Inspiration can come from the least likely sources, and for Shanti Guy the inspiration for his first feature film came from his car radio on a hot summer night in 1997. Four years later, the result of this FM-based idea came to life as “Texas Night Train,” a Fort Worth-based production that is easily the most hypnotic film to come out of the Lone Star State since Abraham Zapruder took off his lens cap in November 1963. ^ “Texas Night Train” follows Jake, a transient who simultaneously occupies the hemispheres of vintage and contemporary cool. He drives a classic convertible and speaks in Beatnik-inspired prose that tumbles and tears the language with happy recklessness, pausing only for drags of his never-ending chain of cigarettes. His arms are palettes of intricate tattoos and his lithe muscular body moves with kinetic energy, just waiting for something to happen. ^ Something happens, in tenfold, and that something is embodied in sleek, chic Mæ. Giving the impression of sexy indifference, Mæ takes Jake’s invitation for a drink in a Texas honky-tonk and immediately drugs his booze. Jake wakes up later handcuffed to a railroad track while Mæ is driving off in his car en route to her day jobs: selling human organs and casting voodoo spells. “Texas Night Train” follows Jake’s attempts to track Mæ down, only to discover he is not the hunter but actually the prey. ^ Filmed in DV on a teeny $7,200 budget, “Texas Night Train” is one of the most visually and aurally stunning achievements this year. The 25-year-old director Shanti Guy began his career as a surrealist oil painter and he brings an almost Dalist sense of absurdity and horror to his wild story. Tight close-ups, rude blasts of color, unexpected camera blocking and tilted angles, and a seemingly endless series of disturbing images fills the screen like a full-blown nightmare come to horrifying yet dazzling life. To the ear, “Texas Night Train” is laced with a rockabilly score that is equal parts invigorating and haunting, seducing the listener with its vibrancy yet leaving a residue of guilt for having too much fun in listening to songs which carry more than a hint of danger. Running throughout the film is the wired beatnik commentary delivered by Chuck Huber as Jake, who speaks with the voice of an unrepentant cool cat whose ninth life has just begun. ^ Film Threat visited with Shanti Guy at the Fort Worth headquarters of his Dope Scope Productions to learn about the creative energies which fueled “Texas Night Train.”
“Texas Night Train” was inspired by a song you heard on the radio back in 1997. What is the story behind this unique inspiration? ^ I was taking a late night drive in my black 1959 Dodge. It was August and had been over 100 hundred degrees for a week. My whole town was in a desperate funk from the heat. I didn’t have air conditioning in that little oven on wheels so I was a little delusional myself. ^ I was listening to a community radio station that had a rockabilly show on for two hours on Tuesday night. There guest host was Mac Stevens. Stevens was show casing a compilation CD that he had just cut. The first song they played was “Moppin’ the Floor with my Baby’s Head.” The song was about a man fed up with his girl and her bad cooking. The man kills her and then mops the floor with her head. The content seemed pretty typical for Rap or Metal but hearing this country swing version blew my mind. I found the idea of someone totally over reacting to bad potato salad very intriguing. So much so that I couldn’t stop thinking about the song for days. I had been outlining different ideas for short films but I didn’t really have a handle on who my main character was. I used the song to define the mood of the main character for me. Once I had that down I could write from his point of view and then tell his story.
You moved from working as a painter (the ultimate in an artistic solo journey) to directing and producing a motion picture (the ultimate in artistic collaboration). How did you find the adjustment from being the sole creative force to being the captain of a cinematic team? ^ In the beginning I considered working with others a distraction from the artistic process but a necessary part of film making. After I began working on the film with others I found it made the artistic process more dynamic. There is nothing more inspiring for me than someone else really getting one of my ideas and then agreeing to help bring it to light in there own special way.
“Texas Night Train” was four years in the making, from the start of the screenplay to the conclusion of post production. How were you able to stay focused on this single project for such a long time? And were you considering other film projects during this period? ^ My work is a reflection of concepts and ideas that seem to seek me out. All stories are ideas waiting to incarnate the earth. Some people take these ideas and live the story. Some people ignore them. I am a writer so I try to maintain a working relationship with these ideas that find their way into my life. Creative work vents these ideas for me and I just concentrate on how wide to open the vent. ^ I am always searching for great stories to make great movies about. When I get an idea, I only make an outline. When I finish whatever I am working on, I have a good variety of film ideas to choose from. So I picked the best and started writing immediately.
The psychedelic visual and aural feel of “Texas Night Train” is distinctly different from most films currently in release. What were your inspirations (from cinema, painting or other media) for shaping the film’s strong sense of style? ^ “Easy Rider,” “Rumble Fish,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”, a little “Goodfellas” and a lot of “Taxi Driver.”
The film’s rockabilly score is both hypnotic and disturbing…it draws you in, but you can’t help but feel guilty about falling for its seductive charms. What was involved in getting the right musical mix to mirror the on-screen action? ^ Picking cool musicians that really dug the movie because it was a cool project was the most important part. Next to that, having a definite idea of what I wanted the effect of the music to be while giving them the freedom to try what they come up with. We also spent a lot of time watching the film and trying different things.
What is the state of filmmaking in Texas? Did you encounter any difficulties in regards to gathering the right cast and crew for the shoot? ^ The only real problem with making a film in Texas is getting anyone to take you seriously enough to help. There are a lot of talented a brave people here who really want to do risky interesting things but they are not easy to find.
How have audiences reacted to “Texas Night Train”? And what is your distribution plan for the film? ^ There are three standard reactions that I got. #1: we are proud of you whatever you do. #2: that was some much cooler than I thought it would be. And #3: so, what was it about? ^ I plan to try the film in some festivals and see if it gets picked up there. If nothing happens with that, I will distribute it myself in the hopes that it will become an underground rockabilly cult film.
What new projects do you have in the works? ^ I am finishing a screenplay for a drama about a man who dissects fetuses in an abortion clinic.
What advice can you give to aspiring filmmakers who want to create their own films? ^ Don’t create for glamour. Concentrate on what you believe in. If producers tell you it should be sexier and more violent, rape them.
Learn more about Shanti Guy by visiting the official site for Texas Night Train.
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Posted on April 24, 2001 in Interviews by Phil Hall
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