A New Orleans native, writer-director Todd Berger moved to Austin to attend The University of Texas. After graduating from UT’s Radio-Television-Film program, Berger was quickly swept away to the always sunny shores of Los Angeles. With The Scenesters (2009) and It’s a Disaster (2012), Berger has become yet another success story to come out of UT’s film program; and even though he did not spend very much time in Austin, Berger has maintained very strong ties with the Austin film community. So, when we heard that Berger was coming to Austin for the regional premiere of his latest directorial effort, It’s a Disaster, at the 2012 Austin Film Festival we thought it would be fun to get his outsider perspective on the Austin…
What prompted you to move to LA after you graduated from UT?
That wasn’t originally my plan. I was going to move to Chicago and do Second City. But UT’s Radio-Television-Film program did this thing called the Annual Hollywood Showcase in which they would take student films and show them in LA at the DGA theater. They would invite UT alumni just to see what people were doing. Well, two of my films were picked to screen there, so I figured I should go. After the screening, an agent — Stephen Moore, he’s still my agent — walked up to me and said that he really liked my shorts and asked if I had ever written a feature. I said, “yeah, I wrote one for class.” He asked me to send it to him, and I did. He liked it and said that he wanted to sign me. I was on a delivery for Double Dave’s when he called me to let me know that they optioned my script to Paramount and they needed me to rewrite it, so I had to move out there. I was like “Okay, I quit! I am going to eat one more batch of pepperoni rolls and then I’m out!”
And, now I have been in LA for 10 years. I love it. The weather is great. I love living there but I never would want to visit. Once you really get to know it and you know where to go — and which freeways to avoid and what times — it is a great place; especially when you are a writer and you can work from home and don’t have to worry about sitting in traffic. Its a company town and that’s another fun aspect. Everywhere you go you are going to run into somebody who works for some production company.
The time you spent in Austin seems to have a strong influence on you as a filmmaker.
Part of the fun of [It's a Disaster] is that I wanted to make it ambiguous as to where the movie was set. I want you to be able to watch it and think “this could be my town.” So, they reference a park that doesn’t really exist; they mention street names from different cities, like they mention Duval Street because I used to work at Double Dave’s on Duval; and, of course, they are trying to watch a UT football game. The name of the elementary school that David Cross’ character teaches at is the elementary school that I went to. That’s one of the most fun things as a writer, all of these subtle things you can do for callbacks that only your friends will notice. For instance, there is a throwaway line in the movie when Kevin [Brennan] is off-screen and he is talking about how he used to work in an A/C repair shop and his boss was named A.C. Well, Kelly Williams is an old friend of mine, and he and Kevin made a short film for a 24-hour film competition ten years ago called Willie and A.C. — Kevin’s father plays A.C. and Kevin plays Willie, and the whole movie is about them accidentally being exposed to freon and having a freon freak-out and its like a drugged-out trip sequence. So I wanted to put in a reference that only Kelly Williams would get. Its fun to include things that only people who know you will get a kick out of, but no one else ever would. Even just to mention Austin and UT in that way was really fun.
What is your perspective on what is currently going on in the Austin film scene?
It’s great! It seems like it has really solidified. The city itself seems like its a city of cinephiles. On top of that, so many people are making films here. There are so many Austin filmmakers now! I think its just getting bigger and better, and I approve.
One of the biggest struggles that Austin filmmakers face is how to fund their projects. What do you think needs to change in Austin to help with that?
When we made The Scenesters, we did that all with private financing; I don’t think any of the money came from LA. You’re in Texas! There are a lot of rich oil people around! Go to Dallas or Houston. There are wealthy oil people who would think it is sexy to invest in a movie. You just need to find them. Every filmmaker should know someone who is involved in business or accounting or investing. Financing comes from financiers and it is good to know people who can help you out with that aspect. Also, everyone seems to be crowd-funding now — which I think is great but I don’t know how long that party is going to last.
Honestly, you can make a movie so cheap now I don’t really know if it is really a concern anymore. I program for Slamdance and I just watched 90 movies that were shot on the [Canon] 5D. You should probably think about it and write a script first; make sure its good, get some good actors. Cinema Six by Mark Potts — that movie is really great and they made it for next to nothing.
I saw Don Swaynos‘ Pictures of Superheroes yesterday. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before; its unique and its going to stick with me. So many people get their 5D and they want to make a Mumblecore movie about a couple — she works at a coffee shop and he’s a struggling artist, and they fall in love. Cool, I’ve seen that movie like a million times! But I have never seen a movie like Pictures of Superheroes before, and you really have to learn how to set yourself apart. If you can’t get famous people in your movie then you have to figure out some way to get attention.
Austin Movie Events This Week
11/6 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’ Essential Cinema Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown. (More info)
11/7 – AFS Screening Room – AFS’ Docs-in-Progress presents PJ Raval’s Untitled Gay Retiree Documentary. (More info)
11/7 – Alamo Ritz – AFS’ Best of the Fests presents Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renee. (More info)
11/8 – AFS Screening Room – AFS’ Docs-in-Progress presents Merch Girl. (More info)
11/8 – Alamo South Lamar – To help support Golden Hornet Project’s quest to complete Mozart’s unfinished “Requiem”, the Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a screening of Amadeus which will also include a live choral performance of “The Requiem” work-in-progress performed by members of Texas Choral Consort with GHP co-artistic directors Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds in attendance. (More info)
11/10 – Spiderwood Studios – Alamo Drafthouse’s Road Rage Drive-In 2012 presents The Legend of Billie Jean with Barry Tubb in attendance. (More info)
11/12 – Violet Crown Cinema – Cinema East presents the regional premiere of All the Light in the Sky featuring a post-screening Q&A with writer-director Joe Swanberg via Skype. (More info)