The Most Exciting Films From This Year’s South By Southwest

This year the film portion of the South by Southwest Conference had thirteen entrees that premiered at Sundance and a number of studio-funded projects destined for wide release, meant primarily to bolster the star power attending the daily and nightly Paramount theater premieres. This is not a bad thing—rather, it’s a testament to how vital the SXSW Film Conference has become to the film scene in general, a diverse conflagration of anything and everything within the strata of a theatrical experience. However, it doesn’t make breaking new, below-the-radar films any easier, especially with a bigger schedule—the much-anticipated premiere of the The East comes on the final night of the conference, after this will be published—and more theaters scattered around town.

That’s where I focused most of my efforts on the film front, catching more than 20 films—in honor of the film conference’s 20th anniversary—most of them produced on very low budgets or premiering for the first time in the United States. I skipped Burt Wonderstone and the Evil Dead reboot, as they’re flicks I’ll see in my local megaplex depending on the Rotten Tomatoes reception. I skipped Before Midnight in favor of a local Austinite’s film, quite regretfully—I’d rather pay to see the final installment of Linklater’s walk-and-talk romance trilogy, anyway. The six films listed here are the ones I found to be the most impressive and important glimpses into the cultural zeitgeist at the 2013 film conference—though there are a number I didn’t get a chance to see due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that the press screening library crammed into the convention center stairwell was so atrociously barren. But with so much paranoia surrounding pirating these days, who’s going to risk turning in a DVD to the media?

Spring Breakers

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen, the charged 1,300 plus audience at the Paramount was—as a Deadline reporter put it—both “joyful and bewildered” when the lights went up after the North American premiere. While some critics may find the surface layers of the film to be a mile wide and an inch deep, or an extended Skrillex music video, this is merely the backdrop Korine wanted to create. The slow-motion montage of barely clothed coeds binge drinking on a Florida Beach in the opening minutes of the film is the ultimate thesis statement—the youthful, primal obsession with self-destruction, beautiful imagery, carefree sexuality and complete sensory overload is all about to come into sharp focus.

With a dreamlike storyline, seedy neon-soaked cinematography, and non-linear editing reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, Spring Breakers preys on the audience’s senses. You kind of can’t look away, whether you’re enjoying yourself or not. And—without giving up the ending—one could even argue that Korine’s work is a bizarrely magnificent statement about feminism, where the pretty, aggressive blondes in this vapid fantasy world of a St. Petersburg Spring Break are the ones who are the true gangsters.  Regardless of if you agree with any of this analysis, you should see Spring Breakers for James Franco alone, as the corn-rowed, grill-sporting thug who goes by the moniker of Alien—it’s truly a performance for the ages.

Yellow

Heather Wahlquist has appeared in relatively minor supporting roles in her husband Nick Cassavetes’s films over the past decade, which makes her leading performance in Yellow all the more impressive. In it, she plays one of those artificially gorgeous yet vividly delusional California women named Mary Holmes, who is barely holding it together. She teaches elementary school children and chases pills with vodka nips throughout the day, regularly drifting into her own alternate realities, which are equally colorful, musical, hilarious, and horrifying. As her antics get worse, she is forced to return home to her family, where Wahlquist takes us inside the core of her character, revealing the origins of her mania. The entire film, which Wahlquist also co-wrote, is a quiet yet remarkable achievement.

Good Ol’ Freda

The Beatles have been covered from just about every angle possible by now—except the one director Ryan White found for Good Ol’ Freda, when he interviewed Freda Kelly, the head of the band’s fan club for much of the ’60s and perhaps the only Beatles employee who had never broken her silence about the band. It’s a sweet film and a fascinating look at an incredibly respectful and moral person who was tasked with protecting and representing some of the most famous people in the world. White’s storytelling does reveal a few new insights into who the Beatles were behind the scenes, but the film focuses primarily on Freda, examining how someone so close to those who were literally changing the world could remain so true to who they really are as a person.

Scenic Route

Bleak tales about the insignificance of man and the brutality of the world are tough to pull off without fine acting and crackling dialogue, which is why Scenic Route works so well. Two friends, played by the diametrical opposed Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, are stranded off the incredibly photogenic highway through Death Valley and forced to reexamine their friendship after drifting apart. The situation quickly goes from bad to worse, however, due in part to both men’s egos and stupidity, as well as a bit of bad luck—which, when you get all philosophical about it, is something that life often serves most of us in the end.

Drinking Buddies

There’s a incredibly unique tone to Drinking Buddies, thanks in part to director Joe Swanberg’s technique of having his actors tightly improv every scene in the film. It’s also probably because his core cast consists of seasoned professionals like Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, and—most impressively—Olivia Wilde, who really shows off her dynamic acting chops while also looking crazy hot. The result is a romantic dramedy—if that’s even a thing—that qualifies as one of the more realistic unrequited love stories that has worked in a while.

Cheap Thrills

The first film purchased at South by Southwest this year—by none other then Drafthouse Films, who held the world premiere in one of their theaters—this fine dark comedy is ultimately a real-world fable about what desperate men will do for money. Made on a shoestring budget with a quality cast (Pat Healey, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, and, by far the most impressive transformation, Ethan Embry as a tough guy) Cheap Thrills is a testament to true independents of the past that deserve to break through to a wider audience. It manages to break new ground and entertain, while keeping its message hidden until the very last frame.   

Sara Paxton on ‘The Innkeepers,’ Bed Bugs, & Her Worst Nightmare

Some psychoanalysts might look at Sara Paxton’s recent filmographyThe Last House on The Left, Shark Night 3D, and Enter Nowhereand suggest that the 23-year-old actress is something of a masochist. Time and time again, the L.A. native has put herself in onscreen situations where her character may or may not lose a limb. Her most recent foray into the macabre is the Ti West-helmed The Innkeepers, in which Paxton plays a plucky hotel clerk who must ghost bust her way through the haunted inn’s final days of operation. Here is the refreshingly candid Paxton on bed bugs, Anthony Bourdain, and her worst fears. 

You’ve said in the past that you’re not really a horror movie person, but you’ve done quite a few of them. Explain yourself.
I’m not a horror movie fan. Granted, because I’ve been in so many the past couple years, I have explored horror movies, and I’m a big pansy, so they usually scare me. After The Ring I thought ‘Dude, I’m fucking done with this.’ I was afraid the girl was going to crawl out of the TV for a week, so yeah, I’m a big baby. But The Innkeepers is not quite a horror movie. There’s comedy, it’s definitely unique.

How is it different from your average haunted house movie?
Well, I think the problem with a lot of horror movies right now is that it’s just the same old shtick over and over again, which is fine, some people like that, but I think The Innkeepers is a really good movie first. Period. And second, it’s a horror-ish movie. The first half of the movie is a romantic comedy, and the characters are well developed. Because the characters are so well developed, when something bad happens to them you’re more scared because you care about them.

Ti West has established himself as an up and coming horror director. What’s it like hanging out with a guy who’s clearly got some dark stuff happening upstairs?
I love Ti, he’s awesome. I got involved in the movie because I was working on another movie, and I don’t know how it works with agents, but I guess he heard that I was working on a movie with a friend of his, and we spoke on the phone and met and we got along really well. Ti is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some really awesome people that I love, but for being so young, he’s so good, he’s so specific, and he knows what he wants with everything. It just makes my job a lot easier, and we were laughing, having the best time ever. I knew every single person’s name on the crew; we all lived together when we were filming this movie. The Yankee Pedlar Inn that the movie takes place in is a real place. You can go to Torrington Connecticut right now and walk into the inn and feel like you’re walking into the movie.

What was it like living in the hotel?
When we were filming, Ti told us the hotel is really haunted, and weird shit happens there. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it was just a really weird place. It was all askew, built in the 1800s with bad seventies renovations. My door would violently fly open in the middle of the night, and there were no windows open, and my lights would flicker on and off. Everyone had this experience. The phone would ring, and nobody would be there, and there was nobody at the front desk. It was super scary.

Method acting at its finest.
Seriously! The worst part about it was we were all friends, and we were filming in this tiny ass town with no place to go. So we would just sit on the porch of the inn in rocking chairs drinking beer, and this woman came up to me and was like ‘Oh I love this hotel, and I was married in this hotel, and my son was conceived in this hotel! Great memories in room 333!’ I freaked out and just ran to Ti’s room and started banging on his door screaming, ‘Change my sheets! Change my sheets!’ So yeah, that was traumatizing.

Are you the kind of actor that gets really close with the people you’re shooting with?
Yes, definitely. It’s hard because I like to know every single person’s name, and totally joke around, and it’s hard at first because people always think ‘Oh it’s the actress, and she’s going to be a total bitch.’ But eventually they realize that I just want to hang out. All the grips gave me a goodbye card when we left; it was a picture of them in their Christmas sweaters, and I still have it. That’s the best part about my job, I get to meet cool people and hang out with them. It’s like camp all the time.

Throughout the film your character experiences some pretty grim stuff in the hotel. What’s the worst hotel experience you’ve ever had?
When I first moved to New York, I was sitting on the subway, reading the paper, and it was like ‘Bed Bugs! Taking over New York!’ and I was like “Losers! Who gets fucking bed bugs! Pussies!’

I’ve had bed bugs, but I’m not a pussy, I swear.
Well that’s the thing! Two weeks later I had bed bugs, and it sucked! We were starting to shoot in a day, and I woke up and I had welts all over my face and they said ‘You look like shit! We can’t film!’ I was hideous! So my friend got me a deal at the Thompson in the Lower East Side, and I just booked it there. I was naked, covered in Calamine lotion, crying alone. Nobody would come visit me.

You become an outcast the moment word spreads that you have them.
I was! I was in full-blown Howard Hughes mode, scratching myself, laying on the floor covered in tissues. That was pretty lonely and terrible, I know that.

In The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo Rooney Mara goes to some pretty intense physical extremes for the role. It reminded me a lot of what your character went through in Last House on The Left? How do you get yourself to such a dark place?
Well, first I think Rooney did an amazing job. I’m a huge fan of the books, so she looked just as I envisioned Lisbeth in my mind, and I thought she was really, really good. She was badass. But it’s hard because the character I play in Last House on the Left is so different from Lisbeth. For me, it felt like so much physical work every day, like running through the woods, and the assault scene, so everyday was this workout and I was exhausted. At times you have to go to some uncomfortable places, but it all works. There’s a big assault scene in the movie and you don’t even need to act. You feel uncomfortable and you don’t like it, so it all just worked for me.

What scares you in real life?
I have two big phobias. Number one is vomit. Not just me vomiting. I have a vomit sixth sense. I know when someone’s going to puke and I’ll just rush out of the building. I’ll just book it. I was filming a movie once and I was the only girl, so all the boys didn’t invite me out drinking. So it was 5 o’clock in the morning, and they had been out until 2, and we’re in a van headed to set, and my sixth sense starts kicking in. I see the guy next to me, and he’s looking green so I think ‘Fuck, this guy’s about to blow, I have to get out of here.’ But the van was moving so I started yelling ‘Can you stop the van? Can you stop the van?’ and they said ‘Nope. We have to go to set.’ and I literally jumped out of the moving van.

What is it about puke that gets to you, besides the obvious?
I don’t know. I’ve always been terrified of it, and I’ve had it since I was a kid. My other phobia is cockroaches.

I can’t even look at a photo of a spider without totally freaking out.
Dude I get it! I’m the same with cockroaches! When I see one on the street–do you know how many strangers I’ve jumped on? I’ve jumped on top of strange men. They probably liked it, but I didn’t.

Are there limits to what you’re willing to put yourself through for a role?
I think it depends. It depends on who you’re working with and if I feel totally connected to the material then no, I’ll do whatever if it takes. If I love something, and I want it to be the best, then I’ll do whatever it takes for it to be the best.

You’ve been in the business since you were a child. Do you ever feel like a grizzled veteran, or do you still get wide-eyed and excited?
It depends. Yes I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, but when I was really little, I wasn’t really doing it, it was more like an after-school activity. I would do like two commercials a year. It didn’t become this serious thing until I was in my teens, when I started doing movies and stuff. Then I quit for a while because I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was never home schooled, I got good grades, I wanted to go to college, but when I quit for a year, I really missed it and I realized it’s what I want to do. I feel like with each experience, it kind of beats you down, because it’s not this big glamorous job that everyone thinks it is. It’s funny because when I talk to people that have seen me in a movie, they’ll say things like ‘Do you know Robert Pattinson?’ and I’m like ‘No, I don’t. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m not that famous!’ So yeah, that can beat you down, but as long as I keep getting to meet unique and awesome people I’m happy.

Actors have a tendency to say they have the best job in the world. But tell me, what’s the worst part about being an actress?
Don’t get me wrong, not to be corny, but I feel blessed. I know people that would give their right arm to do what I do. But listen, I’m not really famous, so it’s not like I come into work and people are like ‘What can I do for you? Here’s your giant Will Smith trailer!’ I mean, it’s just not like that. I’m just an actress. People point and tell me where to stand and what to do constantly. So you have to be really patient and be okay with being told what do all the time. And sometimes I feel like I have to sell out and people are always like ‘Who are you? You look familiar! Are you famous?’ And it’s like, if you have to ask then no.

Do you live in LA?
I do. I’m from California. I grew up in a suburb 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles.

What do you love most about coming to New York?
I love New York. I lived here for a little bit when I was working on a television show, and we all had to move to New York and I freaking love it. I wish I could live here if I could afford it.

You could get a nice apartment in Brooklyn couldn’t you?
I would but the problem is I have a condo in L.A. so I can’t do both. If I could sell my condo and move to New York I would totally do that. I love Los Angeles, but there’s a whole different energy in New York that I love. Everyone’s walking, everyone’s going somewhere. In California it’s like ‘Hey! Do you want to meet me at this bar?’ and I’m just like ‘Ugh. I have to take off the sweat pants, I have to get ready, I have to drive.’ In New York it’s just ‘Shit! Let me get a cab!’ And the people are just a lot more awesome. A lot of my friends in New York assure me that there’s douchebags here too, but in L.A. it’s just like ‘What do you do? ‘Oh I’m an actress, but I’m a bartender, but I’m like really an actress.’ And I’m just like ‘Shit, how am I going to make friends.’

I was going through your Twitter and saw that you were enjoying yourself in Eataly recently.
Oh my god! Dude I’m such a foodie. I love love love Anthony Bourdain. I would poop myself if I got to meet him. I’ve read all his books, I watch his show whenever I can.

Have you seen his new show The Layover?
I love it. It’s awesome. It’s so great. Um, so ya. I went to Eataly with all the Magnolia Pictures people and Ti, and I was just in cured meat heaven and just rubbing cheese on my face.

If you had to pick a last meal, what would it be?
Oh God the options are endless! I think it would have to be Mexican food. I know it’s weird but my mom is Mexican, so if I’m dying I want to be comforted. And I usually cannot move afterwards, so they’ll just have to wheel me to the electric chair.

Sara Paxton: Girl Next Door, All Grown Up

Sara Paxton is an eye-catching personality in this age of hand-groomed, cookie-cutter starlets. Paxton commenced what looks to be a very promising career with tween silver screen sensations such as Aquamarine (think: Splash for an under 18 audience) and Sydney White (opposite Amanda Bynes). Her evolution into thespian maturity has her becoming a determined dramatic ingenue with the Wes Craven-produced remake and adaptation of Last House on the Left (released Friday, March 13th). Paxton plays Mari, a young girl on vacation at her family’s lake house who gets caught up with some folks from the wrong side of the tracks and kidnapped. In an odd twist of fate, the grimy gang of kidnappers takes shelter at the home of Mari’s parents, worried sick about their missing child. Mom and Dad proceed with necessary — and inevitably gruesome — action. The cast includes: Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac and Spencer Treat Clark. The suspense thriller was shot in South Africa, where Paxton acted until it hurt and made her share of humanitarian contributions along the way.

What encouraged you to make the jump into the suspense genre? When the script came to me, I (of course) knew who Wes Craven was, but I hadn’t heard of the original Last House on the Left. I read the script and it was really intense. But, I loved the character Mari, and I’d been looking for something to challenge myself, and a change for quite a while. I went in to audition, and I didn’t think they liked me or that I was going to get the part. It was really hard [for me] to get roles like that because of doing Aquamarine, and Sydney White. I actually left the audition crying, because I was like, “No one’s ever going to want to work with me like this!” It was just so frustrating. And then, an hour later, my manager asked, “Why are you crying? They just called and they love you, and they want to meet with you.” I was thrilled and shocked that they actually wanted me for the movie.

Why did you wait until after shooting to watch the original? I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions of how to play the character, or how the movie should be. None of us were going to watch the movie beforehand, because we all felt the same way. We didn’t want the remake to be copied page by page. We just wanted to bring new life into the story.

Were you surprised by the original? Was it different from how you envisioned it? Definitely. It’s always different when you see the quality of the picture that we have now, compared to 1972. The camera’s shaking and it kind of looks like a porn film. It’s hard to get into it when the footage looks like that because it [sometimes] feels fake. Whereas, when you’re watching this Last House on the Left, it feels very real. But, I thought the original was more disturbing, in a way. There’s a scene where the main guy makes Mari pee her pants, and it’s just…really disturbing.

Was it your first trip to Africa? It was. At first I was really shocked that they were going to film there. It’s supposed to be in Oregon, or Middle America, or something, but, the minute Dennis [Iliadis] had all the actors set foot on the set, I knew right away why we went there. When you’re reading the script and you envision this perfect, peaceful place—this lake house—literally, when I saw the actual set, it was the exact same thing from my vision.

Was there a different reality outside of the set? It was also really hard living there, because you get there and at first you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s gorgeous!” And then, there’s something that I’ve never seen before, that completely changed my life. When we were pulling up to the marina where we were staying, I saw the townships. I was so dazed and confused from the flight. I’m looking out the window and I was like, “What is that? Are those homes?” And then, I looked closely, and it was just miles and miles of land covered with these little, tiny—you can’t even call them homes—they’re just literally like a dumpster. And a family of 12 lives in there with no electricity, and no running water. Seeing that up-close was really, really shocking. Every weekend, a couple of us would go to this orphanage, and we would take care of some of the kids there. We would be nurses for the day. And I would change diapers, play with the kids, read stories, feed them. They were so sick, and so many had AIDS. It was really rewarding, and it changed my life to go over there and deal with that. We lived there for 3 months, and you can’t drive by there everyday and not feel something, and not think, “I’ve got to do something while I’m here.”

What was it like filming the scene in the car, where Mari and Page are kidnapped and driven into the woods? I loved filming that scene. I think that was our first day on set. We were all piled into the car, and it was actually kind of funny, because Dennis , the director, was in the trunk the entire time in that scene. Jonathan [Craven] and Cody [Zwieg], the producers, were like, Dennis, you don’t have to be in the trunk. You can be on the flat-bed with us, watching the scene from the monitors. But Dennis said, “No, no, no. I want to be close to my actors.” And I also got injured in that scene. To get the cameras in the car, we had to move the backseat row back a few feet. There were these nails sticking up where the seat used to be. And so, as you see in the scene, we’re fighting, we’re rolling around, having a little tussle in the backseat, and I landed on one of the nails, and it went into my kneecap. I screamed out, and Dennis was like, “Cut! Print that! That was amazing! Sarah, that was so real! How did you do it?” And I was like, “It was real! I’m bleeding!”

Were there any other substantial injuries? Everyone had something that happened to them. All of our legs were purple. Just bruised and scratched everywhere. Aaron [Paul], who plays Francis, had to wear a prosthetic nose, when his nose breaks in the film. So, while he was wearing it, he kept saying, “You guys, my nose really burns. I don’t know what it is.” At the end of the day, they take off the nose, and his nose had expanded. It was huge, and red, and puffy, and he was screaming. His nose was messed up like that for weeks. We felt so bad for him. No offense to Aaron, but it just looked horrible.

The rape scene in this film is incredibly gut-wrenching. How did you prepare for that? I was nervous about that from the moment they said, “You have the part.” We were flying out to this new place where I’d never been before, that is so far away from anybody who could give me emotional support. I started freaking out a little bit. But then, when I got there, and I met everybody and we all started bonding, I realized that they had become my family away from home. Getting on set that day, I was so nervous. I was in my room and I was feeling so sick, and thought I was going to barf. My anxiety level was through the roof. And then Garret [Dillahunt] and I had a talk, and he really calmed me down. We decided that we were going to get through it together, and just go full force, and we completely trusted each other. And I felt like everyone had my back, so I felt like I was able to open up and kind of do things that I didn’t think I would be able to do at all. I felt safe.

After the scene was done, how did you recover from that? We did that scene for 17 hours. I would have loved to be at the craft service table in between takes, goofing off, and joking like how we normally were—I really just couldn’t that day. Once you lose that headspace, once you go out of it, you can’t go back. I had to stay in that dark place all day. So once they called cut, this weight just went away, and I immediately could just breathe and smile and be happy, be myself. I immediately ran up to Garret [Dillahunt]. He’s really protective of me, and I think it was really hard for him.

Did you guys go out that night? We were all staying at the same hotel, and so, every night after filming we would all go to the one restaurant in town, and hang out, eat, talk and unwind. We would talk about the day. And it really helped a lot to kind of release the energy. I think I would have gone insane had I just gone back to my hotel room and just sat there alone, thinking about the day over, and over, and over again. And Aaron’s nose was still all puffy and red, so we laughed about that.

Now that you’re back in LA, what are some of your favorite places there? Restaurant-slash-club, I really like to go to Apple. For a steak, Maestro’s is good. I like the Century City Mall, because they have everything. There’s Pinkberry, and movie theaters, and Wetzel’s Pretzels. I just like to go to the mall to eat food.