reel to real
From screen name to screenplay: An Austin critic goes Hollywood
As rich as Austin's film scene has become in recent years, we are even richer in film critics. Some of the most renowned critics either operate from or offer their services to Austin-based sites. In fact, one of the first powerhouse film sites on the web was Austin resident Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News.
For years, C. Robert Cargill, under the nom-de-dweeb of Massawyrm, happily pitched his opinions and acerbic wit like lit matches upon the powder kegs of the volatile, faceless Internet masses, delighting in their explosive reactions. But the niche of web notoriety proved too constrictive for Cargill, who recently made a drastic, but seemingly appropriate, change of hats.
Like the dubious maxim espousing that those who can’t do teach, there are those who believe that critics are simply failed filmmakers bitter at their own shortcomings. Cargill appears to be on the exact opposite career path. Teaming with director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still), he has just written his first feature film, entitled Sinister, whichis currently in development with Summit.
Cargill is a prime example of how Austin’s film culture nurtures its filmmaking community. Moreso than most cities, the critics in Austin are passionate lovers of film before all else, and that passion translates to their electronic pen and pad. We sat down with Cargill to chart how that passion is transferred into the creative process.
What was the genesis of your career as an online critic?
It actually started as a favor to someone I met in a chatroom. He was running a small movie review website named guerillafilm and he needed a review of the then unreleased Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I’d seen twice at local screenings. The review scored over 50,000 hits in its first day — which was a big deal at that time — and he asked me to stay onboard. Soon after, I was offered the "Indie Indie" column over at Ain’t it Cool News.
How did you find Austin audiences responded to your online writing?
It’s funny — very early on I discovered I was a critic that very few people ever agreed with, but I found they read me anyway. I was always surprised to find out that people I read in turn also read me. The greatest compliment I was most often paid was that people felt that, even when my opinion frustrated the hell out of them, they always walked away understanding why I felt the way I did. It was these reactions that led me to defend even my most unpopular opinions rather than just make it easy on myself and go with the flow. The best way to describe the reaction to my work would be to say that people found it reasonable in its insanity.
When and how did you transition to screenwriting? Is that something you always wanted to do?
Screenwriting was something I was initially pressured into trying. From the time I was a child I knew I wanted to be a writer, but always pictured myself as a novelist. Friends and fellow writers tried for years to get me to write screenplays instead. “All you ever do is watch movies,” they would say. “Why aren’t you writing them?” A few friends and I tried to get a small indie film off the ground here in Austin, but we could never make it work. I had actually abandoned any hopes of becoming a screenwriter and returned to my initial dream of becoming a novelist when my friend Scott Derrickson read my novel and subsequently heard one of my film ideas. He asked me to write Sinister with him. The process not only felt natural to me, but I had an incredible time with it. After that it was pretty much a no brainer to keep at it.
Tell us a little about Sinister.
Sinister is a horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance, about a true crime novelist who moves into the home of the murdered subjects of his new book. In the attic Ellison (Hawke) finds mysterious footage tied to the death of the family and finds himself in way over his head. We tried to make something deeply and psychologically scary, more geared towards getting into the audiences head than it is about jump scares or gore. We’ll find out later next year if we succeeded.
Do you feel living and working in Austin facilitated your transition in any specific way?
Absolutely. This town has one of the most educated movie audiences I’ve ever encountered. They know their stuff. I’ve learned more just listening to the movie gurus running around this town than I ever could have from any book. I’ve attended an entire college degree’s worth of lectures in the form of Q&As, dinners and lobby discussions by and with the filmmakers who make a point to pass through. Everything I am as a writer and a critic comes from this community and what it has grown into.
Would you ever move to NY or LA (two places more traditionally associated with filmmaking)?
Not if I can help it. Both towns are great and there are a lot of advantages to them, but neither has the real passion for cinema that Austin has. New York is an actor’s town; Los Angeles is a filmmaker’s town. Austin is a movie-watchers town. That’s where I really belong.
What's next for you?
Right now I’m working on the rewrite of my (entirely unrelated) novel for Harper Collins, which should be out early 2013. Sinister is due out in August of 2012. In between then and now, Scott and I have a few projects to write and I have the follow up to my novel to pen before the end of next year. I’ve never been busier, which I can honestly say is the best problem I’ve ever had.