Features and Columns

Austin Cinematic Limits: Catching Up With Mars, Jonny Mars

By  · Published on April 9th, 2012

I first became aware of Jonny Mars during SXSW 2010, thanks to his role as Donnie in The Happy Poet. I have never been one to judge an actor on one performance, so it was not until I saw Mars the next time – as Steve Worth in Wuss – that I realized his talents as an actor. I remember wondering to myself, why hasn’t Mars run off to Los Angeles to become a big star? Then, after watching Mars truly own his couple minutes of screen time in Hellion, I knew it was time to pose that question to the man himself.

Before I got a chance to speak with Mars, a funny thing happened: I learned that Mars is also a director, and his directorial debut, America’s Parking Lot (which premiered at SXSW 2012), is a multi-faceted documentary about the renowned Dallas Cowboys’ Gate 6 tailgaters. Mars once again astounded me, this time for his astute understanding of the documentary form. In terms of its narrative arc and development of conflict, America’s Parking Lot is damn near perfect. If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed America’s Parking Lot was directed by a seasoned veteran, not a first-time director. Now I really needed to chat with Mars, post-haste!

I caught up with Mars in the midst of his last minute preparations for a trek north on I-35 to the Dallas International Film Festival (April 12–22, 2012) in support of America’s Parking Lot and Hellion.

What prompted you to move from Dallas to Austin?

Movies! This is where they are made in Texas, right?

I was already making films in Dallas, working as a Production Assistant. I was trying to act, but I wasn’t getting much. So I came to Austin in 1997 to act in my first feature. I was the lead in a film called American Detective by Dan Brown. Me and Bill Wise are in that movie. Dan Brown worked for GSD&M at the time and now he has his own place, Curiosity Shoppe. Karen Jacobs produced American Detective – she was one of the creatives at GSD&M until recently. Mark Miks was the D.P. and he went on to Action Figure. We shot American Detective on film – Super 16mm – by the way.

When my younger brother was in high school, he was making movies with a buddy of his, Sean Gallagher. My brother and Sean eventually went to U.T. together and I made a series of shorts with Sean while he was at U.T. One of them is called Out of Water, another is titled Fuck – they played festivals all over the world. More recently, Sean and I made a feature film called Good Night, which is in its final stages. We have been working on it for almost five years, because we didn’t have any money and it has just been this long process. There were multiple producers who tried to get it made, but they couldn’t; so Sean and I wore every hat possible to get the movie made.

One of Sean’s professors at U.T. was Spencer Parsons – so that is how Spencer and I met. I’ve worked with Spencer on a bunch of stuff. I just produced a feature (Saturday Morning Massacre) that Spencer directed – Jason Wehling and I went to him with the idea because he has a great sensibility for horror and we thought that he would do something really interesting.

I got embedded with a lot of key Austin filmmakers very early on. I just built roots in Austin. I would drive in from Dallas to do work and I eventually just stayed. I went to L.A. and I wasn’t there for very long. I realized that I could wait tables anywhere, so I came back to Texas. I actually retired from filmmaking for a while. I got really burned out from getting really close. I just got jaded. I focused on music and played in some bands in Dallas. I was looking for a swan song. I wanted to direct a movie. I went to a Cowboys game and came across the Gate 6 tailgaters, so I move to Austin to work on that movie. That was 2007, I have been here ever since. I came to Austin for the people and the scene and I stay here because of it.

To pay the bills, I started working behind the camera again. I was fortunate enough, through relationships from my early days in Austin, to get some PA work. I just did whatever I could to make a buck. Now I work as a first assistant director and a producer – that’s how I pay my bills. Every once in a while I get paid to act, but not very often. I’ve been acting a lot lately, but I usually don’t get paid to do it. I’ve also started to produce the movies that I act in, which gives me a little more control over my material.

As far as your acting career is concerned, what are the benefits of working in Austin?

The benefit is in the relationships that I have here. People call me. People send me scripts. People who I think are good. People who I want to work with. Good storytellers. I don’t have access to that in L.A., I would be starting over. There are a lot of actors in L.A.; there are far fewer in Austin. The tree has roots and it is blossoming. There is no reason to pull it out of the ground and move it somewhere else.

As a filmmaker, the single reason to stay in Austin is permits. You don’t need them. And if you have to get them, they are easy to come by.

Do you prefer being behind the camera (directing, producing, assistant directing) or in front of it (acting)?

I am an artist. I enjoy telling stories. If I could have a career in acting and pay my bills, I would do it. But I can’t – at least I have not been able to yet. In the meantime, I gotta pay the rent and feed myself, so I do these other things.

I think it has allowed me to become a better actor. The more I understand how the filmmaking apparatus works, the more comfortable I am in front of the camera. I feel like I can have complete confidence in the production – that it is going to look good and sound good; that the story we are telling is quality and worth doing. It allows me to be more picky. I have assumed a lot of responsibility in order to pick and choose roles that I think are good and that might go somewhere. So far my track record is pretty decent.

I have been working in film for almost 30 years – acting for about 20 years – and I always try to lend my knowledge and empirical wisdom to help make the production work smoothly. One part of it is being a team player, but it is also wanting to win, to succeed.

If there is one thing holding back Austin filmmaking from really blowing up it is funding —

— and distribution.

That seems to make it more difficult to maintain a decent acting pool here, since there is no money to pay actors.

If you want to make money as an actor in Austin, you should work in theater. They get paid well. The theater scene here is burgeoning. They are not killing it, but there is money for the actors in a lot of those playhouse productions. That’s great. More so than there is for indie film.

You have to wear a lot of different hats if you want to work in film in Austin; but because so many hats are worn by so many people, that is one of the reasons we have some of the best production crews. When you go to Sundance and see a bunch of people from Austin, it is not because they bought a plane ticket and just wanted to hang out – it is because they worked on a film that is playing at the festival. Festival programmers want to know what is going on in Austin. To go full circle, it is family. You assume a lot of responsibilities because you are part of the family, part of the scene; you want the scene to grow, you need it to succeed.

Digital technology has helped Austin a lot. It has made filmmaking cheaper. That is also why I think we need to focus on story. We have gotten away from that, a little bit, here. We are getting there. My colleagues who I’ve grown up with are trying to do more interesting things. We are trying to tell better stories.

I think the wave is here. It is happening. I just hope it finds distribution. The Internet will help, but we need to figure out a way to monetize the scene. Rome has fallen – theatrical distribution is done. We need to fight for ourselves. If you want a stake in the marketplace, you need to build a better mousetrap.

What is your approach to acting?

I find myself wrapped up in the physical appearance of a character. It is like an onion. I start from the outside and work inward. I try to make the character three-dimensional. You have to find what makes them operate; why they choose what they choose. You have to find honesty in everything that is happening.

Something I really like about your characters is that they are strongly based in reality. They are not cartoonish or stereotypes.

They are not stereotypes? I feel like I play a drug dealer all of the time. I feel like that is the role I am typecast into…

I am irreverent to a fault. I am willing to discuss and say things that a lot of people aren’t. I think people hear that and they put me into a box. I think that is why I am the drug dealer, the gun dealer, the asshole… Whatever. I get that.

Good Night and Hellion are new kinds of roles for me, that I have never had a chance to explore before. My character in Hellion is a very complex individual going through some very grown up emotions. I want to explore that. In Good Night, I play a doting husband and it is a very understated thing. I can be big and loud, and I think Good Night might surprise people because I am not like that.

I am getting older and I am getting offered more dad-type roles and that is interesting to me. I am very interested in the complexities of adulthood and being a man – and what that means in today’s society.

I get asked to do a lot of comedic stuff – which I like, but I cut my teeth on drama growing up. I feel like dramatic roles are what I am better suited for. I don’t want to typecast myself either. I know there are roles that I can’t do – I get that. I also know why I am not a leading man. I am not tall enough or blonde enough. I don’t look dumb enough. A leading man has to be a blank slate so the audience can paint themselves onto him.

I think the reason I was cast in roles like Wuss or The Happy Poet is because I try to make dastardly people likable – or likable people dastardly. I am interested in the juxtaposition of that. It makes you question your own values. I think that is why you are saying that they are not cartoonish —

They are not black and white. They are not clearly bad or good —

They are grey. People are grey in reality. There is no black and white.

Can you talk about your current projects?

America’s Parking Lot – My directorial debut premiered at SXSW 2012 and will be screening next at DIFF 2012.

Hellion – Premiered at Sundance 2012 and screened at SXSW 2012. Hellion will be screening at DIFF 2012, then onto a bunch of other film festivals.

Good Night – Sean and I are just finishing it up and we will be trying to find a good festival for it to premiere at.

Saturday Morning Massacre – A Scooby Doo horror-comedy that will hopefully be premiering soon.

Days of Delusion – Scott Meyer’s dramatic comedy features a lot of the Austin improv scene. It is in post-production and we will be trying to find a good festival for it to premiere at.

The Happy Poet – After a long and successful international festival run – as well as a stint at reRun Theater in Brooklyn – The Happy Poet will have a theatrical release in L.A. in July 2012.

Oh, and I am working on a new short film with Kat Candler…And there is some other really great stuff on the horizon.

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Cinematic Things To Do in Austin This Week:

4/10 – Alamo South Lamar — AFS’ new Essential Cinema Series – SEEFest Austin: Films of Southeast Europe – begins with Pjer Zalica’s Fuse. (More info)

4/11 – Texas Spirit Theater (Bob Bullock Museum) — Austin Film Festival Presents a rare 35mm screening of Two Rode Together as part of their Made in Texas: Adaptations series. (More info)

4/11 – Alamo Ritz — Sommelier Cinema presents Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless which will be impeccably paired (courtesy of Bill Norris) with two American and two French wines. (More info)

Go deep into the heart (and art) of Texas with more Austin Cinematic Limits

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