South by Southwest, Austin 2019
A Series of Strange Coincidences
A few months after the main production of #BuildingBridges was finished, Christoph Mücher, the director of the “Wunderbar Together” campaign, invited me to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Festival.
Back then, post-production of the “Behind the Scenes” and the social edit were already finished, but the highest wall still waited to be climbed: finding the right voice for the narrative short and the film score. Two elements of essential importance to the film.
I was not sure if I should go. Not only the 12-hour flight, but also the time difference, and feeling like I was running away from work gave me a hard time. Thank God, I trusted my instincts. Thinking there might be a chance to find an authentic narrator in Texas and getting inspiration from the direct, American source were enough reasons for me to go.
South by Southwest is one of the biggest festivals in the USA and its roots are based in music, film, education and technology. Most of the people visiting are in their late twenties and have jobs in the creative field. Needless to say that the majority of attendants do not count among the poorer part of society (37 percent of attendees have a household income of more than 150k a year).
Almost 232.258 people attended SXSW 2019 and I have never ever been part of something that was in any way comparable.
SXSW is so big, that just the film portion had 155 world premieres to celebrate. From digitally fermenting landscapes as a reaction to the progressive overpopulation of Japan, by The New Japan Islands (by Yoichi Ochiai), to music acts such as Cypress Hill: anything you could potentially think of was part of this festival.
What surprised me the most, and probably had some effect on my growing inner wish to run away from new technologies, was the overwhelming amount of VR, AR and AI artists & performances. It was everywhere and almost part of everything- and so were its methods. Those devices, with their artificial realities and their codes, change the very way we create things. I felt lost. I had just learned how to tell a simple story and seeing all those new possibilities made me feel like a grandfather touching a smartphone for the first time.
Besides all the things SXSW had to offer, I was facing two major problems. First, I had to find the right voice for the narration of the short film, and secondly, but not less importantly, I was in urgent need of the right film score.
The first problem was solved surprisingly quickly. SXSW is a networker’s dream. People start talking to each other in the a blink of an eye. Getting in contact with and talking to Americans is very easy, something I wish we could have more of in Germany. The gigantic network scene around me had a paradoxical effect on me. I just sat on a chair at a network party and did not want to talk. Two chairs next to me was another guy. Our eyes met a few times and after what felt like an eternity of silence he started talking. His name was Justin Michael La Vallee. This person turned out to be a Berlin-based, Manhattan-raised music composer who, among many other films, created the soundtrack for Inuk, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. We liked each other and decided to work together.
That was one problem out of the way, but the bigger challenge was still ahead of me: finding an authentic voice for our main cast.
In the early hours of my third day in Austin I decided to visit Lockhart. People say, that barbecue was invented there. Those same people say, that Barbecue is an important part of American history. It was a 40 minute-long ride to Lockhart and a blessing for the soul to escape the epitome of gentrification. Entering this small Southern town, I decided to stop at a thrift shop. Here again, I experienced a moment of American magic, where I was softly cocooned in its warm shining net of kindness and charity.
I asked the lady at the desk: „Where can I find the best voice in town? She replied „go to Smitty's Market, he is a butcher and he can help you“. I went to this place, but instead of finding the right voice, I ended up eating meat. The butcher was very kind, but not an undercover voice genius.
Smitty sent me to the governor of Lockhart, and the governor sent me to the chamber of commerce, where pictures hung on the wall showcasing “the company of the year” going way back through the last century. Needless to mention, that most of them were Barbecue restaurants. The administration called an old friend, a retired judge who appeared and introduced himself with the words: „From the bottom of my heart, I am a Republican, but I have to apologize for the things that are happening in the White House“. He gave me a book that he wrote. “They gave their all - an American interpretation of the Second World War”. We started the recording session and after the first few words I could hear his strong Texan accent. Unfortunately, it was too strong. At a certain point he called his friend Jerry L. Cooke PhD to join us. Half a century ago the two had gone to school together. This coincidence changed everything. For ages, I had been looking for the right voice. I had heard lots of different suggestions, but none of them sparked that inner, convincing excitement. The search for the last missing part of this puzzle had become the reason for endless sleepless nights and, at times, made me doubt the entire project. When Jerry started reading the script my heart beat faster and I started sweating. Immediately I knew that I had found the right voice. He finished the last take with the words: „the guy in the script, that’s me. I lived for 7 years in a trailer in Arizona“.
What an interesting change of direction. A non-professional speaker from the Texas farmlands had the perfect, authentic voice for the narration. Not the advertisement speaker from Munich, nor the actors I met in Germany and America. I left Germany feeling nothing but a growing sense of desperation. Suddenly I had fallen into a series of strange coincidences, which eventually led me to meet a lady in a thrift shop.
What I learned in Austin is simple: You get inspired if you let go. Trust your gut feeling, and for every problem that you might have, go to Lockhart! I went back to Austin that evening and was happy. That night, music was the main act all over town and the streets were one moving surface of people: a sea of diversity. The warm lights of Austin’s skyline reflected blurrily in the puddles of the alley in which I stood, having fled the loud music of the mains streets.
I looked at the lights one last time and walked back home. The next day I had to fly back to Germany and start working on the last caption of the film.