When premiering a film at SXSW, you certainly won’t hurt your chances of gaining a local following if you tell the story of the Austin music scene — and that means doing more than just shooting a film at the city’s most familiar music venues.
Thank You a Lot, the feature film debut of Texas filmmaker Matt Muir, does have plenty of scenes set around town, but Muir's film goes more than skin deep to capture local music.
The film tells the story of a bottom-rung music manager, played by Blake DeLong, who isn’t afraid to be a little bit shady when promoting his musicians. When he is threatened with losing his job, the only hope he has left is to sign his reclusive and estranged father, a country music cult figure.
And it was by pure serendipity that a real country musician, James Hand, would step into the role to play that figure, albeit a fictionalized version.
Muir had known DeLong for a long time, and he began to write a feature placing him in the indie music scene. But when writing Thank You a Lot, Muir says that it lacked a little “conflict in humanity,” requiring more than just some normal struggles a manager would have with a band. Inspiration would finally hit when Muir stumbled upon another lead actor.
“I always went to Ginny’s [Little Longhorn], which was a favorite haunt of mine, and I just happened upon James Hand, who was so striking, engaging and had kind of this mysteriousness to him,” recalls Muir. “It was just a powerful performance and I was mystified as to what this guy’s story was, so I just started researching him. And the more I learned about him the more I got the idea that he was the father of [DeLong’s] character … That’s when I got to what the heart of the film would be.”
Muir wrote a character inspired by Hand, inevitably going back to his real name despite trying to come up with fake ones. When Muir finally approached Hand about performing the role, he learned Hand was more than fine with acting, as well as with using his real name for the fictionalized portrayal.
“There’s kind of an emotional truth I think of the life he’s lived really come through with the character, but as far as a factual representation of him as a person, it’s definitely a fictionalized version. It just had kind of an interesting energy to us that he’s always just a guy named James Hand playing these songs that are on James Hand records.”
After getting the local musician on board, Muir and his crew had to find out if he if he had on-screen appeal. “I didn’t know if he could act. So Blake, producer Chris Ohlson and I drove up to his house and did a screen test.” Muir had already written roles for musicians-turned-actors in his script, including Da’Shade Moonbeam and the members of Hundred Visions, but he felt comfortable about capturing their voice in the writing. It was a taller order for Hand.
“Long story short, he killed it and we all got back into the car and it was quiet for a few minutes. Then we were like, ‘We got a movie. This is going to work.’ That was the culmination of writing the script and making this fictionalized version of James in my head,” says Muir.
With the addition of Hand, Muir created a film that studies two different sides of Austin music. On one hand is the struggling manager trying to make his indie bands the next big thing in a corporate world. On the other side is a living legend who represents the roots of music culture unique to Texas. Both find ways to intersect and make a special connection.
Thank You a Lot premieres at SXSW Film on Friday, March 7 at 7 pm, with additional screenings on Sunday, March 9 and Saturday, March 15.