The world of independent filmmaking can be defined by the amount of blood and sweat it takes to build a filmmaker’s vision — and then the amount required to place that completed vision in front of the eyes of an international film community.
The blood and sweat efforts of Austin’s own film community have garnered it a strong presence at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, demonstrating just how far Austin filmmakers have come since Richard Linklater’s Slacker.
One of those Austin-based filmmakers is Jonny Mars, an actor who has expanded his skills to include that of producer, writer and director. Mars is featured in four films this year at Sundance, in supporting roles in Pit Stop, A Teacher and Computer Chess, and as the lead in the short film Black Metal (available to view on YouTube). These features are a testament to how interconnected the Austin film scene is and just how resourceful its members can be when collaborating on projects.
“I absolutely think that the Austin scene was extremely well represented. The New York Times did a Sunday cover story on all of the directors,” says Mars.
Many now recognize Austin-produced films as major influences in indie cinema, but according to Mars, “We’ve known it a long time, and for the most part none of these are first time filmmakers. We’ve all been grinding this stuff out together, so it was a very familial atmosphere being in the ‘slopes,’ and it was very exciting to see all of these diehard Texans together.”
Mars champions the idea that Austin offers filmmakers a unique atmosphere compared to Los Angeles and New York, speaking to the film community's willingness to cooperate on others' projects. The grudges and backstabbing that accompany Hollywood film culture aren't really present in Austin because, according to Mars, “we don’t have as much money at stake.”
For him, low-budget filmmaking is based on “sweat equity, labor, hard work and just working smart. There really isn’t time for grudges.”
Mars echoes the sentiment of colleague Andrew Bujalski, director of Computer Chess, by noting that few cities exist where one can call up friends that will drop anything to help with a project. “Everybody wants to have fun and be a part of the next thing.”
It’s this fluid community structure that's allowed Mars to stretch himself from the role of actor to the position of producer on numerous occasions. By producing projects in which he can also step in as an actor, Mars not only maintains more control, but he's also able to hold himself accountable for how a film turns out, figuring “at the very least, I could only blame myself.”
Beyond Sundance, Mars' first directorial effort, a documentary on Dallas Cowboys tailgaters called America’s Parking Lot, was a labor of six years that screened at SXSW 2012 and will soon screen on ESPN Classic. He's also seeking distribution for Sunday Morning Massacre, a film in which Mars and crew filled multiple positions, supporting the old mindset of if you want a thing done well, do it yourself.
Though films made by pure moxie have defined Austin cinema for decades, Mars sees the 2007 recession as something that propelled the current wave of locally produced films. “[The recession] stopped a lot of dreams of trying to make bigger budget movies, and a lot of really scrappy filmmakers realized that if they want to make a movie, they just do it. So a lot of these smaller movies are made, and to do that you need to call your friends.”
And it’s often by the grace of those friendships that new dreams can become reality. For Mars, it is easier to “crack the system” in Austin and become a part of the immense pool of talent, because “you’re legitimately allowed to be a part of the town based on your merits.”