The Making of "Olympia"
By Bill Stott
NOVEMBER 16, 1998: I got involved with Olympia for two reasons: love and money. I loved the filmmakers, I loved the film's characters, and I loved the idea of being involved in making a movie. And -- my children grown, my mid-life dental work done -- I had money to play with.
Olympia's writer-director, Robert Byington, had been a graduate student of mine in American Studies at the University of Texas. I was surprised when one day in 1992 he told me he'd grown tired of analyzing art and was going to make some. "I'm going to make a movie," he said.
"Just like that?" I thought. But I smiled and nodded in empty-headed encouragement.
When Bob did make a film, Shameless (1994), I wasn't much involved, though he cast me as a professor lecturing about chaos, grief, and urbanism. I liked Shameless; it received an NEA grant and got excellent reviews here (The Los Angeles Times liked the film's "highly personal, distinctive and unwavering vision") and in Europe, where it won the Audience's Favorite Film Prize at the Mannheim International Film Festival.
Two years later, Bob sent me an uproarious short story ("Javelkemeiche!"), which would evolve into Olympia's script...slowly. Bob didn't have an ending for the film that he or anyone else liked. At his invitation I tried doctoring the script. He had given me bold and quirky characters to work with, and he liked some of my suggestions, though he thought the end of my ending too romanticized.
"But it's a romantic comedy," I protested. "But of the Nineties," Bob said. "Which means not necessarily romantic. And not necessarily funny." (The Variety reviewer Len Klady later commended Olympia's ambiguous tone when he wrote of the film's combining "goofball situations and serious themes to disarming effect.")
Once a few of my words were in the script, I was hooked. I wound up not only helping write Olympia, but investing in it, and playing a small role -- not a professor this time, but a crazed thug in a hotdog costume.
In the spring of 1996, a drove of people worked in my house-turned-production office, laying plans, interviewing and hiring, soliciting money, locations, props, food. It was a chaotic time, filled with worry, disputes, and soul-searching about our financial condition and the script.
In contrast, the filming itself, that May, was placid and professional. Our lead actors came from New York, L.A., and Houston. Half the crew of 25 were Austin professionals; half were volunteers, mainly from UT's film program, learning by doing. Nearly everyone but me was under 35 and worked 12-14 hour days, often in heat over 100 degrees, with never a murmur of complaint.
There were no fist fights, no shouting arguments, no affairs that hadn't already been ongoing, no broken friendships, and only two accidents. For reasons unnecessary to explain, the second assistant director cut his leg with a hatchet. I drove him to Brackenridge Emergency, deeply relieved that the injury was minor and that we had accident insurance. Our production truck also drove into a tree and ripped its top -- minor damage, also insured.
Bob and I transferred the dailies to video in Dallas. Then he took the tapes to Los Angeles for the editing. This took 14 months and included the painstakingly tedious process by which the format we shot in, Super-16, is "blown up" to 35mm. We had a Dolby SR sound mix donated, and premiered the film last January as the Closing Night Film at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We also showed Olympia as part of the Opening Night festivities at this year's SXSW Film Festival and at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival. Last month, we won the Grand Jury Award at the Long Island Film Festival. In late November we take the film to London for its European premiere. Friday it opens at the Dobie Theatre in Austin.
My Olympia involvement taught this old dog new tricks, and I here offer nine suggestions for those who consider either producing or investing in an independent film:
Film is a social medium; unlike the novel, it is not one person's creation. A culture where the young aspire to make movies is, I would argue, healthier than one that encourages the fabrication of private fictions. Such fictions, as the careers of Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck suggest, often lead to madness and alcoholism.
I'll always wish I had gotten into films 35 years earlier than I did.
Bill Stott has taught American Studies and English at the University of Texas since 1971, and is a major investor in Olympia.
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