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In ‘Only the Good Survive,’ cults, crime and romance in rural Texas

The thriller/mystery/drama is led by an ensemble of young actors willing to commit themselves to the movie's manic wavelength.
Credit: XYZ Films

TEXAS, USA — Cults, heists, long-lost treasure, young love, found families… you’ve got to appreciate the genre buffet that is writer-director Dutch Southern’s “Only the Good Survive,” if only because of his willingness to throw anything and everything at the audience. 

Unfolding like “Raising Arizona” on Red Bull, it’s key to the movie’s mystery and manic energy that its events mostly play out in flashbacks narrated by Sidney Flanigan’s Brea, the lone survivor of a robbery gone wrong. A Buffalo native, Flanigan broke out with the quiet indie drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in 2020, but those who recall seeing her in that can expect to be caught off guard by where her character goes here, and by the off-kilter, Texas-set world Southern has created for her to occupy. 

KENS 5 spoke with Flanigan and Southern ahead of the SXSW premiere of “Only the Good Survive” about keeping audiences guessing, the importance of camaraderie on sets of low-budget movies and the tonal games the movie plays. 

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

KENS 5: It's one thing to read the logline of this movie – heist gone wrong, sole survivor explains her side of things – but it's another thing entirely to watch it in action with how fast the movie is, how playful it is aesthetically. Dutch, this being your directorial debut, how motivated were you to keep audiences guessing?

Dutch Southern: Yeah, that's very important. I always think about the kitchen sink aesthetic—the idea of throwing everything in but the kitchen sink. I remember reading a review that Truffaut had written about a Robert Aldrich movie when I was a kid and it always stuck with me because the way that he had perceived that movie was as if Robert Aldrich would never get to make another one. It was "Kiss Me Deadly." Literally in every single frame he threw every single thing in there, because there may not be a second shot. That's how I always look at if you're going to be a filmmaker: It may be your only chance, so don't save anything for the second film. Just throw it all in there in the first one.

It makes the most sense to follow that up by asking, then, how satisfied would you be if this was the only film you would direct?

Southern: Not very. But I know Sidney and I and the rest of the team, we left nothing on the field. So if it ends up being the last thing, I am very proud of it.

Sidney, for most people who watch this at SXSW, this will be the first time they've seen you onscreen since "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," which is just about on the complete opposite side of the tonal spectrum as this. What appealed to you about doing "Only the Good Survive"?

Sidney Flanigan: There's a few things. "Never Rarely" was really heavy and there was a lot of responsibility, I felt like, on my shoulders for something that important. It was nice to do something that felt a little more light on my soul, you know? But I read the script, and it was just a total page-turner. 

I met with Dutch and we just really vibed, had a lot of common interests. I actually had another project I had booked that conflicted and I had to make a choice. And I was just like, "I just have a really good feeling about 'Only the Good Survive.'" So yeah, I picked you guys.

Southern: David, there's your follow-up, did she make the right choice.

It's only fair. Sidney, how are you feeling now that you went through with it? 

Flanigan: Oh, I'm so happy. I don't regret anything. No regrets at all. (laughs) 

Credit: XYZ Films
Sidney Flanigan stars in the hybrid mystery/crime/romance movie "Only the Good Survive." It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Fest this year.

To me a movie like "Only the Good Survive" lives or dies by the whole cast being on a specific wavelength as we're watching this exaggerated story being told. What kind of environment do you work to create on the set to achieve that harmony?

Southern: You can only be in it so much and know, because if not then you're playing towards something. There's a scene where we're going across this empty highway again and again and again, and each person gets their own shot and they have to say their line. It came to Will (Ropp) and he was saying this line about midgets or babies, and I said, "Can you turn towards the camera when you say baby?" There was a light that went off and he goes, "This is a parody isn't it?" And I go, "But you can't play it like that." 

That's sort of how this works; everyone's in it to a certain extent, but also you can't be hamming it up either or it just falls flat. I feel like that's part of what will be interesting for audiences is some people are going to go in and, even at the end of the movie, they're going to take it very seriously.

What kind of freedom does doing an indie movie with limited resources like this allow you? 

Southern: Having a movie that's so low-budget, you are more free to play. Now, you don't have as many resources to play with, and that sucks. You don't have as much time, and that sucks. But you're not held accountable in the same way. So there are no arbitrary rules. There is no one in charge except me, which means that there's no one in charge. Everyone's free to do what they want and be honest. That's the type of environment that I like. 

The problem is the cost of that freedom. You don't have trailers, you don't have good food, you don't have good equipment, you don't have enough time. But anyone's able to do anything. If we had the time, the sky's the limit.

Sidney, how did your preparation differ for this compared to something like "Never Rarely"?

Flanigan: With "Never Rarely," we didn't have any sort of rehearsal period, it was just kind of like jump right in. But for me, it's always important to connect with my castmates, build some kind of intimacy with them. I remember the first night we were in Texas, I created a group chat and I hit them all up, and I was like, "Do you guys want to go to the Denny's across the street?" We all met up and had dinner and then we went back to our hotel and continued hanging out. I got randomly open and vulnerable with them about something I was going through personally. 

I've never worked on a project where I walked away loving the people so much. I still love those guys to death. That's important to my process personally, is having a personal connection to the other actors.

We talked a little bit about the tonal tightrope that "Only the Good Survive" has to walk, but that's especially true as we get to the end when you have to find that balance of affection and catharsis with violence and comeuppance. How do you make sure to get that balance right, and where in the process does that happen?

Southern: There was a moment where we were going to compartmentalize what was real and what wasn't real, and there was storyboards and all this type of stuff. As we got closer to shooting and you have to start killing your babies, you start to realize that we're not going to be able to be that distinctive. There's some things that we did with costume changes, where you can see that some of the people are wearing different things... but for the most part what we did is I just leaned in heavy with everything's not real. Everyone's being gaslit. The way that it's shot, it's almost like you're watching a theater piece. That gives a little bit of artificiality to the whole thing. Having said that, the performances have to be real to pull that off, which is what this cast did. 

There's still that touch at the end where it's as close as the audience gets to the truth, but there's still a sense of artifice. You're still in a wobbly place as you're leaving. 

Southern: What I like is happy endings that are almost like a twist. There's a moment in the movie where you didn't see that there possibly could be a happy ending. So when you get the happy ending, you're like, "Oh, wow." But then when you're driving home, it lingers. And you go, "Wait, was that really a happy ending?" That's sort of like where this lands. 

I hate the term tongue-in-cheek, because I feel like you're pulling a fast one on the audience. That's not what we're doing at all, because the performances are 100% heartfelt. They're grounded and they're real. It's the environment that's artificial, that's the tongue-in-cheek part. That gets tricky, and when you have no money it gets really tricky. You gotta be really careful how you do that or you're gonna end up with a Troma movie. I love Troma films, but you gotta be really careful.

Credit: XYZ Films
D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (left) and Sidney Flanigan in the SXSW 2023 selection "Only the Good Survive," shot and set in rural Texas.

Texas has a certain relationship with genre films. What were you looking to add to that conversation by both setting and filming it here?

Southern: It's not just genre, I think Texas has a lot of great Texas films. You've got "Paris, Texas," which I always love because it to me personifies what I love about filmmaking. It's completely made by non-Texans. They all come to Texas, they never been before, and they make the most Texas movie ever made, which is incredible. Then you have movies like "Hud" and "The Last Picture Show," all these Larry McMurtry adaptations. And then you have "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," which to me is the truest form of showing what Texas really is—when a bunch of hippies show up, what will actually happen to them? 

For me being a part of that... I didn't think of it in those terms. That's a good question. It's something I'm glad you brought up, because I might get asked that again and I'll try to come up with a better answer. But yeah, there's a lot of pride that I have from being from Texas. I guess the best way that I would put it is, to me Austin was always this little progressive Mecca in the middle of the boot-scootin' south. It was a place that not only spawned Willie Nelson, but the Butthole Surfers, so it's a little bit country and a whole lot of punk. I feel like our film is that: It's a little bit country and a whole lot of punk. For me, that's Texas. I feel like we are as Texas a film as you can get.

Sidney, we get a taste of your band Starjuice in the closing credits with the song "Final Warning." When did y'all come up with the idea of showcasing the band here?

Flanigan: We were on set one night, I think we were in like that big field at night and you had suggested the idea to me and I was like uhh... yeah. (laughs)

Southern: I had seen Sidney cover "Where Eagles Dare" by Misfits, which was incredible. 

Flanigan: Yeah! 

Southern: And Sidney's about as punk rock as you get, and authentic and DIY. So I did ask. Now, I'm an idiot, and she doesn't listen to idiots so this is a good thing, but she asked for suggestions and what I gave were like Laura Branigan's "Gloria," like horrible sh*t. She did her own thing, 100%. I was blown away. The song's so nice we used it twice; at the very end we play it and then we again in the credits. 

Flanigan: It was a fun process getting to write. A lot of time I'm writing stuff about my own personal life, so it was fun to play with a theme and write about something entirely part of a project. 

Did that free you up musically? How did you find your way through it compared to what you've written previously? 

Flanigan: I was just playing around with lyrics for a while. And there's a lot of experimenting; we went through a lineup change as a band as well. We had a new guitarist who showed up like weeks before we went into the studio for this, and he honestly brought the song to life. It was very lyric-focused…

(Siri chimes in: OK, I found this on the web for "It was very lyric-focused. Check it out.")

Flanigan: Was that Siri? (laughs)

I guess we got Siri interested. 

(Siri: I didn't get that.)

Southern: Sorry about that. (laughs) It's funny because Sidney was literally helping me fix the other sh*t on my laptop. Somehow I forgot about Siri. 

She just wanted to chime in as well. 



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