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SxSW 2016 Interview: SILICON COWBOYS director Jason Cohen

by Jason Whyte

"SILICON COWBOYS explores the remarkable David vs. Goliath story, and eventual demise, of Compaq Computer, an unlikely upstart who took on industry giant IBM and altered the future of computing and shaped the world as we know it today." Director Jason Cohen on SILICON COWBOYS which screens at the 2016 edition of South By Southwest Film.

I am thrilled to hear SILICON COWBOYS is coming to SxSW and this is your first time here! Are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes, my first SXSW and I will attend all our screenings!

Tell me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work!

I studied journalism in college and I started out doing sound and camera work but was always producing as well, working on small crews where everyone did a little of everything, especially in the documentary world. I have worked on docs and TV shows over the years for HBO, PBS, ESPN, Discovery and many others, on projects on every continent. My last film FACING FEAR, a short documentary about forgiveness and reconciliation was nominated or an Oscar in 2014.

Great back story! So with this experience, how SILICON COWBOYS come together for you?

I was approached by producers Ross Dinerstein and Glen Zipper about this idea. Ross is from Houston, where Compaq was based, and had a personal connection to the story as Compaq founder Rod Canion was a family friend. He pitched the idea for a film to Rod at a party one night just after Rod had put out his book on the history of Compaq. I read the book and thought there was definitely a great film in there because it was a narrative with a great arc to it. I was also extremely attracted to the nostalgia of it all as someone who grew up in the 80s and has fond memories of my first computers and everything that went along with that. The opportunity to make a film that could incorporate 80s music and pop culture references including the Pointer Sisters and Irene Cara was also hard to pass up!

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? Coffee?

I have never had a cup of coffee in my life. Hopefully the material I am working on is enough to keep me invigorated and usually it's a tight budget that forces us to plow ahead. An occasional cup of chai tea helps too.

What was your biggest challenge with getting SILICON COWBOYS to the screen?

Probably the biggest challenge was telling a story that took place 30 years ago and having to find the right archival footage to convey that while coming up with creative ways to shoot new scenes that could blend with it all. Re-creations can be very tricky and if they're not done right it can really turn off an audience, so we took great care on the scenes where we had the opportunity to re-create an 80s atmosphere. We used all the old computers and locations that still felt period to our advantage and embraced the lo-fi graphics of the that era for our titles and animations. This all combined with a very retro score from our talented composer, Ian Hultquist, and it was so much fun to see it all come together in the end and really put us in this world that was just a few decades away but feels like a time warp from our current connected world.

With all of the older technology and doing re-creations, I am about to get technical on you. I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how you achieved it.

We shot with a BlackMagic 4K camera and Canon C300 as a second camera. My Director of Photography Svetlana Cvetko and I have now made four films together and we have a chemistry when we're shooting that translates to the screen. There is trust that is vital to getting the look we want. I know we can discuss a setup/look/feel and I can leave her with her crew to achieve a look and then we tweak it together after she has set it. We also had fun experimenting with color on the film to achieve an 80s aesthetic, including treating all our talking heads with a blue-green hue to keep us in the same world as our actual archival.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

When we first discussed the idea to make the film, SxSW was part of the conversation. We said from the get go how amazing it would be to premiere at SxSW for an audience that would appreciate this tech saga and to be in Texas just a few hours from Houston where this story had its roots. We know the audiences will be partially educated on the topic and we hope we can enlighten them further.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

Right now we have been focused on getting to SxSW and have just started to explore other screening opportunities but no definitive plans yet.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

We would love to screen the film in Houston. Compaq meant so much to the city of Houston, including through some dark economic times in the 80s and we'd love to be able to screen there for former Compaq employees and others in the community who were directly affected by the huge impact Compaq had there.

What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?

Hopefully a death stare would work and no words needed.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?

I usually tell people to learn as much as you can about all aspects of the process from pre right through post production. As an independent filmmaker, often on a tight budget, you never know when you might be asked to wrap a cable, hold a boom, shoot a second camera or help cut a scene. I also feel if you can relate to every person in every department on your crew and "speak their language," there will be an increased level of respect across the whole production.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Every filmmakers' most dreaded question! Too difficult to name one film. I watch everything from dark, depressing indie to laugh out loud slapstick to studio action flicks to social issue docs and plenty of others. That being said, I have seen some great films doing the festival circuit including many that will never get a big release but I feel extremely fortunate to have seen them in a theater where the filmmakers' originally intended for them to be seen. I'll name one more obscure film in the hopes people would seek it out. It's called WELCOME...AND OUR CONDOLENCES and it's a short comedy from Israel that is about a Russian family trying to immigrate to Israel when their old Aunt dies on the plane on the way there, and they are forced to try to smuggle her through. Imagine WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S shot with a handycam, but much funnier.

Be sure to follow the progress of SILICON COWBOYS by visiting and follow Jason on Twitter at @jasoncohenfilm!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2016. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/11/16 02:33:34
last updated: 03/11/16 02:46:50
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