Filmmakers from around the country come to Austin to showcase their work at South by Southwest. This week on “Frame of Mind,” five SXSW shorts showcase uniquely Texas styles of filmmaking. Follow the animations of “The Oceanmaker” as they reach for the clouds, go along with two brothers as they come across a dilemma featuring their father and a cooler of meat in “Carne Seca,” and much more!
For our final installment of “Frame of Mind,” I spoke with Austinite John Bryant, whose short film,”The Samaritans,” is also part of the SXSW showcase on “Frame of Mind”. A graduate of the Radio/Television/Film program at the University of Texas, Bryant’s films have played all over the world, including Sundance, South by Southwest and Clermont-Ferrand.
Mark Reeb, Heather Kafka and Bill Wise in “The Samaritans” by filmmaker John Bryant.
My conversation with John Bryant:
On the inspiration for “The Samaritans…”
JBMy brother and I were talking one day, and he said, “What if there were crazy people causing accidents and trying to ‘save’ people and save their souls?” I kind of sat there and thought about that for a while. It was a crazy and weird idea, and I loved it. It was about a year or two after that I sat down and wrote the actual screenplay. I’m also interested in religious zealotry in general; it’s not just Christianity, but all faiths. You find these people that are so driven by their ideology that it definitely crosses over the line of what I consider to be moral.I actually sat on this script for about four or five years because of fear of potentially offending people. But, at some point I said, “I’m still thinking about the story and I still want to do it.”
If he had been in John (the main character)’s situation…
JBI was really blessed with really great actors that came on board, worked for essentially nothing, and infused these characters with life. They challenged me as a director by asking me the right questions about character motivations and we sat down and tried to work through these things — how a person would actually behave in such an insane situation. That was the whole idea, what would you do in this situation? So here you have a guy who is a salesman and at some point he realizes that these people are not going to help him and he needs to do or say whatever he can to survive. His instinct is to be in survival mode and then use whatever skills he has and say what he needs to say. Probably, the biggest surprise for me was that when I actually started watching the actors bring the text to life, I started to think, “Who’s more extreme?” In this case, this guy is going to die and these people feel like they’re offering him a life raft and he still refuses. I mean, can’t that be interpreted as an extreme action? What if a battlefield chaplain was praying over a wounded soldier that just got shot in the chest and is about to die? And the soldier refuses to accept God or ask for forgiveness before he dies? Is that extreme? I don’t know the answer for sure, but it is an interesting question.
On the criticism he’s received from the film…
JBSo, the actor who played John, his name is Mark Reeb, and he told me there was a couple who had expressed their distaste for the film at a film festival we played at in Colorado. They thought it was making fun of or mocking Christianity. I would argue that it did no such thing, that it was mocking zealotry. The truth is that we live in times where you see it every month. It’s all over the place. That was my intention — to offer criticism of religious zealots. The end credits even suggest something. As [Lou-Anne and Jim] walk away, [the camera] starts to go into the ground. So, you can take that as if [John] was descending into Hell or, if you’re an atheist, he was just going to be buried. I think it’s more open for people’s interpretations.
Filmmaker John Bryant
On his own views on religion…
JBI’m very interested and I’ve definitely seen things that make me think there’s a higher power. If you look at the human body, the eye and the brain and how we operate, it makes you question whether this all happened because of evolution or because of some divine power? I’m agnostic in the true sense; I’m not saying there isn’t a higher power, but in a scientific way, it’s impossible to prove. I grew up going to a Lutheran church, so it’s not like I grew up without any spiritual influence. I really hope there’s a God — I want there to be, but I’d be lying if I said I had no doubts. I wish there was concrete and empirical evidence that proved God exists — that’s just the way I’m wired. People who have complete faith that is unshakable are inspiring to me.
On the filming of “The Samaritans…”
JBThat lightning storm, we added in a few artificial lightning strikes, but that really was going on while we were filming. It was crazy. We were shooting, we had the actors and no money, so I said, “It’s now or never” because there was a huge lightning storm in the background. The temperature dropped 30 to 40 degrees, I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. When the storm rolled in, my director of photography, Mike Washlesky, shouted out, “God doesn’t want us to make this film!”
His thoughts on being featured on “Frame of Mind…”
JBI’m really happy; I almost wish there were more affiliates that would offer this type of programming to give a platform for burgeoning talent in the U.S. I’ve had a couple of shorts play on cable overseas and I had a short play on a PBS affiliated show in Chicago, but that was five or six years ago. It’s a rare opportunity and I’m really happy to have been selected and to be a part of it. I’m also surprised because [my film] has provocative subject matter, so it has a chance to get out there and people can take it for whatever it’s worth.