In Conversation With: Kelly Williams and Don Swaynos

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Kelly Williams is an award-winning filmmaker and the frequent collaborator of Don Swaynos. In 2014, Mr. Williams and Jonathan Duffy, the producing partners of Ten Acre Films, were nominated along with Yen Tan for the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards for their film Pit Stop [2013]. In 2015, Brad Besser’s feature documentary Beaver Trilogy Part IV, produced by Mr. Williams, Mr. Duffy, Mr. Besser, and Mr. Swaynos, had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to significant acclaim. And Kelly Williams’s newest feature as producer, 6 Years, was written and directed by Hannah Fidell. The film had its World Premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was picked up for international distribution by Netflix.

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Don Swaynos is an editor, writer, and filmmaker. In 2013, his feature Pictures of Superheroes had its World Premiere at the Austin Film Festival. Mr. Swaynos, with Mr. Williams and Mr. Duffy, produced Brad Besser’s Beaver Trilogy Part IV, which had its World Premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. John Bryant’s The Samaritans [2015], on which Mr. Swaynos served as editor, recently had its World Premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival.

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Kelly Williams and Don Swaynos spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about their work as producers together and separately, helping to cultivate indie filmmaking talent, and their involvement with the acclaimed Austin-based production company Arts + Labor. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

Editor’s Note: In June 2015, Beaver Trilogy Part IV will screen at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in June 2015 with Trent Harris in attendance.

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Sean Malin: Over the last three years, I’ve seen almost a dozen movies that you two have been involved with in various capacities: as producers, editors, and even actors. Most of these have been your friends’ films. How do you choose which ones to work with?

Kelly Williams: That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? It’s kind of like asking, “Who do you want to play with on the playground?” Who do you want to be hanging out with for hours? In a weird way, what we do is still in that spirit of getting your buddy’s VHS camera and making a movie in your back yard. In the case of Hellion [2014, dir. Kat Candler], we literally made it in my childhood back yard. There’s a scene in a drainage ditch that’s behind my parents’ house.

SM: Kat told me during our interview that when you went scouting down in Port Neches, TX, you would go to people’s houses to secure locations for the shoot, and you’d be recognized.

KW: *Laughs* That’s sort of true. There was one house we were looking at for the main character’s [Jacob Wilson, played by Josh Wiggins] home. I had to make a phone call when we got there so Kat and the location manager went to the door while I stayed in the car. They were like, “We’re making a movie and we really like your house.” And the owner responded something like, “Oh, yeah, is this for that movie Kelly Williams is producing? I went to high school with him.” It was someone I used to eat lunch with at school and I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. And we used another house for the film that was my parents’ neighbors’ childhood home – weird small-town stuff.

SM: Was shooting in Port Neches a moment of triumph for you where you felt, “Here I am, a successful movie producer”?

KW: Making that film was rewarding in a lot of ways, but ultimately we shot there because that’s where the film took place and it needed to be made there. It was mostly coincidence that I’d grown up there.

SM: [Ms. Candler] also told me that your team had the option to make the film in Austin, which would have helped cut costs and keep the production tight. Instead, you shot on location around several smaller towns in Texas.

KW: I think we could have saved a ton of money for sure. There’s no film crews or filmmaking infrastructure in that area. If we needed stuff for the shoot, key grip always had to go to Houston to get it. Most of the crew was from Austin, and at least half of them were former students of Kat’s [at the University of Texas], which was really cool. Some were from a class she and I taught together.

SM: Have you and Don taught together before?

Don Swaynos: I have not taught yet, no.

KW: I did a little teaching with Kat at U.T. and a little at the Austin School of Film, but not extensively. I was also a substitute teacher for a few years at Brentwood Elementary School before I became a programmer for the Austin Film Festival. I loved it there.

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SM: *To Mr. Swaynos* How did you and Kelly meet one another?

DS: We were both at U.T. at the same time, and more specifically, at the Texas Student Television station.

KW: I was the program director –

DS: And I wasn’t really anything yet *laughs*. We were both working on shows put out by the station. There was one called Sneak Peek that was started by Burnie Burns, who went on to found [Austin-based production company] Rooster Teeth. Some of the producers of Sneak Peek, just to list a few, were Kelly Williams, who passed it to [filmmaker] Todd Berger [dir. It’s a Disaster!, 2013]; Todd Berger passed it to Dano Johnson, a friend of ours who makes amazing animated movies like Flatland [2007]; then he passed the show to me and my friend [Pictures of Superheroes producer] Tate English. That’s how we met friends like Todd and Kevin M. Brennan, who produced It’s a Disaster! – through the station.

SM: At what point did the colleague relationship start to become a professional partnership rather than just a friendship? You have both worked on and off with a lot of the people you’ve named and many others, but only you two – and for you, Kelly, with Jonathan Duffy – are producing partners.

DS: We do produce together but there’s no formal company.

KW: We’ve produced three movies together at this point, and if there’s ever an opportunity to produce together, we take it.

DS: In 2004, me and my roommate, who is also an animator, contributed some bumpers to a bumper contest for AFF. That got us into doing commercials for the festival, which made Kelly my point of contact with them. I also ended up working for an editor whose office was right above AFF’s at the time, so [Kelly] and I started seeing each other a bunch there. That job ended, and Kelly wound up buying a house across the street from mine. *To Kelly* You didn’t even know I was across the street from you. You called me because you knew I lived somewhere in the neighborhood.

KW: “Hey I just moved in to a new place in the area. What’s the neighborhood like?” Don was like “Are you referring to ****? I’m looking at it right now.”

SM: So the next day you started filming VHS tapes in one another’s back yards, I assume.

KW: Actually, I was doing a short documentary called Sid Smith for Congress [2009] and I needed an editor for it. I spoke to Don and he said, “I’ll cut that thing for you.” It took us forever to edit it, of course, but it ended being a great little doc.

DS: It did take awhile because it was one of those things where I’d go after work ended and we’d crack open a beer while we were cutting it. But we did finish it, and Yen Tan made a beautiful poster for it.

SM: Yen Tan is a gifted filmmaker in his own right, but he’s also a pretty prolific graphic artist –

KW: The best in Austin, for sure. I still think his poster for Pictures of Superheroes is the best graphic art from anything I’ve ever produced. The colors and how he pictures the characters are just amazing.

DS: Not to get off on a tangent, but Yen’s so good at what he does because he’s the kind of person that asks to see your film if he’s doing graphic art for it. Before he did posters for Pictures or Cinema Six [2012, dirs. Mark Potts & Cole Selix], he watched the films so he can provide you with the best images to fit the movies. Most graphic designers just ask for a couple still images and a synopsis and ask you what kind of look you imagine.

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SM: Yet for him, the graphic art also helps him sustain a career as an independent filmmaker because otherwise he might not be able to eat. Yen’s career as a filmmaker depends on his inimitability as a graphic designer. You’re both indie filmmakers yourself – what are your skills that helped you to keep working professionally?

DS: Mine is definitely editing. Kelly’s able to produce and program.

KW: Programming is mine, I think. In 2011, I went from being the Director of Programming at the Austin Film Festival to being just a Programmer. That same year, I also started programming the Lone Star Film Festival, where I continue to program. I programmed Lone Star completely from ’11-2012, and then we brought in another guy who is now kind of the Head Programmer. From 2013-2014, I programmed mostly distributed films and helped to round out the program for the festival with those.

SM: Kelly, you have produced enough films, several of which have been highly acclaimed, to consider yourself a producer of note. It’s a sustainable career. You don’t have to continue to program, do you?

KW: I do it because I love it. A film programming job is two things: One, it’s a film lover’s dream job. I love all movies, even the bad ones.I love the whole process of filmmaking AND I hate telling people, “Sorry, we can’t play your movie.” When we made Cinema Six, I was still working full-time as a Programmer and I took two weeks off during production. Throughout pre-production I was still working, though mostly I was on the phone about Cinema Six. *Laughs* Anyway, I took two weeks off, and around Day Four of shooting, I had this epiphany: making this film was just like putting on a festival. The analogy between a producer and that guy on Ed Sullivan spinning plates applies to festival programming, too – they’re all the exact same things, except that when it goes on TV or it’s an event, you’re doing it live. In the case of filmmaking, it’s only live to digital tape and you can fix the plates.

SM: Have you had the plates fall out from under you?

KW: Everybody who’s ever made a movie does. But how often that happens depends on the filmmaker. It’s either in your DNA to be one or it’s not; either way you can stick with it, but if it’s in your DNA, when the going gets hard, you still enjoy yourself.

SM: In terms of your producing work with Jonathan Duffy and Ten Acre Films, and separately, with Mr. Swaynos, what particular skills do you bring to the table that helps to keep those plates spinning so successfully from project to project?

KW: I love finding stuff. I love to find new talent. I love to find new stories and new ways to tell them. I love to help people see things they haven’t seen before. In the case of [writer/director Hannah Fidell’s] 6 Years, that’s a film about a break-up – there are a lot of movies about a break-up. But I haven’t ever seen a movie like this about a break-up.

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SM: Hannah Fidell is a fairly recent transplant to the Austin filmmaking community, and her new film was an award winner at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. Kelly, how did you get involved with her work and 6 Years?

KW: Yen Tan made Pit Stop in 2012, and it premiered at Sundance in 2013 in the same category as Hannah’s film A Teacher [2012]. Two weeks after we wrapped Yen’s film, Kat Candler made Black Metal [2013] which was shot by Andrew Droz Palermo. He was the cinematographer for A Teacher, and a filmmaker himself of [Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary] Rich Hill [2013] and [2015 SXSW Film Festival Selection] One & Two [2015]. When he came in to shoot Black Metal, we became fast friends.

By that time, I had already met Hannah when Kat – who had been teaching a class at UT Austin – brought Hannah, Jonny [Mars], Jason Wehling and I on to a panel together at the end of the semester. Afterwards, we went to lunch where I sat next to Hannah, and we hit it off. She was telling me about A Teacher, which they’d just shot but had not yet premiered, and I loved her ideas. So going into Sundance in 2013, it was at the top of my list to see because A) Hannah made it; and B) Andrew shot it. And I would say I had the reaction you did: here’s a story I’ve heard before, but goddamn if it wasn’t told so originally. I don’t want to sound like I’m giving a Peter Travers quote – “It was the most fun I had at the movies all year!” – but it was for sure the most interesting audience experience I had that whole year.

SM: When I saw A Teacher at Sundance, it left the Press & Industry people divided. Some people walked out and others clapped loudly. Do you expect that 6 Years will similarly polarize viewers?

KW: 6 Years is definitely a visceral experience. Much like A Teacher, people will see the film in completely different ways, putting themselves into the shoes of unexpected characters. Everyone has gone through a situation like [the one in 6 Years], a break-up which neither person necessarily wants to do but both know needs to happen; or one in which one person wants out and the other doesn’t. There are so many ways to experience a break-up that everyone who sees the film will go through something unique. When I watch the film, at certain points I feel just like the male character [played by Ben Rosenfield], and other times I’m in the shoes of [Taissa Farmiga’s character].

SM: I felt those same sensations as you’re describing with Pit Stop, which avoids many pitfalls and tropes despite such a basic premise, and about Hellion. You know, these potentially contrived pitches: “Two gay men in small-town Texas have a love affair,” “A poorly-behaved, badass teen causes trouble for his brother and dad” are executed so intelligently. How do you seek out the kinds of filmmakers who can use their alchemy to take these film clichés and make them something special at the story level?

DS: *To Kelly* I’ll repeat to you something I’ve heard you say a few times. When you produce a movie, you want to produce someone’s favorite movie.

KW: Yeah, that’s true. When I’m assessing something, I ask “Could this be someone’s favorite movie?” And when I say someone, I literally mean one person – that’s more than fine with me. As a kid growing up in Southeast Texas, I used to have these obscure movie posters in my room. My friends would come over when we were in eighth grade. There was one in particular that people always made fun of me for having: Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio [1988]. It’s just a hand holding a phone against a black background. They’d come in and point at it like, “What the fuck is that?” And I’d say, “Guys, it’s Talk Radio, an amazing movie. You don’t know Talk Radio?”

So I’ve always had this fantasy of some kid in Southeast Texas or somewhere like it coming home, and having a poster in his room of a movie that I produced. What kinds of movies do I want to make? Those kinds of movies. If you contacted me and wanted to make Mallrats 2, I would probably put you in touch with someone else and move on. But if you called me and mentioned Trent Harris, I’d say that was something we could work on.

SM: Trent’s the subject of Beaver Trilogy Part IV, which you guys just premiered at Sundance. How did you start working with [director, producer, and editor] Brad Besser?

DS: Brad came to me through Kelly. Kelly called me in to his office at Arts + Labor, which meant I had to get up from my desk and walk around a wall.

KW: It was a five-minute reel Brad had made to sort of…

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SM: Pique your interests.

DS: Exactly. Kelly mentioned that he was thinking of producing it and wanted to know what I thought. I was actually sort of concerned, like is this just going to be another one of those documentaries about a movie? You know the kind of docs where they just have cool people sitting in front of a camera going, “Oh man, it was amazing to see that band!” Or like “that was such an important movie?” Those are bad movies; why watch it when you can watch the actual movie the doc is about, if it’s so good?

Then I watch the cut Brad had sent and we both knew that [his film] was so much more than those kinds of movies. It wasn’t just about the making of another movie, which we would not have been interested in producing.

SM: No, it’s not about Beaver Trilogy or any other of Trent Harris’s movies, really. In my interpretation, Part IV is a movie about a person who watched a filmmaker’s career for many years with a lot of admiration, and then struggled himself to tell the story of that filmmaker’s achievements and films in an equitable fashion. Then, out of nowhere and at the very last second, the history takes beautiful shape for both filmmakers, making both the original Trilogy and Part IV alchemically real. Brad Besser seems to have gotten very, very lucky at the end there.

KW: I can further simplify my own take on Beaver Trilogy Part IV: it’s a movie about broken dreams. Not broken Hollywood dreams, but more like when you dream about something so hard, and it still doesn’t happen.

DS: Right, yeah, yes. It’s a great film about these two guys [Trent Harris and Richard “Dick” LaVon Griffiths, a.k.a. Groovin’ Gary] with dreams of entertaining people, and neither of their dreams work out until this bizarre moment of serendipity from more than thirty years ago pays off. Then as a result of their meeting, their lives take them on these insane paths. When you see Dick Griffiths in that parking lot in The Beaver Kid and he starts doing impressions on the spot for Trent’s camera, the thing that drives him to do those impressions is the exact same thing that drives Trent to film him doing them. They both want to create work that people will enjoy, just like Kelly wants to make someone’s favorite movie. We all want that.

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KW: And not just as filmmakers, either. We all want that as people in general. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when one of Dick’s sisters, Nancy’s, son is being interviewed with another relative and he says something about how everyone dreams of being famous, and then at some point in life, they realize they’re not going to be and there’s a thud. I think every filmmaker, successful or otherwise, feels that at some point. Some get over it and become successful in other ways; some never do, and that thud becomes like a track hurdle you can’t get over.

SM: Thuds like those are a dime-a-dozen, and you see so many bitter and cynical filmmakers who are kowtowed by those hurdles. Have you had experiences in the industry where you became so cynical from thuds that it required you to recalibrate your choices and reinvigorate yourselves? And in those periods of recalibration, did the energy to make movies come back fully?

KW: There was a very revitalizing time for me when we simultaneously made a combination of Pictures of Superheroes [2012] and Cinema Six.

DS: We shot one for a week, and then we shot the other for two weeks, then we went back to finish shooting the first one over weekends.

KW: All that together felt like programming some kind of event. It was this moment when any leftover cynicism I had just went away. So in a way, it’s the opposite of what you’re asking – as the energy came back, the cynicism left.

2 responses to “In Conversation With: Kelly Williams and Don Swaynos

  1. Pingback: ME TALKING - Don SwaynosDon Swaynos·

  2. Pingback: Interview with Christina Choe | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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