Until Austin's Rick Linklater created Dazed and Confused, and San Antonio's Robert Rodriguez produced El Mariachi, Houston's Eagle Pennell was the first director to come to mind when the issue of independent filmmaking in Texas was raised. Pennell, for better or worse, was the poster boy for low-budget Lone Star auteurs. With films such as The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo, he created what Brian Huberman, film instructor at Rice University and one-time Pennell director of photography, terms an "alienated, redneck, white voice" filled with tragicomic charms and acute presence. But as Huberman also notes, "the outlaw's path to glory is the hangman's rope." By that, he means that what at one time made Pennell the darling of cinephiles has now become politically incorrect, and partly as a result, the Houston director who was once in is now close to being back on the outside.
That may be one reason why Pennell's fifth feature, Doc's Full Service, is only this month being released in Houston, even though it was finished almost a year ago (it received its premiere at last April's WorldFest). But if Pennell's approach to moviemaking is no longer au courant, he doesn't seem to notice or, perhaps, care. Doc's Full Service continues in a vein that Pennell has been assiduously mining for 15 years. Filled with contemporary Texas descendants of the cowboy spirit, Doc's was made dirt cheap for $200,000 (chump change by Hollywood standards) and was shot mainly at the Artz Brothers Texaco Service Station in the Houston Heights.
Artz Brothers is the oldest service station in Texas, and it has not only the expected John Wayne posters and animal antlers, but also a thriving egg company in back. The station stayed open weekdays; filming took place nights and weekends. "Customers who had traded here all their lives would walk right out onto the set," notes Greg Artz, one of the proprietors. But since the movie had no nudity or profanity, Pennell was permitted access. "He's a very convincing guy," Artz says, adding that Pennell came by after the film was done and bought tires. For his part, Pennell offers, "I'm very fond of old places. Why make up new stuff when history's right there?"
Doc's Full Service is rife with types who surely frequent the station. And though it is the slightest of Pennell's Texas-based movies, it does tap into the director's strength: small-town Texas lifestyles and values. Fictitiously located somewhere in rural Texas, the film spends time with down-home figures ranging from an easygoing service station owner constricted by both his lack of dreams and a cheating, makeup-maxed wife, to a middle-aged, drunken mama's boy with the Bard in his soul. There are Aggie jokes, conga lines, domino games and lots of talk about how people got such nicknames as Pee Wee, Doc and Big Silly. Nothing much happens but the passing of time in Texas.
Though he now lives in Houston, Pennell is originally from Andrews, in West Texas, and he's at his filmmaking best when he makes movies about what he knows: the blue collar rural Texas of longneck bottles, good old boys and bad nights out. Sitting at Justin's, a sports bar in Greenway Plaza, Pennell has settled in to explain his filmmaking philosophy. "I guess the reason I like rednecks is they tend to speak their minds," he says about his brand of Texas mythos. "You get some artful dodgers in the middle class. The lower class, constantly having to work their way up, tells it like it is. I like the constant struggle."
That struggle was evident in Pennell's 1978 debut, The Whole Shootin' Match, which was made in Austin for about $40,000. Many consider this slice into the lives of an aw-shucks inventor and his no-count partner to be Pennell's most accomplished work. Amid tinkering over "dang-blasted" machines, raising hell in honky-tonks and enduring Jesus-speak from well-meaning women, the two friends talk about big plans that are, in truth, nothing but little details. When their proverbial ship finally comes in, it ends up being sunk as much by themselves as by others.
Bittersweet and lyrical, Shootin' Match has a twang so true that it garnered accolades at film festivals across the U.S. and abroad. Steven Spielberg even came by to say hello.
Pennell's next film, Last Night at the Alamo, was in the same vein, even if its characters are less resonant than stereotypical. Shot in The Old Barn, a now-defunct Houston watering hole, the movie's ostensibly about an attempt to save the bar -- called the Alamo in the film -- from the wrecking ball. Alamo was also well-received, though mainly in Europe, where Pennell has a large, Texas-intrigued following. "I always turn my accent on and wear my cowboy boots when I go there," he jokes, although it's obvious he means it.
"I like Texas," Pennell says. "When I've gotten in trouble is when I try to force things that aren't there." To Pennell, his third film, Ice House, which starred Melissa Gilbert and was written by her then-husband Bo Brinkman, failed because he was a "gun for hire." He took the directing job, he says, because he was broke. A similar disappointment, Heart Full of Soul, "wasn't a bad story, but I didn't pull it off the way I wanted to."
He didn't pull off Hollywood either. After Shootin' Match, Tinseltown beckoned, and Pennell signed with Universal. He worked eight months on a script titled The King of Texas, but when his sponsor suddenly died, Pennell could find no takers. Bigwig producer Michael Shamberg stepped in and, according to Pennell, tried to force him to write mainstream fare. Pennell, who admits to being the type of carouser fond of drinking, women, fighting and gambling, ended up punching Shamberg out. In public, no less, at a fancy L.A. restaurant. All deals were off. "That one punch has cost me $5 million," Pennell sighs.
Pennell doesn't want to badmouth Shamberg, though. He'd much rather make amends. "Everybody seems to think I have a chip on my shoulder. I don't," he says. "I was overwhelmed by Hollywood. Quite frankly, I blew up. I was scared." Ever since the punch, though, Hollywood apparently wants nothing to do with Pennell, and Pennell wants nothing to do with Hollywood. "Everything is commercially driven there," he complains. "Either you play by Hollywood's standards or you don't play at all." So Pennell doesn't play.
Or he plays by his own rules, an approach he came by naturally. The seven words that started him on filmmaking, he remembers, were: "'I got a new con for us.'" The time was the early 1970s, and the person with the message was a buddy at the University of Texas. That buddy followed up his initial comment with, "It's called film school." So Pennell, an all-state basketball player, dropped his athletic scholarship, abandoned his pre-law textbooks and went behind the camera.
From these inauspicious beginnings, an independent filmmaker was born. Pennell defines "independent filmmaker" as "somebody who doesn't want to be under somebody else's yoke. It's not a matter of budget; it's a matter of vision." And it's this issue of seeing -- of seeing clearly -- that has been the bane and the boon of Pennell's career.
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Kim Henkel, who wrote Last Night at the Alamo and served as an adviser on The Whole Shootin' Match and Doc's Full Service, thinks that Pennell's "refusal to submit to the corporatization and homogenization of mainstream filmmaking is less a matter of choice than of character." It's an understandable conclusion, given that Pennell peppers his conversation with renegade tales of booze and broads and such unabashed comments as, "The only people I hit are the guys who deserve to be hit." Throughout his career, Pennell has opened his own doors, resorted to breaking some down and has had others slammed in his face. Perhaps Pennell's bottom line is that he's an independent filmmaker who exists solely through his craft: he has no day job. "I've made tons of mistakes," he admits. "My saving grace is I believe in what I've done."
This single-minded perseverance, this doggedness to create autonomously, is something Pennell would like to give back to budding independent filmmakers. Though he talks grandiosely of wanting "to open up and do bigger things," he seems most interested in teaching others the hard lessons he's managed to learn. "I'd like to produce other independents," he announces, saying that, at least for now, his directing days are over.
Having weathered the challenges of independent filmmaking, Pennell feels he can help others win the uphill battle that has decimated the ranks of independent filmmakers. "I know what it's like to be on the battlefield," Pennell says with a bravado equal to that of one of his blue-collar characters. And if someone needs to teach other independents how to fight, he suggests, it might as well be him.
Doc's Full Service.
Directed by Eagle Pennell.
Plays January 6-12 at Landmark's Greenway.