Patron saints bring H’wood to Texas

Helmers lasso local business

Locals call it the Lone Star State, but in reality, Texas offers stars aplenty. And many of the names on Texas’ A-list talent roster — including Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, the Wilson brothers and Mike Judge — insist on shooting in their home state whenever possible.

Austin has long been the center of gravity, thanks largely to Linklater’s Austin Film Society and Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, although Houston and Dallas also are feeling the ripple effect of rising production.

“Texas is just a great place to be based if you’re a filmmaker,” says Elizabeth Avellan, who has been Rodriguez’s producing partner since “El Mariachi.” “The cost of living’s lower, the quality of life’s better, and we’ve never felt outside the Hollywood loop. We’ve been very successful here, and we’d never consider moving.”

Avellan, originally from Venezuela, and Rodriguez, who grew up in San Antonio, have called Austin home since the early ’90s and have seen the local film scene blossom into “an incredibly creative and vibrant community,” she notes. “There’s tons of writers and musicians here, along with very experienced crews and a wide range of locations, so it’s a fun scene.

“That’s why people like Quentin (Tarantino) love working here,” she explains. “He’s been coming here for years, and he shot most of his ‘Grindhouse’ half here — for far less than if he’d shot in Hollywood.”

Avellan reports that “Grindhouse’s” budget was “just $50 million — and that’s for two films. And we made ‘Sin City’ here for just $40 million, because it’s so much cheaper to shoot here.”

The producer, who runs Troublemaker Studios out of three cavernous hangars on a 20-acre site at the old Austin airport (right next door to Austin Studios’ five hangars) adds that the future looks even brighter. “The state’s already passed some tax incentives — next comes the funding, and there’s a big push to do it and keep production coming here.”

For Austin native and frequent Linklater collaborator Hawke, directing the film version of his novel “The Hottest State” in Texas “made perfect sense, as the story’s partly set there, and shooting in Texas let me conjure some of the mythology of the state,” he says. “The movie plays on a lot of images of Americana, and I could use the iconography of Texas as a metaphor to help tell the story of this young man trying to find a more authentic idea of masculinity.”

Hawke shot in El Paso, which also doubled for Mexico, and has high praise for Texan crews and infrastructure. “It’s not so corporate or jaded as Hollywood or New York,” he adds. “There’s genuine excitement there and a lot of love.”

Wilson brothers Luke, Owen and Andrew are the state’s best-known acting dynasty, making their debuts in Houston-born Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket.” More recently, Luke and Andrew co-directed “The Wendell Baker Story,” which opens in May.

“We shot the whole thing in and around Austin,” reports Andrew, who grew up in Dallas with his brothers. “We always planned to shoot in Texas, partly because of the script’s setting but also because the local film scene there is so happening. It’s a great place to work, the crews have this wonderful, flinty determination that’s so Texan, and the state has this incredibly diverse geography. So even though we’re based in L.A. now, we’ll always go back to work there.”

“My favorite city is Austin,” admits Luke, who also shot “Home Fries” and “Idiocracy” in town. “They couldn’t have gone smoother in terms of weather and the professionalism of the crews — the people in town are supportive, and the luster hasn’t worn off in terms of shooting in neighborhoods and securing locations. People seem to get a kick out of watching the process.

“Unfortunately, Texas doesn’t yet have the same tax breaks as New Mexico and Louisiana,” he adds, “but hopefully in the future there will be some in place.”

In Houston, Film Commission executive director Rick Ferguson notes, “We mainly get commercials, musicvideos and indie films, not major features, but if we get tax incentives, that’ll change the feature situation.”

Ferguson hopes local son Anderson will shoot in Houston again — “He really helped raise our profile with films like ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Bottle Rocket'” — and points to Beyonce Knowles as someone bringing commercial and musicvid business to town.

The state’s patron saints lead the way, but other filmmakers are stepping up with Texas-based productions of their own.

Texas Film Commission deputy director Carol Pirie reports that in 2006, Texas shoots included 36 indie features with budgets up to $6 million; eight major features, including “There Will Be Blood” and “Stop-Loss”; and the entire seasons of “Prison Break” and “Friday Night Lights.”

“And 2007 production includes the CBS pilot ‘Swingtown’ (set in Chicago, filming in Austin) and the indie feature ‘Fireflies in the Garden,'” she adds.

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