Indie Diaries: Julia Halperin, Pre-Production Panic in Austin, Texas

For the “Film School, Film Careers” special in our upcoming Summer 2016 issue, we asked three indie moviemakers to chronicle a week of their lives in April: of work, family life and yes, endless emails.

First up, Julia Halperin, a director living in Austin, Texas. At the time her diary was written, Halperin is deep in preparation for the shoot of her second feature La Barracuda, co-directed by her real-life partner Jason Cortlund. The pair previously made 2012’s Now, Forager.


Day One

8 a.m. Coffee! Quick workout and shower. The final week of pre-production for La Barracuda, a suspense story with very deep roots in Austin’s musical world, begins. Our budget is very limited but our ambitions are not.

11:30 a.m. Email, email, email, email. A very well-known dream actor might come aboard for a supporting role; I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

12 p.m. I scout locations with our beloved DP, Jon Nastasi, and amazing production designer Diz Jeppe. One advantage to making films in Austin is that there are a large variety of easily accessible natural and built environments. One of our key shooting locations is a ranch, and we’ve been lucky enough to find one with rolling hills and horses only 25 minutes from downtown.

Photograph by David Hartstein

Jason Cortlund, co-producer Logan Cooper and Julia Halperin location scout with a donkey. Photograph by David Hartstein

1:30 p.m. Lunch, my first real meal of the day (Vietnamese shrimp and vermicelli). I snack on chocolate and cashews for the rest of the day, which is not good for my mental or physical health.

3:30 p.m. I meet with a potential costumer, who isn’t very experienced with film, but she has strong resources and I think we can work together. The dream actor is out because of schedule conflicts, but there are some local options for this role that we’re also very happy with.

8 p.m. For all the bars here in Austin, we’ve been having trouble finding one that will work as a location for a key scene on the first morning of production. We scout a few new ones. I’m starting to get a headache.

9:45 p.m. Home. Email, email, email. A definite headache. I go to bed.

Day Two

9 a.m. Lots of art department communications. Our scheduled 24-day shoot includes more than 18 different locations, so even with our multitalented co-producer Logan Cooper pitching in to help the locations team, there are a million logistics to plan.

4.30 p.m. I drive to the airport to pick up Sophie Reid, who is flying in from Britain to play Sinaloa, one of our leads. We auditioned more than 400 women for the role. Securing Sophie’s work visa was difficult at our budget and resource scale, but we knew it was going to be worth the expense and logistical difficulty. As well as being a gifted actress, Sophie sings and plays guitar, and we didn’t want to “fake it” with a double playing guitar.

Actress Sophie Reid and Julia Halperin. Photograph by Patrick Rusk

Actress Sophie Reid with Halperin. Photograph by Patrick Rusk

Day Three

2 p.m. Last-minute changes to actor availability necessitate more changes to our schedule. I fight my anxiety by reminding myself that these problems have been solved before, and they can be solved again.

4 p.m. While the DP and AC conduct camera tests for lens options, I’m squeezing in an acupuncture session. Normally I prioritize my health and downtime, but as production momentum builds, I can feel that equilibrium start to slip away, and I’m giving myself some stress reduction while I still can.

Day Four

10 a.m. I’m in the production office working on the shotlist with Jon. I’m starting to get nervous that I won’t have the stamina to make it through this production, but worrying doesn’t help.

3 p.m. Three days of shooting will include live musical performances from The Mastersons, The Harvest Thieves, Butch Hancock and Bob Livingston—a fantastic opportunity to represent an authentic environment and build meaningful production value. (Plus just plain fun!) But coordinating musical performers and songs adds other layers of complication and a whole lot more to juggle.

Day Five

12 p.m. More location scouting. Austin’s new children’s museum, the Thinkery, will be our home for one day of shooting, and I’m as excited as a kid myself when I visit. Their exhibits are rich with depth and color that will be spectacular on camera, and they’re going to substantial efforts to make this possible for us. I remind myself how lucky I am to work in such a film-friendly community.

10 p.m. I look up from my computer to realize how late it is, and once again, I haven’t had dinner and there are no groceries in the house. Is it easier for filmmakers who are working at a higher budget level? Or do they experience the same kinds of problems, but at a different scale?

Day Six

11 a.m. Besides the film’s tight budget, I’m also stretching every dollar of my own personal budget. I normally make my living as an editor and a film instructor, but I’m having to take a break from both jobs to make this film. I’m grateful that I’m able to make this trade-off for now, but I won’t lie—I’m having some sleepless nights.

12:30 p.m. I’m pinching myself. David Hartstein, one of our producers, is headed to the airport to pick up another lead, Allison Tolman, who has the subtle, soulful quality we really wanted for Merle, our other lead character. We’ve Skyped with her, but this is the first time I’ll be meeting her in person.

5:30 p.m. I have a great email exchange with JoBeth Williams, our third lead. She has insightful script notes that add depth and nuance to her character. Jason makes adjustments to JoBeth’s scenes based on her comments, and voilá!

Jason Cortlund and Halperin, co-directors of La Barracuda. Photograph by Patrick Rusk

Jason Cortlund and Halperin, co-directors of La Barracuda, with script supervisor Samantha Bennett. Photograph by Patrick Rusk

Day Seven

1:30 p.m. Sophie and Allison’s wardrobe and makeup tests are so much fun—these characters are really starting to come to life! Activity builds to nearly a blur; I remind myself to calm down and focus at one thing at a time, and not get caught up in the kind of distracted multi-tasking that numbs my creativity.

11:30 p.m. Call time will be early tomorrow, so Jason and I try to finish our work at a semi-reasonable hour. People assume that it’s challenging to co-direct with the person you also live with, but the truth is that for us, working together is one of the easiest collaborations. We share so many ideas and cinematic references, and have a clear division of labor: After extensive planning, discussion and building of plans, Jason works with the crew and DP, and I watch the live performances. Then we discuss the results. It can be time-consuming, but we are committed to maintaining a happy set.

We wish each other good night and good luck, and close our eyes for a few precious hours before beginning the next big adventure. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, on newsstands July 2016.

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