Five Questions with The Bounceback Director Bryan Poyser
Bryan Poyser has been a fixture of Austin’s film scene for a decade, even as it’s remained in flux. As a director, he made his feature debut with 2004’s Dear Pillow, in which a teen struggling with sex gets mentored by a fiftysomething ex-porn director. 2010’s follow-up Lovers Of Hate (half shot in Austin) was a perversely comic sexual rondelay in which a demented ex skulks in the mansion where his former partner and her new lover are taking a vacation, spying on both while trying to keep his presence a secret. Poyser’s third feature, The Bounceback, is his first based on someone else’s script and his first with “name actors” like Zach Creggar from “The Whitest Kids U’ Know.” It’s another sex comedy, with Michael Stahl-David as a crazed ex-boyfriend who follows his ex to Austin after seeing her Facebook plans to visit there, only to fall for another woman while in hot pursuit. Prior to the film’s world premiere at SXSW, Poyser talked about making his third hometown feature, the stresses of micro-film production, and where Austin filmmaking is going.
Filmmaker: You’ve been shooting and living in Austin for over a decade. How has capturing that onscreen changed?
Poyser: I think I got here 20 years ago, back in 1993. At that time, Austin was still mostly a college town or was mostly known as a college town or, you know, Willie Nelson and the Cowboys and that was really the definition of what the place was. Richard Linklater’s Slacker definitely helped solidify that in people’s minds as part as the place’s identity. But the tech boom from the late ’90s and early 200s really changed Austin. In the last five years the sexy downtown living really changed the skyline. It’s a town where culture and creativity is the most important value, the music scene is real huge, the film scene has become more diversified. Austin is a location for TV shows. Once we had “The Real World” come to Austin, that really sort of defined the city as a sort of sexy destination for young people especially. So in the movie I tried to present the idea that this slacker lifestyle survived here, but it’s not the only thing that survived here.
I tried to shoot in different locations that show the breadth of experience here. There’s the Alamo Drafthouse, which is the chain that really solidifies Austin’s film culture in the outside world and now has become a national theater chain, so we shot there for three days. It’s something that’s iconic. We shot at the Broken Spoke, which is this 50-year-old honky tonk which used to be on the edge of town but literally right after we shot the scenes there basically now there’s a vast parking lot and condos surrounding this shack that’s been there for 50 years and giving people a place to go two-stepping. We shot at this Mexican place called El Azteca, but we also shot at this fancy restaurant on the east side called Justine’s that would not have been here in 1993. A lot of the city takes place under the shadow of our new skyline, like the Austonian, a huge building [a 56-floor residential building whose exterior was completed in 2010] looming in the background of many of the scenes of broke-ass college people still doing their thing. The slackers are still here, but there’s other people here with money doing other things, a little more focused on money than college kids still trying to have fun.
Filmmaker: While the Austin film scene has great production infrastructure, a lot of the movies that get made there don’t get seen in many other places. What’s one thing you think people don’t know about what filmmaking in Austin is like?
Poyser: I think my standard response when people ask me about Austin or wanting to move here and become part of the film scene is that it’s a great place to make movies but it’s a terrible place to try to make money doing movies. There’s a lot of filmmakers here doing short films and features and web series and all this stuff but nobody’s really making money doing this stuff. The most people really hope for is to play in major festivals and getting some kind of theatrical release.
Most of the movies that are made here are ones that were made sub-$100,000. There’s no way that an actor or a director or a writer can make a living doing that. I think for us the scale of doing this movie was bigger than that and certainly bigger than the ones I’ve done before. In order to do this in a way that the producers who put in the money to have the confidence they would make their money their back was to cast actors from L.A. and New York with credits because that talent isn’t here. Because if you want to get seen outside the festival circuit, you still need famous or semi-famous people. Unless you’re making a horror movie, in which case you have a better chance of getting wider attention if there’s no one famous in it. So while there’s still a lot of local people we had to go “the normal way” for the main cast.
There’s a great infrastructure here, but not really on the development side in terms of there being money, in terms of there being studios here to fund movies, in terms of there being people here who can add value in the perceived marketplace. But I think things are going to change. I don’t think Austin is going to even come close to rivaling New York or L.A. as a production center, but that’s why I love living here, because that doesn’t stop people and there are some small commercial successes, relatively speaking. Until a movie is made here that literally makes someone rich, the money here in town isn’t going to flow as it easily as it does in the Hollywood model. But it’s great to be part of a community. It’s great to be part of a community of people who aren’t doing this for fame or money but are really doing it for the sake of it, dare I say for the art of it. SXSW is like an annual celebration of that when the independent industry comes to us where we get to see great movies made out of Austin and they get to see great movies made in Austin and so much great collaboration comes out of it. The creative energy just keeps driving the Austin filmmakers forward.
Filmmaker: Your movies have a lot of sexual discomfort and aggression. How did that recurring interest get rechanneled in this movie?
Poyser: I think with this movie the sort of feature attraction as far as that is the Air Sex competitions, which is a real thing that came late. The Alamo Drafthouse imported it from Japan about five years ago. It’s kind of like a joke, like air guitar meets karaoke meets mime meets perversion. The idea is you go up onstage and act out some kind of ridiculous sexual scenario. The idea is doing something physically creative and maybe impossible and not even sexy but just ridiculous and fun and outrageous.
In my other films, especially with the first one, it was sexually explicit but not in terms of what you saw but rather what you heard and the intention with that was to be provocative and to make the audience uncomfortable, and I think a lot of that came out of me being frustrated with how sexuality is portrayed in the movies. It’s not part of the plot of the movie or even the characters, it’s just a chance to watch attractive people get naked. I really wanted to try to make the sex scenes be revelatory of character.
With this movie, the intention is a little less deliberate, like the uncomfortableness in this movie is really like for laughter’s sake to push the comedy rather than the uncomfortableness. But I also think the way young people interact now is very explicit, the graphicness of how people relate to each other via technology and interpersonal relationships. There are very few taboo subjects for casual conversation, and you see that in movies and you see that just walking around. That’s just part of the way people relate to each other. I think in a way it’s more healthy, it’s definitely less repressed, it’s sort of a healthy attitude young people have, but it’s also an opportunity for some dick jokes.
Filmmaker: What was it like making your first feature from someone else’s script?
Poyser: It was good in some ways because I didn’t have to come up with the story. The original script for this movie was not written by me, it was written by these two other guys. When I first read their script I saw something in it that I really connected with it. I really loved the ending and I loved the concept of the movie. So I had the luxury of really just shaping this towards my aesthetic and towards being a tribute to Austin, which is a place that I love living in but there are some things about it that I don’t love and there are some things about it that have changed that have bothered. You know, I feel I don’t wanna leave.
It also gave me an opportunity to make something that was more of a straightforward comedy, which I haven’t really done before. This was kind of a relief to make a movie that wasn’t supposed to be putting you through the wringer as an audience or putting you on edge. Some people have been uncomfortable at the screenings we’ve done but recognize that it’s supposed to be a comedy. It was refreshing in a way to go through a production that wasn’t weighed down by this highly personal stuff I was trying to expunge, but I’m also looking forward to making some of my own scripts next and just taking the experience by going through this rather difficult thing. We had a fast shoot, we had a lot to do, a lot of people and extras, a lot to try to take on compared to what I’d done before. It was also like a blast. I think part of that was a great cast and crew but some of that was just the story we were trying to tell. So yeah, I think I would do it again but not for the next one.
Filmmaker: You’ve tended to alternate short films and features. How does that work?
Poyser: Shorts have always been great for me just because the distance between conception and execution can be so much shorter. I can write something and decide to make it and then a couple of months later be making it. Whereas with this movie we started working on it halfway through 2010, so it’s been two and a half years, and over a year of that was just casting. In that time, I also got the chance to make a short film a few years ago, and it was a chance to make a film with a real budget, that was 3 times the budget of my last feature, and that was for the USA network. That was an incredible experience because it was a training ground in features, like we used the same d.p., the same sound recordist, a couple of the same actors, and it was this complicated five-minute long take with 13 different actors and we built a set and we shot it with a Steadicam and just got this opportunity to do something more complex. That story was something that would only work as a short.
That’s what I try to do with the short films I make, is not to make them like mini-features but things that can only exist as a short and should only exist a short because it’s taking a risk and doing something unusual. That’s the great thing about shorts: you get to try different things, it’s less hassle, you spend less time on it, it’s a chance to keep yourself in fight shape. It was three years between Lovers of Hate and shooting this and it was six years between the first feature and the second. Making shorts is a great way to feel like you’re still a filmmaker. I want to make another feature, but if I get frustrated or think of something really good that’ll work as a short, I’ll do that because I really enjoy it.