Dallas filmmaker Augustine Frizzell is sitting in a sunbeam and talking about failure. It’s an unlikely turn in conversation, considering her recent successes: Her writing and directorial feature debut, Never Goin’ Back, just played the Midnight lineup at Sundance, and will soon road trip to Austin as an official selection for the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.
Frizzell will go too. But right now, she’s cozied up at a Sylvan Avenue coffee shop, wearing a Sundance Film Festival sweatshirt, unwinding the story that led her to this moment.
Buzzy, dark and funny, Never Goin’ Back follows Angela and Jessie (Maia Mitchell, Camila Morrone), two high school dropouts who don’t have much, aside from their friendship. In Frizzell’s world, that bond is its own currency, one that buys the pair hope — despite whatever garbage life throws at them.
In shoots around Fort Worth and Dallas, the young women claw through area diners, backyards and grocery stores, propelled forward with a soundtrack by another local pioneer, musician Sarah Jaffe.
“She was the first person I thought of for this because she has such a cool female vibe,” says Frizzell.
What results is a high-energy soundscape, featuring bits of Jaffe’s original score and personal catalog material, a couple of licensed tunes, an original song by Jaffe’s wife, Taylor Rea, and another by Frizzell’s daughter, Atheena, who also has an onscreen role in the movie. “Everyone comments on the soundtrack,” says Augustine with a laugh. “It’s really good!”
Frizzell is visibly excited, and probably tired. She’s been bouncing through the Sundance press junket for “ten long days.” Getting to this celebratory moment took a lot of grit. This success was hard-earned, and the byproduct of something more visceral than can be observed over coffee: the depths of Frizzell’s endurance.
You see, her first time attempting to tackle this feature film was back in 2014, but it didn’t work out. She’d written its core characters — this scrappy pair of besties — as composites of her own teenage friendships and navigated them through a plot loosely based on personal experiences. She called in favors from friends. She raised money. She cast her leads. Then, she shot it in a quick-burn, 16-day session.
But once the film wrapped, she took the footage and searched it for her vision.
It wasn’t there.
“That was the lowest, the most failure that I’ve ever felt,” says Frizzell, balling her sleeves around her fingers.
Scene after scene: Nothing felt right. Nothing looked right. The pieces didn’t fit together. And all she could see was where she’d caved creatively, accepting too much advice rather than trusting herself. Instead of being the weird sparkplug, kinda-trippy story she wanted, she saw her film masquerading as a traditional narrative.
She hated it. And worse: she knew she couldn’t live with the footage.
So, she did something tough. She dug herself out and started over.
“After I got past the initial disappointment I had this newfound resolve to make it exactly like I wanted to make it,” she explains.
And this time, Frizzell retained control of her own agency.
She cut salvageable pieces from her first attempt into a short called “Minor Setback.” Then, she “opened the wound back up” and got to work, “cleaning out all of the junk.”
She started with her script, bouncing it back and forth with her producer Toby Halbooks (A Ghost Story, Person To Person, Upstream Color.) He’d find the holes in her structure, and she’d sew them back up.
Then, she allowed herself time to organize and iron out her plan, and to pair the right people with the right jobs. Since this was her second chance at making the feature, she knew she needed the best talent possible. For Frizzell, that meant casting a wide net and bringing gender balance to the interview process, so nobody slipped through the cracks — even for extremely vital and physically challenging roles like Director of Photography that are typically held by men.
“I wasn’t limiting my looking,” says Frizzell. She thought: “I’m going to bring in as many women as I can into the initial conversation.’”
Now wrapped and hitting the festival circuit, Never Goin’ Back is an indie unicorn. One that was written, directed, shot, costumed, scored and edited entirely by women.
That process is what led Frizzell to the film’s eventual DP, Greta Zozula. During a Skype interview, the two just clicked. Zozula understood exactly what level of tension Frizzell wanted for her two main characters, and together they pored through their collective film archives to find ways to visually capture it. They knew motion with both the cameras and lenses would be integral to showing the characters’ vulnerability.
“They don’t have a normal, steady home life like most teens,” explains Frizzell about her leading waitresses. “Everything’s unstable. It’s so chaotic, so I wanted to mirror that through constant motion…never feeling like things were stabilizing or steadying off.”
Frizzell wasn’t brought up in a traditional Texas brick either. She comes from a long line of musicians on her father’s side. They were a family of tumbleweeds, always on the move throughout the south. Eventually, Frizzell took root around Dallas. And while stability wasn’t a cornerstone of her youth, the upbringing shaped her creative values and established her context of what a truly successful life looks like.
“That’s all we knew growing up,” says Frizzell. “I don’t think there was ever a point and time where I thought I’d be doing something other than something artistic.”
She found she could keep the lights on through acting. Commercials. Dinner theater. It all paid. But once she got involved with movies, well, that’s when everything changed. She fell in love with each story’s making and found herself volunteering to help in any role possible. Whatever got her closer to the action. Eventually, her passion grew more targeted, and she knew: She wanted to direct her own story.
“I slowly starting thinking ‘I could do this,’” says Frizzell. “I was really embarrassed to admit it at first. Intimidated. I thought you have to have had a camera for years and years.”
But, still she went for it.
Now, two tries later, Frizzell has more than a free-wheeling dark comedy in her book. She has a festival darling with distribution potential, a foot-in-the-door for bigger projects and a whole lot of momentum for whatever opportunities open up next.
“I have a script that’s already written,” says Frizzell, “so I have a thing I can make and I have interest.”
From here, she’ll fly out for pitch meetings in Los Angeles while her film gets shopped around. If things shake out, Never Goin’ Back could be on screens this summer. But until that moment comes, Augustine Frizzell plans to keep up her current hustle. And maybe daydream a little about the future.
“I would love to make a female, …Kill Bill-style woman-out-to-get-even,” she says, closing her laptop. “Just women being badass: That’s what I want to see.”