"Hands on a Hardbody": S. R. Bindler on Texas, Trucks, and
By Liz Mermin
Trucks are serious business in Texas: everyone wants one. A few years
ago, a Nissan dealer in Longview, Texas, came up with a sadistic
marketing ploy whereby 24 unlucky people who really, really want a truck
gather under a tent with a single hand on a truck, and the person who
can keep their hand on the longest wins it. There are strict rules – no
leaning on the truck, no squatting, five-minute breaks every hour and 15
minute breaks every six hours. In past years, this has taken over 85
hours. S. R. Bindler found out about the contest on a trip to Longview,
his hometown, in 1994, and returned to shoot it the following year. The
1995 contestants included several engaging, philosophical, and
determined characters. It becomes clear that winning the pickup requires
a combination of confidence, faith, stamina, and stubbornness — not
unlike what it took for Bindler to make this doc.
Bindler is quick to acknowledge that he was very, very lucky that things
in the 1995 “Hands on a Hardbody” contest in his hometown, Longview,
Texas, turned out as they did. But even with luck on his side, it took
tremendous confidence and faith to get this quirky directorial debut
into theaters. A ninety-minute documentary, shot on hi-8, by a
first-time director, about a contest in which the object is to stand for
days on end with one hand placed lightly on a new Nissan is no easy
pitch. Fortunately Bindler had some well-placed friends (including Kevin
Morris, a successful entertainment lawyer, and actor Matthew
McConaughey, another Longview native) who were willing to come on board
as producers and get things started. Like most successful docs, “Hands
on a Hardbody” was a long time in the making, and Bindler found all
sorts of ways to cut costs along the way, even going back to cut the
film in Longview. It paid off: the doc got picked up for theatrical
release by Legacy Releasing, and it has earned positive reviews around
the country. indieWIRE caught up with Bindler while he was in New York
for his NYC premiere.
“Hands on a Hardbody” opened February 5 at the Village East Cinema in
New York, and will be opening in Chicago in two weeks.
indieWIRE: Were you looking for a documentary subject when you started
making this film, or did you just stumble across the contest and think
it was too good to pass up?
S. R. Bindler: At the time I was working concurrently on developing
documentary ideas and writing fiction. It was a point in my life when I
was very desperate and really wanting to pull the trigger on something.
The script I was working on was a ways away . . . and the documentary
idea, which wasn’t that well thought out at the time, was just more
attractive, simply because I’d be working sooner and I had complete
control. The way we ended up structuring the production, it was very
easy to jump into. Once Kevin [Kevin Morris, producer] and I made a
decision to do it, within a month Chapin [Chapin John Wilson, producer
and camera] and I were packing up and moving to Longview. So it was
great in terms of when I make a film, I don’t want to talk about making
a film, I just want to go make a film.
iW: How long were you down there?
Bindler: Chapin and I moved down there a month and a week before the
contest started. We moved down to Longview, shot all the pre-interviews
and b-roll . . . and then Kevin, the producer, and another cameraman,
Michael Nichols, flew down from LA, and we had our full crew – five
people, plus a PA or two from Longview. And then we shot for four days
or so for the contest. Then everyone left but Chapin and I, and we shot
probably another day and a half afterwards, pick up stuff, b-roll,
supporting footage, and that was it.
iW: Did you put yourselves through the same endurance tests as the
contestants? Were you up and shooting the whole time?
Bindler: My intention was to have us shoot for eight hours or be at the
set – the contest – for eight hours, and then get in the car, drive to
my house, sleep for three hours, drive back, be on for eight — do that
throughout the entire thing. Chapin and I designed this whole board,
with a check-in thing, just to keep us on a rotation. We had crews of
three, so one person would always be sleeping and everyone would be
getting rejuvenated, so they could do their jobs. Around the middle of
the second day, things really started to happen. Even when things
happened it was very sporadic, and it didn’t last very long, so if you
missed a moment you were pretty upset because you’ve invested all this
time, and you’re with it, you’re with the people and with the emotion of
the contest. . . . So Mike Nichols, I think he was the first, came up
to me and said, “I’m not leaving, my break’s up and I’m not leaving.”
And I was like: you’ve got to leave, you’ve got to go, we can’t just
stay here, we’re gonna melt down. But he said, “I ain’t leaving,” so
I’m like OK – at this point I’m tired enough to not argue too much with
anybody. . . . So the middle of the second day, no one left; we just
stayed there throughout the thing, and took a very few catnaps in the
car in the lot, and that was it. So by the end of the contest, we were
iW: Did you always have two cameras going?
Bindler: My design was one camera inside the truck area at all times,
and if not rolling finger on the trigger at all times, circling the
truck, and then a camera at the perimeter working the crowd. So we had
a crowd-cam, a truck-cam, and then I had a camera rigged up in the tent
in time lapse, shooting the entire thing in nice wide-angle — it’s
awesome footage — but it just didn’t cut, it’s too whimsical . . .
iW: When did you recognize the human drama element in the contest?
Bindler: I think I realized there was going to be human drama, conflict,
comedy, and the whole dramatic element when I saw it the first time.
Because you see it, and if you’re a story teller you go ‘wow,’ this has
got a lot of stuff going on. So I sort of hoped that would show up when
we went down there, but you just don’t know. So Chapin and I were two
weeks into the interviews . . . and I was like, “I don’t know if we have
a movie; I don’t know if this is going to happen.” We definitely didn’t
know about the contest. We knew all those things that were inherent, but
it was all just theory, and you know the worst-case scenario – Kevin,
our producer, would always say it’s a sporting event with no sport, you
know, it’s like, nothing happens. It’s ridiculous. So Chapin and I
were down there those first two weeks thinking, “No characters are going
to show up” — and we knew from studying documentary that it’s all
character. . . But in the middle of the second week Benny Perkins, the
cowboy who won it the first year shows up. . . . I asked him like two
questions and that kept him going for thirty minutes. And then I asked
him another two or three questions and a few follow-ups here and there
and he talked for an hour and a half, just seamlessly. And he left, and
I looked at Chapin and Chapin looked at me and someone said, “We’ve got
a movie!” Amazing subtext, amazing voice-over, through-line, you know.
. . . So we were tipped off to the human drama by Benny’s interview and
then when we showed up, everything he said started to come true.
iW: It’s so lucky that the contest ends the way it does. You were
obviously trying to stay neutral, but were you rooting for people in
terms of the drama of the film as it went on?
Bindler: I rooted for Benny, I think he was probably the only one I was
rooting for, simply because I think I recognized, if only at that time
on an intuitive level, that he was giving me the movie, and I assumed
that it’s a better movie if this guy makes it to the end. And then it
got down to I think four people, and Mike Nichols came up to me — he’s
a director in his own right — and he says, “You realize if Benny loses,
it’s a better movie.” And Nichols doesn’t like Benny. Nichols thinks
Benny is full of shit . . . so I immediately have a knee-jerk reaction:
no way, Benny’s got to win this thing. But as soon as I let the
knee-jerk reaction pass I started to think, he’s right, he’s right, if
Benny loses, it is a better movie.
iW: The film has a kind of sociological aspect to it, all the stuff
about the trucks and what trucks mean to Texans. How did you feel
making that kind of commentary? Obviously, you must feel like an
outsider to some extent, or no?
Bindler: I felt like an outsider while I was there. Are you kidding? I
did good to get out of there.
iW: Did any of it resonate with you?
Bindler: I structured it before I went down there, because I wasn’t
confident that we were going to get enough out of the contest, so I was
going to do a documentary on Longview and what a beautiful and strange
place that town is — and it is beautiful, and it is very strange — and
then I was going to do a short doc on trucks in Texas, sort of a study
on that phenomenon, and then a documentary on the contest, and intercut
these three short documentaries. . . . But once the contest started it
was like, oh my god, we have so much. . . . I have a five-minute
sequence on what trucks mean to the contestants. And it’s a really
important sequence to the whole of the movie. Because we’re in the
middle of the contest and it’s the only time I break away thematically
and somewhat visually because you leave the contest in the middle and
you explore trucks in Texas and what they mean in particular to Texans
in the contest. And then you come back, and now you’ve got this weight
of, you know, this is more than just a vehicle.
iW: Did the film really cost less than the truck?
Bindler: I’m still trying to figure out when people ask me that
question where the cut-off is, because the company that bought this
movie have been very gracious, and they’re still spending — a full page
ad in the Village Voice, and that’s not cheap. . . . We shot the movie
terribly inexpensively. I borrowed two cameras, rented one camera for a
week, when I got a four day rental and it was cheap. Rented a mic for a
week, I owned a mic, borrowed another mic, bought $400 worth of stock
which is a lot of hi-8 . . . I lit it with lights I bought at K-mart,
those lights you clamp on underneath the hood of your car, PVC pipe as
light-stands. I had gels left over from film school, from ’93, a big
roll in my closet. The major costs in production was feeding the crew .
. . we had to fly Kevin and Mike down — that was another big expense —
but you know, $2,000 or $3,000 maybe to shoot it — that’s nothing . . .
but post? We decided to cut a trailer, shop it around LA, and see if we
could get someone to give us post money. Which was a really bad idea .
. . We had all this footage on hi-8. I didn’t want to screw with it,
because they were our masters so I just had to arbitrarily pull three
tapes and have them transferred to 3/4″, took those, and cut this
trailer. That took about three months to get done. Then it took another
two months to expire all our options with that. People saw it and were
like, “Huh, interesting, if you have a movie, bring it back to us, we’d
love to look at it.” We went to crazy places — I’d been in L.A. for
six months, now I know better — but we were going to major companies.
And you know, they look at it and they see video, they see documentary,
and they say we can’t make enough money — we can’t lose enough money on
this thing. So I wasted three, four months doing that. . . .
So one night, I said fuck it, I’m moving back to Longview. Where I grew
up, there was an old 3/4″ system that I used to cut on when I was a kid
that was in the back of a church that used to shoot their services . . .
It’s antiquated as hell, I mean antiquated. But in desperation, I said,
I’ll cut it on that, straight cuts, I just have to do it. . . . And
then the machine broke, and I couldn’t fix it — I spent a week
underneath it trying to tweak it and fix it, and I couldn’t. So now I’m
stuck in Longview with no money, no prospect of making any money, and
nowhere to edit. So I put the tapes in the closet and started writing a
screenplay because I was sunk and I didn’t know what to do. . . . I
think two months had passed and I’m talking to one of the ladies at the
dealership and she says, “You should call Dean, he does all our
advertising and he’s got a beta and an Avid” — those words came out of
her mouth, and so I’m like, give me his number, and I called him. It
was a difficult deal . . . I’m in Longview for about seven or eight
months before I start editing. And what we did was we bought him more
hard drives, which cost something like $5,000, and in turn I could come
in at night and cut. There were some other things in terms of helping
him around the office, and all that. In the interim I had
re-transcribed the entire show, the entire 100 hours of footage
verbatim, and did an extensive paper edit, and the movie was cut before
I stepped into the editing room . . . I cut it in a month and two
weeks. And we finished on the Avid there, and I couldn’t afford to go
back to the hi-8 so I just on-lined it on his system from the 3/4s, and
he had a beta there. We went to beta, did a terribly inexpensive
transform to film . . . and that was it. So, three or four grand and
then another six. So we had a final product for about the cost of the
iW: When did it get picked up? Was it on the festival circuit for a
Bindler: We got it ready for Sundance in 1997, but they didn’t take it.
They didn’t take it at Toronto, they didn’t take it at New York, they
didn’t take it at Berlin – none of the major festivals took it. So we
just started going to any festival that would take us, and there were a
lot, and they were good festivals — all the other festivals beside
those, and we won several awards and did well. And then, towards the
end of the festival run, we decided to get a theater in Santa Monica,
invite everyone we know, and have a party afterwards. And at that first
screening — there were about 500 people, it was an amazing night – two
guys were in the audience from this company in Nashville [Legacy
Releasing]. . . . They’d just started a company and were looking for
things to acquire. So we made a deal with them and they’ve done a good
job at getting it out. We had a couple other offers, but they were
basically, “We’ll take your existing 16mm print, no money involved at
all, we’ll just take your print to four or five cities, and minimal
advertising if any at all, and we’ll see what happens.” But this company
blew it up to 35 and really got behind it.
iW: Where’s it going now?
Bindler: It’s still playing in Austin — it’s done like seven months in
Austin — and they’re opening it in college towns in Texas this month. .
. . It’s opening here and in Chicago the week after next. If it does
well here, they’ll do something with it; if not they’ve fulfilled their
obligation to us contractually.
iW: So what’s next?
Bindler: I’ve got a fictional narrative or two I’d like to do, and a
couple other documentaries, one in Texas, one in the Middle East, which
deals with what’s been happening there for a long time. I’d like to go
in and do something different there that hasn’t been done.
[Liz Mermin is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer based in
NYC. Her documentary “On Hostile Ground” about abortion providers,
begins shooting in Alabama in April.]