyy brother, what’s goin’ on?” and he’s being serious. That’s kind of his thing.
BD: Which is great because he is her brother. So in hindsight I was like, I’ve gotta put this in as just a little nugget for fans.
I was going to believe that’s what it was even if it wasn’t intentional.
BD: I love that you saw that because I didn’t know if anyone ever would get that. So I feel like that was all worth it now that you saw that.
I wanted to ask if Wes, you’re going to continue acting from here and what kind of direction you want your career to go in now that you’ve tried acting and had a successful run into it.
WC: Yeah, I would love to continue auditioning. It was absolutely thrilling. I want to do it again and I want to play characters. It’s a blast. I’d love to do it again. I’ll always do music. I’ll always just do that. I’m kind of open to be honest with you. I don’t really have a 5-year plan. I’m very much a one-day-at-a-time kind of guy.
Oh, are you going to release the soundtrack anywhere like iTunes?
WC: Yeah, hopefully. I’m hopeful to get that squared away soon. It would be great to have a record-record. So I think we’re working on it.
And lastly, the way you’ve been doing it here for the Festival, you’ve been having Wes perform and then having the screening and then a Q&A. Do you find that that’s the best way to present this movie and do you plan on taking it around in that format?
BD: Yeah, great question. I actually do think that’s the best. First off, going out for a night at the movie, a film like ours, if you’re going to spend a night on a babysitter or you and your buddies are going to go out or whatever, there’s a lot of bigger films out there. So when you add the idea of sort of an event, like you can go see the film, you can see Wes play, you can hear the filmmakers talk about it, it just becomes a little more special, you know? And it’s fun because I think we enjoy the story behind the story as much. Then there’s also songs that are not in the film. There’s songs on the soundtrack that are equally a part of the film, even though they’re not in the film proper. So when you get to see Wes live, it’s still kind of this “Sironia” event type of thing. A lot of movies go on tour, so we’re going to regroup after this. I feel like we’re getting an opportunity to show what this looks like. Cause we did a show here, then we did a screening and a Q&A. Wes is playing tonight (Oct. 26) at the Highball and then we’re doing the Wednesday thing. The response to it has been so positive that the audience is seeing that this is a really cool thing. You can go see a movie, you can hear about how it was made, and then you get to see Wes live. Cities like Nashville, L.A., Austin, Dallas, make a lot of sense for us, especially since we can just get in our car and go. That’s what “Once” did.
WC: Let’s do it twice.
BD: (Laughs) Ohhhhhhhhhhhh! Nice!
And one last message to San Antonio from Wes Cunningham: “Give my love to the Blanco Café. That’s my spot. I like The Cove, too. “