Discover Your City’s Cinematic Roots

An Austin Movie Landmark Travel Journal

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How well do you know the city around you? Chances are you think you know it pretty well, especially if you grew up in said city. Or if you’re like me, you’ve lived in a place long enough to think you know the ins and outs. At the very least, you know when you shouldn’t be on particular highways to avoid atrocious traffic. You might even have a favorite burger joint (I have three). And if you’re a movie lover (which explains what brought you to us in the first place), you’ve also certainly got a choice spot to watch films.

For me this place is Austin, Texas, my adulthood city of choice. I may not have been raised here, but I’ve found myself more at home over the past 5 years in the heart of Texas than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s a place known for its famous movie nerds and its general acceptance of sitting in a dark room, consuming fried meats and watching cult classics all at the same time. I’ve been there numerous times. From waiting in line for film festival screenings to waiting in line for barbecue with out of town guests to waiting in line to buy limited edition movie posters, my Austin film geek experience has been both exciting and overwhelming.

Recently, however, I realized that there’s something about this experience that feels incomplete. It’s become apparent that I spend too much time inside, watching movies. “How is that even possible?” you might ask. Isn’t a movie lover’s place inside, watching movies? Sure, but there is more to it, especially in Austin. Because as much as we love watching movies in this town, there are plenty of filmmakers throughout the years who have chosen Austin as a setting for their movies. It’s not just the movies of Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof) and Robert Rodriguez (most of them). A number of cult classics were made here, including Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, Mike Judge’s Office Space, Varsity Blues and both the movie and television show versions of Friday Night Lights rolled cameras in and around Austin.

I’d be willing to bet that no matter where you live, a great movie wasn’t shot far from where you are right now. And every once in a while shouldn’t we, as movie geeks, go out and explore?

In that spirit I’ve taken to the streets of Austin with the help of our friends at car2go to explore the cinematic landmarks of my city. As anyone who has used car2go can tell you, it’s a smooth and easy process. It was as simple as walking up to a car that was parked not far from my house and tapping my member card on the windshield. Mere seconds later I was comfortably inside, the navigation was set and I was on my way to a morning of local sightseeing. I’ve chronicled this journey below and would encourage you to do the same in your own town.

Stop #1: Panthers Field House (As Seen in Friday Night Lights)

The first stop on my tour of Austin’s cinematic landmarks, following picking up my car2go ride and my friend and photographer Yimay, was about 10 minutes east of downtown Austin in Del Valle. Right out by the airport still sits Panthers Field House, famously used as the training facilities of the Dillon Panthers in the television show Friday Night Lights.

With “clear eyes and full hearts” we pulled up to the place that was home to both the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions.

The field house, which sits within eyeshot of Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport, is blue and white on one side for West Dillon. On the other side, which wasn’t particularly accessible by my rogue yet law abiding crew, the building is painted red and white for East Dillon. The fields were built back to back. The West Dillon field was considerably nicer to represent the nicer side of the tracks in this fictional Texas town. The East Dillon field, not so much.

Today both fields are overgrown and unused, sitting silently. But the spirit of Dillon is still there in all the little nooks and crannies. They seem to be waiting, hoping that NBC will reboot the show and bring the legend of Tim Riggins back to Austin’s east side. Used or not, the Panthers Fieldhouse is an excellent monument to what is perhaps Austin’s most famous production.

Stop #2: St. Mary’s Cathedral (As Seen in Machete)

The second stop on our journey took us deep into the heart of Austin’s bustling downtown area. On the corner of 10th Street and Brazos sits Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a towering Catholic church that dates back to the 1850s. It was here that Robert Rodriguez put a priestly Cheech Marin in the crossfire in his 2010 exploitation homage Machete.

The scene of a massive gunfight set to “Ave Maria” then, St. Mary’s now sits quietly, welcoming worshipers with its sky-touching, gorgeous Victorian architecture. It’s hard to put into words how tall and beautiful this church is, so I’ll do my best to show you in the jumbo-sized images below:

Stop #3: Guero’s Taco Bar (As Seen in Death Proof and Chef)

Leading us deeper into South Austin was our third stop, Guero’s Taco Bar. It was here that a number of movies have been shot, including exterior and interior scenes early on in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. While his buddy Robert Rodriguez often chooses to shoot many of his films (Spy Kids, Sin City, etc.) on the lot of his local movie studio Troublemaker Studios, QT has used his time in Austin to show off some of the town’s more interesting establishments.

You’d most likely remember Guero’s as the restaurant where Jungle Julie and her friends are making plans for their night out in Death Proof. More recently, the patio area of Guero’s was used in Jon Favreau’s food truck road trip film Chef. In driving his food truck from Miami to Los Angeles, Favreau’s character stops off in Austin for some good barbecue at Franklin BBQ, then attends a night show by local star Gary Clark Jr. at Guero’s.

Stop #4: Top Notch (As Seen in Dazed and Confused)

The final stop of our trip coincided perfectly with lunch time. Just as the clock struck noon, we pulled our Smart car into the lot of the Top Notch burger stand, made indelible in its appearance in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. This is the spot where Matthew McConaughey first uttered the line “Alright, alright, alright,” at least on film. The film is a titan of cult classics, with a monster soundtrack, a cast before its time and an eccentrically charming, smoke-covered coming of age story.

As you can see, the owners of Top Notch, though they have changed since Linklater’s production was here in the mid-90s, still honor their place in cinematic history both by keeping the building and its accouterments the same as the 70s-era drive-in portrayed in the film and by keeping a little bit of history on the wall. To the right of the paddles, a chart that shows what the cost of living was in 1971. Fun fact: you could get a pound of bacon for 80 cents and a movie ticket for $1.50. That’s basically all I need on a Friday night for just over $2. Thanks to Top Notch, I’m now convinced that I was born 20-years too late.

With the depression of not living in a time when I could spend $3 to take a lovely companion to the movies setting in, I found myself eating my feelings. Luckily I was already present at an iconic burger joint that was once frequented by Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson (and his killer ride). Very soon I was “sorting through jalepeno burgers and soggy fries,” as the movie foretold. The following images encapsulate my experience eating where Wooderson and friends once planned their epic party at the moon tower. Spoiler alert: man eats burger, and it’s not safe for the hungry.

What Have We Learned?

The best part about my little road trip is that it was a relatively cheap, fun way to spend a few hours exploring my city. I’ve always considered myself knowledgable about movies, but heading out to see some of the places where these movies were shot has not only inspired me to get to know Austin better, it’s inspired me to revisit some movies I love.

As my companion remarked while we sat and ate burgers, she’s looking forward to revisiting Dazed and Confused in the near future. Me? I’ll be re-watching Friday Night Lights, as it’s been a long time. Getting to know your city through its movie landmarks, this is yet another wonderful way to love movies. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good reason to get out of the house. If you’ve ever done this or are going to do something like this, jump down into the comments and tell me about it. I’d love to hear the stories about the movie landmarks you’ve visited in your own community. And heck, maybe someday I’ll branch out beyond my own city and come visit yours. Until then, in the words of the prophetic Wooderson, “just keep L-I-V-I-N, livin’.”

Photography by Yimay Yang.

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