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The (Indie) Stars at Night – The Hill Country Film Festival

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The house lights dim. The audience hushes. The movie screen fills with bright illumination from a projector. The sound system begins pumping out a country hit from a half century ago –Hank Williams wailing “Why don’t you love me like you used to do?”

The Last Picture Show flickers to life in glorious black and white with a pan over a bleak, flat, mesquite covered landscape littered with the detritus of a dying town – Anarene – as we enter the lost world of 1950s small town Texas. Based on a work by the Dean of Texas authors, Larry McMurtry, it’s been 45 years since the night of the premier of this now classic Peter Bogdonovich film and it is the headline opener for the Hill Country Film Festival.

Texas Hill Country Film Festival

Photo: Fritztown Theatre in Fredericksburg, by John Dean

The Hill Country Film Festival is a relative newcomer in a world dotted with movie events. The granddaddy is the Cannes Festival in France on the legendary Cote d’Azure. It is also the largest film market in the world, every hotel and restaurant filled to overflowing, and the price of everything in town triples. Sundance, the most prestigious festival in the US, is mostly an opportunity for LA heavy hitters to talk smack over Chardonnay and snow ski.  SXSW has become the best festival and industry showcase in the US.

What makes the Hill Country Film Festival unique in the firmament of film is this — it offers intimacy. Here, nestled in the Hill Country venue south of Fredericksburg, young filmmakers and their audience can meet and mingle and discuss their love (and hate) of the art (and business) of the greatest story telling device ever invented – The Motion Picture.

The Hill Country Film Festival began in 2010, the brainchild of Executive Director and TCU grad Chad Matthews, who brought the program to the beloved site of the summers of his youth.  He teamed with Program Director Gary Weeks, himself an actor with over eighty film projects to his credit, to create a unique and intimate festival in Fredericksburg, the spiritual Heart of the Texas Hill Country.

A quote from Chad best serves as the mantra or in today’s vernacular the Mission Statement of the festival:

We’re excited to bring together folks who truly enjoy film with some of the best and brightest independent filmmakers from all over the world to the Texas Hill Country.  As in years past, our hope is that attendees will walk away inspired and engaged.

Texas Hill Country Film Festival Goers

Photo: The house specialty at Fritztown, by John Dean

Venues become important when the film experience becomes the primary focus of the festival. Cannes has the Palais du Festivals along the Croisette and jutting over the Mediterranean. And machine gun totting guards. And more security than the Crown Jewels. Sundance has a few lousy venues around the ski town of Park City, Utah. Tribecca is in New York, New York, aka Secular Hell. Fredericksburg has the Fritztown Theatre.

This is a small multiplex located on Washington Street (US 87) just south of town. It is a jewel of a movie house with a decidedly Texas aesthetic. The important things are all there — the screens are new, the seats are perfect, the sound system modern, and Fritztown offers the novel feature of a tin bucket full of ice and long neck beers to wash down the popcorn and nachos. There are no automatic weapon wielding strongarms outside this location; security comes in the person of the affable and capable Festival Director Amy Miskovsky who handles the bonafides.

Other HCFF venues include open air showings downtown at the Marktplatz and the awards banquet location, the Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War.

Texas Hill Country Film Festival Gary Chason

Photo: Special Guest Gary Chason, by John Dean

Question and Answer and Meet and Greet sessions form part of every festivals main attractions for the film buff. Getting to talk to and meet new filmmakers and veterans of the business brings the folks in front of the screen together with the people who make the magic happen. The special guest at this year’s opening night screening of The Last Picture Show on Thursday night was Gary Chason.

Gary is a Houston-based writer/director/actor who worked with directors such as Robert Altman, Louis Malle, and on three films with Peter Bogdonovich. Gary recounted the logistics and casting issues of the film, and as an Assistant to Bogdonovich the unique needs filmmaking sometimes requires, including Bogdonovich giving him the task of finding two dogs who would – um – conjugate on demand for a scene shot out of the “Anarene” English Class window. He allowed that from the dailies – the film is shot, raw negative sent to LA by airplane, developed the next day and flown back for review, a process that no longer exists in the digital world – everyone, Actors and Crew, knew they were doing something special. The reputation of The Last Picture Show continues its upward trajectory.

The Hill Country Film Festival is running now from April 28 – May 1, 2016. For a complete schedule of showings, visit www.hillcountryff.com or find them on Facebook/HillCountryFilmFestival.

Go to the movies this weekend. If you want to meet the filmmakers, got to The Fritztown theatre in Fredericksburg.