Three from Texas

With a spate of independent movies, the state once again leaves its mark on film

Texas has long held a special place in the movies, serving as a backdrop for everything from B-movie westerns to cinematic events as varied as The Alamo, Giant, The Last Picture Show, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Terms of Endearment and Tender Mercies. This week marks the opening of two new Texas-centric films -- Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 and Deep in the Heart (of Texas). And they'll be followed in the next few weeks by yet another, Still Breathing. Each of the three is independently produced, each made by a first-time Texas director.

The confluence offers a fresh chance to ask the ever-popular question: What is it with Texas and film? Maybe it's the big Texas skies or the broad horizons that give rise to the imagination. Or perhaps it's the Lone Star State's distinct sense of place, with a movie-friendly mythology rivaled by few locations in America, if not the world. Or maybe it's something as simple as the old saw that you should "write what you know." Or that other old saw, the one about Texas leaving an indelible imprint on anyone who has lived here. Yeah, it's all been said before -- but for the filmmakers behind these three films, the platitudes still ring true.

From the first scene of Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, you know what state you're in. Four young guys -- one in a cowboy hat -- are seated on folding chairs in the middle of an empty two-lane highway that runs into some of the most beautiful nowhere you might ever see. One of the four is reading the letter he wants to send to Rand McNally, asking the mapmaker to give their West Texas hometown of Dancer at least its own tiny dot on their map. In a single, pungent stroke, director Tim McCanlies has set the stage for his delightful coming-of-age story.

"Some folks don't belong in a small town; some folks don't belong anywhere else," declares a local sage at one point, defining the crux of this film's story. On the weekend of their high school graduation, four friends must face up to the pact they made years before: that they would leave town together to make their way in Los Angeles. It's not giving anything away to report that some go and some stay.

Shot in Fort Davis, Dancer sweetly captures the lifestyle, mores, pace and nuance of life in a small Texas town, and thanks to the cinematography of Andrew Dintenfass, frames it all with a keen eye for the beauty of West Texas. Against this awe-inspiring scenery, the actors play out a story as old as the rites of adulthood, yet one McCanlies makes fresh. With a superb leading cast of relative unknowns -- Eddie Mills as the ranch-reared John Hemphill looks appropriately like a young George Strait, while Peter Facinelli as the young local oil heir Terrell Lee Lusk resembles Tom Cruise -- McCanlies has reopened The Last Picture Show to show different facets of a similarly Texan experience. The only false notes are struck by the sometimes intrusive soundtrack (more California western than Texan) -- but that's a small quibble with an otherwise impressive effort.

"I'd always wanted to do a Texas Our Town movie," says McCanlies, 45, a fifth-generation Texan who studied theater at Texas A&M and then earned an M.F.A. from the Graduate Cinema program at Southern Methodist University. "You drive through West Texas and all of a sudden come upon a little town and wonder, who the hell are these people? What the hell do they do here? I'd always wanted to figure that out."

Though he made several short films at SMU, McCanlies found success as a screenwriter (often with uncredited rewrites) when he moved to Los Angeles after receiving his master's. But it was his eventual frustration with the conceptual madness at the major studios that led him to write and ultimately make Dancer.

While writing under contract for Disney, McCanlies had lunch with a top executive to discuss his next project. The mogul presented three options: "A talking dog movie, one about an invisible high school kid or the sequel to Ernest Goes to Camp," McCanlies recounts with exasperation. "I hated all three, so I went and took the next month and wrote Dancer." Though the script hit a note with some folks at Disney, the studio eventually passed.

Nonetheless, it became a calling card for McCanlies's writing talents, and after many nibbles but no bites, he put up $100,000 of his own money to make the movie. Other investors came in to raise the budget up to about $2 million by the time McCanlies started shooting. "And then, a week into production, we got a call from Sony saying, 'Hi, we just bought your movie.' So it's been a weird ride," the director notes.

"There's no nudity, no foul language, nothing blows up, there's no chases, nobody dies," he says with a chuckle. "It's pretty unheard of by Hollywood standards. I couldn't imagine a major studio wanting to buy it. It's just about story and character."

Hollywood has been good enough to McCanlies that he can live on his working cattle ranch, the High Lonesome, near Bastrop (he still maintains a place in L.A. to use while working on projects like the upcoming Dennis the Menace II, which he wrote). And being home in Texas does seem to help him stick to his creative guns. "I don't know too many people who are chased by terrorists or who routinely get into car chases," he concludes. "My reality is little things in your life that loom large. To me, that's real life."

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