Matt Muir and Blake DeLong (director and star of "Thank You A Lot")
“And then it was a long, twisted adventure from there.”
There’s a mellow sweetness to Matt Muir’s film Thank You A Lot that can be traced to its origins. Set in Austin, Texas, and the surrounding Hill Country, the film is about a music manager Jack Hand (Blake DeLong), a failed entrepreneur hanging onto his job at a corporate record label that’s pressuring him to sign his estranged father, country singer James Hand (played by the musician himself). The behind-the-scenes story of the film is like a scavenger hunt from the pre-internet era, built largely upon coincidence. Muir met actor Blake DeLong while he was in the graduate Film program at the University of Texas. He decided to write a screenplay about a young man hustling in the music scene in Austin, and the rest of the story fell into place when Muir stumbled across Hand at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Salon. Muir built his father-son story around DeLong and Hand, and filled out the cast with other musicians and friends in Austin, including rapper Da’Shade Moonbeam, the band Hundred Visions (playing fictional band The Wintermen), and radio DJ Andy Langer.
What are the roots of the story of Thank You A Lot? How did the project evolve?
MM: Years and years ago I was in bands like everyone else was in college, so I lived that life on a much smaller scale for awhile. It really informed one of the reasons I moved to Austin. I really wanted to get into the grad program at UT, but also I love live music. So that was definitely in the back of my mind when I moved here anyway. Right away I started going to shows and seeing everything I could, and formed relationships with bands here. So I kind of knew that world, and appreciated that world. On top of that I love subculture pictures, like the old Monte Hellman stuff, like the music business, and hustling; I love those kinds of movies too. So after Blake [DeLong] and I had met and made a [short] film I was writing something for Blake with that idea…And I was friends with the guys in Hundred Visions. I was like, my dream would be to make a movie with Blake and those guys in Austin, in a world that I know. I was trying to build out that idea and what the arc would be, because I didn’t want it to be just a movie about a bunch of young white dudes in their twenties trying to make indie rock.
Yeah, nobody makes movies about them! They’re such an underserved population!
MM: Exactly. So while I was kind of building out this idea, I was at Ginny’s, this little honky-tonk up north, on like a Tuesday, and just stumbled upon Hand… He comes in the room and the temperature changes. He’s mysterious, and sweet, and has a different energy. He was playing these totally original songs, and they weren’t kitschy, homage stuff. I don’t like new country music, but I love that kind of stuff. So I was like, OK, if I’m putting all these people that I know and love in the film what if this guy was in the film?… If you needed to manipulate and get something out of this character, a lot of interesting things could come from that. So really that was the seed of the story.
BD: And then it was a long, twisted adventure from there.
So you were attached from the beginning?
BD: Yeah. I left Austin in 2007. Matt called me that summer and said, ‘I just saw this guy James Hand, look him up, listen to his interview on Fresh Air, listen to his music.’…I’m like Matt in that I don’t care for much current country music, but I grew up listening to Solid Gold country from the 1960s and 70s, and I really always loved Lefty Frizzell especially. And the only guy in Austin that I had ever seen that was as authentic to me was Redd Volkaert, and he’s more of a picker than a singer and songwriter. So I felt stupid that I had completely missed James in my 10 years of living in Austin. But I was really excited about him. And then it was about a year later Matt emailed me the first draft of the script. So that was in 2008. And then in 2009 Matt came to New York because we were screening [producer Chris Ohlson’s] movie Expecting at Rooftop Films. And Matt came up with Chris and stayed with me and we workshopped a little bit over a few days, just talking about the story, whatever. And Matt said he had this plan of how he was going to encounter James. Because he had a country music video that he had made that did really well. So Matt said I’m gonna call his manager, because they had just recorded this new album that was getting all this heat because it was the one that Willie Nelson’s company or whomever had helped finance. It was on Rounder Records. We knew they were going to have this record and it was going to be a big deal for James, and Matt sort of cut right in and said, “Hello, I’m a director, I make music videos, here’s the one that I already did, and I would love to shoot James’ video for free because I want to meet him,” whatever, and they were like, “Great! We have no money.” [Laughter]
MM: That was the record after the Rounder Record though.
BD: It was? Oh. Yeah, yeah.
MM: That was why he did the Fresh Air interview, so it was kind of after that stuff happened.
BD: It was a follow-up to his breakout record. So Matt met James on the set…
MM: I ingratiated myself into his life after that.
BD: And then I think quite a bit more time passed before after that video was shot before Matt got the nerve up to send him the script. Right?
He actively hides how intelligent he is, but he’s so insightful and perceptive about emotion and relationships… I didn’t know it at the time, but he got it. He was like, “Kid, it’s fine.”
And James had never done any acting before?
BD: Matt sent him the script in, I think, 2010. And then you went out there by yourself.
MM: Yeah, and met with him.
BD: He called and said, I read the script, I want to talk to you about it. He lives outside of Waco, it’s about an hour-and-a-half away, it’s in the country. And Matt went out there…
MM: The house was really similar to the one in the movie.
BD: He lives in his parents’ old house.
MM: Yeah, he lives in the house he grew up in.
BD: And they talked about the script. And then it was May of 2011 [and] Matt and I went out to James’ house and hung out with him for a day, went fishing, drove around with him and his buddies, ate fried chicken late at night…
MM: Hung out with his crazy friends.
BD: Had a lot of beers. And we came back to Austin that night, and slept for a few hours, and then we got up early and drove back out there with Chris and a tiny crew, and he and I sat on the front porch of his house and shot what is essentially two scenes from the movie combined into one, as a screen test for him.
MM: And this was an emotional scene.
BD: Yeah, like the turning-point scene, the big reveal scene. And this was all because the big question was what happens when you turn the camera on?
MM: Does he just look at the camera?
BD: Can he continue to be as soulful and interesting and uncluttered? And not only did he not change at all, he somehow was uncannily gifted at the basic sort of talking and listening of acting. I felt very present with him, I felt really connected with him, and I could see that the material that Matt had written for him was really working on him on a deep, deep level as he was talking about making art, writing songs, and the fear of being judged.
MWhat was it like for you to direct a performer who is more of a musician and not a trained actor?
MM: It wasn’t that hard. I don’t know how much directing I did. We talked about the story, we talked about the character, but I didn’t want to give him too much. My aim was, let’s talk about the character, let’s about what’s happening in the scene. I asked him if he had any questions about what his character had been doing, what his character was going through at the time, how he felt about his son being there, how that answered basic questions. He actively hides how intelligent he is, but he’s so insightful and perceptive about emotion and relationships… I didn’t know it at the time, but he got it. He was like, “Kid, it’s fine.” [Laughter] And he is the kind of unofficial mayor of that town, so another thing that was happening during that day is all of his friends were coming by, all of his relatives were coming by.
BD: We were in the middle of shooting this thing, and he would just stop and be like, “Oh, hey!”
MM: Someone would pull up because they saw cars there. James’ brother showed up because he saw a bunch of cars and people in the yard and he thought his brother was getting arrested or something… So we tried to protect him from that as much as possible… The answer to your question is we just talked about it, we made him as comfortable as possible, that’s the whole reason we went out the day before so we could just hang out with Blake, let him know that we don’t want anything out of him. We think he’s terrific, we just want to work with him.
BD: A real blessing was that he sort of instantly recognized Matt and I as Texas guys, guys that he understood and could identify with.
You casted other musicians for key roles. Did you have a similar experience with them? Were you casting for a particular quality?
MM: Da’Shade [Moonbeam] I actually researched, because Chris knew him. He sent me a lot of material, [and] I watched the footage of him. I listened to all of his records. And then Chris and I met with him and I kind of had that experience that maybe James had with us, where I met Da’Shade and I was like, “I know this guy, I understand where he’s coming from, what his set of values are.” And with the Hundred Visions guys, I knew them, and we have our own shorthand. They get it and get the relationships already.
They aren’t those guys [in the movie], I kind of wrote about other bands that I had seen, but I knew where their humor lives. I just talked to them about it, and the setup of each scene, and answered any questions they had. You know: Here’s the script, just the ideas; that’s all I care about. Rewrite all of the lines, say it however you want it, make it your own, make your own jokes, change stuff if you think it’s tinny or weird or not-right. One of my favorite books is Altman’s biography, and one thing I really respect about him, [is how] on set, whoever had an idea, the sound guy, art department, if anyone had a character idea, a line idea, it’s like, let me hear it, let’s try it once. I feel like we were proponents of that, especially with the non-actors, because they’re not experienced enough to know the craft… So if it’s natural to them they can identify with it in the moment it’s going to be different and interesting.
He somehow was uncannily gifted at the basic sort of talking and listening of acting. I felt very present with him, I felt really connected with him, and I could see that the material that Matt had written for him was really working on him on a deep, deep level as he was talking about making art, writing songs, and the fear of being judged.
I thought it was interesting that you decided to write about a hustler character. It’s not something you see often in indie dramas. Why were you inspired to write about that? And Blake, what was it like for you to play that type of character?
BD: I was in a band in college too, and I was here in Austin. We didn’t have a manager, but that was a great crash course because I sort of was our manager. So I had a lot of experience in all of these clubs on Sixth Street. I knew the feeling of being down there at night and getting your gear and trying to make deals with the guys at the door and the guys at the bar to get some extra drink tickets, or getting your friends in so you have a built-in crowd to help generate a little excitement. Because when you’re just four dudes and it’s a bar in Austin and you start your totally generic rock song it’s a snooze. So I had a little bit of experience. And then Matt and I talked a lot about Jack’s sort of ‘hustler’ energy. I don’t know why there aren’t more hustlers in movies, because they’re super-fun. Matt and I talked a lot about that in the early stages, that the inspiration for this character was sort of like Ben Gazzara’s characters. Who else did we talk about?
MM: The Long Goodbye we talked about a lot. We talked about the Monte Hellman movies. Warren Oates. I don’t know if he’s like a traditional hustler, but Warren Oates I really love. But yeah, specifically the Ben Gazzara movies, like Saint Jack, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, They All Laughed.
BD: I remember watching They All Laughed, I hadn’t seen it before.
MM: That’s an incredible movie that not a lot of people watch. But I feel like that kind of energy, where you know someone’s hustling but there’s a lot going on under the surface. All the motivations aren’t perfectly drawn out for you and explained to you, just kind of that energy. You know, The Sting is one of my favorite movies of all time. We didn’t want to get too dark and cool, we wanted to have some fun.
BD: Yeah, making this movie it’s like a father-son reconnection, it can really veer into heavy melodrama.
MM: Yeah, we wanted to keep it interesting and fun, and have some optimism to it. The character is super cynical, people around him are super cynical, but if the story can have some [optimistic] moments like that it’s a good thing.