Our story opens with a momentous announcement, a glorious ending that is also a beginning. It has its roots in Spring, Texas, and a gang of boys who spun out their dreams on mini digital videotapes while they forged lifelong bonds with one other.
In the center of that adventurous and indelible world was Thomas “Tex” Gresham, now in his third year as a master of fine arts candidate and teaching assistant in the writing for dramatic media program in UNLV's film department.
The exciting news is that Tex Gresham’s work has been recognized with a top screenwriting prize. Humanitas, a nonprofit organization that honors and screenwriters whose creative output promotes human dignity and freedom, has named Gresham the 2020-2021 winner of its $20,000 David and Lynn Angell Comedy Fellowship for Fix Daddy, a quirky feature-length script that takes its readers on a road trip with a determined man and the only father he has ever known.
The absurd and vital humanism that distinguishes Gresham's body of work as a novelist and screenwriter has its roots in his rough-and-tumble Texas childhood.
Gresham grew up in southeast Texas just north of Houston in a mid-sized town that straddled the divide between suburban and rural.
“There was a cow pasture right across the street from my house,” Gresham said.
It was fertile ground for Gresham and his friends, an energetic group of boys who reached their teens in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Gresham had VHS and mini-DV camcorders, and no shortage of ideas for their next masterpiece. Their epics included a remake of the entire finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and a 25-minute Reservoir Dogs parody called “Reservoir Dolls,” in which a demented Mr. Blonde, the antagonist of the Quentin Tarantino film, tortures a Tickle Me Elmo toy.
“We didn’t get any parental interference on anything," Gresham said. "We were what you might call ‘a little bit wild.’ A part of me thinks that that was important. In my adult life, I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve pursued my dreams. What we did together cultivated my confidence. It gave me strength to follow the next idea, wherever it might lead.”
Dreams of writing
What Gresham most wanted to do was script a film that would get produced, but the path to success was not clear. After high school, he wrote movies and music and had the notion that he would sell a screenplay and leap to acclaim. Writers and directors who had succeeded young provided exhilarating examples: Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater.
But as time passed, it seemed that youthful success would not be his. Self-doubt crept in.
Gresham stepped away from his ambitions and got a succession of jobs involving manual labor: plumbing supply, an air conditioning warehouse. He didn’t write for two years.
But then one night he found the script for a horror movie he’d penned and sat down and read it. He thought, “This isn’t too bad, but it feels like a book, not a script.” With that, he started work on a novel. He cranked out 12,000 words that night.
He attended Texas State University. At TSU, he took a graduate-level creative writing class and his professor, Deborah Monroe, encouraged him to continue his education, telling him that his writing was good enough that he “could and should” apply to an MFA program.
Gresham was accepted into San Diego State University's MFA program in creative writing. During his time at SDSU, his focus turned to prose.
His first novel, Heck, Texas, was published in 2020. It paints a vivid, darkly humorous portrait of a divided town and its inhabitants. Werner Herzog has called it an “unruly book” whose anger ingeniously expresses “the mood of our times.”
He then turned to a multi-character film script called Austin, Texas. When classmates and friends responded positively, he submitted it to the Nicholl Fellowships, a major international screenwriting competition. It got into the top 20 percent and earned Gresham a spot in CineStory, a screenwriting retreat. He started splitting his time between prose and screenwriting.
It was the impetus for Gresham to pursue a second MFA — this time focused on screenwriting. Enter UNLV.
“I searched for programs that would allow me to immerse myself in screenwriting," he said. "I love the idea that this program pushes its students to produce as many completed scripts as possible.”
“I learn more in five minutes with Sean than in any other screenwriting class I’ve ever taken," Gresham said. "He trusts ideas and our ability to run with them. He’s very into ‘you do your thing and I’m going to help you.’ And Charles — he absolutely cracked open television for me. I did not understand it. After one or two lectures, I had grasped the ‘equation of TV’ and was able to craft an effective pilot.”
Fix Daddy’s initial narrative was loosely inspired by My Life, a film in which Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman play a couple expecting their first child. They learn that he has terminal cancer and that the only way he’ll be able to communicate with their unborn child is by recording video messages. The film’s concluding scene of the son watching a tape from his dad made a strong impression on Gresham.
What if the only way a child knows their parent is through pre-recorded tapes? It’s a premise that leads to absurdity, and Gresham uses that irony to confront our reliance upon technology for maintaining everyday relationships and even our sense of self.
David, the hero of Gresham’s tale, is looking for love and connection inside a lonely existence. How does technology both comfort and limit him? Gresham pushes his character to step from a cocoon of safety into the “real” world, a painful yet ultimately rewarding journey.
“With technology as our buffer, we risk nothing,” Gresham said. “In face-to-face communications, we are at risk. We are vulnerable. What we say — and what we hear from others — holds weight.”