Before Screening His Debut Feature Film At The Texas Theatre, Josh David Jordan Walk Us Through The Highs And Lows Of Making Independent Film In Dallas.
After years of slowly crafting his debut feature film, Dallas filmmaker Josh David Jordan’s This World Won’t Break finally made its big screen debut at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival in April.
For Jordan, just finishing the film felt like a major accomplishment. But the DIFF audiences felt the effort merited even more recognition: The film, which tells the story of a Dallas troubadour (played by real-life Dallas musician Greg Schroeder) who yearns to be a well-known musician even as life continues to get in his way, was given the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.
For Jordan, who has been working in the film industry in the Dallas area for over 20 years now, that honor came as a sign that all of his hard work was starting to pay off — and, more than that, proof that audiences are indeed eager, as he had long posited, to see a version of Dallas that the big network television stations won’t show you during their returns from commercial breaks during Cowboys games.
This weekend at the Texas Theatre, he’ll give even more area film fans the chance to see his vision of Dallas. On Saturday night, Jordan — along with the rest of the This World Won’t Break cast and crew — will hosts the first public, non-film festival screening that his Dallas music scene cameo-filled film has earned. (Full disclosure: Central Track founder Pete Freedman is among the many who make cameos throughout the movie.)
In advance of that special, red carpet-featuring screening, we recently caught up with Jordan to talk about what he’s learned from the process of making a self-funded, independent feature film in Dallas — and why he thinks his film can serve as a testament to the possibilities, and also the difficulties, that exist for area filmmakers.
It may sound cliche, but Dallas is definitely a character in This World Won’t Break. What locations did you look for to give Dallas the voice you wanted it to have?
Well, we definitely did not want to just show the skyline — or, like, the green Bank of America building. Nothing against those things, but I wanted to give the viewer the things you know and see if you live in Dallas. In the opening sequence, we show a lot of different places: the Texas Theatre; Sons of Hermann Hall, which you can practically smell when you see it in the film; just a lot of different places. And, like, when you’re driving from Dallas to Austin, which most every musician does, you always drive by those monolithic domes in Italy, Texas. I definitely wanted to show those, and then go inside that and really experience that. Also, all the old washeterias in Oak Cliff that I’ve grown up with. I just really wanted to show Texas — the one you see if you live here — and really explore it. I wanted to show stuff you would know — and be able to feel.
What do you think that a lot of filmmakers miss by not using Dallas as a backdrop more often?
I was inspired by the film Once, which was filmed in Ireland. And I really liked [Darren] Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which follows one person the whole time. They both had a really nice backdrop of a city that didn’t seem cliche, and I feel like Dallas is always just like Gilley’s or the TV show stuff at Southfork Ranch. Even when the Cowboys play — even though they play in Arlington — they’ll only show the Fort Worth Stockyards and Reunion Tower on TV. If you’re showing the city, that’s so confusing.
Let’s talk about your main character Wes, and why you wanted to tell this story about him, a struggling Dallas musician.
The story is loosely based on the actor, Greg Schroeder, who played the lead. I wanted a musician — I wanted Greg — to play the main lead instead of having an actor learning the music. The music seems more real that way. I came to that because I was going through something at the age of 40 years old. I had been acting in Dallas for a really long time, making videos, short films. I woke up one day and I was like, “I have been doing this for 20 years, and I still haven’t made it yet.” There’s always the story you see in film of the guy who makes it and falls from grace — like Crazy Heart. Or the film where some kid “makes” it, and he plays somewhere like the American Airlines Center and then walks off into the sunset. But what about the story of so many artists that just do it for a living? Like, what if you don’t make it? What if your job is your playing honky tonks for 150 to 200 bucks a night for the rest of your life? Are you going to be OK with that? I used Greg, and the character Wes Milligan, as the vessel to tell my story.
Beyond his skills as a musician, what did Greg bring to the part of Wes as a character?
Greg, if you know him… well, obviously, he talks a lot. But if you don’t know him, he’s more of a thinker, and he uses his eyes a lot. I always thought that was cool, and though he wasn’t trained in acting, Greg did a phenomenal job portraying his character. He really warmed up to and dove into the character of Wes. I knew, if I surrounded him with established area actors like Roxanna Redfoot and Matthew Posey, who is one of my hero actors in life, that Greg would find his niche in that. And he did, he just rolled into it. I think his body movement, his body language, just the way he carries himself — it all really went into the character.
I really enjoyed the cinematography of the movie. To me, it felt like you wanted to let the viewer’s eye tell a lot of the story through what they saw. How did you balance that with the script?
Well, Chris Bourke is the cinematographer. He’s the badass that made it look so great. As for the balance: The script is about 75 pages, but there’s music in there — about six songs — so you’re adding four minutes for each of those. I wanted every frame to look like something you could screen grab and throw on your wall. Films like Paris, Texas were a huge thing for me. There’s so many landscape shots, you’re really able to just digest and roll in. Badlands was another huge inspiration; you really feel the characters by the landscape. I think that, a lot of times, people just rush in and there;s all this dialogue, and it’s all about the characters and that back and forth. It works a lot, but I think because Texas is so sprawling — and just the Metroplex alone is so sprawling — if you can at all capture that, the audience gets sucked in. That’s how we started the film — just with those long takes on different iconic buildings during the opening monologue.
Music is clearly a big part of the movie. But it isn’t like a traditional musical, where you sort of sing the story along. You mostly seem to use the poetry of the music to convey the story. How did you settle on that decision?
John Carney — he wrote Once — has said that there are still modern-day musicals to be shared, and I really caught onto that. Never in our film does anyone stop like in Annie and sing, “The sun will come out tomorrow!” or anything like that. But the music is definitely a driving force. As a musician, when you’re writing, there’s no one around. I don’t know if you noticed in the film, but Wes never performs live. He never performs in front of a crowd. The whole point is that it’s a lonely life. Writing music is lonely — and, yes, it’s poetry. We just took different songs, and Greg wrote some new songs. A friend of mine named Michael Paraskevas, who’s from Dallas and lives in Los Angeles and did the score for Ant-Man & the Wasp and Tom Cruise’s American Made, he reached out and really wanted to do an independent film and he knew what I was doing. Throughout the movie, the score you hear is different arrangements of the actual title track “This World Won’t Break”. So, throughout the movie, it’s actually the same song just in different arrangements.
As a first-time feature filmmaker, what did you find most difficult about the whole process of making a feature film?
The most difficult part was we didn’t have any funds — because everyone wanted to see my first feature film as collateral for it. And I totally understand. But the hardest part was convincing anybody to pony up money, and that didn’t happen. And everyone — all my friends who are in the film business — were just like, “Josh, you can’t do this. You need to have a budget. You need to have a producer. You need to have a production designer. You need to have a location scout.” I did all those things myself. I was producing it. I was the location scout. I was hair and makeup. I was wardrobe. I think you can make a movie with either money or time — and I made it with my own time. It damn near killed me, but I did it.
What were the biggest things you learned through that process? What are the things you can take with you as you move forward with your filmmaking career?
That the people who showed up, that’s who you work with for the rest of your life. They showed up and it was fun. It really was a blast. We shot out in the middle of nowhere for a few scenes — and it was like a summer camp! Like, every single person texted me, and they were like “Ugh, we just all had this most amazing summer camp, and now it’s over.” I think you take those people who showed up — ’cause a lot of people said that they were going to show up and didn’t. I mean, a lot of Dallas said they were going to show up. I know how it goes — it was my first film, and everyone was a little bit leery about it, and there was no money, and other things would pop up and people couldn’t be a part of it. But what I took away from it is that you really don’t need a lot of people.
You mentioned earlier that This World Won’t Break is in many ways a reflection of your life. Can you explain that more?
It’s one of those things where it’s like a catch-22. I’ve lived here a long time, and I’ve luckily been a part of a lot of creative endeavors with a lot of cool people here. But you get to the point where you’re doing it and doing it, and you’re like, “Man, why am I not getting ahead? Why am I not getting traction? Why am I not getting noticed?” I think Greg is the same in that way, and I really wanted to show Greg’s talent — because I think Greg is a phenomenal musician and artist. It just blows my doors off that sometimes that a lot of flash-in-the-pans happen, and people who are super-talented like Greg, it just takes longer. In the end, what I’ve learned from all of this is that I’m glad it’s taken a lot longer. Because I don’t think I was ready before. I couldn’t have made this film five or 10 years ago, just maturity-wise. I’ve grown — we all do, we all grow a little bit wiser, and connections-wise, and being able to get the locations where we shot… like, I am glad it took this long, I’m glad I went through this. Because I feel like you can feel the movie, you can feel the pain.
Is there anything that we as an audience do to help more independent films like this get made in Texas?
It’s crazy because the landscape in this state makes it so that you can shoot in so many places, and it feel like so many other places at once. I think we just need to get back those Dallas Film Commission grants and funds we used to have back in the day. I mean, Texas was the place to be for film shoots once upon a time. And I know that, if we can get those tax breaks back, everyone would pitch in on this film. One cool thing about Dallas Texas is you don’t need any permits to film unless you are blocking something off. So it is really the prime spot for people to start making films here. I’m shooting my next two films here. I never want to stop making movies in Dallas, Texas.
OK, to wrap up, let’s talk about the screening at the Texas Theatre on Saturday. Why are you doing it, and what do you hope comes from it?
Well, we were fortunate enough to be a part of the Dallas International Film Festival, where we won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film overall. But it was really hard for a lot people to go to that because there were a lot of passes involved. Also, we were fortunate at DIFF where we sold out almost every single show — but that meant a lot of people couldn’t see the film. So this is to sort of make up for that. It’ll just be a special down-home screening for friends and family and people in Texas — but also anyone else who wants to come. As a kid, I always wanted to show something at the Texas Theatre, so to have the marquee say This World Won’t Break at the Texas Theatre, where we also filmed a few scenes, is just a dream come true for me. And all the proceeds will help us continue to cover additional production costs. For instance, when you buy a ticket, you are helping us press the new soundtrack onto vinyl — that will be coming out in about a month. We will also have merchandise for sale, like This World Won’t Break trucker hats that everyone has been wanting, plus T-shirts, buttons and koozies, And, I mean, you can get your picture taken on the red carpet. So that’s pretty cool, too.
This World Won’t Break will be screened at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, at the Texas Theatre. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased here. Cover photo of Josh David Jordan by Shad Wilson. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.