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About Dan Austin

Who is Dan Austin?

Cache Magazine Article

Sept. 9th, 2001
By Lance Frazier

The rusty hoop stands unwavering in front of Dan Austin's boyhood home in Hyrum, its standard firmly planted in three feet of concrete.

A few yards away a hedge of giant sagebrush conceals a plentiful garden and an orchard from which Dan's dad, Dennis, plies visitors with golden crookneck squash and cucumbers and native plums.

Austin's reach has stretched far beyond Cache Valley to Scotland and Canada and Hollywood, but his roots still run deep here, where the old hoop - which doesn't get much use these days, what with the kids mostly gone off to college and jobs - once served as a sanctuary.

"Basketball really saved me in high school," Austin says. "It almost has a spiritual significance to me."

Austin, now 27, and his best friend Clint would play one on one "for hours, all night long. We'd play games to 100 points, 500 points, we'd go and go.

"It was about losing yourself on the court, and having that peaceful feeling where you connect with yourself and kind of forget about everything else going on in your life, and all that matters is shooting that ball and hoping it goes in."

It wasn't competitive drive that motivated Austin, who didn't play organized ball, but the same enthusiasm that sent him scampering to the hills to hike and bike, and eventually to film. That precocious nature was revealed to Dennis and Ann Austin early, when they realized their firstborn didn't sleep much.

"He was a very interesting and delightful challenge as a child," says Ann, an associate dean with Utah State University's College of Family Life. "He slept very little and he was very active, talking constantly. He always had a project in mind."

By the time he was three, young Dan would be in front of the TV before the test pattern cleared on Saturday mornings, not watching slack-jawed but keenly observing the nuances of moving pictures.

"He watched more TV than I would recommend any kid watch, but he was getting so much out of it," Ann says. "The word that keeps coming to mind is effervescent, but that's not powerful enough to describe Daniel."

By the time he was in high school Austin would "drag my buddies out into the desert" to shoot mini-movies.

"I put them through some outlandish stuff," he admits, and no one suffered more for the budding filmmaker than Clinton Ewell. One time Austin hauled Ewell out to Utah's Salt Flats in triple-digit temperatures, stuffed him into a rented gorilla suit - "He was actually playing a troll, but that was the best I could do" - and shot 45 takes of one scene before Ewell dozed off in the heat, only to awake in a bog of drool and sweat.

"It was a little hot but we could take our masks off," Ewell recalls. "He wasn't merciless. That was so much fun. I was killed three times."

The resulting fantasy movie, "Vengeance," had to do with warriors, wizards and a quest, and earned Austin a scholarship to Brigham Young University's film school, where he built a reputation as an edit bay "packrat," the guy who ate, slept and lived there.

"Even when he was a lowly undergrad it was clear that he was special," says Sterling Van Wagenen, a former BYU professor who is now chair of the film department at the University of Central Florida. "It was clear he was going to carve out some sort of career. He has the very rare ability to follow his own passion, and he's prepared to pay any price to get his film made."

"Indefatigable" is how Van Wagenen sums up his protégé, and that's as good a word as any to describe someone who began making pilgrimages, or "journeys of importance," as a teenager. These usually concerned a bicycle and a faroff destination, and began with a day trip to Ogden, following the advice of Dennis, a wildlife biologist, to "Live life, don't stay home."

"When he left on that first cross country bike trip I honestly thought I'd never see him again," says Ann.

Ewell says Austin "took a lot of flack" from classmates for his meticulous planning, and in the end, "I was the only one would go with him. That started it all."

Next came a two-day ride to Idaho Falls, Idaho, which was followed by a weeklong jaunt across Colorado. In June, 1996, he recruited younger brothers Jared and Micah, along with Ewell, to ride to Spokane, Wash., to visit Jack and Dan's Tavern, a bar owned by the father of Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton.

At the time the Jazz were playing the Seattle SuperSonics for the right to face the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, and Austin hoped to tie the story of his journey, recorded with a hand-held camera, to the story of his favorite team's triumph. The Jazz didn't beat Seattle, but the young cyclists continued undeterred, and the resulting movie, "Pilgrimage of the True Jazz Fans," served as Austin's senior project as he graduated from BYU.

"It's a time in which you give yourself to the road, with hope and faith that you'll overcome certain things," says Austin, who relies heavily on the kindness of strangers during these trips. "You return a different person than you were when you left."

It was "only natural" that his two loves, travel and film (with some basketball sprinkled in), would continue to intermingle. In 1997 Dan, Ewell and Jared biked from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic (on $10 a day) and eventually to the NBA Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., carrying a basketball for enshrinement in the Hall to be signed by "heroes" along the way. The documentary of that journey, "True Fans," was the surprise winner of the people's choice award at the prestigious Banff Film Festival, and Austin became an overnight sensation.

But a filmmaker can't retire on the success of a single movie - not that Austin intended to. Two months ago he rolled into Hyrum by way of Glacier National Park to join the city's 4th of July parade, making the latest in a series of "last" trips. ("We've said 'This is the last one' after every trip," Ewell acknowledges.) Since then Austin, who quit his job as an advertising broadcast producer after the explosion of "True Fans," has been cobbling together the trilogy's final installment, "True Fans Forever."

No, make that "True Fans Return." Well, he hasn't made a decision on the title, but he hopes to release the movie next July 4, with an appropriate conclusion: "It'll be a real fun, boom-boom-bang ending to the whole series."

Don't expect to see the final product - a story about "coming back to the country we love best, our home," that will feature trips to Canada, Mexico and Scotland - until Austin is satisfied.

"If you create something you're not truly happy with you probably ought to go back and keep working," he says, noting that a professor prompted him to finish "True Fans" by suggesting he give up on the project. Stung, Austin sat down and maniacally trimmed 50 hours of tape down to 41 minutes. The result was a film that "makes me happy."

"I really love my own movie," he says, enthusiasm overriding humility. "I've watched it a thousand times and I still get a rush out of it. It's exactly the movie I wanted to make, and it represents everything we wanted to represent."

Brother Jared, 23 and a student at the University of Utah medical school, has been on every trip save the Mexico one, and says he's always up for another. Could he capture Dan's essence in a word? Without hesitation. "Adventurer," Jared says. "He's been doing this since he was a kid.

"The 'True Fans' trip was definitely my favorite," he adds. "It was an epic ride in terms of scope and distance, and the fact it was the first big one made it special."

The trip was also an epic pain in the butt at times, especially when Dan would ask Jared (whom he had ordered to read a book on zen filmmaking) to shoot a scene multiple times.

"Dan's very demanding," Jared says. "It's for the good of the project and the trip, but there were times Clint and I got very frustrated doubling back or saying things over for the camera. You have to accept the fact you're making a film."

Tension resulted in some of the finest moments in "True Fans," such as when Ewell, irritated at being buzzed by heavy 4th of July traffic on a Colorado freeway, parked himself in the center of a lane and made a stand.

"I think I had gotten mentally fatigued from staying in that 12-inch space," Ewell says. "I probably would have cracked if I stayed in that little space."

To fight stress, the crew played basketball at every opportunity, hitting courts in schoolyards, churchyards and city parks. Those shootarounds, Dan says, were "almost like a sacrament to this thing that helped us out so much."

Ewell is a Navy reservist who hopes to become a chaplain on a nuclear submarine, advising others on how to cope with journeys of unknown length and outcome.

"Really, we seldom have bad days," Ewell says of the trips, "and when we're done we feel on top of the world.

"Dan's effect on me is invigorating. If I were to describe him, I would say voracious, for life, for everything."

For inspiration, Austin draws on directors such as Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") and Steven Spielberg.

"I've always liked Spielberg; well, everybody likes Speilberg. He seems to have a real handle on the magic of childhood and the unseen magic of the world." As for Luhrmann, "I love the way he combines music, dance and life in a really neat mélange, so that the present and past are irrelevant."

And his favorite movie of late - purists, brace yourselves: "Legally Blonde." "I love that movie, it was such a great movie," Austin says. "It was so hilarious, and the script was very well done."

That movie alone was enough to convince Austin to try his hand at a comedy and "make a lot of mistakes" while studying the genre. In the meantime there are feature films to ponder, or basically whatever he can afford, since he largely bankrolls his own work.

"That's kind of a grind sometimes," he says of the shoestring budgets, "but the miraculous is always bound to happen."

Like the time he needed an NBA basketball (retail price $100) to carry to the Hall of Fame. After a radio interview in Salt Lake City he spied Jazz vice president Jay Francis in the hallway. Minutes later, he had a gleaming new ball.

"When you go for stuff, it's funny how everything works out and pulls together," he says with a shrug.

Austin lives in Salt Lake City in a sparely furnished Avenues townhouse with travel art and a world map on the walls and copies of The New Yorker and the Ensign on the end table. Living in Los Angeles holds small allure for him, but not because he's scared about getting sucked into the seamier side of show business.

"The industry becomes a monster and you can deal with it however you want," he says with typical optimism. "All the people I've met in the industry are good people."

Such is the faith that resonates in his work and prompted a Telluride, Colo., columnist to opine, "This is not Everest conquering stuff, it's better."

"I'm really pleased that his films have all had a distinct spiritual element," says Ann. Not necessarily a denominational view, but a broad hope for human nature that "appeals to people of all persuasions."

Because Austin sees no limits; where others see daunting cross-country bike trips rife with hunger, nasty weather, life-threatening traffic and punctured tires, he sees only opportunity.

"You get the pilgrimage bug in your blood and can't get it out, except to go on more journeys," Austin says. "You're satiated for a little while and have to go back out and do it again."

The nice thing about Austin's trips is that we all get to go along.

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