in depth interviews
Documentarian Sam Wainwright Douglas talks Austin filmmaking, outsiders andindependence
Austin’s “Hollywood of Texas” rep gets the city a lot of buzz – while it’s encouraging for the filmmakers flocking here from New York and Los Angeles, there are also credible debates about whether the city deserves that sort of label, or if Austin is too independent to be the anyone of anywhere. For documentary filmmaker Sam Wainwright Douglas, who’s been based in Austin since 2006 – and seen his film Citizen Architect land on PBS, win awards, and screen at festivals on five continents – Austin filmmaking is its own beast, and that’s just the way he wants it. His upcoming projects, Moving Mountains: Land Arts of the American West and an untitled film about modernist architecture in Houston, are in pre-production, and his segment in Slacker 2011 is just about finished. CultureMap thought now was a good time to catch up with Douglas about the Austin film community, why he’s drawn to outsiders for his films, and the state of the industry as an independent filmmaker in the midst of a recession.
CultureMap: How is fundraising in 2011?
Sam Wainwright Douglas: It’s hard. Non-profits are hurting as well, and films, like the ones that I do, definitely rely on donors and grants. So it’s going slow – I think for the land art movie, I’ve been raising money for over a year and a half. But I’ve got some in the bank, so we’re gonna do some shoots this fall.
CM: When you do something like Citizen Architect, and it gets shown on PBS, does that help support the next film?
SWD: It does. You can give someone a DVD of a film that’s been on PBS and played all kinds of places, and they take you more seriously. You hope that they watch the movie and say, “This is really good! Tell me more about what you’re doing…”
CM: Is your career different now that Citizen Architect was a success?
SWD: It is. And I’m really thankful for that. It’s easier to open doors, easier to meet people. It’s helped with connections to DVD distributors. Now I have a direct line to PBS, so I can keep them informed with what I’m doing. It’s easier to get other folks to pay attention, or to get a meeting, or a foot in the door. Every film is just another step that keeps you moving up the ladder.
CM: It seems like your choices of subjects are mostly outsiders – Kinky Friedman, or Samuel Mockbee, or the Holy Modal Rounders – even though Kinky’s a best-selling author, and Mockbee was a Macarthur Genius Grant winners, they’re still about as “outside” as you can get, while still being successful. What attracts you to those sort of characters?
SWD: Growing up, I always felt like an outsider, and there weren’t a lot of people who were into the things that I was into, so I’ve always gravitated toward people like that. People who have a real moral compass, and want to make the world a better place, and aren’t just obsessed with the next paycheck and a lot of commercial gain. They have something guiding them. It’s about the simpler things – artistic fulfillment, or looking at the world in a more engaged way, taking in the beauty and excitement of adventure, good friends, and family.[laughs] Boy, I sound like a Hallmark card right now.
CM: Where did you grow up?
SWD: I grew up in Houston. I’ve been in Austin for five years now, and I was in New York for eleven years before that. I got sick of the hustle. It’s a constant hustle to pay the bills. On one hand, the quality of life, as far as exposure to museums and culture, is very intense in New York. But I just couldn’t take the hustle and the claustrophobic kind of life. I wanted a dog and a house, and more space to breathe, pay my bills, and have more time to ruminate, be creative, and focus on what I want to do.
CM: Have you found that here?
SWD: I have! And I’ve found a really good brotherhood and sisterhood of filmmakers who want the same things, and we’re all really supportive of each other, no matter what kind of movies we’re making. We have people making really zany comedies, and making do-gooder documentaries like I do. There’s a nice balance and variety. I think what’s cool about a lot of the filmmakers here is that they have to be very motivated – they find the ways to make their movies. Whether they’re aggressive in getting the funding, or being clever in the ways they get their films shot, I think that’s a great thing. It seems like something very Texan – that independent streak where you’re going to do it your way.
CM: If one of your friends from New York was talking about being tired of the hustle, would you say “Come to Austin”?
SWD: Oh, yeah! Definitely. I had a friend who I did that with, and he did move here for a year. He had to go back to New York because some projects took off, and he loved it here. I have other friends I’ve been trying to lure. “Oh, man, it’s so rough here!” “Well, come on! You had a great time when you visited! You loved those breakfast tacos!”