‘Gus Plus Us’ Offers a Glimpse of Texas Filmmaking’s Conservative Future

Nick Caster, Noah Green, and Christina Caster on the set of Gus Plus Us, at Caster Studios, in Dripping Springs, on March 18, 2024.
Nick Caster, Noah Green, and Christina Caster on the set of Gus Plus Us, at Caster Studios, in Dripping Springs, on March 18, 2024.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson
Film & TV

‘Gus Plus Us’ Offers a Glimpse of Texas Filmmaking’s Conservative Future

The blue puppet on a wholesome kids’ show seems quite at home in a red state. Welcome to the anti-Hollywood. 

When you’re a puppet, the simplest act can get complicated quickly. For Gus, the titular star of the children’s show Gus Plus Us, looking at a road map requires his creator, Nick Caster, who controls Gus’s left arm and mouth, to coordinate with another puppeteer who’s working Gus’s right hand. As the two men iron out their choreography, lying shoulder to shoulder atop a wheeled cart parked below the camera frame, the director notes another problem: the map bears the unmistakable curve of the Texas shoreline, a detail that would seem to place Gus—an imaginary blue-tufted creature of an unspecified forest—squarely in our neck of the woods.

As the crew debates the potential ramifications of this reveal, I turn to Christina Caster, Nick’s wife—she also plays Gus’s human pal, Lucy—who’s standing by the side of the stage. I ask her whether it’s canon that Gus lives in Texas. Christina stares at me for a moment, seeming not to understand. “Gus,” she says, “lives in Puppet Land.”

In the end, the map is folded around a nondescript chunk of topography, leaving the exact location of Puppet Land to the viewer’s imagination. But behind the scenes, Gus Plus Us is indisputably Texan. The show, whose second season just premiered, shoots inside Caster Studios in the Austin exurb of Dripping Springs. Its crew is composed of pros who commute from the city and interns recruited through the local high school. One of those former interns, Noah Green, recently graduated to puppeteering duties for Karrot, Gus’s orange sidekick. Green’s cousin, Taylor Parsley, writes all the show’s songs. 

Karrot, the puppet.
Karrot, the puppet. Photograph by Jeff Wilson
The wardrobe for Lucy, one of the show’s main characters.
The wardrobe for Lucy, one of the show’s main characters. Photograph by Jeff Wilson

The Casters first met Parsley at a cafe owned by Green’s mom, Mazama Coffee, the nerve center of the town’s historic main drag, Mercer Street. That’s also where they posted a flyer this past summer seeking child extras; some 160 kids applied. Gus Plus Us is a slick operation, efficiently produced on a state-of-the-art sound stage, using puppets designed by a woman who trained with the Jim Henson Company. But those local connections, along with the sets and props fashioned out of cardboard and foam, give Gus the winsomely homemade spirit of community theater.  

Outside of Dripping Springs, however, the show belongs to a more exclusive community. Gus Plus Us is one of the flagship series on Bentkey, the new streaming service launched last year by the Daily Wire, home of the right-wing pundit and provocateur Ben Shapiro. Its cofounder, Jeremy Boreing—a Slaton, Texas, native—has positioned Bentkey as a challenger to Disney, a company Boreing decried as indoctrinating children “into the LGBTQIA cult.” For just $99 a year, Boreing promised, Bentkey subscribers can access a library of kids’ entertainment, which would provide a refuge from what he described as Disney’s propagation of “queerness,” “antiracism,” or any of the other agendas of “the woke left.”

It’s a contentious stance for the home of a show this warm and cuddly. Yet Gus Plus Us, like the other series currently available on Bentkey, doesn’t dabble in politics. It’s about “creativity and adventure and bringing joy to families,” Nick says—values on which, Boreing has posited, “politics are built later.” On the day I visit the set, I watch Nick and his crew film a half dozen intros to episodes in which Gus and Karrot explore the ocean, escape into fairy tales, and form a band. The show’s tone is whimsical and funny; its puppets are goofy and adorable. Its moral lessons are wholesomely anodyne: the importance of friendship, politeness, good hygiene. It’s hard to find anything here that anyone, of any ideology, might find objectionable. 

Still, that Gus Plus Us is available only to those who subscribe to Bentkey places Gus not just in Puppet Land or in Texas but at the very heart of today’s culture wars. And Nick and Christina embrace their association with Bentkey unreservedly; after all, the Casters hail from one of the most prominent right-wing families in America. While the show is far from political, Gus Plus Us is nevertheless part of a recent groundswell of entertainment being produced in the state by, and largely for, conservatives. And this movement may be the future of Texas film. 

Gus, the puppet.Gus, the puppet.
Gus, the puppet.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

The Casters grew up in El Cajon, California, a valley suburb just east of San Diego. Both of them always had show business aspirations. Nick, who is 42, wanted to be a composer. Christina, who is 40, dreamed of being on Broadway. Although they ran in overlapping circles—Christina acted in plays with Nick’s brother, Justin—they didn’t formally meet until after high school, when their moms played matchmaker by urging them to play in the same worship band. Nick and Christina soon formed a duo, touring various churches, then wed, in 2006, around the same time that Christina joined a children’s music group, the Jumpitz. For the first three years of their marriage, Christina was busy making Jumpitz DVDs and touring military bases, where she performed for families of service members. That was when Nick decided to pursue making movies. 

Nick had fallen in love with filmmaking as a kid, shooting movies around the house with his parents’ camcorder. He didn’t go to film school or even to college. A lot of his friends who did, he says, didn’t end up making movies anyway. So Nick and Justin decided to go into business for themselves, launching the first incarnation of Caster Studios (then called CastFam) in 2007, setting up an office inside their parents’ garage. “My desk was next to the washer and dryer,” Nick says. 

They caught some early breaks. In 2010 two childhood friends who did go to film school—Jason Russell, the future documentarian behind Kony 2012, and Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians—brought the Caster brothers in to work on Chu’s Hulu reality series, The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. In 2014 Nick and Justin’s cousin Jacob Underwood, who is a member of the boy band O-Town, hired Nick to shoot the group’s comeback video. Before long, Nick was getting offers to produce videos for artists including the Chicks, George Strait, and Carrie Underwood. But all the while Nick longed to do something original that would combine his and Christina’s talents. 

He’d always done voices around the house, Christina says. There was one voice in particular he would pull out whenever he was teasing someone—a rasp somewhere between the Muppets’ Gonzo and the Borscht Belt comic Buddy Hackett, punctuated by a sharp, honking giggle. (“It was how he could get away with” all that teasing, she tells me.) In 2007, when Nick’s mom asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he told her he’d found a guy on the internet who designed custom puppets. He thought one of them might match this voice he’d been honing.

As I watch him work, Nick keeps up Gus’s voice even between takes, cracking jokes to entertain the predominantly burly and bearded crew. The mood is lighthearted and chummy. I’ve witnessed my fair share of productions—I’ve written about TV and movies for years, and my Austin house was once used as a set—but rarely have I seen one so resolutely joyful. All day, I don’t hear a word harsher than “darn.” Christina (whose middle name is literally Joy) says the objective for Caster Studios was to “make it feel like a family, and everyone’s valued”—to build a studio that felt like a home. 

It’s a vision they’ve realized to an almost ludicrous degree. While Nick and Christina perform, Justin, the series’s director, watches from behind the monitors, giving final approval on every take. Christina’s sister, Diana, records vocal harmonies on the show’s songs; last season her brother, Robbie, worked as Gus’s right arm. Nick and Christina’s children, twelve-year-old Blue and eight-year-old Cruz, make frequent guest appearances. Blue has even pitched in on a couple of scripts. “We’re not, like, you have to be family to work here,” Christina says. “It just keeps happening.”

Family is everything to the Casters, which makes sense: Many of their dozens of relatives work for the family business, the Caster Group, a commercial development firm that builds and manages 48 A-1 Self Storage locations across California. In 1993 Nick’s dad, Craig Caster, became the founding pastor of Family Discipleship Ministries, which provides “biblically based” counseling to struggling couples. Craig is the one who encouraged Nick and Justin to go into business for themselves. He’s also the one who bought the lot for Caster Studios and funded its construction. “He invested everything,” Nick says. “Where we’re at now is from him.”

Christina Caster in the sound booth at Caster Studios, on March 18, 2024.Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Craig also gave Nick his work ethic. Nick’s first job, at age sixteen, was cleaning the gutters at his family’s various properties, an experience that shaped his belief in the importance of craftsmanship and integrity, two qualities he found lacking on Hollywood sets. “The industry I worked in, it was a lot of no integrity: ‘They’ll have it when they get it’ and all that stuff,” Nick says. “Our whole goal was to change that.” 

The Casters moved to Texas in 2016, seeking a fresh start, lured by Dripping Springs’s bucolic expanses and, at the time, small-town feel. Nick had spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, riding dirt bikes through mountain trails with his cousins. Once he and Christina had kids, they decided they wanted that same open-air freedom for them. Nick had fond childhood memories of visiting his aunt and uncle in the northern Austin suburb of Cedar Park and taking trips out to Lake Travis. His sister had recently moved from L.A. to another Austin suburb, which inspired him to check out the area. The first day he drove through Dripping Springs, he felt like he was home.

Although it’s not why they moved here, Nick says that Texas’s conservative orientation was a plus. They had faced some backlash for their beliefs in California: In 2008, the Caster family—including Nick, Justin, and Christina—donated nearly $700,000 in support of Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The activist group Californians Against Hate organized widespread protests of A-1 Self Storage. “It was sad,” Nick says, “that they tried to boycott the free right to vote what you believe in.” 

Today Nick and Christina are careful not to share their political views on social media. Nevertheless, those views are an inextricable part of who they are. At Family Discipleship Ministries, Craig preaches that LGBTQ people are byproducts of “the lies of Satan.” When pressed about Boreing’s disparagement of Disney, Nick—who recently took his kids to Disney World—is slightly more cagey. “Me and my wife believe in protecting the minds of a child,” Nick says. “And some things, I believe—like the wokeness agenda, or whatever you want to call it—they might be too young to handle that right now.” 

But he also doesn’t spurn those who are more open with their disdain. Last year Nick befriended the conservative comedian JP Sears, another Dripping Springs transplant, lending Sears the use of Caster Studios to film his popular YouTube videos in which he mocks transgender people, among myriad other liberal villains. More recently, the Casters have begun developing a live-action sitcom that Sears may write for or even star in. “His beliefs are very contradicting to other people’s beliefs, for sure,” Nick shrugs. 

Nick says they would never refuse to work with someone based on their politics, drawing attention to the fact that the Queer Eye cast has shot at Caster Studios (“and we treated them no different than we would JP shooting in our studio”). Still, he acknowledges the likelihood that not everyone will appreciate the company they keep. And while those dissenters probably won’t stage a protest, he also accepts that they’re unlikely to give $99 to someone like Ben Shapiro to check out Gus Plus Us—even though “they’d love it.” 

“It doesn’t bother me,” Nick says. “I’m a man of faith, so I live by the word of God. I’m not trying to force it on anybody. That’s just how we are. All we can do is love on people and have integrity and keep going.” 

Besides, Nick says, there are clearly lots of people who do agree with them. As Nick points out, JP Sears has more than three million YouTube followers. Although Bentkey has not yet released its numbers, in late 2022 the Daily Wire announced that its streaming platform, DailyWire+, had surpassed one million paid subscribers. 

The main set of Gus Plus Us.The main set of Gus Plus Us.
The main set of Gus Plus Us. Photograph by Jeff Wilson

After shooting winds down for the day, I meet the Casters at their ranch house, which sits on a two-acre spread not five minutes away from the studio. When Christina’s not on set, she’s usually here with Blue and Cruz, whom she homeschools. Lately the family has been getting into homesteading: Every morning they eat eggs laid by the thirteen chickens in their barn, which from our vantage on the back porch is enveloped by a fiery orange-and-pink sunset that Terrence Malick could build a whole movie around. One of the family’s three goats squats and relieves itself at our feet; another contentedly chews the shoelaces of the Bentkey publicist who’s been shadowing us all day.

When Nick told locals in 2017 about his plans to build a studio in Dripping Springs, nobody thought it was a good idea. Twenty-five miles from downtown Austin was too far away, they’d said. There was nothing here. But now the formerly sleepy stretch of U.S. 290 that cuts through the city center is home to microbreweries, wine tasting rooms, and Austin-based chains, transforming the character of a town whose population has doubled over the past five years.

Like the Casters, some of Dripping Springs’s new arrivals are showbiz types. In 2018 Supernatural star Jensen Ackles opened his Family Business Beer Company along a stretch of Hamilton Pool Road. The actor James Van Der Beek settled into a twelve-acre compound in nearby Spicewood, in 2020. Nick says he occasionally grabs breakfast with two other residents of the city: Jeremy Latcham, a former vice president of Marvel Studios, and Mark Bristol, the storyboard artist behind the past few Mission: Impossible movies. As of 2023 Caster Studios isn’t even the only game in town: less than ten minutes east lies the staggeringly well-equipped virtual production facility Stray Vista Studios

“The Drip,” Nick says, has changed a lot since they moved in. When I point out that yeah, it’s changed because of people like him, he nods. “Yup,” Nick says. “I keep apologizing.”

This influx of showbiz types tends to provoke a knee-jerk reaction from Texans who worry about them bringing their godless “California values” into the state. But many of them, like the Casters, may not be the Californians you’d expect. Arguably the most successful independent production in Texas—one of the most successful independent productions anywhere—is The Chosen, a drama shot outside of Dallas about the life of Jesus. Its creator, Dallas Jenkins, left Hollywood behind to make explicitly faith-based work. Seven years ago, Shazam! star Zachary Levi, an acquaintance of the Casters, moved from L.A. to a former cattle farm near Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin, to launch Wyldwood Studios. Speaking at a faith-based panel at this year’s South by Southwest festival, the devoutly Christian Levi said he came to Texas “to build the dream that I felt like God gave me”—a dream that was “going to change Hollywood,” which “has very specific darknesses about it.” 

Bentkey’s Boreing, Levi’s old Bible study buddy and former producing partner, appears to be at the epicenter of this movement. In addition to Caster Studios, Boreing and the Daily Wire have partnered with Bonfire Legend, a studio founded in Dallas by city native Dallas Sonnier, which specializes in movies and TV shows steeped in unapologetically right-wing ideology. (It has since relocated to Daily Wire’s headquarters in Nashville.) The most recent of these, Lady Ballers, is a comedy satirizing transgender women athletes cowritten, directed by, and starring Boreing. It features a cameo from Republican senator Ted Cruz

“We didn’t move here because it was a red state, to make red content,” Nick says. “We just want to tell good stories.” Nevertheless, that Texas affords producers such as the Casters, Levi, and Sonnier the room—and plenty of financial incentives—to tell their stories from a place that tends to vote the way they do continues to be attractive. Much as Hollywood itself was built by Jewish Americans who found themselves shut out most everywhere else, Texas increasingly seems poised to become a refuge for showbiz conservatives. Gus Plus Us’s Puppet Land stands as one of the earliest outposts of this new frontier, where filmmakers like the Casters come seeking a place they can finally feel like they belong.  

“My aunt has been telling me since the eighties that this is our home,” Nick says. “She says it just took us a long time to get here.” And now that they have, they intend to make it their own.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Blue Puppet, Red State.” Subscribe today.