LSFF Roundtable: Local Directors' Candid Thoughts on the Fort Worth Film Scene

Round Table with FW Directors

Forget Hollywood; Cowtown is where it’s happening.

Ahead of the Lone Star Film Festival screening their latest projects, we invited three local filmmakers — Tim Stevens, Gregory Beck, Rob Smat — and Lone Star Film Festival Director, Chad Mathews, to chat with us at the Fort Worth Magazine offices. We broached many topics, including current and future projects, the stresses of the moviemaking industry and Fort Worth’s burgeoning film scene.

Continue reading for a transcript of our roundtable.

FW: What are you guys most excited about for this year’s festival?

Gregory: Being in it. Getting to participate in something like this, it’s a big deal. This is why we do what we do. I didn’t know that until I did another festival earlier in the year, but this is why you do this. Being in this is fun. You’re with your people. I don’t think it’s an ego thing; I’m with my people now, I can talk.

Tim: I hate film festivals on the outside of the filmmaking group. I want to go to the mixers, I want to meet people, and I want to talk to the director after the Q&A. 

What I love about Lone Star is, I’ve never been to a film festival that treats filmmakers so well. Like, I’ve been to festivals where I am a part of the festival, and I never meet another filmmaker, which is crazy, but it happens. Everybody disperses, everybody goes to the hotel room, and that’s the end. That’s awful. I might as well not go to the film festival at that point, you know?

Chad: That might be the beauty of Fort Worth. It’s a welcoming, hospitable city where the audiences seem to gravitate together; the filmmakers seem to let their hair down when they come to Fort Worth. They might leave LA with this ego, but when they get here, they’re like, “I’m gonna relax this weekend and have a good time and have a conversation.”

Rob: That was one of the stars on the movie — he shows up, gotta be from LA. And he comes up to me, and I haven’t met him in person, we’ve just talked through email. And he goes, “There is a horse out front of this festival, and I am just having the best time.” And that’s what I’m most excited, is to bring the movie back to the people that helped make it. We shot so much of “Last Whistle” in Fort Worth; so we’re gonna get to bring it back to the people who made it possible in the first place.

Tim: Same thing with my film. It’s a film about a rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon, which is just about as far removed, geographically, from Fort Worth, but it’s the same culture. And you can show a rodeo film in Los Angeles or New York, and they might think it’s kind of quaint and exotic, but the people that are gonna watch it here are gonna understand the value of the story.

Which is great, you know? It’s not like people looking at a monkey in a zoo. They’re like, I understand this, you know? Which is cool.

Tim Stevens
Tim Stevens is the director of “Let ’er Buck,” a documentary about the storied Pendleton Round-Up rodeo in Pendleton, Oregon. Stevens is a writer, director and editor for RIDE TV, a cable channel dedicated to American horse culture.

Chad: I like the diversity of the lineup; I think we do a pretty good job of mixing in the local films with the international films, with really intriguing documentaries. That’s been a fun challenge as a programmer, being part of the programming team. And with you guys, I love being able to bring that content to our audience. And then, of course, having that shared experience with our filmmakers. For me, the best part of film festivals is having the story behind the stories. 

So, I’m looking forward to having filmmakers talk about their experience, share their stories; and I want that to kind of bleed over into the audience, so they get hooked on film festivals, and maybe they’re inspired to follow their passion, whatever that may be.

Festivals have that ability, you know? You can be an artist, whatever kind of artist, walk out of a film festival, and be like, “I’m ready to work now; I’m inspired by these guys.” That’s a cool aspect of it.

FW: I feel like you’re all in the same boat.

Gregory: Yeah, definitely. It’s a being-with-your-people thing. Safety in numbers here. Hopefully, they’re not too hard on me, but I would like to hear about it.

Chad: Well, in the creative world, it can be so lonely sometimes. When you’re editing, you’re sitting behind a computer, or you’re writing, and you’re just taking days and days alone, and you’re just trying to figure things out.

Rob: Especially as a director/producer, which I assume describes a lot of us. You know, after-production is fun; we’re a big group and it’s great, but then afterward, it’s just you and the editor, and the editor’s job is done sooner rather than later, and suddenly it’s just you. And that is kind of lonely. 

FW: I guess that’s a good segue to the next question. What are some of the hardships that you guys face being independent filmmakers?

Gregory: Participation. Finding people to buy into your vision. As an independent, you’re begging, stealing and borrowing a lot. If you’re paying, you’re not paying much. So, getting other talented people that are willing to participate is a big part of filmmaking. And this is not LA. It can be difficult to find good talent. 

It’s a small world here and they’re great, but it’s a small pool. So, getting that participation and other people involved with you, it’s difficult. You can make the mistake of setting the bar pretty high, and then you’re held to that standard, and, therefore, you’re going back to those same people saying, “You wanna do it again?”

Gregory Beck
Gregory Beck directed “You’re Served,” a film shot in Fort Worth that follows a process server and his darkly comedic adventures working in family law. Beck runs a production company, Two Trees Productions, which also creates promotional videos for clients like Dickies Arena and the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.

Rob: Jumping off that, too, the thing that I always find the most difficult is listening. I think that listening is a rare skill to find.

It’s listening and then knowing when to trust your gut. That’s the hardest part. You educate yourself as much as you can on what’s gonna happen, and then you actually get to the practice of it, and when it gets to the decisions, the talking heads show up. And they say, “We’ve got experience, we’ve got connections, you should do X, Y and Z.” And you come back to them and say, “I know that X, Y and Z is what’s in the textbook, but I don’t think Z works anymore. I think the industry has changed to where Z is not the right thing to do.”

Tim: I think for me, I run into this in every frigging project I’ve ever done, even corporate stuff, is vision versus reality. So, I have a bad habit of having a grand vision for everything I do. Maybe that’s good, because it sets the bar really high. But then, budget and time and all those other things, like the triangle of, what is it?

Gregory: Doing it good, fast or cheap?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of similar to that, you know? Reality hits and then you can do one of two things. You can say, “Screw that, I’m gonna do what I want,” and then run into a lot of trouble and make a lot of people unhappy, and you’re unhappy. Or you can accept reality and try to keep your vision on a different scale or a different form. 

We only raised $1,000 for my very first short film, and it was a weird film. It wasn’t something that was gonna go viral. And so, we said, “Okay, how can we make it for $1,000?” We went back to the drawing board and rewrote the script, and I found, in the end, the vision was the same; it just looked different. I think the acceptance of reality is the hardest thing. The limits of what you can do as an independent filmmaker when everything’s limited.

Chad: And those limits are where the magic happens too.

Tim: Oh yeah, it was a much better film in the end. And I didn’t need a gun fight and explosions, I didn’t need that.

FW: Filming here in Fort Worth isn’t necessarily easy. Do any of you ever have dreams of getting to LA, or do you enjoy staying here and staying independent?

Tim: I would say any feature filmmaker finds themselves, at some point, in LA. I mean, I’ve been to LA as part of a project. I personally am in love with Texas, and I keep writing scripts or working on documentary projects that make sense in Texas. And I was talking to a producer recently about a project that’s set in Texas and needs to be in Texas. He goes, “Could you film that in Oklahoma?” I went, “No, no I can’t.” And the phone call ended there.

Gregory: I don’t know, even if I were based out of Los Angeles, a lot of the stuff I was doing would still be based in Texas.
I want to tell stories, and I kind of gravitate toward telling my stories. That’s not saying I wouldn’t tell somebody else’s story if the opportunity and circumstances are correct, but that’s not what interests me.
You aspire to the level of success that LA might denote, but I don’t know that that geographical place is where I’d end up or where I’m striving to be. I would like to be in a film festival and have a feature-length film that’s going to move people and change attitudes.

Rob: I think that the internet and camera technology have changed everything. And that’s something I saw ... so I’ve been in LA now for five years. The first four in school at USC to do their whole film school track, which is dated by a little bit. The school does a great job of teaching the critique, and it teaches the practice. A lot of the students there, they don’t get a lot of the business. And it’s not for lack of trying on USC’s part; it’s just people in LA can get fooled into thinking this is about the art.

Because LA gets so heady like that. And so, one of my favorite things about coming back to Fort Worth is the people. The people in Fort Worth are excited about movies, they’re excited about entertainment. A lot of them go and watch the big superhero stuff, and a lot of them like the independent stuff. Where in LA, it’s more heavily slanted toward the independent stuff. There’re only one or two theaters in LA that feel like it represents the average demographic of moviegoers.
I think the bottom line is just what you all said; it’s more about the people at the end of the day, and you’re always going to have a talented person in a Metroplex of 4 million people. And it’s all about finding people who are excited about a project.

Chad: When I graduated from school, you had to move to LA because the digital technology wasn’t here yet. So, if you wanted to be in the industry, you kinda needed to go to Los Angeles or New York. And the only thing I would say in my time in LA is that I got to learn a lot about the industry while I was there, and a lot of what I liked and didn’t like.

Now, the technology has caught up, so you can make a film anywhere. And I’ve seen the film industry in Fort Worth grow. I’ve seen it with these guys around me, and meeting these production companies, and it’s exciting. It shows that it’s happening even when the state itself doesn’t incentivize filmmakers, people are choosing to stay here.

Chad Mathews
Chad Mathews is the executive director of the Lone Star Film Festival, a position he’s held since 2015. Prior to joining LSFF, he wrote, directed and produced several short films that have screened at over 35 film festivals throughout North America. He has a film and television degree from TCU.

FW: So, what does the state need to do to incentivize filmmakers to come here?

Tim: I went to a panel on this with the commission, the Texas Film Commission. And what they told me is that a lot of our congressmen, Texas state congressmen, just don’t understand the film industry. They don’t understand how incentives work; they think that these LA-based companies are filming in Austin and taking all that money and not leaving anything behind, which is just not the case.

This is anecdotal, but somebody from the film commission said they were talking to a representative and they explained the incentive program, and he said, “Oh, that’s how it works? I didn’t know that.” And it instantly changed his mind. Apparently, the word isn’t getting to them.

Gregory: Let me ask you guys a question: What is the benefit of big Hollywood coming to Texas, to you? I don’t see it for me. I’m not a DP [director of photography], I’m not an audio guy. For those guys, I can see it for sure. If I’m a director or producer…

Rob: Our crew for “The Last Whistle” was half LA, half Fort Worth. Because I had a few people in LA that I trusted a lot that were willing to take a van across the country for this movie. But the other half of it, we didn’t want to have hair and makeup, and things like set design ... I know there’s somebody in Fort Worth who knows how to do these things. And sure enough, they’re here. And they’re ready to work. And I think that as long as we have schools like TCU that are growing these film programs, there’s gonna be people ready to work and ready to be crew members.

Rob Smat
Rob Smat is the director of “The Last Whistle,” a sports drama that tells the story of a football coach facing the consequences of his excessive expectations. This is Smat’s first feature. He’s also written and directed music videos, commercials and short documentaries.

Chad: For me, there’s no attraction to getting one big Hollywood film into the state. I’d rather have 10 medium-sized films, these indies that are making good products and using our workforce consistently. If Texas is just looking for those big Hollywood blockbuster movies, then, yeah, it’s always gonna stay this way. But why don’t we focus on the smaller films that need that assistance and support. And we could all work consistently. I think that’s where the focus should go.

Tim: I recently saw “A Ghost Story,” which was made by David, somebody help me out ...

Gregory: Lowery?

Tim: David Lowery, who’s a Fort Worth guy. He’s been to Lone Star a bunch of times. And I don’t know what the budget of that was, but I know it was tiny. And I know he used almost exclusively Fort Worth talent. All my friends were on it. My director of photography for “Let ’er Buck,” Ron Gonzales, did all the steady cam work on that film. While he did pull in Los Angeles-based actors for pieces of it, 95 percent of that was Fort Worth resources. And if you can do that here, why wouldn’t you? And it’s more meaningful, has more substance. Makes me feel, you know?

Chad: And there’s a snowball effect to that, too. Because if someone like David Lowery’s choosing to make movies here, or someone like Richard Linklater is doing his films here, it’s just gonna grow. When you get to that level and you’re making a choice to stay in Texas, other people see that, and they follow suit.

FW: I think the Cohen Brothers shot part of “True Grit” in Texas, near Austin. Same with Quentin Tarantino, who’s shot in Texas many times. So how do we get those guys to Fort Worth?

Gregory: I think you need those filmmakers to talk it up. We need to invite them to the Lone Star Film Festival and make sure that they’re welcome and comfortable and fed.

Chad: And the Fort Worth Film Commission is doing a good job getting the word out, because just this week they had an article in Variety with David about “Old Man & the Gun,” and specifically about how we wanted it to be in Fort Worth. And that’s what we need.

Tim: I’ve got total respect for that movie already.

Gregory: And just as a note, the Fort Worth Film Commission isn’t just catering to feature filmmakers, either. I do a lot of commercial work, and they are extremely helpful with everything we do. Finding locations, scheduling street blockage, the little technical logistics that as a small production unit, you need a little bit of help.

Rob: One of my favorite moments when we were doing that production coordination for “The Last Whistle,” so we had some help from the Film Commission, we were considering this one location, and [they] told us to fill out this paperwork; this is what the last production used. And it was from “The Old Man & the Gun.” And I was like, “I’m using the same paperwork they used in Old Man & the Gun!”

FW: So, what do we have to look forward to, filmwise, at Fort Worth? Any projects in the future?

Gregory: We’re all developing something. If you got a pen or a computer, you’re developing something.

Tim: So, RIDE TV is a production company for “Let ’er Buck.” They’re mostly a cable network, and this is the first — well, second — but the first major feature film endeavor we went on. So, we’re producing hundreds of hours of content every year. It’s a lot of documentary stuff, and a lot of people story-type stuff. And the one thing I’m excited about that we’re working on is a series called “Cowgirls.” It’s about these girls who do block riding, and they’re nuts. They jump on these horses that are the caliber that they’re riding in the NFR.

And they’ve got the world telling them that they don’t have the chops to do it, and they’re in business to prove them wrong. And Texas is, besides a few other states, really the only place where the cowboys don’t care. They’re just like, “Well, if you can ride, then get on; we’re not gonna stop you.” You know? So, in order to compete, they have to come to Texas. And they’re coming to Fort Worth, and they’re coming to various places like this.

So, I’ll be involved in that in various ways on the production side of things.

Rob: And then for us, we’re very excited to premiere “Last Whistle” at the Lone Star Festival. I know this piece is coming out in five or six weeks, so I’m not sure what the status will be, but the next thing for us is getting “Last Whistle” out there, doing distribution, doing maybe a theatrical run after the festival, and making sure that people get to see it. And then seeing how that does, and if the business model works, then we’ll go in and do it again.

FW: Chad, anything from you with Lone Star Film Festival in years coming up?

Chad: You know, we are actively trying to keep up with what’s going on in the city, with our filmmakers that are local. It’s important to us to showcase and celebrate what’s happening here. We, of course, bring in movies from all over, but we always have to have that local talent involved in the festival. So, yeah, I’m excited to see again where these guys go with their products, what we get to see in the future. I’m excited about it this year because I feel like the lineup is really strong, but every year is just a new opportunity. And we work closely with the Fort Worth Film Commission, so sometimes we’ll get some insight as to what’s going on.

I feel like we’re fortunate to be in a community that cares, and we have those organizations in play that make things happen, from RIDE TV to Red Productions, to Musicbed, to the local independent filmmaker. We’re just beginning right now. There’s a good future ahead of us. 

FW: Okay, great. I'd be a little remiss not to ask this, but I notice you're all men. What can we do to improve bringing women into the film industry? Because I know it's notoriously dominated by men. So local Fort Worth, being women, what can we do to entice them to enter the industry?

Gregory: I work very closely, my producer is Candace Cooper, it's Creative Ammo. My hope is, the proof is in the pudding. Providing opportunity creates interest. And when you have interest, then women will be interested in this. And then you'll see them showing up. I think there needs to be a global effect, global effort, to make sure they're being exposed to it the same way young men are. I couldn't tell you how that happens. 

Tim: I think for me, and I've really tried to be conscious of this with every project that I go on, is not tolerating BS from the male crew members in my crew. It is significant when you're the director. You're focusing on the creative, but you kind of become everybody's parent, which is weird. You didn't ask for, but it's there, you know? And when, you don't see a lot of it. I'd say most filmmakers, people in the industry, in Texas, when you see something inappropriate going on, not just saying, "Ugh," and letting it go. I've started opening up initial meetings where if I see this going on, I don't care if your paperwork has been signed, you get to leave. You're done. I think it's unfortunate many are looking at the industry and seeing the media portraying a really toxic environment. Why would they want to be a part of that? It's logical. Why would you want to be a part of that?

If we just stop tolerating it, we stop minimizing those things when they happen and saying it's not that big of a deal, because it really is. I don't know how long it will take, but that would, over time, I think change things. And I don't know, you can tell me how LA is, but the level of consciousness has reached a point to where everybody's thinking about it. That could, and I hope, does have a tidal effect. We just say, "No more."

Chad: It's so interesting, because so much of the industry is actually run by women. It's the editors, it's the casting department, it's wardrobe. The entire set just seems to be full of women, and then you've got your top leaders, which are just males. So our organization is a non-profit, we're just trying to reach out to kids at a younger age. So we've teamed up with a young women's leadership academy in Fort Worth and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, and we did a film camp with their kids, their girls, just doing a documentary, female only crew. They made their movie and felt in a safe, comfortable environment. And giving them that experience to not be judged or think about the male dominated industry, and just be creative together as girls, high school, making a movie, I think that's just those first steps.

You give them that encouragement, and they will move on to the next level. Whether it's in higher education, going to film school, or if they start making their movies on their own, we want to give them that spark to tell them, "Yeah you can do it. You should it. Go ahead and just run with it."

So many of those girls, just don't have that encouragement, again, because it seems so guy-heavy. Peel that back a little bit, focus on them, and if you're only affecting 15 students that are female, and they're inspired, four or five of them are like, "I'm gonna be a filmmaker," that's all we can do right now. But just keep trying. It's gonna have to turn eventually, I think.

Tim: Yeah. And I see it, too. The numbers in the industry is changing. I see more female editors recently than I ever have in the past, and they're the best.

Chad: They are.

Tim: I don't know if it's attention to detail, decisiveness in what they're doing.

Rob: Listening.

Chad: Listening, patience, detail.

Tim: Yeah. And they make great producers too. I was thinking, the first film festival I came to, or the first Lone Star I came to, I met Rebecca Green, who produced “It Follows.” And I wanna say she was up for one of those indie producers to watch for, some major variety or something like that, you know? And I got to talk to her and she was awe inspiring. Because they made that film with no money, with a concept that is not marketable. And it's a weird movie, but it was huge. And she was there. I think that was another thing. You guys did a great thing by saying, "Please come and talk about your film. Represent."

FW: And there were quite a few women on the list, I did see, at this year's festival. So it's exciting to see how the tide is turning. It seems like it's slow, but it is moving. 

Rob: One of the things that I, just in my own personal experience, or maybe in just “The Last Whistle,” was we were excited to get as equal a crew as possible and just get everybody in the door who wanted to be there. And I think we did a pretty good job. But one of the recurring elements that I saw was a lot of the female filmmakers that we went after to collaborate with all had jobs and all had stable things, whereas my male friends were like, "Oh yeah, I'm not doing anything, yeah I'll come."

So I found that usually the female side of it is smart enough to not go do crazy one off little projects. It's always smarter to rise to the top and then kind of work your way, or come down on the job that you want. So I've seen a lot of that. It's a very subversive way of getting to where they deserve to be.

You can view their latest films at this year’s Lone Star Film Festival, held Nov. 7–11 in Sundance Square.

By Brian Kendall and Samantha Calimbahin | Photos by Olaf Growald