Brad Austin: ‘A Million Stories in His Head’

“I just want to celebrate people, you know?” says KCPT filmmaker and Emmy Award-winning producer Brad Austin, shown standing under the KCTV tower near the station on east 31st Street. (photo by Jim Barcus)

From “The Wizard of Oz” to Charlie Parker, the award-winning Kansas City PBS filmmaker tells the tales of the Heartland like no one else

The great Kansas City stories keep coming from documentary filmmaker Brad Austin, if only because he cares so much about finding the next hometown tale.

Since 2017, the five-time Regional Emmy Award-winning creative arts producer for Kansas City PBS has combined his incisive eye and core belief in the power of story to consistently mine nuggets of narrative gold from the Heart of America.

The real-life stories that Austin tells so well are positive on purpose.

“I celebrate the arts in Kansas City,” Austin says. “I figure there’s enough people out there that’ll do the digging and find all the negative stuff, but sometimes I feel like that’s Twitter world and I’m just so tired of it. I want to celebrate people, you know?”

Clockwise from left: Poster and two stills from “Me, Dorothy . . . and This Road to Oz” (2019), which detailed the behind-the-scenes preparation of the Kansas City Ballet’s adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”
(courtesy of Brad Austin)

Austin’s eloquently uplifting docs include: “In Situ: Impressions from the Bloch Galleries” (2017), examining the journey of five prized artworks from the home gallery of the Bloch family to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; “Me, Dorothy . . . and This Road to Oz” (2019), detailing the behind-the-scenes preparation of the Kansas City Ballet’s enchanting adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”; and “Bird: Not Out of Nowhere” (2020); extolling through perceptive conversations and live performances the too often passed-over Kansas City years of legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

While exploring the arts world is Austin’s chosen forte, he’s equally adept at thoughtfully engaging Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Kansas City, as in the 2021 doc, “All These Delicate Sorrows,” or dreaming up the niftiest way to portray a hidden piece of Kansas City’s infrastructure in the 2017 doc, “Public Works.”

“For ‘Public Works,’ I did an animation of how sewers work, so I actually won an Emmy for digital poop,” Austin recalls with some amusement. “You know when it floods and all those sewers near Westport start shooting water eight feet in the air? I thought, oh, man, that’s good video right there — that’s what we need!

“But here’s the cool thing on a couple of levels,” he says. “Every story I tell is a story I’ve never gotten to tell before. I do the shooting. I do the interviewing. I do the lighting. I do the editing. I get to have all those different artistic experiences, not just one. And then I get to craft this story. I get to build and build. I just love story, right? Stories are amazing.”

Poster for “All These Delicate Sorrows,” Austin’s 2021 documentary about Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Kansas City. (courtesy of Brad Austin)

‘There are stories everywhere’

Austin’s fascination with story began when he was just an imaginative kiddo playing with “Star Wars” action figures.

“I thought, ‘How can I get the good guys up the stairs and get the bad guys to stop them from getting up the stairs?’” he remembers. “That was my daily play ritual. Eventually, I realized that I was telling stories with these little action figures.

“Then you realize that you like making stories and, in seventh or eighth grade, you can make a long story. Next thing you know, you’re writing. I wasn’t a great writer, but I could write dialogue and do scripts, and that was fun. I loved narrative dramas. They were my favorite. That’s what I wanted to do.”

But Austin didn’t get to enjoy many of the big-screen movie hits of his 1980s adolescence, at least not in the traditional sense of seeing them himself.

“I was raised by my mom, and we just didn’t have a lot of money, so going to the movies was something that might happen once a year,” he remembers. “My best friend and his family would go to the movies every weekend, and he would come back, and I’d have him lay out the entire movie for me. I didn’t care if he ruined it. He’d say, ‘You’ve just got to see it,’ and I’d say, ‘I’ve just got to know.’” The movies were a magical place where I didn’t belong, but I wanted to belong somewhere.”

Austin developed an interest in still photography from his grandfather, a Platte County Sheriff’s Deputy, who took accident reconstruction photos and had a darkroom that Austin also used to make images. Further photo-making encouragement came from his best friend’s dad, who worked as a portrait photographer, and let Austin use his studio and lights for shooting.

Yet Austin was still “thinking narrative films,” when he graduated from Platte County R-3 High School in 1992 and found his way to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, California, which also taught filmmaking.

“We had to take a documentary film course,” he says. “And the first documentary that I made was about a firefighter who developed a cartoon character for comic books and posters to teach kids about fire safety. It got me onto the field at Dodgers Stadium. It got me into Universal Studios to interview the fire chief on the backlot. And when I got done, I was like, ‘Man, I think I just told a story.’ I realized that there are stories everywhere, and I can find them in real life.”

‘Seeing something deeper’

After his photography and film studies at Brooks, Austin returned to Kansas City and opened Rock Box Studio and Gallery, a portrait photography studio at Zona Rosa.

“I always had (filmmaking) in my back pocket, and I knew that I wanted to do it,” Austin says. “I just didn’t know how. Before the emergence of digital technology, a lot of filmmakers thought that you had to be in L.A. or New York to be a filmmaker, and I fell into that trap.”

Enter future collaborator and career facilitator extraordinaire Kandie Bender, who owned La De Da fashion boutique in Zona Rosa, and had heard about Austin from a fashion model. Bender needed her shop’s clothes photographed, so she introduced herself to Austin and, suddenly, they were on the same creative team.

“Brad had an incredible portfolio and had been doing some fashion photography on his own,” Bender says. “It was kind of a convergence, you know, how you just kind of find your own people.”

If Austin wanted to shoot a new model in town, he’d call Bender for wardrobe and assistance on the set.

“He always wanted to bring out something in a person,” she says. “He had an idea of what would make them look the best or what would make them stand out from someone else. I’m just looking at a girl in front of a camera, but he was seeing something deeper than that, something that only a very few cinematographers or photographers can really view with the naked eye.”

When Bender became editor of “Home in the Northland” magazine (later “North” magazine), she made Austin the publication’s go-to photographer. In addition to fashion, he shot food spreads and portraits of Northlanders to accompany stories that he was often also writing.

“He was doing ‘still’ docs, if you will, through the magazine,” Bender says. And, increasingly, Austin’s cinematically inspired storytelling talent was making itself known.

“We were shooting a fashion spread and we had these beautiful models, including Miss Oklahoma,” Bender says. “And Brad’s like, ‘This has to be a story,’ as if they’re part of a heist or something. So we turned these models into sort of French-looking, femme-fatale, double-secret agents. And it was just so fun. We had a getaway car and the whole bit.

“So what started out as, ‘Hey, let’s have a fashion spread,’ ended up turning into this epic story. Because he’s a storyteller. He was like, ‘What is this going to mean? We’ve got to make it make sense.’ He was up for anything — anything. He would just say, ‘Whatever you need, boss. We’ve got to get that shot. Whatever it takes.’”

“You’ve got to grind,” Austin says. “People have talents to be able to see things that others don’t see, perhaps. But that will only get you so far. You’ve got to work and work and work and work and make it.”

“Brad really is a storyteller. And he brings that skill like no one I’ve ever seen in my 30 years in the business.”

John McGrath, multimedia producer/reporter
at Kansas City PBS

‘He’s a unicorn’

In 2015, Austin made the leap to documentary filmmaking as a freelancer for Kansas City PBS. His opportunity was set in motion when Bender — who was good friends with the sister of the station’s chief operating officer, Carla McCabe — recommended him with a full heart and appropriately high expectations.

“I said, ‘Carla, you need to meet this person,’” Bender says. “‘He’s obviously incredibly talented. He’s a filmmaker. He wants to do documentaries. His writing is incredible. He’s a storyteller, and he’s got a million stories in his head.’”

Austin remains grateful to Bender for her critical role in advancing his career: “There’s no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today without Kandie telling people about me and showing them my work.”

“We saw that he was this amazing still photographer,” says John McGrath, multimedia producer/reporter at Kansas City PBS. “And we’re like, ‘Well, maybe he can do video, too.’ So we bring him in and he starts turning out stuff that’s incredible.”

Two years later, with fellow Gen-Xer and film fan McGrath’s key support, Austin was hired as full-time creative arts producer at Kansas City PBS.

“Brad has brought filmmaking back to Kansas City PBS,” McGrath says. “He’s a unicorn. He can do it all. He’s a one-man documentary crew. You want to do something on Charlie Parker? Give it to Brad. He will research it extensively. He writes and shoots it amazingly. And then he adds his secret sauce in the editing room.

“He’s got this cool thing, like he’s Orson Welles. He’s got a beard and everything, and he’s sitting there, rubbing his chin. He’s staring at a screen. He’s just thinking about the story, thinking about the story. And he shifts this around and shifts that around, and he’s rubbing his chin some more and he’s thinking about the story. So Brad really is a storyteller. And he brings that skill like no one I’ve ever seen in my 30 years in
the business.”

Lonnie McFadden at the Phoenix, a still photo by Brad Austin during filming for “Bird: Not Out of Nowhere” (courtesy of Brad Austin)

Soaring ‘Bird’

Austin’s greatest doc so far?

“‘Dorothy,’ to me, is his crown jewel,” McGrath says. “We told that story from the ground level up and they gave us incredible access. That’s the greatest thing he’s done so far.”

Fair enough.

But another strong candidate would have to be “Bird: Not Out of Nowhere,” a rapturous remembrance of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s relatively unheralded yet formatively vital years spent learning his musical craft in Kansas City. The original plan was to shoot the doc at a June 2020 jazz festival in Seville, Spain, organized to commemorate Parker’s birth centennial.

“Obviously, all that got shut down by the pandemic,” Austin says. “But we still wanted to celebrate Charlie Parker’s birthday in October. And so I ended up making that entire film in 30 days. It was, especially, ‘how do we do this and be safe?’ We had no crew whatsoever. It was just me.”

The creative crux of the refashioned “Bird” came to reside in Austin’s intimate and revealing conversations with three distinctive authorities on Parker in KC: Chuck Haddix, a Parker biographer and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City; jazz trumpeter, tap dancer and singer/songwriter Lonnie McFadden, whose parents knew Parker; and jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator Bobby Watson.

“Chuck brings the information, the textbook knowledge of Charlie Parker,” Austin says. “And Lonnie brings the entertainment. I could listen to Lonnie talk all day. He’s got this energy that is awesome. And then you have Bobby, who brings this wisdom — he says that you can’t just arrive somewhere, you’ve got to come through something.

“So you have these three very different takes. And I didn’t realize it until afterwards, but, oh, man, they filled each other’s gaps. None of them talked about the same thing. They all brought their own something.”

Because of the international appeal of Parker’s music and of jazz in general, “Bird: Not Out of Nowhere” likely has attracted more eyeballs than any other Austin doc. Not only did it go national on PBS, but it’s also found viewers overseas. There’s even a version dubbed in Japanese, “which is a weird thought,” Austin says.

“I love the film,” he says. “I feel it’s very honest. It makes me feel good, because a lot of people who love jazz tend to go down this road of ‘Charlie Parker was a heroin addict.’ And you know what? There’s enough of that. Even the Clint Eastwood film (biography of Parker) was basically about heroin addiction. That story’s already
been told.

“Let’s tell the story about this guy who worked hard. And he was from Kansas City. Let’s celebrate that part.”

Yes, let’s.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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