Last spring, screenwriter Horton Foote attracted quite a bit of attention when he simultaneously won an Oscar for the Texas-based film Tender Mercies and began filming the soon-to-be-released movie 1918 in Waxahachie. The story that seemed to be missing, though, was what 1918 might mean to the career of Dallas film director Ken Harrison.
Harrison is an interesting sort-tall, thin and introspective. The North Texas State University graduate started his career as a short-story writer, but he soon discovered that it was a tough way to make a living. So he turned, like many other aspiring film artists, to the Jamieson Film Co., which in 1966, he says, was a spawning ground for beginning Dallas filmmakers.
Nearly 20 years and many award-winning short films later, Harrison is a respected- though not widely known-director. In 1981, his short film Hanna and the Dog Ghost won the USA Film Festival short film competition. Harrison has also worked at KERA’s Channel 13 directing documentaries, features and instructional/educational films.
He knows his career might have progressed more rapidly if he had moved to the West Coast, but he says he had a stubborn feeling that if he stayed in Dallas, things might finally begin to happen. “So many talented people worked with me through the years, and they could have gone off somewhere else. They felt that soon there would be enough of us to make a difference.”
He really felt that difference when he met Foote through a mutual friend two years ago. Foote asked to see his films and then asked him to direct 1918. (Editing was still in progress in mid-June to prepare the movie for a September premiere at the New York Film Festival.)
His reputation earned him a coveted spot last month at the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City, a workshop that actor/director Robert Redford began in 1980 to help film-makers enhance their skills and make contacts with film companies that might be interested in their work. From about 500 applicants, Harrison and six other filmmakers were selected to participate.
The institute’s reputation has grown rapidly during the last few years, so much so that this year Redford allowed no one from the media to interview participants or to film the workshop. A Sundance spokesman says that Redford was angry about a story printed last year in The New York Times because it focused more on him than on the filmmakers.
Harrison believes the script he submitted played a large part in his acceptance to Sundance. He worked with writer William Wittliff (who co-wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion) to refine the script of The Edwards Boys, which tells the story of four estranged brothers who reunite for three days after the death of their father. Harrison says the film is in the low-budget range ($2 million or less) and is slightly more “artistic” (although he says he hates to use the word) than other scripts that were submitted to the Sundance review board.
Harrison hopes that exposure from 1918 might help him generate some interest from investors for two other scripts he’s working on.