Filmmaker Spotlight

Dallas film festival guru and shorts filmmaker prepares for SXSW premiere

Dallas festival guru and shorts filmmaker prepares for SXSW premiere

Dallas filmmaker Daniel Laabs has had his hand in a number of local independent film ventures, and now his latest short film, Easy, has been selected for South by Southwest Film 2014’s Texas Shorts competition. His most recent work, 8, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Texas Short at SXSW in 2011, so he’s no stranger to the Austin-based festival giant.

Laabs began his film career as a student at the University of Texas in Arlington when his short film Sleet/Snow was selected for the AFI Dallas Film Festival (now the Dallas International Film Festival) in 2009. Before he endeavored to write and direct a film of his own, Laabs was the president of the UTA student film organization, where he was in charge of programming and running the university’s student film festival.

 “The film festival community tends to give way to friendships,” says Easy writer and director Daniel Laabs. “That’s where I have made the most long-lasting relationships.”

“Working on the UTA student film festival is where I got the idea of wanting to tell my own stories and making my own films,” Laabs says. “I ended up being one of those people that connected other filmmakers to each other, and then I eventually just started working with those people directly on my own films.”

After departing from UTA, he landed a job from an old professor. Bart Weiss, creator of the Dallas Video Fest, hired Laabs to help with the festival programming.

“I would say that the film festival community tends to give way to friendships,” he says. “You spend a lot of down time with people at film festivals, and that’s where I feel like I meet the most people and have made the most long-lasting relationships.”

After a four-year stint with Dallas Video Fest, Laabs caught the attention of Texas Theatre owners and Oak Cliff Film Festival co-founders, who brought him on to program the 2013 Oak Cliff Film Festival.

“Curating a festival is a very creative and challenging thing,” he says. “You want to put an event together that people will want to attend and get them excited about things they’ve never heard of before.

“Especially with shorts blocks, I think there’s a lot of really great programmers who can create the experience of going to see an actual film with nine to 10 shorts, and that gets me very passionate and excited about the idea. It’s hard not to want to do it on you own.”

Through his relationship with the Texas Theatre, Laabs also pitched the idea of Cinèwilde, a repertory film series that “seeks to share quality lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender films that reflect the full spectrum of the queer experience including race, gender, age and socioeconomic status.” The monthly series kicked off this past January.

When he isn’t programming festivals, writing scripts or directing his own films, Laabs works as a freelance editor for several local Dallas production companies.

“On my last short film project, 8, I was only going to work in the capacity of co-director with Julie Gould. After we wrapped, I edited a rough cut, and I really just kind of fell in love with it, so I took on the project as an editor,” he says. “It was the first job I ever did as a professional editor, and when it won the award at SXSW, I ended up getting asked to edit a lot of other projects. That’s how I got into editing — accidently.”

Over the last two years, Laabs says his time has primarily been spent in the editing room on freelance projects for local production companies, but Easy has put him back in the director’s seat.

“The first time I read the script out loud to a friend was four years ago, so it’s kind of been a slow process,” he says. “I had this extremely good casting director, Kelsey Coggin, and we found almost everyone in the film through open casting. We ended up finding people that were better than what I thought we might get, so I wanted to rewrite the script with them.”

Laabs and the cast spent the next six months holding rehearsals. Before each meeting, he would write a scene to workshop that night until everyone was happy with the result. Laabs, who had never written a script this way before, says he plans to collaborate even more with actors in the future.

“It’s kind of scary, because you write a script with an idea and a vision, but I felt like the actors were so talented and had abilities they could express by taking on certain scenes for themselves,” Laabs ays. “It’s such a satisfying experience, knowing that everyone is participating in the expressive aspect of the film. The crew on Easy was like that as well.”

As Laabs prepares for festival season, Easy is now in the last stages of post-production. To help pay for some of the final production and publicity costs, he has chosen to launch a crowd-funding campaign through Indiegogo, which is in its final stretch of fundraising. You can watch the film’s trailer above, or find out more about the campaign and how to contribute.

Jeff Walker and Brennen Bliss in Easy
Jeff Walker and Brennen Bliss in Easy, a short film by Daniel Laabs. Photo by Noe Medrano Jr. and Jan Brandt
Dallas filmmaker Daniel Laabs
Dallas filmmaker Daniel Laabs, whose short film Easy was selected for the Texas Shorts competition at SXSW 2014. Photo by Jan Brandt
Still from short film "8"
A still from Laabs' short 8, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Texas Short at SXSW 2011. Photo by Bret Curry
Jeff Walker and Brennen Bliss in Easy
Dallas filmmaker Daniel Laabs
Still from short film "8"