Steve Mims

Radio-television-film lecturer Steve Mims’ film, “Arlo and Julie,” will premeire during SXSW on March 10 at the ZACH Theatre. The film revolves around a couple who become involved in a mystery as they receive letters containing puzzle pieces. 

As the puzzle starts taking over their lives, the two begin to question their commitment to each other and ponder the identity of the sender.

“I had the idea with people being obsessed with puzzles for a while,” Mims said. “I built the story around [lead actor Alex Dobrenko]. We just built a little story about people becoming unglued because they can’t figure out what’s happening.”

Mims first learned about UT’s film courses when he visited Austin for a film festival and explored the program. He graduated with a Master of Arts in radio-television-film in 1987.

The film was produced in an Introduction to Narrative Direction course that Mims teaches. His students, who were mostly juniors, worked on the set as camera and lighting operators, grips and production assistants.

“I pitched the idea as a way to get my better students the opportunity to work on a film,” Mims said. “I can’t say enough about what a great job they did.”

“Arlo and Julie” was filmed in various places in Austin, including the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center on campus. The film includes some of Mims’ personal touches, including his fondness for jazz music and his interest in historical figures, particularly Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. According to Mims, he wrote these quirky subjects into the film to “make the story a little richer and deeper, and funnier as well.”

Mims hopes festival-goers will enjoy the film. He said that he and the producers are looking into finding a distributor, although there are no definite plans. 

“I wanted to premiere at SXSW because it’s a great festival and really important,” Mims said. “We’re thrilled to have ‘Arlo and Julie’ among the other films that they’re showing.”

After facing closed doors, statewide traveling and long editing hours, a UT radio-television-film lecturer and UT alumnus are close to the completion of an independent documentary chronicling the aftermath of convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution.

Joe Bailey Jr. was a postdoctoral fellow at the UT School of Law working on a documentary about a Texas musician when he took Steve Mims’ production course in fall 2009. After a class, Bailey and Mims started discussing death penalty and clemency in Texas. Both later read a September 2009 New Yorker article about Willingham, which spurred Bailey’s interest in filming the repercussions of the execution.

In 1991, a Navarro County jury convicted Willingham of arson and murder for setting fire to his Corsicana home and killing his three daughters while his wife was away. He received a death sentence a year later. Prosecutors offered Willingham life in prison if he admitted he was guilty, but he refused and maintained his innocence. The state executed Willingham in 2004.

Willingham’s surviving relatives have since petitioned to convene a special court of inquiry to remedy his reputation, which they say the case’s media attention tarnished. According to the petition, the prosecutors used flawed science and a now-recanted statement from a former cellmate who said Willingham confessed.

“That information never got to his defense,” Mims said. “There’s a whole level of irresponsibility that made the whole thing the train wreck that it was. We wouldn’t be talking about this at all if that process had played out.”

The film, scheduled to be completed on Dec. 9, concentrates on the forensics behind Willingham’s conviction, but also includes the legal and political aspects of its course of action.

“The justice-gone-wrong story had been done and been done very well,” Bailey said. “The issue film of wrongful execution had played itself out in our culture over and over again, so what we thought was interesting was the science, folklore and emotion. It’s not often you seen that in an animated matter of life and death.”

Mims said he and Bailey tried not to have an ax to grind and to make the film an examination of the cracks in the criminal justice system that contributed to Willingham’s execution.

“The thing that’s reassuring about it is that there are only a few things that could have been done differently that would make what happened to Willingham not happen any more,” he said.

Mims said one of the challenges they faced was piecing the scenes together in a way that made the science entertaining.

“It’s like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle,” Mims said. “The job of trying to get it down to — right now, it’s 108 minutes — has been very difficult. It’s a balancing act to try to make it definitive so people can really understand the science, which in this case is really important, and still make it watchable and reputable.”

Students in RTF lecturer John Pierson’s advanced producing class saw parts of the film about three times throughout the semester. After critiquing the film, the students must now take on publicity for the film. Ivete Lucas, an RTF graduate student, said the filmmakers approached the documentary in an unusual manner by concentrating on the science and the integrity of the criminal justice system.

“When we think of science movies, we think they’re going to be impenetrable,” Lucas said. “The filmmakers did a very good job of illustrating the concepts the scientists were trying to explain, and the two main scientists behind the investigation were interesting because they had different personalities. The film was entertaining because of
these characters.”