Guy Clark Music Documentary Looks to Get Its SXSW Due, One Year Later

"Without Getting Killed or Caught," which also deals with the legacy of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, faces a very different distribution model than it would have if it had played last year's festival ... and a better one, according to its director.

guy clark documentary townes van zandt country music sxsw south by southwest
Courtesy "Without Getting Killed or Caught"

“Well, this may seem like déjà vu…” wrote filmmaker Tamara Saviano on her Facebook page this week, alerting friends that her documentary about musician Guy Clark, “Without Getting Killed or Caught” was being announced Thursday as premiering at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival… just as  it was announced for last year. The good news is, this year’s SXSW, being virtual, can’t get canceled (at least short of dire societal circumstances even worse than a pandemic), so the doc is virtually certain to meet its premiere date this time.

Saviano made the tough decision last March to wait it out a year and submit it again in hopes that the festival screening committee wouldn’t have a change of heart. If a film about some of the most celebrated singer-songwriters to ever come out of Texas — Townes Van Zandt also being a primary subject — couldn’t premiere at SXSW, where could it premiere? Well, lots of other virtual festivals, probably, but the appropriateness of an Austin launch made Saviano feel like it was worth it to essentially suspend the film in amber for a year, after rushing to get it completed in early 2020.

“When we applied to South By for the 2020 festival, I didn’t know if we would get in,” says Saviano — unlikely as that prospect is, between the film’s subject matter and its quality. “It’s hard to get into big film festivals like that. And when it was canceled, we were accepted into lvirtual film festivals that were happening later in 2020. And I was just like, you know what? I want to wait and see if we can get into South By again. It wasn’t a guarantee because, first of all, we didn’t even know if South By was going to happen, and also, we were really lucky because a lot of films that were accepted in 2020 were not accepted in 2021. We got really lucky twice, because premiering at South By Southwest is what I’ve always wanted.”

Any Clark fans who are not into buying a festival pass just to see the film will not have to wait for long to have another shot at it. Only a week, in fact, before a campaign of virtual screenings begins. That’s the mark of just how much independent film distribution has changed in the year since what would have been the documentary’s 2020 bow.

“I hate everything about this pandemic, so I don’t want to give it any credit at all.,” Saviano says. But there is a silver lining in “the year that I’ve had to study the film business. In this past year, of course, the film business has completely changed. It’s like how the music industry was about 10 years ago or so, where there was all of a sudden so many options for direct-to-consumer, cutting out the middleman. That is happening in film right now in a big way.

“And there are so many different distribution options. I mean, it’s mind-boggling how many opportunities there are for filmmakers, especially in my situation, because we’re not trying to reach all the ‘Wonder Woman’ fans. We have a built-in niche audience, and it’s an expansive niche. We know how to reach this audience and go direct to them. So while I don’t know what will happen at South by Southwest — maybe some big distributor will come in and make me an offer I can’t refuse — my film getting out is not dependent on that by a long shot. I have so many options. And I would not have known that last year at South By. I would have just let my agent kind of figure it out with whoever wanted it, and now I don’t have to do that, which is great. Even if I wish we were all going to be in Austin together and Ihrow the big partyr and have the big concert that we were going to have.”

The SXSW Film Fest takes place online March 16-29, but, as Saviano told friends, “if you are willing to wait a few extra days until March 23, you can bypass the festival ticket and attend our first virtual screening event, sponsored by Kessler Presents, with special guest Rodney Crowell” (who’s featured in the film, having come out of the same Texas-to-Nashville scene in the ’70s and ’80s). Further virtual events are scheduled for April 8, 16, and beyond, sponsored by SiriiusXM’s Outlaw Country channel, Yeti (!) and other sponsors, with guests to be announced. Further such screenings are likely to take place for a few months before “Caught” becomes available for video-on-demand, perhaps in May, with actual theatrical showings happening as soon as pandemics permit. (Screenings and other info can be followed at the film’s official website, here.)

Saviano, who co-directed and co-produced the film with her husband, Paul Whitfield, designed the film primarily for those who already have an interest in Clark and the early prototype of the Americana music scene that swirled around him. But “for the people that don’t really know Guy, what I’m hoping happens is that they become enthralled with the music. There’s 26 songs in the film. And I hope that leads them to go down the Guy Clark rabbit hole, because I think everybody should be a Guy Clark fan.”

But the film’s portrait of a triangle between three strong, artistic, weirdly intwined personalities — Clark, Van Zandt and Clark’s wife, Susanna — may intrigue filmgoers who’ve never even heard classic songs like “Desperados Waiting for a Train” or “L.A. Freeway” before. There’s an indefinable love triangle at the center of the film, which would almost make it appropriate for a double bill with a movie like “Jules and Jim” as the boundaries between romance, friendship, resentment and respect become harder to define as these relationships weather the decades.

Saviano wrote a biography of the same name, published in 2016, that was more sprawling. She knew she had to find more of a story for narrative screen purposes.

“My book is 450 pages and kind of covers everything, and I knew that I needed to narrow the focus for the film. I feel like while I was writing the book, Susanna’s voice was always lost in that mix. And it was such an important voice, because she was the muse — and she was the hit songwriter. She’s the one that was making money writing songs, and she was a painter and an artist in her own. So I wanted it to be from Susanna’s voice. And they had such an interesting relationship, the three of them. The way Susanna framed it — it’s in the film this way — is that Guy was her husband, Guy and Townes were best friends, and Susanna and Townes were soulmates. And Guy agreed. I mean, they were all willing members of this triangle. And I think that Susanna’s relationship with Townes kind of took the pressure off of Guy; he didn’t have to be the charming husband all the time, you know? So I just found that relationship fascinating. And in the winter of 2017, my co-writer, Bart Knaggs, and I took an eight-week long screenwriting workshop in Austin, and that’s when we really decided to try to tell it from Susanna’s point of view and focus on the three of them. It all came together then that was the way to go, and I’m really happy with that angle.”

In working on the book for seven years, Saviano had read the diaries of Susanna Clark, who was the flame that every moth in Houston and Nashville was attracted to in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. But she resisted listening to all the audio tapes Susanna left behind. Once she did, after the book was out and filmmaking was beginning, she decided Susanna had to be the narrator of the movie. But it wasn’t Susanna’s literal voice she used (although some of those cassettes are heard in the film). She happened upon the idea of asking Sissy Spacek to be the voice of Susanna in the film.

Saviano didn’t have to wonder if there was an audience for the film as she was making it. A year prior to the book being published in 2016, she put up a Kickstarter for Clark fans to support the movie.

“The reason we did the Kickstarters was because I knew that the music licensing was going to be super-expensive. So I thought, if we can raise $80,000 t pcan ut a big dent in the music licensing, and then I will feel like there’s enough of an audience to do this. But otherwise I’m not even going to do it. So we blew past $75,000 in three days. And I was like, ‘Oookay! Obviously an audience.’ We raised $180,000 on Kickstarter, which was our seed money to start. And our investors all learned about our film through Kickstarter and came to us through that. From a marketing standpoint, it gave me a lot of information, and it was really helpful then when my book came out as well. I was shocked because that whole month, I was like, ‘Oh my God, people are still giving money.’ So we’re here because of Kickstarter. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Having the premiere of the movie put off by 12 months meant spending an extra year in Guy Clark world — although she had other things on her plate, as well, like until recently being Kris Kristofferson’s manager. It’s a headspace she lived in since she started in on the book 13 years ago.

“I didn’t think I was going to be here this long, for sure, but I have no regrets. The people I’ve met on the journey have been wonderful. Spending that intimate time with Guy, now that he’s gone, and I think about the fact that I was at his house almost every day for eight years (before he died in 2016) — what a gift. So yeah, iI’m looking forward to doing other things, but this has been a journey of a lifetime.”