Austin Brothers Fill Idiosyncratic Niche at Sundance

Then there’s the story of David and Nathan Zellner, filmmaker siblings from Austin, who prove that starry-eyed Sundance still embraces deeply idiosyncratic work made on a shoestring budget. After screening some of their short films at the festival, the filmmakers introduced their eccentric debut feature, “Goliath,” there in 2008. A comedy about an aimless thirtysomething (played by David) whose life begins to come unglued after his cat goes missing, “Goliath” received encouraging reviews and eventually secured a video-on-demand and DVD release through IFC Films.

But the brothers didn’t immediately book one-way tickets to Los Angeles. Instead, they chose to remain in Austin, where they continued to make shorts and direct music videos for their favorite local bands. On Monday afternoon at Sundance, they will introduce their second feature, “Kid-Thing,” a strange, fable-like drama about Annie (Sydney Aguirre), a 10-year-old girl who encounters a woman trapped at the bottom of a well. Shot on weekends to accommodate the schedule of their young leading lady, it’s arguably even more of a textbook indie than the brothers’ previous feature.

“Ultimately, we’d like to do all kinds of films, in terms of the subject matter and scope and the size of the budget,” David said in an interview a few days before he and his brother were heading to Sundance. “But rather than sit around and wait for those to happen, we want to continue to do things that interest us.”

The Zellners were born in Colorado but moved as children to Texas, where they both attended college. (David, 38, studied film at the University of Texas; Nathan, 36, studied computer science at Texas AM University.) In the early 2000s, they began to make a series of droll comic shorts, usually starring themselves, in Austin.

Since “Goliath,” they have tried to get projects with bigger budgets started but have been delayed by money restrictions. Eager to make another feature, they turned their attention to the modestly scaled “Kid-Thing.” They secured some financing for the project through Kickstarter, an online fund-raising system that has become popular among indie filmmakers, who post descriptions of their films in the hopes of soliciting donations.

“Kickstarter definitely has very quickly started playing a big part in independent films,” Nathan said, adding, “Knowing what we know now, we might have done a longer campaign.” (Nine other features at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — including “Mosquita y Mari,” which raised more than $80,000 from 888 donors — used the site.)

The Zellners said the $10,368 they raised on Kickstarter was only a small portion of the film’s final budget, which also came from grants from the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund and individual investors. (The Zellners declined to say exactly how much “Kid-Thing” cost, only that it was “less than $500,000” — a low number even by the standards of Sundance, where the average cost of a film is usually about $1 million.)

But their use of Kickstarter seems fitting for a project that was so resolutely homegrown: David wrote and directed the movie, Nathan produced and served as cinematographer, and both have supporting roles. They cast Sydney — the daughter of a friend — after working with her in a music video for the Austin band Ola Podrida.

According to John Bryant, a writer and director in Austin who has worked as a crew member and actor on a number of the Zellners’ films, that do-it-yourself attitude has earned the brothers considerable respect in the local filmmaking community.

Mr. Bryant recalled one of his own projects that required shooting fireworks indoors. “David let me build the set in his garage,” he said. “Who does that? They’re definitely down for the cause.”

The Zellners’ approach to their second feature film is not without potential pitfalls. In an era in which the most successful films at Sundance, like the thriller “Winter’s Bone” and the dramedy “The Kids Are All Right,” are often low-budget variations of familiar Hollywood genres, a movie as far out as “Kid-Thing” might get easily lost amid the 117 features being screened this year. (It’s certain to be the only title in the 2012 lineup to feature lingering shots of a little girl making multiple peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.)

Those who know the Zellners and their work aren’t necessarily concerned that they might get labeled as filmmakers only capable of small, esoteric work.

“They are following their own muse,” said Paul Stekler, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas, and a longtime observer of the Austin film scene. “Is there anything better than being able to support yourself doing what you want to do, rather than what someone in Hollywood tells you to do?”

Christopher Kelly is a film critic for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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