Ray: Yes, very accurate. I used to write a lot. I'd try to
write scripts for comic books of me and my friends, and illustrate
my writing. Then, I got into movies about seven or eight years
ago. I was writing this script and I had all these grand ideas
-- explosions and stuff and ridiculous things -- and then
halfway through I realized: What am I thinking? There's no
way I can film this unless I paint shoeboxes to be the trailer
parks. Then I started thinking: Where am I standing right
now? What's my background? What are my resources? And growing
up in Austin with the music scene and everything, it just
made sense. You know, I've been in bands since '93, and, actually,
the band that's in the movie is the band I was in. The main
character, Jerry Don Clark, who plays Toe, was the singer/guitar
player in bands I've been in and he's been in a lot of short
films of mine, so I figured I'll just write it around Jerry
and write it around some experiences I know. Of course, it
got fictionalized about two-thirds of the way through.
photo by Todd V. Wolfson
So you grew up in Austin?
How long have you been into film?
Well, when I was a kid I always thought I wanted to make films,
but I always thought it was impossible. I always thought it
took $2 million, and you had to move to Hollywood, and you
needed 500 people working on a movie, and then I just sort
of discovered that you didn't really need all that stuff.
Part of that process is thanks to Steve Mims and his Austin
FilmWorks classes. He used to be a prof at UT and now he teaches
classes at his independent film school. So I thought I'll
just take this class and see what it's about and see if it's
really a feasible thing for me to make films. And it turns
out it is.
And then, you were shooting a lot of Super-8 where you were
kind of quote-unquote discovered by John Pierson. It was exactly
two years ago that Pierson was a panelist for the Texas Filmmakers'
Yeah, I submitted a short film on Super-8 as a sample work
and so that came to his attention and --
-- he put on his show [Split Screen on the Independent
What he told me is he said by the time he got to my name,
which is sort of near the end, they had run out of money,
but he liked the short and he wanted to put it on his show.
Where's Austin right now as far as music and film? I mean,
it's an interesting synthesis. When I was doing Slacker
10 years ago, Austin was such a music town. It wasn't really
much of a film town at all. People would have assumed the
movie will be about music, but I consciously skewed away from
For the past 10 years I was really into the music scene and
I've seen, especially with the underground music scene, how
it has just died, especially with all the carpetbaggers, and
the computer guys, and clubs closing or turning more upscale.
All the club dives with sticky floors and stuff, they're all
disappearing. There's no venue for the bands to play at. That's
something that's in the movie: how the band has four people
come to their show and they talk about that a little bit.
That's kind of how it is, you know. There's not much support
or many venues.
It seems like a very realistic portrayal of life in Austin
right now -- or at least for some people here. I really appreciated
it on that level. It deals with things like rents that are
higher now. I like the way they're sort of struggling to survive.
You know, it's no big deal -- they're selling weed and you
know they're getting by and struggling with their band. I
love the tour they take too. The towns they go to.
Yeah, but the rent, that's one thing that irks me. You know,
all my friends used to live in houses, and now everyone's
like three, four people in an apartment just because the rent
has gone through the roof, and that's one thing the main character
Toe discovers along the way. He just likes buying weed for
his own use and finds friends who also need weed so he's like,
hey, you know, I could make a little, I could help pay the
rent here. No harm, no foul -- unless you get busted.
One of the things that's been kind of cool about the Austin
underground was that it wasn't really underground. But I think
now it's being pushed more subterranean. I'm worried about
us driving away artists and potential artists. How do you
feel? What's it like right now as a filmmaker and when you're
struggling to make a film? What do you think? It's definitely
a bigger scene. There's more people doing it, so I think there's
more psychic support that way.
There's a lot of, if you do your film in the summer, there
are a lot of UT film students who will help you with your
film for free and they just want to get experience and get
involved in a production. That's what I did last year. Unfortunately,
it was the hottest summer ever so that kind of sucked, but
we did get a lot of free help. But as far as from just a broader
artistic standpoint -- there's still an underground film scene
kind of like there was an underground music scene a while
back. It still is there, but not being supported as much.
The underground film scene is being supported more than the
underground music scene.
Yeah, that's satisfying to see. It also seems like your film
grows out of the personnel and a kind of aesthetic of the
Cinemaker Co-op [see accompanying story]. I love the Super-8
sequences in the movie, like Toe's drug-induced dream sequence.
Actually, a few years ago Kodak came out with the negative
Super-8 stuff, and I was wondering how I could use this stuff,
what could I do with it? And I was thinking about maybe reversing
the color somehow. So I made a short movie called Night
of the Kung Fu Zombie Bastards From Hell and I painted
everyone the opposite color. So I'm painting all of my zombies
red and they're all going, "What the hell are you doing? Zombies
aren't red, zombies are blue." Trust me. And I did stop-action
takes and it's real jerky and all the colors are really freaked
out and when the colors are reversed you get this toxic weird
blue color that's kind of what I had intended to use in Rock
Opera so it was kind of an experiment. It worked out so
well I thought I've got to use it, so I threw in the Toe-chasing-the-chicken
sequence just to exploit that. But as far as Super-8 goes
in the Co-op, when I originally wrote the movie I intended
to shoot it like all my other films, which is kind of El
Mariachi-style, you know: Get the camera, get my friends
'cause I'd written it with all my friends in mind. I'd shot
all my previous short films with my friends and just myself:
minimal lights, a balance board, and Super-8 camera, some
16. But in the same way I just grabbed my friends, I also
had access to a bunch of bands, and I had access to clubs
and houses around town. Through the Co-op I met a bunch of
other people who were fired up about making films and wanted
to help. I formed a camera crew around Co-op people and suddenly
realized, hey, I can shoot this like a real movie, you know,
or like what most people consider a real movie.
There's always that moment in which you go from making your
own little movies to that feeling that you're making a real
movie. By professional standards it's still not a real movie,
but by your standards, you know it when it's real.
What made it real for some people is that we went and got
a digital slate, and that was it. But it was a lot of fun,
it was also intimidating because I'd shot everything by myself
before that and all of a sudden I have 30 people asking questions.
This also was my first time not only to do it with a crew,
but we did cast two people, the roles of Jarvis and Paco,
so it was my first time dealing with actors who had headshots
and had huge acting experience. Everyone else was in films
I had shot previously. But I wrote the characters -- everyone
except for Jarvis and Paco -- around my friends. Lupe, too,
was a fictional character but he was another friend of mine.
Curtis played a guy named Burtis, who was very much like Curtis.
It was like, kind of play yourself, change the first letter
of your name, and everyone was like that. Ted played Ned,
and I played a character named Bo, took a B off my first name,
and we kind of played ourselves. Some were more extreme than
others. Jerry played an extreme version of himself. You know,
he's sort of that way, but not as weasly and conniving as
he's portrayed in the movie. He's quite friendly and charismatic.
One thing that exists now that didn't used to and has really
come up in the last five to 10 years is an infrastructure
to help. You're a good case for this, that Austin can support
this. You don't have a distributor yet, but you're showing
it at the Alamo. And, Austin's unique in its audience too.
The higher cost of living is a drag but I like Austin a lot
more now: now there's more support, there's more active involvement
-- and there's more money around.
I've been here since '76 when I was a kid and I don't think
it's ever stopped changing, and I don't think it's ever going
to stop changing, and that's what makes it kind of interesting.
photo by Todd V. Wolfson
And why should it? But I think there's a spirit here that's
still good and I think that's reflected in the film audience.
I was really proud of how Hands on a Hard Body did.
You know, it got a pretty good launch with the Texas Documentary
Tour screening, but it didn't do anywhere near the same business
in any other town. It would only play a week or two everywhere
else; in Austin it played for over a year. What does that
tell you? Most cities, people want to see the new blockbuster
wannabe first. The fact is most people here do too. But the
difference is there are a lot of people here whose first choice
isn't necessarily that, who are looking for that less commercial
movie, that weird documentary, that very independent-sounding
film, that kind of thing. I'm hoping your film is everyone's
first or second choice. It deserves to be if people want to
see a good indigenous Austin film.
Also, another thing, sometimes I see a movie that comes to
the Dobie or wherever, and it's a small film, and you've got
to see it quick because you don't know how long it's going
to be there.
And it's harder for a film to stay in a theatre for any length
of time these days.
And the Alamo, it's a great theatre, I love that place, but
they've got one screen, so the support is really going to
determine the length of the run. You know, they don't have
But you can drink beer.
Which is pretty apropos for this movie.
Do you think you'll catch any flak for the movie's open drug
I don't know. I'm sure I will, and if I didn't I'd be kind
of offended, you know.
I didn't think there was anything too offensive on that level,
it seemed more like a lifestyle thing. I saw it during SXSW.
In remembering it, I don't think of it as a drug movie. It's
more about the way these guys live.
I bet half the people in this town smoke weed, or at least
used to at some point.
If every pot user goes to see this movie, I think you'll have
a hit on your hands.
It'll be running for a year. I'll have a hit on my hands,
is that a pun?
Sure. So, why the title Rock Opera?
Well, I had debated a few titles, actually when I first started
with the title Rock Opera I was being sort of facetious
because it's not an opera, obviously. Then I said I'll think
of a better title and then years later -- I'm not good at
titles. The band's name is PigPoke and I think that's a great
band name. I mean, it's kind of funny. With Rock Opera
I thought of other titles, like Rohypnol Summer I thought
would be one. But it's not really about Ropes, it more about
weed as far as the drugs are concerned. But it's primarily
about music, and so I kind of kicked that one around. And
then Texas Crude was another one I kicked around, but
then that conveys images of oil workers and I was like, which
one is more misleading -- Texas Crude, an oil workers
film, or Rock Opera, a musical? So I hope if it's on
a marquee that people don't go "Rock Opera?!"
Have you played in any festivals besides SXSW?
Actually, when I submitted to SXSW it was still a work in
progress. But the crowds were great. It was sort of like a
South by South Test screening, you know, this was the first
time I got to put it in front of a crowd who weren't the people
who made it. I was watching it at parts and thinking, oh yeah,
gotta fix that part. Or, oh, that worked good, ya know, all
right. So after that it was still on video. I hadn't cut the
negative yet because I couldn't afford to at the time, so
I went back and I did some changes. So the new one is still
a world premiere because it's a different cut. It's about
10 minutes shorter. We lengthened a couple of scenes, but
shortened some stuff. I think it's a lot more fun the way
it is now.
That's what really kicks it in for a director -- when you
see it with a public audience. In the editing room you get
into thinking about what it is and your ideas, but it's only
when you see it with an audience for the first time that you
have to confront your own ideas. Like: Oh, OK, that does drag.
I've been lying to myself hoping it didn't, but you know what,
it does. Or, that's not as funny as I thought it was.
Yeah, because you're sitting in the editing room and you're
like, it might not be funny, but it might be funny. Flip a
coin -- it's funny, all right! Put it in.
Some people say test screenings are evil but I don't think
so. I think filling out cards and quantifying it, that's kind
of evil. But you should see it with an audience because that
makes you confront what it really is, rather than what you
wish it was.
I think it also matters what type of film you're making, you
know, if you're making a purely experimental, really personal
film where you're putting your guts on the film, then you
don't really need a test screening because you have something
to say, but I'm making a film that I want to entertain people
and make people laugh.
Yeah, your film definitely wants to be liked. It's fun. Naturally
you want to share that with an audience.
Yeah, especially with this type of film. Especially dealing
with the Co-op, we've done little mini film festivals based
around experimental stuff, and your objective isn't to entertain
the audience as much as to just experiment, try new stuff,
and get really personal with what you're doing. And this is
kind of a mix of both, but it's more trying to entertain.
I think you definitely achieved that. You're sort of meeting
an audience out there at least halfway. You're doing it for
yourself, and yet it's audience-friendly.
Before you made Slacker there wasn't really a film
scene here. There were a couple of movies shot here.
Well, there's always been a film scene here. I moved here
because I sensed there was a film scene here. A lot of it
existed as an adjunct to UT. Apart from the university stuff,
a lot of it was in the exploitation realm. Someone would get
out of school, get some money together, and make a movie.
Then that would be their stepping stone to L.A., and they'd
go get a job with Roger Corman or something. There wasn't
any reason to stay in Austin. I think it has a lot
to do with the industry now. You really don't have to be in
L.A., you can be anywhere.
Yeah, by the time I had received my fifth or sixth rejection
letter from UT trying to get into film school, I realized
they had denial appeal. Actually, from what I understand of
how Rodriguez got in there, he got Steve Mims to give him
a recommendation, he couldn't get in based on his grades in
a similar vein. By that point I was so frustrated and annoyed
with them I wanted to go out and make them regret the fact
that they never let me in. And that kind of stuff really motivates
me, when people either doubt me or don't want to let me try
and do what I want to do it drives me to prove them wrong,
or to prove to myself that I really can do it. Actually, I'm
thankful now in hindsight that I didn't flounder around in
school for several years, because I wouldn't have made Rock
Opera if I had, and I think I learned so much getting
involved with the Co-op and just getting hands-on experience
and shooting more films than a lot of the students on a university
I'd say just shoot a lot of film. You'll learn a lot more
making a film or working with a friend on a film.
And especially shooting video, so many people are film snobs.
They haven't shot any film, but they don't want to shoot video.
They're like, "Oh, that's what my mom uses to shoot the babies.
I need to shoot film." Just shoot something, tell a story
in a visual format. Learn how to edit, learn how to shoot,
learn how to light, and then tell stories.
Do you think your background in comics is helpful?
I think it's very, very helpful. Because that's a film right
there. It's stills out of every scene, you know. Frank Miller
is one of my all time favorites. He's got a comic book called
Sin City that is a constant inspiration to me this
day. The way he draws his compositions, it's all-black and
all-white, there are no grays, it's just solid contrasts,
thick lines. And it is just amazing to see that there is an
image in there, and you look at it from six inches away and
you can't tell what it is, but when you pull it back everything
is crystal clear. And he's a great storyteller as well. I've
been collecting comics for a long time, and I think that it
had a lot to do with developing my visual style.
What I also think helped me to become a filmmaker is the fact
that I didn't think I could be one. So I explored these
other avenues, whether it's art and composition and storytelling
through writing stories. And I've always been sort of an antisocial
person. Not against being social, but just kind of shy and
reserved. And I was kind of small in high school so I had
to make people laugh to keep from being harassed or beaten
up. So I think that helped a good deal too. Look at someone
like Tim Burton, he's a freaky looking guy, you know he had
to make everybody laugh when he was a kid.
And then, something else that also helped was having a background
in construction work, working with your hands and technical
things in three dimensions.
It can't be underestimated, pure technical ability. I always
worked with wood and built things, electronics and clocks.
People underestimate the sheer craftsmanship level.
Working with stuff like that helps build a work ethic too.
You must feel an obligation to everyone you worked with and
all the time you put into it to have Rock Opera find
an audience. Whatever you have to do, go around to festivals,
whether you have to distribute it yourself, unless a distributor
I think self-distribution wouldn't be a bad route to go. The
motivation for the character, Toe, in the movie is to go on
tour. To take the film on tour would be cool. Then I could
maybe hook up with some of the bands in the movie, like Nashville
Pussy, when they're on the road. Hit some towns when they're
I would love to see the self-distribution world evolve a bit.
That should be viable. I think the crisis in the independent
world, there are more films being made, there's a lot of talent,
there are a lot of great films, if anything there's an overabundance
of good films. The crisis is in distribution and theatres.
I think we're lucky here in Austin: We've got a couple of
outlets that you can get your film shown in -- if they like
it enough to show it, of course. But nationwide, it's pretty
bleak for that. How did you come up with the money you needed
to make your movie? It's low-budget, but I'm sure it's more
money than you had.
Oh, I guarantee. The majority of the money came from credit
cards. My wife, Nicole, she has great credit and has already
paid her bills, and she had about seven credit cards.
Oh, we like that.
She's the executive producer. Of course now we are swimming
in debt, and trying to pay all those off. A warning to all
who consider that avenue, you do have to pay them back.
You do have to, yes. It can fuck up your whole life. Only
do it if you have to.
But it was worth it. I don't know many people who are in a
similar situation who've said that it's not worth it. Also
in the same vein, you need to know what you're doing. You
should not shoot short films on credit, or throw all your
credit cards down on a first-time feature because it's probably
going to turn out to be a nightmare.
And it's going to cost, and you're going to pay for your mistakes.
And you're never going to make the movie that you want to
make because you're too busy paying for the movie that you
tried to make.
I think your trajectory as a filmmaker is really the way to
go. Self-taught, that's a good model for people who want to
make films. You learn all the realities of making movies.
I would ask people who want to be filmmakers, "Do you like
to edit 15 hours straight instead of doing anything else?
Would you just want to darken your windows and stay in your
editing room forever? Is that a good way to spend a life?"
Because if the answer is not "yes" then you're really not
a filmmaker. If you just shovel off your work to someone else
and say cut this stuff I made into a film, who's really making
the film? But picking up the Super-8 or video camera you could
have a lot of fun. Just go out there, grab your friends, shoot,
and see what you like and what you don't like about it, because
you're going to love some stuff and you're going to hate some
stuff. So go shoot film.
Well, I think Rock Opera is very inspiring in that
way and I think it could give the local scene a new kick.
These things are always renewing themselves. It's kind of
exciting where the local scene's at right now. I just love
what the Co-op's doing. Lee Daniel [local cinematographer
and Austin Film Society co-founder with Linklater] and I always
talked about this Co-op idea, but it never really gelled back
then. But I think the Co-op had to emerge eventually, and
it's real exciting the way it has.
But I don't think it could have without the Film Society.
They sort of work together in a really interesting way. They're
like two parts of a brain.
The making films and the showing films, the support and the
know-how. The great thing about the Co-op, people who want
to become filmmakers, they can shoot films, submit them to
the Co-op film festivals, which they pretty much take anything
that's shot on Super-8, and they can see the reactions that
they get out of an audience. And that can make your head swell
up bigger than Dallas or it can make you go, "Oh man, that
was a mistake." But that's the point you learn. You learn
what you like and what you don't like. You can learn how to
offend or make people laugh or cry.
You're in that loosely communal atmosphere. so you're not
alone. There are others out there working, doing the same
thing. It's an interesting scene that's emerged; it's really
And even if your film sucks, people are going to support you.
They're going to encourage you and you're going to learn from
that. You've got make a shitty film at some point.
I've got a closet full of them. What's up at the Alamo on
the opening night?
Well, we've got some bands. There are a couple of bands in
the movie. Pocket Fisherman are going to play a short set
before the 7pm screening. Voltage is going to play before
the 9:30 screening. We're going to do a little Q&A after the
movie. We have an after-party at Ruta Maya, the Fuckemos are
going to play. We're going to get tanked and have a good time.
Well, sounds like a great party.
It should be. That's what it's about. The movie is sort of
a party. And we were having fun making it.
I could tell it was fun. It felt very natural.
Despite the heat and a temperamental flare or two, but that's
going to happen. Despite that we had a really good time and
I think everyone involved would do it again.
Hope you get a chance some time soon. It would be great if
everyone went to see it, it plays for a long time, you could
pay off your debt, and make your next film. All here in Austin.
That's right. I can wear those credit cards out again.
Rock Opera opens at the Alamo Drafthouse on Friday, September
3. The opening night event will feature two screenings at 7
& 9:30pm with live music by Pocket FishRmen and Voltage. The
bands will play a half-hour set and the movie will follow. Guest
speaker Richard Linklater will introduce Bob Ray. Immediately
after the each screening there will be a short Q & A with the
cast and crew. Tickets to the premiere night are $10 AFS members/
$12 general admission; proceeds benefit the Austin Cinemaker
Co-op. For more info on the film see http://www.lonestar.texas.net/~crashcam.com.
Ten years ago this summer, in 1989, Richard Linklater and crew
took to the streets of Austin and filmed the now-classic movie
Slacker. Little did anyone realize at the time that the
movie would evolve into one of the defining landmarks of Austin's
cultural history. The movie helped establish Linklater's career
as a premier American filmmaker, and since then his career has
been closely associated with his ties to Austin. Not only did
Linklater stick around to continue his guidance of the growth
and expansion of his beloved Austin Film Society, which he co-founded,
but Austin also remained the home of his production company
DetourFilmproduction. As a result of his ongoing presence and
participation in the community, Linklater is in an exceptional
position to be a shrewd observer of our cultural scene. So,
when he was taken with the test print of a new, locally made
movie called Rock Opera by filmmaker Bob Ray during a
midnight screening at the last SXSW Film Festival, our curiosity
was naturally aroused. The completed film, which draws heavily
on the Austin music scene, is due to open on Friday, September
3 at the Alamo Drafthouse. In advance of the premiere, Linklater
sat down with Bob Ray to talk about the new movie and discuss
the evolution of the Austin filmmaking scene over the past 10