The latest from our team at South by Southwest in Austin

Matthew McConaughey Builds a Treehouse

AUSTIN – Mud is about a guy trying to say one step ahead of the law after killing a guy in San Antonio. He camps out on a little island on the Mississippi River, where he cooks up a plan for how he’ll be reunited with his true love.

It’s hard to imagine Matthew McConaughey not playing the part. In fact, it will probably surprise no one to learn that he actually camped out on the island while filming.

“On set, somebody came up and almost whispered, “Matthew’s gonna camp out on the island. He wants a tent. Do you know anyone who has a tent?'” Mud director Jeff Nichols recalled Sunday morning. “And I remembered thinking, ‘This is awesome. … This is the guy. This is the right guy.’ I never camped out on that island.”

Part of what also made McConaughey the right guy is his small-town Texas upbringing. The main characters in Mud are actually a couple of 14-year-old boys who cross paths with Mud while boating up the river. They strike a deal with the fugitive to help him get a boat running that’s stuck in a tree on the island.

It’s the sort of trouble that only rural kids can get into. And McConaughey said he remembered well being a kid and having nothing but time and wide open spaces to explore. And while he never aided a fugitive (at least he didn’t confess to that Sunday morning) he did manage to construct a 13-story treehouse in the tallest oak tree he could find.

He had a certain gleam in his eye as he recounted the summer he spent on the project. He snuck out some wire cutters from his dad’s trailer, broke into a nearby lumberyard, and used those materials to construct his masterpiece.

“At the very end of the summer, after it was done and we were gonna move, I asked dad to come take a walk with me,” McConaughey says. “And I showed him it was 13 stories, and I think he knows I got the wood from over there.”

 “And I thought you were going to say, ‘And it collapsed’,” Nichols chimed in. “You’re quite the engineer.”

After SXSW, Mud will play the Dallas International Film Festival in April.

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Shane Carruth Reimagines the Movies

Richardson native Shane Carruth is showing his new film this week at the South by Southwest Film Conference in Austin. It’s only his second feature, but it’s one of the buzziest films at this years’ festival. And it’s another step toward Carruth’s goal of rethinking what a movie can be.

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In 2004, Shane Carruth shocked the independent film world by winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie that earned him the award is called Primer and cost just $7,000 to make.

After one snowy week in Park City, Utah, Carruth was an indie sensation. Which is why his new film has been so hotly anticipated. People have wondered what he’s been up to for the last nine years.

But Carruth, a J.J. Pearce High school graduate, is genuinely surprised that anyone actually cares.

“It just seems like if that were the case, I should be living in a really nice house or something,” he said Saturday in a hotel conference room in downtown Austin.

The truth is, Carruth tried to make another film right after Primer. To tell the story, he needed a lot of special effects, which meant a bigger budget. He took lots of meetings in Hollywood looking for financing. But nothing ever seemed to happen.

“Basically, no one was saying no, but it was not going anywhere. Everybody met it with a lot of enthusiasm, but after a while, someone has to say no,” he said. “And so I decided I would say no.”

But saying no allowed him to say yes to another movie he’d been thinking about. That film, called Upstream Color, debuted this year at Sundance and is now playing South by Southwest. Carruth shot it in Dallas last year. Several scenes take place along downtown streets, in Victory Park and aboard moving DART trains.

Carruth wrote, directed and starred in Primer, and he does the same with Upstream Color. And also like Primer, his new film asks a lot of viewers. Creating a mood through arresting images and haunting music is more important than plot structure. In fact, the last 25 minutes of the film are dialogue free – a confident and gutsy move. And when the characters do talk, they sometimes say things like, “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”

Carruth’s disregard for the well-established rhythms of conventional movies forces you to lean forward in your seat and lock in on what you’re watching. His films are for people who want more out of a viewing experience than a reason to eat popcorn.

Upstream Color is nominally about a man and woman who are each brainwashed by a thief who controls their minds through a parasite. Once the couple rids themselves of the parasite, they struggle to put their lives back together.

But the setup is really just a mechanism for Carruth to explore larger ideas about how our personal histories shape our lives.

“It’s about everything that we suspect is the reason why I did that thing yesterday and why I’ll continue to do those things tomorrow,” Carruth says. “It gets to really explore big, big, big ideas.”

That ambition has earned him fans inside the film world.

“I think he’s a genius. I don’t use that term lightly,” says David Lowery, a Dallas filmmaker who edited Uptream Color with Carruth. “He’s got such a dedication to his point of view. And he won’t subjugate that to anything. … He makes the movies he wants to make, makes them the way he wants to make them, and his films are 100 percent unique.”

Carruth admits that his unwavering artistic integrity is partly to blame for why he hasn’t been as prolific as other filmmakers. And that the business of filmmaking is something he can’t be concerned with.

“If it touches the story, I’ll just lose it. I’ll just lose my whole mental state,” he said, head in hands.

But that’s because he truly believes he’s on the cusp of reimagining what a film can be. His goal is to make moviewatching as rich an experience as possible. An experience that rewards repeat engagement like other art forms.

“You don’t listen to an album and go, ‘OK, great, I know everything I need to know about that. Let’s compare notes.’ You typically listen to it, and if there’s something about it that’s interesting, maybe you listen to it again. And before long, you come to internalize or know everything you can know about it. And I think I would like to see if that’s possible with narrative, and I think it is.”

Upstream Color will open in Dallas in April.

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The New York Times Op-Docs at SXSW

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The New York Times Op-Doc’s panel showed examples of some of the great work they are doing.  The conversation was moderated by Jason Spingarn-Koff, OpDocs Producer for The New York Times.  Spingran says that the video series has grown in popularity, and is sometimes viewed more then articles, and photo essays on the site.   He believes that the project goes beyond just the videos and is all encompassing with the added elements of the article, the comments/conversations,  and the reactions on Twitter. Check out the four examples that were shown, one of which will go live this evening, and will be updated to this page.  That video was my personal favorite, and was made by the filmmaker Simon Ennis who premiered his film Lunacy! this year at SXSW.

‘Drones for America!’

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Making Monsters With 3D Printers

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This morning I swung by the mini “Maker Faire” at SXSW Interactive and had fun playing with MakerBot’s newest 3D printer, the Replicator.

MakerBot has been front-and-center at this year’s conference — its founder, Bre Pettis, gave a keynote to kick off the conference.

Anthony Moschella works for Mr. Pettis at MakerBot and has been to SXSW every year for a decade. He told me that this year people obsessed with 3D printing.

Listen to a clip from our conversation here:

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Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare Fantasy League

Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Lionsgate

AUSTIN – When Joss Whedon, the hero to fanboys everywhere, gets his friends together, they don’t dissect the latest comic book. They prefer material that’s not quite so cutting edge.

As in Shakespeare.

For years, Whedon has hosted Shakespeare Brunches at his home. The actors you’ve seen in Firefly, Angel and his other television and movie ventures show up ready to read a part he’s assigned them. And then they just see where the day goes.

It’s his “fantasy Shakespeare league” as he put it Saturday morning at the Four Seasons Hotel. It started with readings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing.

“You trot out a few of the crowd pleasers when you’re getting everybody together,” Whedon said. “Before go directly to Winter’s Tale, you need to sort of get everybody onboard.”

Those gatherings are what led Whedon to make his modernized Much Ado About Nothing, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is now playing SXSW.

He shot the whole thing at his house in just 12 days with no studio financing and no promise that anyone would even distribute it.

“This was sort of a joyful experiment, and we were accountable to ourselves and not somebody else,” says Alexis Denisof, who play Benedict and who starred in Whedon’s TV series Angel. “And I think that freed up the creative process.”

“There was something just about sitting in this backyard that is beautiful, drinking wine, reading Shakespeare,” said Amy Acker, a Lake Highlands graduate who also starred in Angel. “All the stuff we’d done has kind of accumulated to this point.”

Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg are also among the brunch crowd who made it into the film. But lest you think the shoot was just one big party, it wasn’t. Every spare minute was spent with nose buried in book to learn that tricky prose. With such a tight shooting schedule, everyone had to be ready to roll.

Still, everyone involved had a certain glow while talking about the experience. And there’s no reason to think making the movie will mean an end to the brunches.

“It’s the kind of fun that’s fun for me. We enjoy it, we learn something every time from somebody’s performance or from our own,” Whedon said. “Plus we’re just hanging out. Then when we get drunk, it’s classy!”

Much Ado About Nothing opens in theaters in June.

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SXSW Explores “Why Latinos Love Toyota, And Hate Sofia Vergara”

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There are a lot of talks with intriguing sounding titles at South by Southwest Interactive: What Can We Learn from the Unabomber? Old Tech, New Tech, Same Old Sex?Ninjaneering: Where Fine Art meets High Tech, but one that I had to check out is ‘Why Latinos Love Toyota, And Hate Sofia Vergara.’

The title is meant to be provocative, according to speaker Yashoda Sampath. Sampath is a lead research at Huge — a digital ad agency. When we spoke before her talk, she explained a lot of companies targeting Hispanic Americans make a major mistake by tapping into cliches treasured by the older generation. One good example: Pepsi ads that feature the Colombian actress Sofia Vergara:

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Ninjaneers at SXSW

On Friday,  I attended Ninjaneering: Where Fine Art meets High Tech. The Panel explored the convergence of art and technology in recent years and looked at how the two will continue to intertwine as computers become smarter, and new visual mediums and techniques are developed.



Maurice Conti from the powerful 3D design and engineering software company AutoDesk, offered the historical perspective to start the conversation.  He has a “love affair with art and tech” and the only example of an art form that he can think of that didn’t use technology was interpretive dance.  He speculated that the first tech ever used by man was fire.  It was with fire that man was first able to light the cave walls to create the first pictographs.                                                   

Michelangelo could not have created the masterpiece of the Sistine Chapel without the pigments, and paint technology of the day.  Impressionism gave birth to the beginning of mobile, when oil paint in tubes allowed artists to paint where they never could before.  He goes on to say that painting was primarily used for documentation. Until photography came along, there was a huge need to document and copy events, and documents.  Photography freed the impressionists, and other painters of the time, to explore a world of new possibilities with the subject matter of their work.

Conti moves on to his first contemporary example of art and tech.  Janet Echelman makes amazing installations of nets over public space.  She worked with auto desk to create 3d interactive models of her designs.  With the software, she was able to test the way her nets would bend and stretch, how wind would effect them, and what making changes would do to her over all design.  The computer enabled her to work through her creative process to achieve the designs she had envisioned before ever touching the nets.

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SpaceX Still Wants Launch Site In Texas – SXSW 2013

He transformed the way we buy goods on the internet with Paypal, the way we get around with Tesla, and how we send goods into space with Dragon. Yep, Elon Musk definitely has the credentials to be a keynote speaker at SXSW interactive 2013.

Listen to Elon Musk talk about a possible launch site in Texas at SXSW Interactive. 


Musk’s third company, SpaceX, is the world’s fastest-growing provider of launch services. It has nearly 50 launches under its belt, representing more than $4 billion in contracts. SpaceX’s headquarters is located in California, but the company tests rocket motors across the country, including in McGregor, Texas. During the keynote, Elon Musk says he’s still pursuing a launch site in Texas.

From Paypal, to Tesla to the Dragon, Elon Musk is known for creating products that transform the way we live. He speaks with author Chris Anderson (left) at SXSW Interactive. (Lauren Silverman)

Musk told interviewer Chris Anderson during the Keynote that he’s meeting with the Texas legislature while here in Austin for SXSW to to talk about the potential third launch location. The two current launch sites are in Florida and California.

“We need a third launch site that’s a commercial launch site,” Musk says. Just like you wouldn’t expect personal airliners to land at a military base, Musk says it makes sense to have a commercial launch site. Texas is competing with other locations, including Puerto Rico and Florida.

Democratic state Rep. Rene Oliveria of Brownsville, the area being considered for the site, says the has previously said the state has pledged $3.2 million toward enticing SpaceX.

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Dave Grohl: King of SXSW

AUSTIN – If you’re looking for Dave Grohl this year at SXSW, he won’t be hard to find. He’s one of the unofficial faces of the conference.

On Thursday, he’ll deliver the keynote address for Music. (Which reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s funny quip from last year’s keynote: “How important can this speech be if we’re giving it at noon? Every decent musician in town is still asleep!” Gotta feeling Grohl probably thinks the same way.) And on Thursday night, his Sound City players will play at Stubbs. It’s an eclectic group that includes Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield and others. The only real requirement for membership is that you recorded at some point at the famed Sound City Studio in Van Nuys, Calif.

Dave Grohl directed Sound City. Photo: Roswell Films

Grohl’s love for that studio is really the genesis of all of this. And it led him to make the documentary Sound City, which debuted at Sundance in January and is also playing here. Grohl first came in contact with Sound City when Nirvana loaded up the van and drove there from Seattle to make Nevermind. And even though that record rejuvenated the studio, it’s place in rock history was already solidified. Everyone from Neil Young to Dio had recorded there. Tom Petty made Damn the Torpedoes there. And Fleetwood Mac as we know it met there when Mick Fleetwood heard Lindsey Buckingham playing guitar in a studio down the hall.

These nuggets from days gone by are preserved in the Sound City documentary. Grohl lovingly tells the story of the place, inserting himself now and then but also stepping back when appropriate to let others share. What’s left is a portrait of a place that was fiercely analog and the people who embraced that way of making music.

That mentality, though, is what also lead to Sound City’s demise. In the last 10 years or so, the lure of ProTools and other recording techniques has been too strong for most musicians. Perfection became too easy to come by.

The point that Grohl makes again and again in Sound City, though, is that perfection has a cost: authenticity. Grohl and the other musicians featured in the film embrace the moments in their recordings that make them sound real. And Sound City, with its much-lauded Neve soundboard, captured everything. If your playing wasn’t quite up to snuff, you’d hear it in the recording. As one of the people who worked there says in the film, “Sound City was a place where real men went to make records.”

Alas, Sound City is no more. But a piece of it does live on. When the studio closed, Grohl purchased that famed Neve soundboard and installed it in his home studio. And all of the songs he cut with his Sound City Players were recorded on it.

Sound City played for one weekend at the Texas Theatre earlier this year, but if you missed it, you can check it out on iTunes.

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3D Print-Master On The Maker Movement

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The King of the “Thingiverse” gave opening remarks today at SXSW Interactive.

  • Listen to Bre Pettis, co-founder of Makerbot, speaking at SXSW 2013:

He’s been referred to as Mr. Rogers, Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye The Science Guy rolled into one. Bre Pettis — co-founder of Makerbot — is really a tinkerer at heart who’s built an empire in the world of 3D printing.

Pettis introduced the Makerbot Replicator — an open-source 3D printer that’s been modified to become the standard desktop 3D printer.

Pettis says there we’re witnessing a revolution in 3d printing. “It’s never been easier to make and share actual designs,” he says, “in the same way Dreamweaver 2004 unlocked websites for a lot of people, Makerbot is unlocking the ability to make physical things.”

A few interesting points from Pettis’ talk:

  • Makerbot’s biggest customer is NASA, followed closely by GE.
  • Makerbots are made in Brooklyn.
  • 7 of the top 10 architecture firms in the US use Makerbot
  • People use Makerbots to create everything from prosthesis to garden gnomes, to shot glasses.

Want to make stuff in DFW? Check out the following spots:

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