From Geoscientist to Filmmaker: How Allen Gilmer ’84 is 'rock'ing the cinema scene

Allen Gilmer '84
Allen Gilmer '84

Whether in his role as a geophysicist or as a filmmaker, Allen Gilmer ’84 is a staunch believer in helping others fulfill their potential. “There’s so much capability, and there's so much greatness in everybody. Once you've achieved a certain amount of success in life, then you're looking at what you can do to move the needle a bit and unlock greatness for people that don't know how to unlock it.”

With that in mind, Gilmer and his wife, Veronica "Riki" Rushing, founded the production company Thunderbird Pictures. “[Thunderbird Pictures] is really just a group of people working every day to share stories that we think are important to tell and helping move careers forward,” Gilmer said. “We like to take people that have been in the business a long time and give them an opportunity to direct or to take on a role that's different from what they're known for."

Gilmer, who grew up in El Paso, attributes his own interest in filmmaking to great stories, inspiring actors and a favorite class at Rice on the Western film genre taught by Brian Huberman. “Huberman is a great professor, and he is great at challenging students to look at things in ways that are not completely linear and how to look for subtext.” Before filmmaking, Gilmer's first passion was geology. He studied Earth science at Rice and earned a master’s degree in geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. After graduation, he worked as a geophysicist at Marathon Oil Company and went on to co-found several companies in the oil and gas sector.

Gilmer’s training as a geophysicist has a direct influence on his approach as a filmmaker. “Bringing the scientific method to anything is very helpful,” he said. “It certainly allows you to look at patterns. When you're dealing with Earth science, you’re trying to figure out what the hidden rules of nature are. With film, you're really looking at what are the hidden rules of human behavior. It's fascinating.”

Gilmer first got involved in the film industry in 2015 when he helped finance the documentary, “Nothing Stays The Same: The Story of The Saxon Pub,” which won the 2019 South by Southwest Audience Favorite Award. “I ran into a friend who was helping produce a documentary film about the Saxon Pub in Austin, and he asked me if I would be interested in joining him, and I said that I would,” Gilmer said. “It was not anything that you could make money with, but it was fun supporting these filmmakers.”

After the success of the Saxon Pub documentary, Gilmer and Rushing began actively seeking film projects. They helped director and producer Tara Wood finish “QT8,” a documentary on Quentin Tarantino’s first eight films. “It was released at the Cannes Film Festival, and it did well,” Gilmer said. “That was the year Quentin Tarantino rolled out ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ and he told our friend Tara, ‘The whole world is waiting to see my film, and the only film I'm waiting to see is yours.’ He was a fan of it.”

More recently, the husband-and-wife team helped produce “Alina of Cuba,” a movie that gained global acclaim after the casting of James Franco. “All of a sudden our little film became worldwide news,” Gilmer said. “James Franco did an incredible job. Castro’s daughter, Alina Fernández, said it was like watching a ghost.”

The pair produced the film with fellow Rice alumni Jay Lamy ’95, Joe Lamy ’98 and Marielle Lamy Quaid ’07. “I really appreciate Rice connections — the Lamys are just really wonderful folks,” Gilmer said. “I met Jay from our mutual involvement in the Austin Rice Alliance, who introduced me to Joe and Marielle. They have been working on that film for 15 years. They ran into every kind of roadblock, and we were just glad we could step in and help get the film made.”

Directed by Goya Award-winner Miguel Bardem, “Alina of Cuba” was shot in Colombia last summer and entered into major film festivals. “It was just an incredible crew of people,” Gilmer said. “We were conflicted as to whether to make the movie in Spanish or in English, but all our cast insisted that we do it in English. So much of our cast was South American, Mexican or Cuban, and they really wanted to make sure it was accessible to a North American audience. I do think that the film is wonderful, and I’m excited for people to see it.”

Gilmer's capacity for both action and reflection might be his greatest strength, and he's certainly someone to watch for exciting new ventures. When asked about his own success, he points directly to life experience — to getting out there trying to make things happen. “Eventually all those lessons, all the experiences that you have, culminate in things that come about, that you don't anticipate later in life,” he said. “Doing something is the ultimate driver of succeeding. I don't think I've done anything right the first time. But I try not to do things the same way wrong, ever again.”