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TH Moment with Lee Daniel

Written by Shermakaye Bass.

Lee Daniel  (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Cinematographer Lee Daniel initially earned his chops collaborating with filmmaker and fellow Austin resident Richard Linklater, first on Slacker (1991), and then on a string of other successful projects (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Fast Food Nation, and subUrbia). Daniel is also renowned for his camera work on environmental documentaries, such as The Unforeseen (2007), a film backed by Robert Redford and Texas filmmaker Terence Malick that looks at issues surrounding Central Texas water rights.

Two of Daniel’s loves—the Lone Star landscape and Texas music—often surface in his documentary projects. The Austin resident shot Margaret Brown’s heart-wrenching study of Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me (2004), as well as director Keven McAlester’s compelling tribute to Roky Erickson, You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005). Daniel has also worked on a film about the Lubbock music scene (Lubbock Lights), and on videos for Los Lonely Boys.

If you trace Daniel’s work back to the 1980s, it’s easy to see what makes his soul sing (or cringe): nature, pop culture, environmental issues, injustice. Daniel’s cinematographic vision is invariably framed with the “eye” of the poet-philosopher-contrarian, making him as iconoclastic as any of his subjects. But as his friends will attest, Daniel is that rare species: the humble intellectual, the erudite artist who deflects attention from himself to his work.

BASS: Many Texans have a strong sense of place, or as some would call it, “Texas pride.” What is that about?

DANIEL: Well, my father would always say that individuals are a product of the earth that they stand on. They’re an extension of the ground, the land. I think that applies to people everywhere, but maybe particularly to Texans.

BASS:  You’ve said that your parents loved to read when you and your siblings [two brothers, one sister] were growing up in Richardson. Did that shape you as an artist?

DANIEL: My parents weren’t pushy with any of us, ever. But they both had college edu-cations, and they liked to read, and my dad would always drop books on me. … I remember when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and he just dropped this book on my lap and said, “Read this, you’re going to appreciate it when you get a lot older.” It was John Graves’ Goodbye to a River. 

BASS: Speaking of history, you’ve got some funny memories about how Texas legend and history may have shaped your future as a filmmaker?

DANIEL: Yeah, one of my first memories of that sort of Texas pride was this movie with Peter Ustinov called Viva Max, where this kind of quasi-Santa Anna, Mexican-type dictator, played by Ustinov, comes back in modern times and takes back the Alamo. I remember as a kid saying, “He can’t do that! Stop him!” We were like, “Where’s Travis?! Where’s Crockett?!”

BASS: What got you truly interested in film?

DANIEL: One of the formative experiences was seeing West Texas for the first time. The whole family took a vacation in our Country Squire station wagon and went to the McDonald Observatory and stayed up there at the inn [Indian Lodge]  in Davis Mountains State Park. … And I remember looking through that telescope at the observatory and just wondering, how do those lenses magnify the stars like that? Just trying to figure out how that worked. That might’ve been how I got interested in photogra-phy. Plus, our next-door neighbor in Richardson was a cinematographer, so my mother kinda blames him for getting me interested in the business.

BASS: How did you get together with Richard Linklater, who is also a Texan and whose two seminal films—Slacker and Dazed and Confused—were set in Texas?

DANIEL: It was at a Super 8 club—Super 8 is small-format filmmaking—that met down on 6th Street in Austin. This was back in 1982 or ’83, and Rick showed up. … He was real quiet. He didn’t bring anything. He was like, “I’ve never showed my films to anybody.” And that made me really curious. … Later he took me to his flat in West Campus, where he’d converted his closet into a projection booth. But the interesting thing with Rick was he was working with sound, and it’s really difficult to work with sound on Super 8. (The two became fast friends and eventually moved into the house on Nueces Street that became the birthplace of Slacker—a film born from Linklater’s observation of his over-thinking, couch-surfing, punk-rocking pals.) 

BASS: Did you feel early on that you and Linklater might go somewhere—together?

DANIEL: Richard might have felt that. We came from different worlds. I wanted to be an adventurer and sail on The Calypso and speak French and just be a Jacques Cousteau underwater cameraman, whereas Rick was more steeped in classic Hollywood. I was in film school at UT at the time, and he taught me more about feature filmmaking and classic Hollywood films than anyone. … From there, we ended up forming the Austin Film Society. (Now the organization’s advisory board includes filmmakers John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino, Mike Judge, Jonathan Demme, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, and Kevin Smith.) We moved into the same flat that Janis Joplin had lived in—behind where Les Amis Café used to be. That was kind of our production headquarters during Slacker. 

BASS: During those days, what made Austin a creative hotbed?

DANIEL: Austin in the ’80s just seemed to be ripe because it was pretty bombed out after the first big real estate/savings and loan bust.It was a much quieter place, you could find a place to park your car, overhead was really low, rent was $100 a month, you could have a minimum-wage job and still have money left over to drink beer and go to punk-rock shows or see movies. It was just heaven. Some of these so-called harsh economic times have really benefitted us, and Slacker probably would never have been made, had there been a really robust economy. 

BASS: What do you consider the most cinematic places in Texas?

DANIEL: Houston’s ship channel, that’s cinematic for me. … Also I like to shoot time-lapse in West Texas. On some of the first trips I made on my own when I was in college, I’d go hit Big Bend with my Super 8 camera—sometimes just me in my VW bus, with my hammock and the camera. I’d hit those primitive roads and not see a soul for two or three days. … A decade later I found myself in West Texas shooting time-lapse in 35 mm for a bank commercial, and I thought, “Wow, how lucky am I?” Your camera is taking a picture every 45 seconds, and you just sit there and listen to nothing—the wind. There’s something mesmerizing and kind of therapeutic and Zen-like about watching clouds in West Texas develop in the late afternoon in summertime. They build up, and the thunderstorms come. It’s just… (he falls silent and grins).

BASS: Continuing with things Texan: What’s your favorite Texas critter?

DANIEL: It’s gotta be the armadillo, right? I mean, we gotta hold up the stereotype of the venerable vermin. 

BASS: You do a lot of Texas-based films; tell me about some of them.

DANIEL: Linklater and I have only done two films that are set in Texas really, but I love doing movies about music, and three of my favorite musicians happen to be Texans—Roky Erickson, Townes Van Zandt, and Daniel Johnston. I’ve worked on documentaries about all of them, which is really a blessing. … It’s true Austin is “the velvet rut.” You get stuck here, but you’re so comfortable. It’s a good place to reflect, it’s a good place to be creative. All the filmmakers in Austin help each other out. You don’t find that in New York. You don’t find that in Seattle. You don’t find that in Vancouver or Los An-geles. But you can find it all over Texas.

BASS: You’re an outdoorsman and an angler. Where would you say are your favorite fishing holes in Texas?

DANIEL:Well (Daniel laughs, reluctant to reveal his prized spots). … we grew up camping and fishing our whole lives, and we made a lot of trips down to Falcon Lake and Lake Texoma, Lake Tawakoni, Lake Ray Hubbard. 

BASS: For beauty, what’s your favorite lake?

DANIEL: Aw, I like Falcon Lake. I think it’s weird there’s a whole town under there that got covered up—a little Mexican town that got flooded when they built the reservoir in 1953.  The ruins of this town, Guerrero, are still underneath there. It’s right there on the Rio Grande. 

BASS: You love both East and West Texas—compare them for me.

DANIEL: You know the Balcones Fault lies right between ’em, right? That’s the dividing line. That’s what makes these Central Texas people, these Austin people, a little schizophrenic like they are. Because of that fault line. (Playful smile.) There’s seismic activity along the Balcones Fault, actually little mini-earthquakes, you know. Seriously.

BASS: You’re an art lover. What do you think are the best Texas museums?

DANIEL: In Texas, Fort Worth rules as far as art goes.  That kind-of-new museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is great. … Fort Worth is probably my favorite city in Texas. I used to love to go to Caravan of Dreams, which I thought was way, way ahead of its time, and see people like Ornette Coleman play. I like to visit San Antonio, too. I like the vibe there—it kinda reminds me of the way Austin used to be.

BASS: What’s your favorite roadhouse or hole-in-the-wall dive?

DANIEL:I like Pendleton Pump, up near Temple, west of I-35. It’s an old service station turned into a bar, and all the farmers go there, and it’s real racially mixed. They have cheap beer, and they have live music sometimes. Sometimes you’ve got a secret place, and you’d like to keep it one. But not Pendleton Pump—they welcome everyone. It’s very cool. 

BASS: Favorite Texas writers?

DANIEL: My dad turned me on to a lot of these writers, like J. Frank Dobie, John Henry Faulk, and George Sessions Perry. Perry wrote a book called Hold Autumn in Your Hand. Just basically guys with three names. And I guess Katherine Anne Porter would have to be in there; she has three names. … Cormac McCarthy [who’s not from Texas but writes about it] is not too shabby. And then my favorite artists are probably Robert Rauschenberg—he was a Beaumont/Port Arthur boy—and Terrence Malick, who grew up just outside of Waco. 

BASS: What about theme parks? Do you have a favorite in Texas?

DANIEL:(He asks if the State Fair would apply. The answer is yes.) I went last year, and that was the first year they’d reinstated the gondolas. I took a ride on one just by myself. All my friends had left, and I lingered around almost until the park closed, and took a solemn ride on a gondola. It was a really calm, kind of meditative moment, just looking down—and you know, as a kid I remember it seemed like you were 300 feet in the air. And you’re barely 30 feet up! 

BASS: Do you have a favorite Texas saying?

DANIEL: “You got to dance with them what brung ya.” Molly Ivins used that one a lot. In fact, that’s the title of one of her books. And I like the word “dang.” Nobody says “dang” but us.

BASS: During your career, you’ve met lots of larger-than-life Texans, politicians. Tell me your most memorable encounter with a political figure?

DANIEL: Lady Bird I really admired. I worked on a documentary about her, her 80th birthday, for the LBJ Library. … And the crew all stayed out at the ranch, and one time she took us up and down the runway where LBJ’s pilot used to land his plane, driving in the same Continental they had when he was President! That was one of the greatest moments of my life—filming Lady Bird in her Continental going up and down the airstrip at that ranch. …

Bass: So she’s a Texan you admire deeply. What, if anything, did you find surprising about her during that project?

DANIEL: I expected her to be a bit more guarded and her people more guarding of her, and it wasn’t that way at all. She invited us to dinner every night and to stay there at the ranch instead of in town at Johnson City. When we’d wrap up, she’d say, ‘Stay for supper!’ And you don’t turn down the First Lady.

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From the December 2008 issue.

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