Josh Jordan spent four years making his first film, the new Dallas-based movie, This World Won’t Break. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports those years were full of typical, first-time, movie-making hassles and hard work.
And then came the near-murder.
In This World Won’t Break, North Texas singer-songwriter Greg Schroeder plays Wes Milligan, an aging musician who’s just getting by washing dishes and playing Dallas bars. He even has to find somewhere to stay – but won’t go back to his parents’ home.
Lonnie Millegan, Wes’s father: “So what’s good and what’s new in the world, son?”
Wes: “Hey, pop. I think I’m gonna need a set of those trailer keys. I feel stuck. If I come back and stay at the house, I’d feel like I’m gonna be moving backwards. And I can’t feel that right now, I just can’t do it.”
Josh Jordan felt stuck, too. Jordan had been directing commercials and videos in North Texas – but wanted to break into filmmaking as a screenwriter-director. He’s friends with Schroeder, directed all of his music videos. Which was how Jordan knew Schroeder felt stuck as well.
“I knew people didn’t want to watch a movie about a screenwriter,” Jordan said. “But Greg was going through the same thing I was going through, like, ‘I’m forty years old. And I’m still in Dallas, Texas, and I still haven’t made it yet.’ And I just went, ‘Ohmigosh, I can tell the story through you, through your music.’ And it just worked.”
This World Won’t Break may draw on Jordan’s and Schroeder’s own lives, but unlike Wes Milligan, Greg Schroeder has released three albums. It’s just that his mix of country, folk and blues doesn’t suit most commercial radio formats.
“I don’t really fit into a particular genre, I don’t think,” said Schroeder. “I just call it songwriter music. For the past 10-15 years, I just dove into old country blues and that style of music peeks its head into what I do.”
So instead of a Hollywood film about a young artist who magically makes it big, Jordan’s film is about the older artists who struggle on with doubts about money and their career choices — even as the Internet has gutted the recording industry. The Music Industry Research Association says the annual median income for an American musician is a little more than $21,000.
“Being a traveling musician for as long as I have,” said Greg, “and playing basically bars and not really concert halls — it’s a constant hustle, I guess you’d have to put it like that.”
Money is typically the biggest hurdle for independent filmmakers as well. Jordan and his wife, Jessica, the film’s co-producer, set up three crowdfunding campaigns for This World Won’t Break. Two of them failed. Then investors pulled out days before shooting was to begin.
“Pre-production was a hurdle,” Jordan said. “Production was a hurdle. Post-production was a real hurdle. You know, the whole thing was a hurdle. Then we had to learn how to handle the festival circuit. It all was an education.”
The Jordans eventually stitched together $36,000 for their film budget. Thirty-second TV commercials are made for more than that. These days, even independent movie budgets can run into the millions. But This World Won’t Break looks far better than its $36,000 price tag suggests. It has a bluesy, low-key, neon-lit, well-worn, rambling, meditative, late-night bar atmosphere not often found in films set in Dallas. Locations include Deep Ellum, Exposition Park, downtown’s City Tavern, Sons of Hermann Hall — all of them carefully chosen so as not to highlight the gleaming, skyline signposts that are conventionally used to establish “Big D.”
This funkiness hold true practically down to the production’s molecular level. There are no cellphones visible, no Apple watches, no sleek new Porsches or Jags on the streets — only Wes’ battered, late -’70s era car (which everyone calls an El Camino. It’s actually a GMC Sprint Caballero. Wes can’t even own a worn-out El Camino; he’s got a knockoff). Characters use tape-recorder-style answering machines and boxy, beige, desktop computers.
The visuals make This World Won’t Break hard to locate in any particular decade. It feels both “dated” — and “timeless.”
Which was deliberate, said Jordan. In addition to writing and directing the film, he was its production designer and set decorator. “I’m a big fan of movies like Tender Mercies and Urban Cowboy. And I knew if I could just get through all this work, it’d be exactly as I wanted it. So it’s even, like, down to the ashtrays. There were certain ashtrays I wanted to use.”
Said Greg: “I was always told about songwriting, ‘You don’t want to date yourself too precisely — you become irrelevant.’ So I think that the film’s look is important. It says it’s the story that’s universal. The time period doesn’t matter.”
In all this, one reason the Jordans were able to keep costs low is that Jordan drew on favors from colleagues and friends – including cinematographer Chris Bourke, Tim DeLaughter of the band Polyphonic Spree and Matt Posey, the director of the Ochre House Theater in Dallas. Jordan acted at Ochre House for 10 years, and he wrote the role of Milligan’s father expressly for Posey.
“There are a few things an actor likes to do,” Posey declared. “Ride a horse, shoot a gun, have a death scene and have an eating scene. Those are the top bell-ringers for me. I would take a flat rate if I had one of those things to do, and Josh has great eating scenes.”
“And then,” Jordan said, “when one of your main actors gets shot in the face, things change a little bit.”
On January 30, 2017, around 10 p.m., Matt Posey left a Deep Ellum beer garden, headed for his truck.
“And a guy, couldn’t be more than 17 years old,” Posey recalled, “he opened my door, shot me in the leg, and he shot me right through the side of the face and blew out all of my teeth. And my tongue was in 15 pieces, they had to sew it together.”
Posey would eventually get ten implants to repair his mouth, teeth and sinus cavity. Dallas police never found his assailant.
Fortunately, Jordan’s production schedule allowed him to keep Posey’s scenes until the very end. Even so, when Posey acted those scenes more than a year later, he still had only six teeth.
In 2019, This World Won’t Break premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival (“to be honest,” Jordan said, “I never thought we’d even get in there”). Over the next year, it earned acclaim at more than a dozen festivals around the world: Nashville, Australia, London, Edinburgh. This past April, Jordan and Schroeder were set to screen it at South by Southwest — but then COVID shut everything down. Not just the festival, the entire film industry.
But for once, the bad break went their way.
“A month in,” Jordan said, “we were getting phone calls because people were running out. Amazon needed content, people needed content. And so we were able to really find the right deal that we wanted.”
This World Won’t Break is currently streaming on Amazon and other platforms. In October, the soundtrack comes out on vinyl. When COVID restrictions are lifted, Jordan plans to screen the movie while Schroeder’ll play music in a tour of historical Texas movie theaters.
And during last year’s tour of festivals, This World Won’t Break won 13 awards.
Four of them were for Matt Posey.