Austin Film Festival
Will Elliott and Kirk Johnson discuss stoner comedy, making movies and theirfeature-length love letter to our city, Austin High
It feels appropriate that I met Will Elliott and Kirk Johnson at Spider House—you don't get much more Austin than that. After all, their film, Austin High (which they co-wrote, co-produced and co-edited) is a love letter to this city and its inhabitants. Even more appropriately, it's premiering at the Austin Film Festival this weekend. Over the din of students, artists, hipsters, wait staff and even a drunk or two, Will, Kirk and myself chatted about the filmmaking scene in Austin and the trials and tribulations they faced bringing their vision to life.
Will the Austin Film festival screening be your premiere?
Will: World premiere, yeah.
Why should people look out for your film? What's it about? Why should they go see it?
Will: It is about a group of high school slackers who grow up to become the faculty of a high school, their high school. They smoke weed, they do idiotic things and they have a laissez faire approach to teaching. Then something happens that places their lifestyle in danger. It also mirrors what's actually happening in the entire city.
(Will turns to Kirk)
Will: And why should they see our film?
Kirk: From an Austin perspective, you should see it because th cast and crew is almost entirely made up of Austinites. It's one of the Austin-iest movies you're ever going to find. We have a huge cast, a huge crew…a lot of people who just wanted to help out. A real independent spirit going on. It's something that people from Austin will appreciate for sure.
How hard is it to make a movie in Austin?
Will: We definitely had to jump hurdles because of the content of our movie. You know, it's about the faculty of a high school who are basically stoners, so high schools around the city weren't exactly jumping at the chance for us to film at their school. From a filmmaking perspective, it was a breeze. Right?
Will: With the UT film community…the film community we have established in Austin is badass. To build a crew that was gung-ho to do this thing. It was a tough shoot, but it was surprisingly easy to get a crew that would rally around us.
How did you find that crew? Did you have to resort to Craigslist?
Will: There were a lot of reliable guys we knew from film school or from working and each of them had their own guys. We knew our director of photography from school and he had a crew he always works with. As for Craigslist, we went there for interns. We went through about fifty or sixty interns. We were in this hot-ass warehouse, so when they got there, they were like, "Fuck this."
Kirk: Interns would show up for one day and understand what they'd gotten themselves into. There's only so much a free Sonic drink can buy. At some point you want money or you're out. But the interns that stayed 'til the end—God bless 'em.
Will: They were badasses.
What was your schedule like? Were you able to take your time or did you have to keep moving?
Kirk: It went really fast because we had a very ambitious schedule. We shot for nineteen days and it's a pretty epic movie as far as locations go. There were about forty locations, maybe more. Long days. The crew was right there with us. There was a lot of insane stuff, stuff that shouldn't be taken seriously, that the crew had to get into. Goofy scenes. Naked dudes. Smoking out of a Darth Vader bong. Everybody was into it.
Any moments were things went horribly wrong?
Will: That seems like the majority of the shoot!
Kirk: We had a scene out at Hippy Hollow? You know what that is?
Will: It was this dream sequence that's awesome and cool and full of naked chicks. When we got there, it was overcast and cold and rainy. We pushed through and shot in the rain and tried to make it look as sunny as possible.
This was your first feature?
Kirk: This is our first feature. We've been working together since college, doing comedy in the short realm.
How many short films did you make? What did you know going into a feature from your short work and what did you learn?
Will: How many did we make?
Kirk: That's like a four part question! We've done about thirty shorts together. We have a website where we do a bunch of online shorts.
Kirk: Beefandsage.com. We've worked together on that. What was the second part?
What did you know going in?
Will: We knew we were fucked. We knew how hard it is to make a movie and the time you needed to put into it beforehand. We knew how important a good cast is, especially with a film like this were there are so many small parts.
Kirk: We knew from our short experience how it is to work with each other. We're on the same page. We've worked out a system. What we didn't know was what the workflow was going to be after incorporating so many people. This required a crew of hundreds, helping with art direction and being extras and our families coming out of town to help with food. We didn't know what it would be like to push off responsibilities on so many people. But everyone was so gung-ho. Everyone was ready to take balls that were given to them and just run with them.
How exactly does your collaboration work on set?
Will: We co-wrote it, co-produced it and co-edited it. We cast it together. The director was from out of town, so we handled most of the pre-production. As for how we work together…we're definitely not two parts of the same mind. We both have our own separate visions and we're very good at, not necessarily compromising, but-
Kirk: Brainstorming. Telepathically.
Will: Yeah, we know when to let the other run with it. If he's got a great idea, I let him do it and vice versa.
Kirk: He's like my uncle and I'm like me. It's an uncle-nephew relationship!
Will: Yeah! It is like that. That's perfect. You can write that.
Kirk: Maybe I'm the uncle. I'll be the uncle, you can be me.
Did you ever consider taking the film elsewhere or was this always going to be an Austin film?
Kirk: It was always going to be an Austin movie. When we wrote it, it would be like "Exterior: Spider House." The script was full of locations we wanted to film at. Some were locked beforehand. We know somebody at Spider House, so we know we can shoot there.
When you were writing the script, was it like "Oh, we can get this, this and this for free, so let's write them into the script."
Will: Yeah. You say that, though. When it comes time to sign paperwork, that's the kind of thing that changes quickly.
Any particular nightmare stories you'd like to share?
Will: Oh, yeah. Hell yeah. Well, to go back to what I was saying before: the school. The school will always remain nameless. We were pretty damn close to filming; a few days before filming was going to start, the administrators at the school came to us and said, "No, we've changed our mind. You aren't doing this." That could have been the end of the production right there. Everything had been set in place. That's when legal letters started getting thrown around. Luckily, it worked out in the eleventh hour.
Kirk: We had a warehouse, this hot, abandoned warehouse, that was our production office. We had secured a few offices in this school, but when they changed their minds, they allowed us to shoot in another portion of school, but not the rooms we needed. We had a lot of scenes in the principal's office, so we had to take this warehouse and make it into three offices. The principal's office, the main office and a vice principal's office. Our production designer pimped it out and got all of this stuff in there in a day.
Will: You would never know, not in a million years, that those scenes were shot in a dank, dark warehouse with no electricity—
Kirk: Yeah. No electricity in that place.
Will: And this is right before we started filming. Our people didn't miss a step. They're the ones who said, "We're going to fill up this warehouse" and even we were like, "I don't think that's possible," but they pulled if off. It worked out.
So many people try to make movies in Austin and so many of them fall apart. What advice would you give a new filmmaker trying to make a movie here?
Will: Keep it simple. Keep it in one location. Make a horror movie. In a house.
Don't make a comedy in a school?
Will: Just don't have eighteen different bars written into your script!
Kirk: If you make a movie about a school, don't involve drugs!
Will: At some point, just do it. You can spend years trying to perfect everything, but you're just putting it off. Go out there and give it a shot.
Kirk: At some point, just pull the trigger, even if you don't know what the fuck you're doing. Hopefully, it'll work out.
Will: Don't shoot on 6th Street on a Thursday night! We did that. That was hell. That was an error. That scene got cut.
Right now, you have AFF, but what's next for you two?
Will: We're going to be touring the country with the film and hitting all of the Occupy sites. Occupy Wall Street, Occupy LA…
Kirk: It's going to be a projector in the back of a pick-up truck screening onto some wall.
Will: The people protesting probably won't mind seeing a movie at this point.
With your first feature done, do you have your eyes set on Los Angeles or do you want to stick in Austin?
Kirk: I would like to do the next one in Austin. You make a movie in Austin and everyone still thinks it's sexy. You do that in LA and everyone thinks, "Oh, what a goober." Everyone makes a movie in LA. Here, people are still excited at the thought of being in a movie or their establishment being in a movie. Everyone's really receptive.
Will: From an acting perspective, there is a core group of really funny people in Austin, especially people we've met through making this movie. It would be hard to try to branch out to other places. The Austin comedy community, the improv scene, everyone is so talented. We have a lot of pull from here.
Kirk: And who doesn't want to shoot in Austin in July! Such great weather!
Austin High premiers at the Austin Film Festival on October 22nd.