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Altman, Theron light up South by Southwest

‘A Prairie Home Companion’ makes its debut at the Austin film festival
/ Source: The Associated Press

With Robert Altman’s star-studded “A Prairie Home Companion” making its North American premiere on opening night Friday, and celebrities including Charlize Theron, Ray Romano, Brad Garrett and Erykah Badu appearing throughout the week, the South by Southwest film festival only looks like it’s gone Hollywood.

Organizers say the festival will maintain the same laid-back, small-town atmosphere for which Austin, Texas, is known.

“It’s definitely bigger, definitely more people, definitely more premieres than we’ve ever had before, more films than we’ve ever had before, more filmmakers than we’ve ever had before,” festival producer Matt Dentler said.

From Friday through March 18, 230 features and shorts are on the schedule, 60 of which are world premieres. They include “95 Miles to Go,” a documentary about Romano’s stand-up comedy tour, and “East of Havana,” a documentary Theron helped produce about Cuban rappers.

John C. Reilly is expected to appear with “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on the longtime Garrison Keillor radio program, which co-stars Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Kline.

Also arriving in Austin to take part in discussions of their careers are veteran rocker Henry Rollins and Peter Bart, the longtime editor in chief of Variety.

‘A friendly, communal vibe’Despite the presence of these high-profile celebrities and others, “I don’t think it’ll change at all,” Dentler said.

“I think people know they can come to South by Southwest and stay under the radar, blend in and mingle,” he said. “South by Southwest is one of the rare festivals where you can look out at the audience and see five or six incredibly important figures in the entertainment business, all sitting next to each other — maybe they know each other, maybe they don’t know each other — but they’re just hanging out. There’s just a friendly, communal vibe in Austin.”

Dentler said festival planners didn’t realize Theron was involved with “East of Havana” when they became interested in it. South by Southwest always features a large number of documentaries and features about music, since it overlaps with the more established South by Southwest music festival, now in its 20th year. (The film festival is in its 13th year.)

“This one struck us and we didn’t even know it was produced by Charlize Theron,” Dentler said. “Then we did a little homework and said, ‘Is this THE Charlize Theron?’ It’s interesting that this Oscar winner, arguably one of the biggest movie stars in the world, would get behind a camera to produce a Cuban hip-hop documentary.”

Other music films include world premieres of the documentaries “loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies,” which follows the influential band’s hotly awaited reunion tour; “Air Guitar Nation,” which is about exactly what the title suggests; and “Before the Music Dies,” a historical piece featuring interviews and performances from Badu, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt.

Heavy metal doc makes its debutAn all-star musical lineup also can be found in “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” making its U.S. premiere. The documentary, which depicts heavy metal as a long-misunderstood art form, includes Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Dee Snider, Vince Neil and many more.

Sam Dunn, who directed and produced the film with his longtime friend and fellow Canadian Scot McFadyen, started out listening to Twisted Sister, Motley Crue and Van Halen in the ’80s, then moved onto Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, followed by harder thrash and death metal. He’s still a fan at age 31.

“I’ve grown up with this music since I was very young and most metal fans grow up feeling somewhat on the outside by virtue of, this music marks you immediately as being different,” he said. “I think that’s a hard thing for a lot of kids. This is very special music to a lot of people. It’s a big part of their identity.”

McFadyen added: “This is the perfect place to premiere a documentary about music. You have true music fans in the U.S. who all seem to come together for a week and a half.”

Annabelle Gurwitch also has amassed a cross-section of stars for “Fired!” a documentary in which people talk about — you guessed it — being fired. The actress-comedian, who hosted the TV series “Dinner and a Movie,” was inspired to make the film after being fired from Woody Allen’s off-Broadway play “Writer’s Block” — or rather, as she was informed, they were “going in another direction.”

“That firing led me to really think about what it means to get fired in America today in every profession,” Gurwitch said. “Being fired by a cultural icon is pretty big. You’d like to think, ‘Oh, I never have to hear from that person again. Who are THEY?’ Well, THEY is Woody Allen.”

As the film’s producer, Gurwitch interviewed actors David Cross, Illeana Douglas and Tim Allen, former White House executive chef Walter Scheib III, columnist and speechwriter Ben Stein and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who told her: “Every industry is becoming more and more like show business, where you’re a freelancer and you go from job to job to job.”

Here’s what Gurwitch has learned from her new job: “Making documentaries is a great way to hemorrhage money doing something you feel really passionate about.”