Richard Linklater's new movie, the drama Last Flag Flying,wasn't filmed in Austin, but he's been based in the Texas capital since the early 80s, when he dropped out of college to pursue his passion for movies.
Instead of a McMansion in the Hollywood Hills, Linklater has stayed in Texas, turning Austin into a true creative indie film incubator. He has his own production company, Detour Filmproduction, but also founded the Austin Film Society (AFS) in 1985, which now operates Austin Studios—a 20-acre production facility—and Austin Public, a community-based production, cablecasting, and training facility.
Austin Public offers a low-cost (and sometimes no cost) way for Austinites to follow in Linklater's footsteps. PCMag stopped by recently to tour its studios and meet key staff.
The building, with 7,000 square feet of production facilities, is in East Austin, a vibrant community with a chequered past. In the late 1920s, city officials used a series of shady tactics to segregate the population, and most black residents ended up in East Austin by the 1930s. The black community still has strong ties to the neighborhood, and the Austin Film Society's goal is to ensure a diversity of stories get told—and seen.
Austin Public operates three public access television channels; channel 10 has been on the air since 1973, channels 11 and 16 joined later and all three are available to stream online. In the days before YouTube, public access television was your best shot at getting seen. In fact, Austin's public access market is the second biggest in the US, after New York. Now, with the proliferation of digital platforms, Austin Public-trained creatives have many more routes into the industry.
As you approach the building, a monitor rests against a window for after-hours access. Just insert your thumb drive or connect a hard drive to one of the ports, and submit content for cablecast. Austin Public is also partnering with Google Fiber to create a new content submission workflow, and video on-demand playback through TelVue Connect, so users can—in the future—upload from home and request slots for cablecast and streaming.
Inside, we toured Studio 1, a 1,200-square-foot space with a broadcast-quality control room and cameras, lighting grid, green screen, and video projection screen. It's a place with a ton of history. Brian Blake, Station Engineer, showed us an office space that was previously an edit bay where a young Robert Rodriguez spent hours cutting El Mariachi in the early 90s.
Erica Deiparine-Sugars has been in TV for 20 years, with stints in Chicago and San Francisco. But she got her start in Austin on the floor crew at KXAN before becoming a director of the morning news. Now she's back in the city as the Director of Programs for AFS's Filmmaker and Community Media Resources Department.
"As soon as I saw the ad for the AFS job I knew it was what I wanted to do next," Deiparine-Sugars told PCMag. "I really believe in its mission to bring tools, training, and broadcast access to the local community of filmmakers."
Doug Gray, Station Manager also joined Austin Public via an ad. "I answered a Craigslist ad in 2007 to operate a camera on a show being shot here. When I showed up I remember saying: 'Wow, I didn't know this place existed!'
"After that initial gig, Time Warner hired an Austin Public-based crew to shoot high school football. We were using Sony Z1 cameras at that time, this was before the Public Access station had wireless capabilities, so I had to run the cable all the way down the field and ask the cheerleaders and everyone else to move out the way, as I pounded up and down to get the shot. I've stayed at Austin Public ever since, doing various roles, until I became station manager in 2015."
Gray and his team are currently migrating terabytes of content shot in standard definition to full HD. "The public access channels started in 1973. This was, of course, pre-VHS, around the time of Betamax tape, but the field really grew due to the creation of the Portapak," Gray told PCMag.
Austin Public is also overhauling a lot of its equipment, "a huge deal for a Public Access station," Gray said.
"Not many community media centers have adapted, as we have, to service the wider film community. We've been buying in a lot more grip gear—stands, scrims, reflectors, clamps—and doing more cinematography training sessions through our producer program. Around 2013 we brought in the Canon 5D Mark III for more film production, due to its better image sensor and interchangeable lenses, and now we're using the Sony FS5 professional digital cinema camera."
Austin Public really is a wonderful place for creatives to train; on the noticeboard, near the green room, are crew calls for local productions, providing a route to employment.
We then toured the smaller studio, edit bays, and audio suite, and peered into the equipment room, presided over by Charles Wright, a production and programming associate outfitted in a Millennium Falcon T-shirt, of course.
Across town, Linklater was scheduled to do a late-night Q&A at the AFS's art house cinema following a screening of Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. Linklater took the stage with lead film programmer Lars Nilsen, reminiscing, taking questions, geeking out over soundtrack elements, and generally talking about his love of film.
PCMag asked what Linklater's criteria was for picking movies to re-show at AFS. "The idea for this series was all over the map really," Linklater told us. "I want to show films from all over the world—not the ones that everyone has already seen before. I hadn't seen Drugstore Cowboy for a long time, and I really like to get in a combo of indie, studio, and international—the films that we can check out again and really talk about."
As always happens when there's a director on stage, the question "How do I become a filmmaker?" came from someone down in front.
"Go see a bunch of other films. Watch a film a day. Go back and check out a director's first film," urged Linklater. "You know, I talk to a lot of film students who ask me about becoming a filmmaker, and I always say 'Well, what are you doing with your time? Did you come to the film [at AFS] last night? No? Then you probably don't want to be a filmmaker."
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Lars Nilsen laughed at the crushed young man's expression. "Yeah, I've seen a lot of deflated young film students after he says that," he quipped as Linklater shrugged.
"To be a filmmaker—live HERE! We're so proud of what we've got going on in Austin right now," Linklater concluded. Because really, you don't have to head to Hollywood anymore if you want to make it in the movies, as Linklater and his Austin associates have made clear.
Last Flag Flying, with Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell, hits theaters Nov. 3.