HBO limited series ‘God Save Texas’ highlights the state’s past to look to its future

The series follows three figures as they travel back to their hometowns – Houston, El Paso and Huntsville – and witness the issues facing the cities they grew up in.

By Laura Rice & Elisabeth JimenezFebruary 28, 2024 2:10 pm, ,

Texas is huge and diverse, and so while stereotypes – it’s a red state, full of cowboys and oil derricks – might represent some, they certainly don’t represent all.

That’s the main idea behind the new HBO three-part series “God Save Texas,” which is based on the book by Texas author Lawrence Wright and aired its first episode Tuesday. Wright served as executive producer of the TV series alongside Richard Linklater, who also directed its first episode.

Linklater and Alex Stapleton, who directed the second episode, spoke to the Standard on their connection to the series and what it represents about Texas. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Rick, I understand that you have had a long friendship with Lawrence Wright. What did you guys talk about as you kicked off this project?

Richard Linklater: Larry sort of snuck up on me with this. Larry’s such a great talker. He’s a great lunch companion, and I’ve really enjoyed his friendship all these years – well over 30 years now when I first met him in the early 90s.

We just got to talking and he was just picking my brain about Huntsville and his film, and pretty soon I just saw it as the opportunity to exorcise some of my Huntsville demons or biography or experiences. I think that’s what artists do. They want to process their lives and their feelings about things.

I had shot this footage 20 years ago when they almost executed a guy that I was following his case. I was sitting on this footage and I always felt compelled, and I think he sensed that. I still didn’t really know what I was doing at first, but we kind of settled into the movie, and I’m glad we did it.

Well, Alex, talk about exorcising — looking back at those things that haunt you from your hometowns. How did you got involved in this? 

Alex Stapleton: My first phone call was with Larry, and Larry told me all about what Rick was doing. Rick had already been shooting, or the idea was kind of there of what they were going to do.

I had already read the book “God Save Texas” and was a huge fan. I was living in LA at the time, and as Larry says, I was a Texan in exile for over 20 years. The book really resonated with me because I felt like Larry articulated my own weird feeling of this push-and-pull, love-and-hate relationship with Texas and my hometown.

Larry was terribly excited that I was from Houston because he really wanted to dig into an oil story. I think he got a very different story than he might’ve expected initially, but that’s how we got started.

Director Alex Stapleton in Episode 2 of “God Save Texas.”
Warner Bros. Discovery

You’ve long told other people’s stories through documentary and different types of film. Was it challenging, Alex,to turn the lens on yourself and your family? It’s a pretty personal story you tell.

Alex Stapleton: It was the hardest film that I’ve ever made for those reasons. I like talking about the films and the stories. I like talking about stories, but not on camera to make a story. So it was really uncomfortable at points.

But once again, I really credit Larry. I think he pulled the story out of all of us in a way. He helped to pull the personal out. It was challenging, but I think you can feel where it feels challenging and it kind of works because I was on a journey of coming back home.

I hope that people, through watching this story if you’re not from Texas, and perhaps me being uncomfortable with this, allows people to also kind of feel like that’s okay to feel that way.

Richard Linklater: And the audience shares your discomfort from the beginning — the non-Texans. Who can blame them?

Rick, you kind of alluded to this — you’re known so much for your narrative work. Did it feel different to work in documentary? It kind of occurred to me with that early footage that you had, that it’s a structure that you’ve played with in your narrative work at the same time. 

Richard Linklater: I share with Alex and Iliana [Sosa, who directed Episode 3]: We’re all distinctly behind-the-camera personalities, like most filmmakers, and so I never wanted to be front and center in anything.

And that footage I used a long time ago, I was just in a camera test. I wasn’t going to be front and center of that. I didn’t imagine that. I just had this footage and some extra shots that I happened to be in, but I never thought that would be the film. So it’s not my nature, but in this I thought it was required. I kind of stepped into that role.

But when you have Alex Gibney and Larry Wright telling you, “We really like that stuff about your mom, I think we should go farther.” They subtly pull it out of you. This looks like a personal film, but in a way so much of it is them pulling it out of me.

It felt like even though it was so personal, it felt more collaborative, maybe, than anything I’ve ever done. I wasn’t as fixed as I would be on another kind of film. And I think, you know, that was appropriate for this film.

So your childhood in Huntsville coincided with the Supreme Court ban on the death penalty. How much did you know about Huntsville’s prison system before you really dove deep into this project? 

Richard Linklater: Oh, I knew a lot about it. It’s been a subject I’ve just followed my whole life, kind of like a documentary filmmaker would. I cut out articles, I do research. I knew a lot more than I let on in the movie.

The Huntsville Unit prison as seen in Episode 1 of “God Save Texas.”
Warner Bros. Discovery

You mentioned that maybe you were a bit of a rarity — that people don’t talk about it that much, that they sort of ignore the walls that are so close. 

Richard Linklater: The film’s primarily about that. Within the city limits it’s just the local employer. There it is: It’s the state’s business. I always felt that disconnect, just being a high school kid riding around and these walls you’d ride by. It’s easy to compartmentalize and put out of your mind what’s going on there.

It’s more poignant now when they actually are executing people. It’s unfortunately very current. Texas at 6 p.m. is going to execute an innocent man. I will come out and say it.

We’re doing everything we can, but tragedy is unfolding right in front of us as we speak.

Alex, your episode also really confronts some tough realities primarily in Houston, but also nearby in Port Arthur. Not just environmental justice, but you also make this interesting point about what you say is an overdue reckoning over diversity in the workforce of the oil industry. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

Alex Stapleton: I think the oil and gas industry, the environmental impact and the havoc that it wreaks on people, is something that we need to be paying attention to.

In getting into the workforce component of it, I think that quite often we don’t necessarily push back industry or don’t ask a lot of questions. Or we tolerate the no zoning laws that allow these chemicals to be so close to our schools and our homes, our churches, everywhere.

I think it’s because there’s this idea that, “Oh, well, they provide jobs.” I wanted to make the point that let’s just look at these communities that are being the hardest hit. Is everyone working for fossil fuel companies? Is everyone a part of this? And the answer was no.

I definitely don’t believe if you give us jobs then everything is good. It was more about we’re not going to take that excuse anymore.

Director Iliana Sosa in Episode 3 of “God Save Texas.”
Warner Bros. Discovery

You spent so much of your adulthood outside of Texas. Are you back now? Did you move back to Texas?

Alex Stapleton: Yes.

Wow. I didn’t expect that in your journey. Was this part of the healing?

Alex Stapleton: Because of Larry. Because of Lawrence Wright.

Richard Linklater: You can leave Texas, but only for so long. It pulls you back.

Alex Stapleton: I came back in 2020 and I had a number of stories that I’ve been filming down here. It was like this weird moment. It was like the Texas gods wanted me to come back to the state.

Just a few weeks ago, I was thinking about moving back to LA and my family. [But] I just made a decision to stay put.

I had an excuse before because I left when I had just turned 18 and I couldn’t wait to get out of here. Now that I’m back, I feel like perhaps the work that I do can help be of service for some of these issues.

Texas is very diverse. It’s very complex. I hope to kind of be an agent that can translate to people in other places of the country. All the advocacy work that’s going on here in Houston about environmental racism. We need help, and we need the rest of the country to help us shine a light on this.

Rick, you’ve been a Texan for a long time. It also makes me think that you find some optimism. In one of your last interviews, you feature the story of this young high schooler. Does that give you sort of hope for the future of Huntsville, of your neck of Texas? 

Richard Linklater: You do look for good signs. You have to. You have to stay hopeful, or why would you continue? It’s an uphill battle.

I saw Antigua, and I just really related to him. He was ready to get out of Huntsville. He’s kind of an artist kid. He was just different. I liked him and his friends.

There’s something about that Texas spirit I see out there — that kind of wildcat, highly individualistic [spirit]. When that’s pointed in a productive direction, watch out. Texans can really change things for the better.

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