‘The Honor Farm’: An Austin original, with loads of talent

Louis Hunter, left, and Olivia Applegate, far right, in “The Honor Farm.” Credit: SXSW

Some people see “The Honor Farm” as a psychedelic metamorphosis. Others see it as a prom nightmare. Some see it as a sweet horror movie. But Austin writer/director Karen Skloss says she sees it as a ghost story.

She’s reluctant to use the word horror, in part because she’s subverting that genre. “I feel like people who are expecting traditional horror and traditional scares are going to be disappointed,” she says. “The movie uses horror themes as a way to tell a story on coming of age, in the way that ‘Donnie Darko’ uses scary elements that make movies appealing for young adults. It’s a way in.”

So, just what is “The Honor Farm”?

The quirky movie deals with two young women, Lucy and Annie, who are attending prom with two young men, and Lucy is expected to lose her virginity to her date, the high school quarterback. But he gets awfully drunk and makes crude advances, so the two girls bail on him and take up an offer from an edgy group of kids to take a trip out into the country, to go into the woods to explore an old abandoned prison where people were once allegedly tortured. It’s said to be haunted.

As you might guess, when kids go into the woods, strange things happen. And strange things especially happen when you eat a couple of psychedelic mushrooms, as Lucy and Annie do, along with their new pals.

Olivia Applegate, a Houston native and University of Texas graduate, plays Lucy with a goofiness and innocence that’s quite charming. And Applegate says she thinks the movie works, in part, because the cast “really bonded while making this movie.”

She points out that she almost abandoned acting as a career choice. “I said, ‘you know what, theater and acting are so impractical, and I’ll do philosophy and be pre-law.’ And then suddenly there’s this open casting call and it’s so right for you. And so I go in, I meet them and get cast in the movie, and that started the whole domino effect.”

She also has a role in “Song to Song,” the Terrence Malick movie that opened South by Southwest this year. “I made the cut! It’s a miracle! What’s funny, too, is that I got cast in that immediately after ‘The Honor Farm,’ ” she says.

She says she’s grateful that an acting career has opened up and she skipped law school. “I never wanted to have a real job ever,” she jokes. “I grew up in high school with all honors classes played cello, was on the tudent council. I was prom queen. I had some boyfriends who were popular, all of that stuff. And then I moved to Austin for college and started singing in a band. … I realized that I was not realized interested in being a square as I thought.”

So her role in “The Honor Farm” sort of mirrors the trajectory of her actual life, which has taken an edgy turn. “The edgy people are the interesting ones,” she says.

Much of the tension in “The Honor Farm” deals with whether the edgy new friends of Lucy and Annie are dangerous. And Skloss keeps you guess for much of the movie.

She says she tested out the dialogue with her 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who’s a junior at McCallum High School. “We have a close relationship… and she’s a good storyteller, and when I showed her the script, she had opinions right off the bat. Jasmine and I would read the script out loud together, and she would say, ‘No, no one would ever say that.’ She was a good teenage reader.”

Skloss adds that she’s making the movie “for her demographic, you know, like edgy young adults. And the more we worked together, the more I realized that she deserved to be credited.” So Jasmine gets a credit as co-writer.

The movie was shot a couple of years ago in and around Austin. And when you watch it, you’ll probably wonder where some of the scenes take place.

The big swimming scene was shot at Krause Springs, near Austin. The actual honor farm building was an abandoned site around San Antonio. And the big suburban development scene at the beginning of the movie was shot in Leander.

Austin folks will also probably recognized the distinct music provided by Graham Reynolds and The Black Angels. Executive producers include Louis Black, Sandy K. Boone, Nicolas Gonda and Morgan Coy. Matthias Grunsky heads up the cinematography, while Mike Saenz and Spencer Parsons provide editing. Vicky Boone headed up casting, and was crucial in recruiting Applegate and getting her the job in “Song to Song,” too.

“The Honor Farm” doesn’t have a distributor yet, so it doesn’t have a release date. But it’s a good bet that it’ll get some special screenings around Austin in the future.

Diane Lane learns to enjoy life in ‘Paris Can Wait’

Eleanor Coppola and her husband Francis Ford Coppola were attending the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, and they were supposed to fly to Eastern Europe afterward, where he had business. But Ms. Coppola had a bad head cold and was worried about flying. So a business associate agreed to drive her back to Paris, where the Coppolas have an apartment, and her husband would join her after finishing his business in Eastern Europe.

But what was supposed to a drive of only a few hours turned into a multi-day trip, with her French comapanion making numerous stops along the way for wine, food and cultural explorations. When Ms. Coppola told friends about her experience, they said she should make a movie.

That movie is “Paris Can Wait,” starring Diane Lane as Ms. Coppola, Alec Baldwin as Francis Ford Coppola and Arnuad Viard as the irrepressible Frenchman, Jacques.

As you might expect, the movie is gorgeous, with lush cinematography by Crystel Fournier, lavish sets and scenery that’s just about every traveler’s dream. The food doesn’t look too bad, either.

Lane’s character is actually named Anne Lockwood, and she’s in her 50s and wondering about her workaholic husband. So when a flirty business associate who eats and drinks and smokes too much, agrees to show her the secrets of the French countryside, she’s intrigued but a bit wary. What plays out over the rest of the movie is a kind of delicate dance, where Anne loosens up and begins to appreciate all the attention.

I know what you’re thinking. This is a movie for older women. Well, yes, it is. But it’s also a movie for everyone who loves France, or loves the thought of getting to know France. The movie is full of joie de vivre, and it should enchant young and old, both female and male. It’s called having a life — and enjoying it to the fullest.

Sony Pictures Classics has picked up distribution rights for the film, and they’ll probably do a good job of marketing. Even if they don’t, you should go see it. A release date hasn’t been set.

Get ready: ‘The Son’ might be the next great Texas TV series

“The Son,” a new series based on the 2013 novel by Austin’s Philipp Meyer, premieres April 8 on AMC, and if you were a fan of the epic Texas novel about the McCullough family, then you’ll be a fan of the new show, too.

Pierce Brosnan plays the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, who was kidnapped by the Comanches as a boy, only to thrive with them and go on to found a Texas empire after leaving the tribe. He’s an archetype, of course, but what a complex character, whom Brosnan fully captures in the first two episodes of the first season, which premiered at South by Southwest.

The episodes go back and forth in time, including the initial attack on a Texas homestead where the young Eli, played by Jacob Lofland, is kidnapped by the Comanches. He endures a lot of pain and suffering, but the first two episodes give you an inkling that he might be a survivor, and a thriver, rather than a victim.

The patriarch version of Eli is no less interesting. In the first couple of episodes, we see a hard businessman realizing that the age of cattle is waning and that the age of oil is on the horizon. But there’s much more going on. The episodes explore the tensions between the Anglos and the early Tejanos, who resent the arrival of the whites as much as the Indians did. There are attacks on the McCullough ranch, and you realize fairly quickly that McCullough isn’t one to respond nicely to attacks.

There’s tension in the McCullough family, however. One of Eli’s sons, Pete, played by Henry Garrett, thinks negotiations might work. He has a wife and daughter, and he seems like a more modern version of his ruthless father. But guess what? Circumstances will test his mettle.

What’s so great about the series? It captures the essence of the novel, with an inventive switching of time periods between young and old Eli, while paying respect and giving voice to all of those who resent the rise of the McCullough dynasty. And you might want to watch out for a star in the making: Garrett, who plays Pete. He’s a Method actor, and he knows what he’s doing.

Also, Lofland, who plays the young Eli, played Neckbone in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” and you’ll see why he’s one of the hottest young talents these days.

Meyer, a former Michener fellow at the University of Texas, has been intimately involved with the development of the series, and showrunner Kevin Murphy and he seem to have developed a creative and intellectually hospitable relationship. The first 10 episodes are done. And Brosnan says he’s up for more, if AMC is willing. That looks likely, based on the first two episodes. But Brosnan says there’s one stipulation: He doesn’t want to film the Central Texas-shot series again in 105-degree weather during the summer. Meyer and Murphy say that’s a deal.

RELATED: James Bond is in Austin, and he’s becoming quite the Texan

‘Honor Farm’ delightfully subverts horror genre at SXSW

What a cool idea for a movie: Tell a story that subverts every aspect of the horror genre, not in a satirical way but in a sweet and very mushroom-trippy way.

That’s the essence of Austin director Karen Skloss’ “The Honor Farm,” which is part of the Midnighters section at South by Southwest.

This is Skloss’ first narrative feature, after a documentary feature about being an unwed mother called “Sunshine,” but you can’t tell it by what’s on screen. It’s quite good.

The story focuses on two friends, Lucy (Olivia Applegate) and Annie (Katie Folger), who are going to prom with a couple of guys. Lucy, who has been a “good girl” all her life, is expected to go to bed with her boyfriend, the football team’s quarterback. But Lucy thinks she’s just going through some hollow ritual and wonders whether it’s worth it. She gets her answer when her boyfriend gets blind drunk and makes a move that’s stupid.

Lucy has enough sense to bail on the guy, and Annie has enough sense of adventure to accept an invitation from a group of edgy, gothy-looking kids to go to a party at an “honor farm” where prisoners were tortured, the ghosts still inhabiting the abandoned structure.

Once they go into the woods, they find some other folks who are already there, and one of them is the hunky JD, played by Louis Hunter, who offers a sensitive alternative to the drunken quarterback back at the prom.

And suddenly, coming of age doesn’t seem as scary as it once did for Lucy. But there’s this big problem. All of them have eaten psychedelic mushrooms, and their imaginations are running wild in a place where craziness has happened in the past. Will it happen again? Or will JD and Lucy find a bond that brings them through the night safely?

Applegate, a Houston native and University of Texas graduate, is a joy to watch, with a slight Diane Keaton goofiness and intellectuality. And she pairs well with the JD character played by Hunter, who’s about as far from a quarterback type as you can imagine, but still hunky.

The supporting cast, including Folger and Dora Madison Burge as Laila, are also excellent. There’s a chemistry among all the characters who go into the woods, with one exception — a rather creepy dentist. Poor dentists. They never get a break on the big screen.

“The Honor Farm” screens again at 9:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo South and at 12:15 p.m. Thursday at the Alamo South.

Eight things we learned during a chat with “Baby Driver” director Edgar Wright


Edgar Wright at Freedmen’s (photo: Joe Gross)

Edgar Wright sat down for a chat on the second floor of Freedmen’s restaurant to discuss his new movie “Baby Driver,” his heist thriller starring Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Lily James and a whole mess of great songs.

Though there are some funny moments, it is not a comedy. “If Blockbuster still existed, I think it would probably be in the action section,” Wright said.  “There are elements of my other movies, but most of the movie was borne out of scenes I have done in other movies choreographed to music.”

The music in the movie is diagetic. “It’s heavily sound- and music-centric,” Wright said. “But it’s not like score that’s kind of laid on. The main character is listening to all of the tracks in the movie and we are essentially seeing it through the main character’s ears. He is living in a slightly different kind of audio existence.”

Wright wanted a genuine young person to play Baby. Elgort was 20 and turned 21 while the movie was shooting. He is right on the cusp of deciding if he wants this life. “He is working within a gang but doesn’t necessarily see himself as part of the gang. The question is, can you be in a gang without being a criminal?”

Why does Baby listen to so many old records? The implication is that he is stealing other people’s iPods, so he is constantly listening to other people’s record collections. Hence the scene of Baby tapping his fingers along to Dave Brubeck.

Jon Hamm is the only cast member who Wright wrote specifically for. And he is the only actor from the initial read-through who kept his role. But the star-studded cast were not shooting cameos. “Kevin and Jamie and Jon were there for the entire shoot,” Wright said. “Kevin is so magnetic that I had a bit of an out-of-body experience watching him on the first day. I had to take a moment and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote this.'”

 The car chases are old school. In many contemporary action films, Wright said, the main cast might be nowhere near the actual chase and are green-screened in later. This was not true in “Baby Driver.” “It’s incredibly arduous to do it the way we did it because you shoot the main stunts, then you get the actors in the appropriate continuity cars and do it all again,” Wright said. “We closed down I-25 like twice on a Sunday morning. It’s thrilling to be out on the freeway with your actors. I think action tends to get bigger and bigger to fulfill this need to top the last thing, but there are real, visceral pleasures to seeing a somewhat realistic car chase on residential streets during the day.”

Yes, the song that inspired the movie was by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Wright said he first got the idea for a movie about a driver who only drove to certain songs back in 1995 when he was listening to “Bellbottoms” off the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1994 album “Orange.” For which everyone who remembers college radio in the 1990s thanks him.

Acknowledging Jon Hamm’s looks does not get old. Wright said he would routinely burst out laughing as Foxx made remarks while looking at dailies and rushes. “Jaime would look at the footage and every time Jon would come on-screen, Jaime would turn to me and say, ‘Man, he’s handsome.’ Made me laugh every single time.”




The meth doc at SXSW raises a lot of questions

A scene from “Meth Storm: Arkansas USA”

“Meth Storm: Arkansas USA” has a weird vibe. It’s undeniably groundbreaking. But it’s also undeniably troubling, from an ethical standpoint.

Before we get into that, let’s just lay out the facts.

Veronica Converse, a resident of Faulkner County, Ark., is a meth addict. So are her kids. She lives in a trailer. She has several offspring. When they need to shoot up, she’s there to help. She has agreed to give the Renaud brothers unprecedented access to her family and their addictions for a documentary.

As the documentarians point out, there’s an economic crisis in central Arkansas. And many people need to deal in meth in order to support their habit. It used to be that they could cook the meth and sell it locally, but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement folks and the Drug Enforcement Agency and other government bodies have shut down local production, so it’s coming in from Mexico these days. And the meth is a cheaper version known as “ice,” which is a bit odd since that’s the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At any rate, much of Converse’s life is dealing with one of her addicted sons, Teddy, who goes in and out of jail, depending on what month it is. His kids rarely see him. He trades in meth. He gets caught.

The Renaud brothers, Brent and Craig, also take us inside the enforcement agencies, watching ICE do its thing — busting folks in Arkansas, sending them to prison, questioning all of the suspects, hoping that something will lead back to the source of the meth supply in Mexico. That’s the reasoning, at least.

The U.S. drug folks are never portrayed negatively, and in fact there’s a certain sympathy toward everyone in this sordid tale. The officers behave respectfully toward those they arrest, and they aren’t abusive. In fact, most of the officers know the folks they’re arresting. It’s all very sad.

The officers lament cutbacks in their budgets. But it’s rather clear that they’re never going to get to the Mexican cartels that are supplying meth to Arkansas. But the Renaud brothers don’t really explore this angle.

It’s also rather questionable that authorities act as though they have made major progress after multiple arrests in central Arkansas, during the 2014 “Operation ICE Storm,” which is detailed in the documentary. Converse has more than a few snickers for the claims that a major breakthrough against the meth trade has been made. So props to the Renaud brothers for showing that.

But the Renaud brothers do something that some folks might find very troubling. They include underage kids, the offspring of the Converse clan, in the movie. These are kids 6 years old or thereabouts, and they have no say about being included. But they are. And it’s heart-breaking. And I believe there are serious ethical questions about their inclusion in the film.

Being a kid in the middle of all this is not voluntary. And the possibility of these kids being ridiculed and ostracized for their parents’ mistakes is obvious. Maybe folks in central Arkansas will never see this, and maybe the kids won’t  have problems. But I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen them asking their daddy why he keeps disappearing for many months at a time. It’s disturbing.

I asked the publicist for an interview with the directors on Friday, via email. I haven’t heard back. Their decisions make the documentary more powerful. But those decisions also make the documentary more disturbing. I think it’s worthy of discussion. They have their reasons. I have mine.

Whatever the case, the documentary sheds light on a horrible addiction in lower-income America.





Noah Hawley talks about making ‘Fargo,’ ‘Legion’ for TV


Noah Hawley, left, and Philipp Meyer.

Austin’s Noah Hawley talked about making two of the most interesting series on TV in recent years, “Fargo” and “Legion,” during a Saturday appearance at South by Southwest. The interviewer: Pulitzer Prize finalist and Austin resident Philipp Meyer, whose “The Son” will be premiering on AMC this spring as a series starring Pierce Brosnan.

Hawley, who’s not only a show runner but also an acclaimed novelist, said that making “Fargo” for TV was like making a 10-hour movie. And he noted that the Coen brothers, on whose movie his series was based, aren’t exactly talkative about their creative process, so he had to analyze it for himself. What did he discover? That they let the camera do a lot of the talking.

Hawley said he thinks the key to the success of “Fargo” was the focus on creating “a feeling and a sensibility” that reflected the original movie.

With “Legion,” which is currently showing on FX, Hawley has a different challenge. He’s in comic-book territory, and he’s dealing with one of the most powerful mutants ever, played by Dan Stevens. So he says he has tried to keep the audience guessing for the first few episodes, that he’s trying to establish “a state of mind” once again.

But since “Legion” is on a commercial network, he says, he has to take into consideration the fact that his narrative will be interrupted for commercials. “You have to approach it a bit different” when that’s the case, he said.

” ‘Legion’ isn’t clear to anyone yet, but we’re moving in that direction,” he said. “We’re creating a world.”

Much of the session on Saturday focused on process, on how Hawley communicates with various directors to keep the episodes consistent in tone. “You do what’s called a tone meeting,” he said. “You go over the script page by page, and the meeting can be three to four hours long.”

He said he thinks the key to success for “Legion” and other series is to engage the viewer, to disrupt expectations, to make them put down a cellphone and actually focus on what’s on TV.

“We’re not going to all you what it means, and if we do that, the viewer’s imagination is engaged,” he said. “If you don’t give what’s expected, there’s tension that makes the audience engage.”