Twenty years ago I watched a movie called “Songwriter,” which was filmed in and around Austin. It starred Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as outlaw country singer/songwriters (an acting stretch for both, I realize) who gad about town singing, drinking, cussing, touring, performing, writing songs, playing golf, carousing with women who aren’t necessarily their wives, and pulling a con on a major recording executive. The movie made me want to move to Austin and pursue a career in the entertainment business.
A few years later, in 1989, I moved here, arriving on a Greyhound bus like Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy.” The entertainment career never happened, and as time passed most of the what initially attracted me to Austin disappeared or closed down, but the city’s reputation as an entertainment center exploded. The sight of a film crew set up somewhere in town is now a fairly regular occurrence, and indeed it’s hard to go more than a few months without seeing something in the movie theatres or on TV that was filmed in the Austin area.
Seeing your hometown on film can be a strange experience, because the camera doesn’t always see your surroundings the same way you do. A couple years ago, the WB aired a series called “Jack and Bobby,” which lasted only one season. It told the story of two brothers, one of whom was destined to become President of the United States in forty years. The story flipped back and forth between the present and the future, and the segments of the former were supposed to illustrate how the boy became the great man.
The premise seemed interesting enough that I taped the pilot. When I finally got around to watching it the boys’s rather preachy mother quickly got on my nerves, and I turned my attention to the newspaper, and only half-watched the rest of the show out of the corner of my eye. But at the end of the episode the brothers prepared to go jogging in a park, and I noticed something looked very familiar about the park’s layout, and the houses nearby.
I rewound the tape and realized that the scene had been filmed in Austin’s own Adams-Hemphill Park, right off Thirty-second and Hemphill Park Road, which was only about four blocks from where I lived at the time. So naturally I had to rewind the tape and watch the episode closely. The only other Austin location I recognized was UT’s Littlefield House, on Twenty-fourth Street, and unfortunately, subsequent episodes appear to have been filmed in California.
I tuned in again to see the series finale, where the boys go to Huntsville to visit their father in prison, and was amused to see that Huntsville had moved from the lush Piney Woods of East Texas to the harsh Mojave Desert. For some reason, Hollywood has a fixed group of serious misconceptions about Texas, especially about its geography, that even visits to the state won’t cure. In “Man of Conquest” (1939), Richard Dix, playing Sam Houston, gathers his army in a desert that is supposed to be the San Jacinto battle ground, and directs them, “Let’s camp behind that mesa.” In the first season of the soap opera “Dallas,” a hurricane strikes the Texas coast, and runs up I-35, devastating Temple before finally slamming into Southfork Ranch. The commandos in the 1983 Gene Hackman/Tex Cobb action flick “Uncommon Valor” train at a camp “in the mountains north of Galveston,” though that’s entirely in keeping with the truly wretched 1986 CBS show “Outlaws,” where Rod Taylor, Charles Napier, and Richard “Shaft” Roundtree play 1880s cowboys who travel through time to modern-day, mountain-ringed Houston and set up a detective agency.
And while such mistakes are ridiculous, other apparent “lapses” must be excused. I remember when “Slacker” was in general release and people would complain, “Hey, you can’t walk out of Sound Exchange, turn the corner, and be in front of Half-Price Books!,” and I’d explain that the only people that are really going to know or care about that are Austinites. Just write it off to “movie magic,” shut your mouth, and sit down in front.
Movies have been filmed in Texas since 1910, and in the Austin area since the early ‘70s. In 1975 the PBS music series “Austin City Limits” began taping at UT, and Gordon Parks filmed part of “Leadbelly,” (with “Magnum, P.I.” star Roger E. Mosely in the title role) here in town. Since that time, movies and TV shows have been filmed in and around Austin at a fairly regular rate.
The Peter Fonda film “Outlaw Blues” was filmed on locations that included Lake Travis.
“Honeysuckle Rose,” known also as “On the Road Again,” with Willie Nelson, was filmed in and near Austin. “Roadie,” was filmed at the Austin Opry House, with a gonzo stew of a cast that included Meat Loaf, Art Carney, “Soul Train’s” Don Cornelius, Alice Cooper, Alvin Crow, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Jr., Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ray Benson, and Kurtwood Smith.
A few scenes for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” were filmed in town, though I think the whorehouse itself was in Manor. A house at MLK and Rio Grande stood in for the Governor’s Mansion, and Charles Durning, playing the two-faced, prevaricating Governor of Texas, had a musical number in the Capitol. (I tried to do Durning’s song, “The Sidestep,” in front of the Governor’s second-floor Reception Room late one night a couple years later after a beer or five, but had to cut it short when State Troopers started to approach.)
Sixth Street features prominently in Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature film, “Blood Simple.” The chief thing I remember about this movie was the lack of curtains or blinds in any of the windows shown. Even John Getz and Frances McDormand had a sex scene in a loft overlooking 6th with uncovered windows. Sure it was atmospheric and all, but jeez! Not long after seeing the film I was invited to spend Spring Break with a college buddy and his mother at their artsy home in Tarrytown, and sure enough, they didn’t have curtains up either. I assumed this must just be an Austin affectation.
“Songwriter,” the movie that inspired me to move here, was filmed at the Opry House, Willie’s golf course outside of town, Congress Avenue, the old Palmer Auditorium, and the now-demolished Villa Capri Motel. The Villa Capri was located between Dean Keeton, Red River, and I-35, on the site of what is now that bizarre-looking indoor practice facility with the inflated, tent-like roof at the Frank Denius Practice Fields.
The Villa Capri was where my parents always stayed when they came to Austin for University Interscholastic League meetings, because of its proximity to the Joe Thompson Conference Center. One summer my parents took me along. They reserved two adjoining rooms with double beds, but the motel staff made a mistake and reserved only one. To make up for this, the staff gave me a room on the other side of the motelcwith a king-sized bed–the first I ever slept in. (The next day I accidentally got locked in to the tower of the Texas Union, but that’s another story.)
“Nadine,” with Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Rip Torn, Gwen Verdon, Glenne Headly, and Jerry Stiller, was filmed among the shops on North Loop and at the old Grove Drug Store (now the Austin Visitor’s Center, 209 East Sixth Street). “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” with Dennis Hopper and Kinky Friedman–there’s a dream team for you–was filmed at the old “Austin American-Statesman” warehouse, near what is now Republic Square Park (422 Guadalupe).
The family comedy “Save the Dog,” with Cindy Williams, Tom Poston, Katherine Helmond, Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, Charlotte Rae, and Tony Randall, was filmed all over downtown. “D.O.A.,” a remake of a film noir classic, starring Dennis Quaid, was filmed on Congress, at the Capitol, on the St. Edward’s University campus (3001 South Congress), and at the Continental Club (1315 South Congress). “Murder Rap,” an indie film starring character actor John Hawkes (best known now for his roles in “Deadwood” and “From Dusk Till Dawn”) was filmed on the Drag, in Oakwood Cemetery, and the home of a Tracor executive on Forty-fifth or Forty-sixth Streets.
“Heartbreak Hotel” (David Keith, Tuesday Weld, Charlie Schlatter, and Chris Mulkey) had a wacky plot of the sort that was a dime-a-dozen in ‘80s movies: a Midwestern teenager in the 1970s kidnaps Elvis Presley with the intention of kindling a romance between Elvis and his mother. By the end of the picture everyone’s life is transformed and Elvis gets his groove back and jump-starts his career in a world where there are apparently no prescription pills, teenaged girls, or fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos) serves as Elvis’s hotel.
The Driskill also doubled as San Antonio’s Menger Hotel in “Lonesome Dove,” the epic mini-series based on Larry McMurtry’s novel that starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Town Lake was used to represent the Arkansas River.
“Dream Date,” starring “The Cosby Show’s” Tempestt Bledsoe and Clifton Davis, was filmed in West Austin and at the County Line BBQ at 5204 FM 2222 on Lake Austin. “The Hot Spot,” directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Don Johnson, was filmed mostly in Taylor, but there was a scene at Nau’s Enfield Drug at 1115 West Lynn Street. The Willie Nelson TV movie, “A Pair of Aces,” was filmed at Duncan Park (900 West Ninth), and at the Renaissance Austin Hotel (9721 Arboretum Boulevard).
This was the year that changed everything, the year that “Slacker” was released. There was, obviously, an Austin film scene before director Richard Linklater came to town, but it wouldn’t be what it is today without him. Linklater’s guerrilla-style project was to Austin film what Michael Dell’s decision to skip class and sell PCs out of his dorm room was to the local computer industry.
“Slacker” was a loose collection of vignettes portraying the lives and adventures of Austin pseudo-intellectuals, posers, writers, artists, musicians, layabouts, poets, potheads, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and bohemians. I can affirm it to be an accurate portrait of that scene because I was part of that world then. I would spend my leisurely afternoons in the front room at Quack’s (Captain Quackenbush’s Café, 2120 Guadalupe–now replaced with a clothing store), smoking Egyptian cigarettes, writing, and talking, then around 9pm I’d rush home to my dingy little rented room in a co-op, change out of my tweed jacket and necktie and put on a polyester security guard’s uniform and run off to my job guarding a sorority house. And my lifestyle was by no means unique.
Many of the locations for “Slacker” have been changed or altered. Les Amis Café (504 West Twenty-fourth) is now, tellingly, the parking lot of a Starbucks, Sound Exchange (2100-A Guadalupe) and Half-Price Books (3110 Guadalupe) are now restaurants. The Victorian house (2405 Nueces) that appears at the beginning of the movie still stands; Linklater lived there when he was filming “Slacker.” Waterloo Park (403 East Fifteenth Street) and Mount Bonnell (3800 Mount Bonnell Drive) were still there the last time I checked.
One night in the early ’90s I was guarding at the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house at 2420 Nueces and I had started watching “Slacker” on cable. I had just gotten to the hit-and-run scene when one of the sorority girls came downstairs and insisted I walk her to her car. I quickly got up and walked out the front door, trailing the girl, when I suddenly realized I was looking at the exact same intersection (24th and Nueces) that had appeared in the hit-and-run scene on TV about a minute before. It was rather surreal.
“Wild Texas Wind,” a made-for-TV movie with Dolly Parton, Gary Busey, and Ray Benson, was filmed in South Austin and at the Driskill.
Rick Linklater filmed his second feature, “Dazed and Confused,” about twenty-four hours in the lives of a group of Texas teenagers in 1976. Linklater is four years my senior. I went to high school just down the road from where he did, and entered Sam Houston State University the same year he dropped out of it. And in this picture, he again got the vibe right–“Dazed and Confused” really recaptures what it was like to drive around with your buddies in the ’70s, chasing girls, and drinking beer to the music of ZZ Top.
The cast includes a mob of actors and actresses that would soon become famous: Jason London and Rory Cochrane (both of “CSI”), Austin artist/writer/Renaissance man Wiley Wiggins, Adam Goldberg (“Saving Private Ryan,” “The Hebrew Hammer”), Anthony Rapp (“Rent”), Matthew McConaughey (‘nuff said), Marissa Ribisi (now wife to singer Beck), L’oreal spokesmodel Milla Jovovich, Jennifer Tilly sound-alike Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck (with his original hair), indie film staple Parker Posey, and character actors Cole Hauser and Nicky Katt.
Most of the film was done in Austin. Bedichek Middle School (6800 Bill Hughes Road) served as the high school. The baseball game is played at Beverly S. Sheffield Northwest District Park (7000 Ardath Street). The convenience store the kids stole beer from used to be known as Ballard’s. It sits at Fortieth and Medical Parkway, but has been remodeled since the filming.
The freshmen girls get hazed and humiliated along the west side of the old Americana Movie Theatre (2200 Hancock Drive), which is now the snazzy-looking Yarborough Branch of the Austin Public Library. The big beer bust was filmed at West Enfield Park at 2000 Enfield Road. The Top Notch Drive-In (7525 Burnet Road) looks exactly the same as it does in the movie.
The Centennial Liquor Store at 6534 North Lamar, where an under-aged Wiley Wiggins buys beer, is now a parking lot, but the sign remains. Just next door, at the corner of Brentwood and North Lamar, is the “Violet Crown Shopping Center,” the former site of “The Emporium,” the pool hall/gaming arcade where Matthew McConaughey ogles under-aged girls and Ben Affleck has his temper tantrum. It should come as no surprise that the arcade was later used as the offices for a dot-com, that the dot-com went out of business, and the space is now for rent.
The TV series “Ned Blessing” and the indie movie “Love and a .45″ (Gil Bellows, Renée Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Peter Fonda, and Wiley Wiggins) were filmed this year, as was the Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner kidnap flick “A Perfect World,” which utilized the Capitol and the lavish Art Deco DeWitt C. Greer State Highway Department Building (125 East Eleventh Street).
“Blank Check” (with Brian Bonsall–best known as Michael J. Fox’s kid brother on “Family Ties,” Karen Duffy, Debbie Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Michael Lerner, and Tone Loc) is your basic clever-kid-versus-bumbling-adults film. (It also features the movie poster cliché with the hero leering over the top of his sunglasses, something that’s been done to death at least since “Risky Business.”) In the film young Bonsall gets a blank check from a bad guy, writes it out for a million dollars, cashes it somehow, and goes on a spending spree. Like any rich 12-year-old, one of the first things he buys is a castle, the Pemberton Castle in Pemberton Heights (1415 Wooldridge Drive).
The central part of this structure was built as a water tower in the 1890s, but it was added onto in 1926 and made into a castle, and served as the sales office and model home for the Pemberton Heights addition. If you’re 12-years-old and have $1.9 million, you can buy the castle yourself, as it’s currently on the market. It includes 4,000 square feet, two bedrooms, and like any good castle, a swimming pool and a two-car garage.
“Texas Justice” (Peter Strauss, Heather Locklear, and Dennis Franz), a mini-series about the T. Cullen Davis murder case, was filmed in the Enfield area, while the climactic game in the kid’s soccer movie, “The Big Green,” (Steve Guttenberg, Olivia d’Abo, and Jay O. Sanders) was filmed at Zilker Park. The Steven Soderbergh bank heist film “Underneath” (Peter “The O.C.” Gallagher, William Fichtner, Joe Don Baker, Paul Dooley, Shelley Duvall, and Elisabeth Shue) was shot partially on 6th Street.
In “Courage Under Fire” (Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Moriarty, Matt Damon, Bronson Pinchot, Scott Glenn, and Sean Astin), Austin doubled for Washington, DC, with scenes filmed at the Capitol and the Austin State Hospital (4110 Guadalupe). The old City Hall at Eighth and Colorado was used to represent the Pentagon.
The Doris Miller Auditorium ( 2300 Rosewood Avenue) appears in “Waiting for Guffman” (Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Larry Miller, Catherine O’Hara, David Cross, Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Paul Dooley, Lewis Arquette, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the ubiquitous Parker Posey), though most of that film was done in Lockhart.
The pilot to MTV’s “Austin Stories” series was filmed all over town, at an apartment on Speedway, an office downtown on Guadalupe, and other locations that escape my memory. The first (and only) season was filmed throughout 1997. In “Michael,” which starred John Travolta as a chain-smoking, skirt-chasing angel, 5th and 6th Streets were passed off as downtown Chicago. Images of the Sears Tower were added in by computer, while those of One Texas Center were not.
Richard Linklater’s “subUrbia” (Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Nicky Katt, and Parker Posey) was filmed all over town, in residential neighborhoods and construction sites. The intersection of North Lamar and Rutland appears in the opening credits, but most of the action takes place at a convenience store (now also for sale) at Stassney and South First. (I was driving myself nuts trying to figure out where that store was located–on film the area looks like any of a million places in Austin.)
Robert Rodriguez has been a legend of indie film-making since 1992, when he became a guinea pig for an Austin medical research lab in order to get $7,000 to make an action film for the Mexican straight-to-video market. The film, “El Mariachi,” wound up getting a theatrical release in the United States, and a good deal of public and critical attention. Championed by directors like Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez soon became the second “big gun” director to base himself in Austin.
With “The Faculty,” (Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen. Piper Laurie, Usher Raymond, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart, and yes, Wiley Wiggins) Rodriguez took on the teenage horror genre. Austin locations included the pool at Austin High School (1715 West Cesar Chavez), the Texas School for the Deaf (1102 South Congress Avenue), and the gym at the Austin Community College Rio Grande Campus (1212 Rio Grande).
Mike Judge, the creator of animated classics “Beavis and Butt-head” and “King of the Hill,” made his live-action directing debut with “Office Space” (Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, Gary Cole, and John C. McGinley). People insist on telling me this movie is a work of fiction, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the finest documentary since “The Sorrow and the Pity.” It dares to expose the soul-crushing, spirit-defeating, Abu Ghraib-like cesspool that is the American workplace. The movie starts with a traffic jam on Braker Lane. The exterior for the offices of “Initech” are located at 4120 Friedrich Lane, while the exterior for “Chotchkie’s” restaurant is at the Old Alligator Grill at 3003 South Lamar Boulevard.
The destination of “Road Trip” (Tom Green and Breckin Meyer) is something called “The University of Austin,” but the only footage filmed here was of a few seconds of the Drag.
Rodriguez’s next project was “Spy Kids” (Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Alan Cumming, and Tony Shalhoub) which was filmed in Chile, San Antonio, Austin’s Warehouse District (Fourth Street), the lobby of the Omni Hotel (700 San Jacinto), and the Trois Estate (3612 Pearce Road).
The other big downtown movie that year was “Miss Congeniality” (Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, Candice Bergen, and William Shatner), which was filmed at the Driskill Grill and UT’s Bates Recital Hall (Twenty-fourth and East Campus Drive). I remember that for weeks, the trucks and dressing rooms were set up downtown along the route I walked to work. Every day I kept hoping I’d run into William Shatner or even Michael Caine, but I never did.
There was tremendous excitement locally over the filming of the Kevin Spacey film, “The Life of David Gale,” though I don’t think I know anyone who’s seen it. That shoot set up all over town: at the Capitol, of course, Cain & Abel’s (2313 Rio Grande), B.D. Riley’s Pub (204 East Sixth), and the Metro Espresso Bar (2222 Guadalupe). Prison yard scenes were shot on the former tarmac of the old Robert Mueller Airport, which is now the home of Austin Studios (1901 East Fifty-first), and will soon also become the planned business/residential community of “Mueller.”
“Secondhand Lions” (Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Haley Joel “I see dead people” Osment), directed by Austinite Tim McCanlies, was filmed in Lockhart, Coupland, and Pflugerville, though the hospital scenes were shot on third floor of the Main Building of the Austin State Hospital. Amazingly enough, the scenes in the Moroccan market were filmed down in the bed of Waller Creek, behind Serrano’s Café? and Cantina at 911 Red River.
“When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” (Jonathan Lipnicki and Eric Stoltz) was filmed in South Austin.
“Spy Kids 3: Game Over” featured a climactic battle on Congress Avenue.
The Johnny Knoxville film, “The Ringer” was filmed in San Marcos and here at the Texas School for the Deaf. “The Alamo” (Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid) was filmed mostly in Dripping Springs, though a few scenes were shot at the Driskill and the Paramount Theatre (713 Congress).
“Friday Night Lights” (Billy Bob Thornton and Lucas Black), though filmed mostly in Odessa and at the Astrodome, does have a football game filmed at Westlake High School (4100 Westbank Drive). And though most of “Sin City” (Jessica Alba, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hartnett, Rutger Hauer, my favorite bartender–Fado’s own Helen Kirk, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Nick Stahl, Bruce Willis, and Elijah Wood) was shot at Austin Studios in front of green screens, with the background added digitally in post-production, I understand some scenes were shot in the Warehouse District.
A 23,552-square-foot warehouse at 302 San Jacinto served, from January to May, as home to the cast of the 16th season of the MTV reality series, “The Real World,” the program we have to thank for there being nothing but reality shows on TV now morning, noon, and night. I tried to watch the pilot for this one, seeing as it was in my hometown and all, but I didn’t get more than ten minutes into it before I wanted to slap every one of those kids silly, so I changed the channel and never looked back.
On Wednesday, July 27th, in front of a crowd of startled and amused onlookers, Mayor Will Wynn jumped off the Pfluger (Lamar Boulevard) Pedestrian Bridge into the waters of Town Lake, thirty feet below. Was he despondent? Depressed? Weighed down by the cares of office? No, he was promoting the water quality of Town Lake and the local film industry. A clip of the Mayor’s leap will appear in “Jumping Off Bridges,” an independent film being made here in Austin.
—March 9, 2006