“We originally thought it would be a film simply about an interesting way of cooking food, but it grew into a look at life, philosophy, religion, and the Texan way.”
Written by director Matthew Salleh
Central Texas Barbecue is the third short documentary we have made in the last 12 months. The first, Pablo’s Villa (Watch the film below!), was a film shot in Argentina about a man who lives in an abandoned town that spent 23 years underwater. Our second, Please Don’t Rush (http://www.urtextfilms.com/please-dont-rush/), follows children in a school for the blind in Laos. Our new film takes place in Central Texas, and features intimate portraits with Texas Barbecue Pitmasters. We originally thought it would be a film simply about an interesting way of cooking food, but it grew into a look at life, philosophy, religion, and the Texan way.
I thought it would be good to talk a bit about our backstory and our process, and how we manage to shoot these short films all around the world. All these films are made with pretty much a crew of two – I direct and shoot the film, and my partner Rosie produces and does the sound. We both edit, and the only other people we involve are translators and musicians.
I started our film production company, Urtext Films, about 8 years ago. It was designed to be a bit of a filmmaker’s collective here in Adelaide, where things like film collectives don’t really exist (especially back then). It was designed to be something that would be truly independent, and by independent I really do mean independent – without any government or funding support of any kind.
It went through many incarnations – at one point we had a large multi-discipline studio and performance space in the city – but we were finding that it was impossible to get anything produced when we were too busy running things on the smell of an oily rag. We produced some interesting short films and even a low budget feature, but we were also going into debt very quickly.
We decided a few years ago to restart the company from scratch, and took on doing commercial work. When I first wanted to get into filmmaking, I thought I’d never want to do TV Commercials, but after dipping my toe into the water I found that it was actually rewarding work. We had started shifting from doing fictional work into documentary, and had started an online digital project called Portrait Mode (www.portraitmode.org). And it was actually the commercial world, not the filmmaking community, that embraced and championed this project.
So we moved out of our big studio and set up in our lounge room. Living in the city, we now have three edit suites and a room full of equipment in a two bedroom townhouse. We shoot some of the biggest commercial jobs in Adelaide, and Rosie and I are both able to earn a healthy full-time wage doing commercials. When I started doing this work I thought it would mark our selling out, but it has now swung back around and allowed us to do projects on our own terms, and develop our own style and content without people being over our shoulder.
I think the thing that really helped us was the technological change that occurred with the ‘DSLR revolution’ over the past 5 or 6 years. When we started we were trying to create high production value on a shoestring budget – but at the end of the day the work still looked quite low-fi. Then this technological revolution occurred and we really embraced it – to this day we shoot big TV commercial jobs on DSLRs.
With this technology we were also able to change the way we did things. Although neither Rosie nor I went to film school we definitely did things the film school way – our early films had needlessly large crews with everything from ADs to Unit Managers stocked with dozens of volunteers – it made for cool behind-the-scenes photos but little else. Even on our biggest commercial jobs we only work with crews of 5 or 6 people. And pretty much all our commercials are in a documentary style – which allows even smaller and organic film sets.
After about 3 years of doing nothing but commercials, we decided we were finally confident enough again to begin producing films again. We still wanted to work with that spirit of independence we had 7 years earlier, but we were now smarter and leaner. We had also absolutely fallen in love with the documentary style through our commercial work and Portrait Mode.
It was when travelling through Argentina in 2013 that we came across Pablo’s story for Pablo’s Villa. We had only a small backpack of film equipment (the only camera we had was a tiny EOS M camera) but made the film anyway. Our original plan was to simply release it on Vimeo, but after showing it to friends we were encouraged to enter it into film festivals.
We were very fortunate – this short doco made with pretty much no budget played at over a dozen film festivals. We had our World Premiere at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival, and from there it went to play at Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, as well as overseas at places like the Montreal World Film Festival.
One of the last stops on the festival circuit for Pablo’s Villa was the Slamdance Film Festival in the US. I think it’s good to talk a bit about Slamdance because it is a festival that doesn’t get talked about much in Australia, but for us it was the perfect place for us to connect with people who shared our philosophy on filmmaking.
The better known Sundance Film Festival is 30 years old, but 20 years ago Slamdance was started down the road from Sundance as an alternative for newly emerging filmmakers. Far from a low-fi film festival, it has grown into a place that really nurtures new talent. We came away from that festival really excited – we met a lot of people in the same DIY boat as we were, and made some great industry contacts. Countries like the US do not have the funding bodies we have here so the DIY philosophy is even more die-hard than it is here. And it is festivals like Slamdance that provide that pathway for a DIY filmmaker to connect with distributors.
We fund our films and our visits to overseas festivals through our commercial work. We apportion off a percentage of our company’s earnings to make films and travel. And a body of quality short films actually helps us attract better commercial work (advertising agencies are just as interested in our films as our commercials). As a result we’re not under pressure to make films a certain way. Which is very important in documentary work. You never know where the next story is going to come from. We are always travelling, camera and boom mic in hand, in search of our next subject. Commercial work also allows you to constantly flex your filmmaker muscles – Rosie and I had over 120 filming days last year which means our skills aren’t rusty when a great documentary opportunity comes along.
It was on a road trip from Las Vegas to New Orleans, after going to Slamdance, that we discovered the world of Central Texas Barbecue. We were passing through and thought it would be a good idea to grab some shots and interview a few people. We were hoping that this world would be interesting, but we had no idea how passionate, articulate, and inspiring people could be about cooking meat.
Central Texas Barbecue has become the perfect example of the films we want to create. We went in search of something that we thought would be ‘kooky and interesting’, but secretly we’re always hoping to unearth the passion in people. That’s what our project Portrait Mode is all about – finding the amazing in ‘everyday’ people. And the Pitmasters in Central Texas Barbecue are perhaps the most passionate people I’ve ever filmed.
We’ve been invited to have the film’s World Premiere at the Sydney Film Festival for the second year running. We’re incredibly fortunate – we’ve found that connecting with a festival such as SFF not only gives a platform to launch our work, it also provides us with the confidence to be braver and braver with each film we make.
You might get the sense that I’m somehow against the funding bodies, which isn’t the case. I’m against the dangerous reliance filmmakers place on them – the belief that there’s no use in getting your work made if you don’t have a grant to do it, or even worse, that your voice as a filmmaker is irrelevant if not supported by funding bodies.. We’ve had a few chances to have our work profiled at an international level, and it’s only on that level that we’ve seen how nobody cares how your film got made. All that matters is what you’ve chosen to say with your film. For us, the DIY approach has given us a great degree of freedom, which included the freedom to make mistakes and find our voice. Whatever approach filmmakers take, it has to be the one that lets you have the strongest and most personal voice.