I was one of hundreds of the extras on the massive, $100 million plus budget set as a Mexican soldier for one week.
Wanting to make films for a living, I figured it would be a good idea to see how the big wigs did it.
I didn’t learn very much, except that Billy Bob Thorton is really tall.
It was a few years after actually making a film that I returned as an actor to a film set.
And on that set for the independent feature film “Turkey Day” I learned more than any film school could’ve taught me.
This was my first time as an actor on any film set, but these guys made me feel at home in front of the camera for my two days filming my scenes.t
James Christopher Dziedzic is one of the founders of the Austin based production company Twitchy Dolphin, who produced and directed “Turkey Day” along with a ton of other feature films.
His knowledge of film and direction is clear as you watch him bounce around the set, talking to his actors and making sure he gets the best out of every performance.
He’s a very funny guy, cracking jokes between set-ups and tear-downs, but make no buts about it — when the cameras rolling, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty.
“Really before Twitchy became a company, I met one of my business partners Chris Copple,” James Christopher remembered.
“We were both students of the University of Texas and neither of us really wanted to move out to L.A.
“We live in Austin, we like living in Austin and we kind of wanted to make a go of it by doing indie films ourselves under our own business model.
“So Nathan Bybee (Dziedzic’s brother-in-law) and my wife Jessica started this company with the idea that we’ll keep everything in a micro-budget level, so that not one film would ruin it and we could just keep working.”
And on that somewhat simple business model, they have gone on to produce nine feature films, numerous short films and music videos and they just celebrated their fifth year as a film studio in October.
What’s in a name?
And as I’ve heard many people ask, myself included, what’s with the name Twitchy Dolphin?
“When Chris and I met at U.T. we made some shorts and then we got halfway through this feature (“Littlefield”) and decided we should start a company.
“So we came up with some names. We did the whole thing where we were sitting at a bar in Austin listening to John English play, drinking Shiner Bock and we didn’t know what to call ourselves.
“We came up with different variations on the word dolphin, like ‘Rabid Dolphin’, which is what I wanted, and he wanted ‘Geeky Dolphin’ and somehow ‘twitchy’ came up.
“So we had two other options and then we put it up to a vote, and that’s what won.
“So really it wasn’t even our choice, we let the Democratic process take over.”
The passion of James Christopher
Having known James Christopher for a few years now, it’s clear he wears his influences on his sleeve.
He’s very quick to tell you who his influences are and why, which as a filmmaker is invaluable.
“I kind of grew up at the movies.
“I grew up during the age of what I think is some of the best cinema ever.
“I was in utero when my mom went to go see ‘Jaws,’” James Christopher laughed.
“So it began there.
“I grew up through ‘Star Wars’, through ‘Raiders (of the Lost Ark),’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Goonies’”.
“And all of those movies I think, for as much as them being awesome movies and being really diverse movies, you know, cinema had a lot of heart back then.
“I’m a big John Hughes fan. I do whatever I can, particularly when I’m writing, to model myself after him, more than anyone else as a writer.
“And I think the first time I really thought I would like to put something together was the first time I saw the movie ‘The Crow’ in theaters.
“I wasn’t necessarily aware that people could just do it.”
James Christopher joined the army and prepped himself for the harrowing world of independent film making and enrolled at U.T. Austin shortly after and hit the ground running.
But not having the childhood years of making films with friends using old, worn family cameras and backyards as film sets didn’t seem to hold him back.
“And that’s part of why I think I push myself to work as hard — to make up for lost time,” he said.
“I was probably older than most people are when they start doing this.”
One Big Happy Family
Being on one of Twitchy Dolphin’s film sets immediately brings to the mind the word ‘Family.’
In between takes, there are actors helping other actors with their lines.
Grips helping adjust costumes.
Directors moving couches back and forth and back and forth again.
“That’s something we work really hard at.
“Because, just the nature of the business and the nature of how Chris, Nathan, Jessica and I set the company up, the experience of making the film has to be just as rewarding as whatever financial or career boost it’s going to give you.
“All of those things are fleeting.
“And if you look back on the film and you look back at the behind the scenes things, that experience matters.”
“When we actually had the “Turkey Day” screening out in L.A. back in August, we had 20 people make the trip from Austin.
“And most of them had already seen the film, and some of them that came weren’t even in the film.
“But they felt that investment in the company.
“And that’s super awesome. Again it’s that team concept where everyone’s pulling for each other and they’re just going to work harder.
“Chris and I — when we do this — we can’t be egomaniacal about our job.
“We have to have a team environment. We have to be open for suggestion.”
The famous players club
Conrad Gonzales, the father in “Turkey Day” was rushing in between filming a movie with Dennis Quaid and always had funny stories about working with him.
Jennifer Hodgdon, who I became very fond of, was filming Spy Kids 4 as one of Jessica Alba’s agents.
And all these actors and grips and lighting guys all had really cool stories about working on these big sets with movie stars and, yet, here they were.
Everyone shares in the work. Whether it’s unloading crates from pickup trucks or moving lighting rigs.
And that can only be attributed to the director.
“For whatever reason we’ve had a really, really successful run at getting talented actors that want to be back for the next film,” James Christopher said.
“A lot of them don’t come back because they’ve just gotten bigger opportunities.
“And I couldn’t be happier for them.
“For as much as Twitchy is owned by four people, we look at it as, we think that anyone who is involved with the film should feel some degree of ownership in it.
“So we definitely want people on set that believe in the team concept — who are willing to work as hard for the other actor as they are for themselves.”
Lights, camera, direction
James Christopher is basically the John Wayne of Twitchy Dolphin.
He’s the Duke when it comes to writing and directing all the company’s feature films.
“All the features have been written and directed by myself,” he said.
“I mean, I have some scripts that are kind of floating around to be sold and everything else.
“I’ve had a couple that have come close to deals that matter.”
And he’s not shy about playing psychic when it comes to the future of filmmaking.
The evolution of digital cinema, though it does split filmmakers into two separate groups, isn’t going away anytime soon.
“We know there’s a revolution happening,” he said.
“And it’s a revolution that unofficially began with George Lucas and the pushing of digital cinema.
“It’s not going to be L.A.-centric for long.
“And I think that anybody that goes and chases that old school idea to make a movie is actually behind the power curve.
“With the ability to get your own movie shot and distributed getting easier and easier, it just makes sense to sit back and try and make content that is uniquely your own voice.
“And I think one of the things is we sit around and we complain about this sequel or that remake.
“Well, if that’s all the big industry is giving us, we need to get other film-goers to realize that there are independent films being made that are beginning to look just as good as the L.A. ones with a different sort of storytelling style.”
All the President’s Men
A unique thing about Twitchy Dolphin is though they’re not producing multimillion dollar features or have a huge fancy backlot somewhere in Hollywood, is they completely function like a real movie studio.
They cultivate talent and let them direct if they want. They can even write if they want, though on a smaller scale. Twitchy are there to be the helping hand that most aspiring filmmakers need.
“We’ve done a lot of shorts that have been directed by other people,” James Christopher said.
“As much as it’s about teaching other people different parts of the business, it’s about growing the strength of our company.
“So people like Terissa Kelton, Lauren Shelton, Francis Casanova and Will Cooper have all directed shorts as well.
“And that goes to why I want to help people grow.
If we get talented people that are producers who work hard and I know I can count on them, but I can’t provide them with all the financial benefit that I want to right now, I’ve got to provide another reason for them to stay.
“So when the money does roll in, we are completely set up to really kick this thing into overdrive and I already have people in place that I can trust and count on that support that.”
Having never seen the film, much less any of my takes from the film, I asked James Christopher what the audience should expect from the film.
“‘Turkey Day,’ in many ways, is the most ‘Jim’ movie we’ve made,” he said, laughing.
“I grew up on John Hughes and Cameron Crowe.
“I write a lot of scripts and some are producible by us and some aren’t.
“I like to explore relationships.
“I kind of set this up almost as if it were a ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ movie but this is where Clark and Ellen meet.
“It’s very much a romantic comedy and I’m going to tell you right now when you look at the poster, they get together at the end.
“It’s not a big secret, but the pleasure is the journey.
“I just wanted to set it up where you have this weird family dynamic and you have this Thanksgiving holiday and you have this father figure played by Conrad Gonzales and all he wants to do is celebrate Thanksgiving the way he celebrated it when his kids were little.
“Now his kids have adult problems and all it’s doing is wrecking his weekend.
“It’s almost as much a coming of age story for the father as it is for the couple on the poster.
“One of the things we did was we took the lead, Colby Wallingsford, who plays this kind of dopey guy that’s not into love and he’s relatively normal, and everyone else in his family’s a little crazy.
“And we set that up so that the audience would have this really good access point, because I’m sure you’ve been in relationships where the first time you spend the holiday with them they have their own idiosyncrasies and their own ways of doing things that’s a little foreign.
“So that’s what I wanted to do by providing this point of entry.
“I think it’s going to be a movie that a lot of filmmakers go into thinking they won’t like, but come out really liking.
“I think that’s really cool because it doesn’t have that sort of snooty, indie film vibe to it.”
So put your sweatpants back on and get ready to enjoy another helping of turkey with some of Austin’s finest filmmakers.
“Turkey Day” will have it’s South Texas premier Saturday, December 8 at 11 a.m. at the Rio 6 Cinema, 806 East Houston St. in Beeville.
The director, James Christopher, will be on hand to answer questions before and after the screening.
For more info on “Turkey Day” and Twitchy Dolphin visit www.facebook.com/twitchydolphin or www.twitchydolphin.com.
Paul Gonzales is the entertainment writer at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 116, or at thescene@mySouTex.com.