Occasionally, Austin Cinematic Limits is going to post interviews with key players in Austin’s film community. It might be common knowledge that there is a rich pool of directors in Austin, but there are also a ton of fantastic actors, cinematographers, composers, animators, make-up artists, and other cinematic people with whom we also want to converse. Maybe — just maybe — we will gain a better understanding of why all of these talented people have chosen to live and work in Austin rather than Los Angeles or New York City.
We are starting with producer Kelly Williams — partly because there are only a handful of producers who actually live and work in Austin, but also because he is currently juggling so many great projects. Since resigning from his role as Film Program Director at the Austin Film Festival in June 2011, Williams has already produced Kat Candler’s Hellion (premiered at Sundance 2012), the anthology film Holiday Road (premiered at Slamdance 2012) and Mark Pott’s Cinema Six (scheduled to premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival in April 2012). Don Swaynos’ Pictures of Superheroes just completed post-production and Williams has two more films already in the pipeline, the feature-length version of Hellion and Yen Tan’s Pit Stop.
So, let’s get right to the point — what brought you to Austin and what keeps you here?
I came here for school [at the University of Texas] and just stayed, like a lot of people do. I honestly came because I was a big fan of Slacker. Of course by the time I got here, that version of Austin was long gone; but it was the idea that movie got made in Austin and it saw an international audience, and then Richard Linklater continued making movies here. That was a big motivation for someone who had always been told that if you want to make movies you have to move to Los Angeles, and I didn’t want to do that. In the long run, I started working at the Austin Film Festival and I was there for a long time. In the course of being there I got married and bought a house, so Austin feels like home.
What it boils down to for me is that I want to work with people I like — fun people. I feel like I found those people in Austin. That is motivation in a sense too, to get to work with people like Don Swaynos and Kat Candler. And the crews here are a lot of fun too.
In a very short period of time you have already gotten to a point that you are turning down projects. That must be a great position in which to find yourself.
I can only produce so many movies per year, but I wish I could make more. I wish it was more sustainable, of course, but ultimately I hope that it will be. So far I have had the luxury of being able to work with directors who [while at Austin Film Festival] I was able to program their previous films. Yen [Tan] is the first director I’ve worked with who I didn’t program a film of his, but I saw Ciao as a film festival juror. I might not have met him or been aware of his work otherwise.
In what other ways has your tenure at AFF benefited you as a producer?
I was already producing short films — including Scott Rice’s Perils of Nude Modeling (2003) — when I got the job at AFF. Then I learned that putting a film festival together is a lot like producing a film. A lot of people don’t realize that there are a million other aspects to programming a film festival besides just programming. Programming is a really small part of it, but an important part obviously. I took a couple weeks off from AFF to produce Cinema Six last February and that’s when I realized how similar festival programming is to producing.
And so many doors were opened for me, I met so many people over those years at AFF. When I segued into producing, it was nice to already know a lot of people. Also, watching thousands of movies year after year really sharpens your skills regarding what you like, you learn what works for you.
How do you define yourself as a producer?
Personally, I am drawn to the creative side of producing, but I don’t ever want to be overbearing. I like being a bounce board for the director, to help them focus on what they want. That is what makes post-production a lot of fun for me. As slow as it can be, watching countless cuts is one of my favorite parts of the job. My expertise right now focuses on what I call the “finish line” — which is film festival strategies and distribution. That is the part I have been most involved in so far.
And knowing both sides of the festival programming process must be pretty invaluable.
It definitely gave me a good grasp of the film festival landscape. You can’t help but watch and see what is programmed at different film festivals, so that helps determine where a film might have its best chance. It is best to be strategic about festival applications. The festival world is a weird game — like a poker game, some people get to cash out early but others have to know when to hold ’em.
Can you give us an update on where your various projects stand?
Cinema Six is the first feature that I produced. I produced it with Don Swaynos and Nick Tankersley; Mark Potts and Cole Selix co-wrote and directed it. Mark and Cole are guys whose films I have been programming since 2006. They are just a couple of guys in Norman, Oklahoma making movies. We were always planning on shooting in Oklahoma, but we found the perfect location — a movie theater — in Lockhart. Cinema Six is totally done and it is premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival in April.
Holiday Road is a project I came onto about halfway into its production. It is an anthology of 12 short films by 13 different directors and was made by a lot of guys I went to UT with who are now living in LA. Holiday Road world premiered at Slamdance 2012.
Hellion is the first project I did after leaving AFF full-time. It is a short film that Kat Candler wrote and directed. It just world premiered at Sundance  and we are currently developing a feature version, which we will hopefully be shooting in Spring 2013.
Pictures of Superheroes by Don Swaynos just picture-locked last week, so it will hopefully be premiering at a film festival in the second half of 2012.
Pit Stop is Yen Tan’s upcoming feature which I am producing along with Eric Steele and Jonathon Duffy. We are looking to shoot Pit Stop in May 2012.
And you have been juggling those projects with other jobs as well, right?
I have to make a living somehow, because producing doesn’t pay the bills yet. I am the Director of Programming at the Lone Star International Film Festival, which keeps one foot in the programming world. I am also helping out with the Moontower Comedy festival, which is a different type of event for me. And I am teaching Intro to Digital Filmmaking at the Austin School of Film. I am halfway through the six week course. This is my first time ever teaching a film class.
What do you perceive to be your next steps in your career as a producer?
To do slightly bigger projects each time. Sustainability is the ultimate goal, to be able to just focus on producing. I really just want to continue making good films, which in itself can be a challenge.
Cinematic Things To Do in Austin This Week:
2/20 – Alamo South Lamar – Gearing up for the 12th annual Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards show on March 8 at ACL Live at The Moody Theater, Austin Film Society will be screening films by this year’s honorees. This week is Infamous by Midland-raised director Douglas MacGrath. (More info)
2/21 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS kicks off their new Essential Cinema Series — Children of Abraham/Ibrahim 6 — with Bader Ben Hirsi’s New Day In Old Sana’a. (More info)
2/25 – Alamo Ritz – Asian Invasion Hong-Kong-a-Thon! Five movies! 10 hours! All curated by Grady Hendrix (New York Asian Film Festival) and Lars Nilsen (Fantastic Fest) with special Hong Kong-centric food and drink options! (More info)