Saturday, October 22, 2016

Austin Film Festival, 2016

The Arts and Science Council of North Carolina gave me a "Regional Artist's Project Grant" to attend the 2016 Austin Film Festival (thanks, guv'ment), and I've decided a blog/journal would be the best way to fulfill my "official report" obligation. Said blog/journal is likely to be a super-long post of dubious entertainment value, so feel free to navigate away and return later for the next Trump-rant, or suchlike.









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October 12 - Day One:

Because I didn't have to pay for it, I broke with tradition and got a direct flight to Austin—a sparsely-populated flight with an entire row of seats to myself, because apparently the direct, mid-day flights of the fabulously wealthy are just like that. 

On the bus to downtown (woo-hoo! public transport!) I chatted it up with a lovely couple who were also arriving for the festival. 

Networking.

Yay. 

Really, though. That's not a sarcastic "yay," because in this case the networking is with other hobbit-hole, introverted, socially-hesitant weirdos like myself. Festival crowds are usually an introvert's nightmare, but these were my people. It was kinda like church, except without the endorsement of Orange Slugs for president. In fact, Orange-Slug-Mocking jokes were something of the order of the day. The Austin Film Festival caters to a decidedly non-rightwing crowd.

After checking into the Firehouse Hostel, I walked across the road to festival HQ at the Driskill hotel to register and pick up my swag-bag. 

The Driskill Hotel is the oldest hotel in Austin. A lovely place for meeting and talking and trying to convince people to skip the more-amazing things they could be doing on the upcoming Saturday, in lieu of my script-reading workshop.

Later that night, after any sane, moral person would have been fast asleep, I wandered back to the Driskill bar and talked too loudly for too long with a crazy assortment of other screenwriters. I met a filmmaker from Spain, a former copywriter from Colorado, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, and many many more. All my people. 

Raspy, tired throat... but worth it.


October 13 - Day One For Reals:

Breakfast at the hostel, then over to the Driskill to chat with a bunch more screenwriters in the lobby (talking too much about my past film projectswearing out my throat even more). Eventually I met up with another of this year's Nicholl finalists, Todd. We whined about the industry a bit, then attended the "Opening Remarks" talk given by the festival staff and a couple of panelists (writers you've never heard of, but whose movies you've undoubtedly seen).

Next was "An Indie Special: A Conversation with Jeff Nichols."

I've seen every one of Jeff Nichols' movies, and they're all fantastic. I want to be Jeff Nichols' adopted man-baby. I want to follow him around with a large palm-frond fan, just to help keep him comfortable. 

Jeff was personable, funny, and superbly cool... you know, like all writers. 

After that I wandered over to an old Episcopal church (old buildings are a theme in Austin) for a talk on taking meetings. The talk was generally good, but meandered away from actually talking about how to take meetings and into irrelevant-to-me stuff that had me ducking out early with Geeta. 

Geeta is a lovely Indian woman who (muttered curses) defeated me for the Nicholl this year, but was gracious and humble about it, and considerate enough to blush a little when I told everybody we met that she was a Nicholl winner and an AFF finalist and that they should all bask in her glory.

Geeta and I met up with Todd and went to the Austin Film Commission Opening Night Reception, where I waited in a forever-line to pick up a tiny slice of pizza, because apparently the Austin Film Festival is catered to people who need copious quantities of alcohol, and very little food. 

The line was all right, though, because it forced me to chat with the other line-waiting-writers.

Oh, and there was a deluxe Lincoln towncar there, with butt-massaging seats. I ditched my newfound friends for about ten minutes of butt-massage, as the probably-Swedish, blonde Lincoln employee described all the features of the deliciously-comfortable-car-I-will-never-own.

Then we went back to the downtown area to wait in a forty-minute line to see Nichols' film LOVING, only to discover (after we were in the theater) that we'd mistakenly found ourselves in the screening for WESTFIELD, one row in front of the "Reserved for Filmmakers" row. 

Ignoring the chance to sit in front of writer/director Robin Swicord (head of the Nicholl committee that gave a fellowship to Geeta-but-not-me'n-Todd), we fast-walked out of the theater, found the right line, and managed to make it into the tippy-top balcony of the oldest, coolest, most-haunted (according to our local companion) theater in town.

Go watch LOVING:

A subdued, beautiful, painful, tense, and ultimately hopeful filman important film, perhaps. Watch it, and decide for yourself. Learn a seminal story from American History. 

And stop being such a racist, you racist jerk, you.

After LOVING, I went back to the hostel for a bit to try to recuperate from the sleep deprivation, then meandered back to the Driskill bar. I spotted Jason Segel trying to enjoy a drink with some friends, so of course I had to go over and sorta-kinda intrude. 

I say "sorta-kinda" because this is, after all, the writer's festival. And he's a writer. And the Driskill is the informal networking-lounge of the whole shindig. 

Anyway, we chatted a bit about his role in END OF THE TOUR (go see it) and then about David Foster Wallace (who the film depicts) and I guess I was the appropriate amount of complimentary, because he told me I had made his day. Which I took as an invitation to tell him about my script-reading workshop, and to ask him if he'd consider filling the as-yet-unfilled role of the Narrator. 

He laughed and gave me one of those (friendly, I swear) arm-pats that say, "You Go Now." 

So I went, and found Craig Mazin (writer of a bunch of blockbusters and co-host of the world's most popular screenwriting podcast, Scriptnotes). Mazin, likewise, was uninterested in spending two hours reading aloud the script of a random stranger. But we had a good conversation about the Orange Slug, the pointlessness of screenwriting contests, and the state of Alaska where my sister and the moosen live. 

I left the Driskill and walked several blocks to the late-night dance-party, but it was drizzling rain and by the time I got there I realized there was nothing in the world I'd rather be doing less than a late-night, sleep-deprived dance party. 

Back to the hostel and my earplugs and another night of not-enough sleep.


October 14 - Day Two:

People like me should not be allowed out in public. 

I am a hermit-writer used to writing away my days in silence, so the madness of film-festivals can get to me. Overwhelm me. Send me scurrying back to my hostel-room for some overlong rechargement-time.

Day two started with a panel on management teams, with screenwriter Chris Sparling and his lawyer (Stephen Clark) and manager (Aaron Kaplan). Industry-successful dudes who talked about their beautiful, loving client/manager/lawyer relationship and answered questions about their respective roles. It was informative and jealousy-inspiring.

That was followed by a talk by Craig Mazin on structure in which he shared a lot of helpful stuff, and ranted a bit about the wannabe-abusing structure-gurus/hucksters we were likely to encounter.

It was funny and helpful, and I probably would've been well-served by taking notes.

Next I was signed up for one of the more hyped talks (by HOOK writer James Hart), but at the last minute bailed and ran over to a panel on "Screenwriters Agreements" with writer's guild executive Kay S. Wolf, hotshot manager Adam Kolbrenner, and again the entertainment lawyer, Stephen Clark. 

The panel was great, but afterwards there were too many people wanting to ask questions and not enough wanting to shut up and let me have unfettered access to the panelists. 

Jerks.

After that is where my introvert breakdown-and-hide-in-your-hostel-room thing happened.

See, I'd walked to the next panel when I realized that I'd left my (beautifully-battered, metal) water bottle at the last one. So I walked back for my (beautifully-battered, metal) water bottle. Then back up to another venue for what I'd decided was an even better panel, when I got a text saying to come to a different panel with some of my new friends, which I did but then found it was the wrong panel and they weren't there, so I walked back to the second panel... but by then was sweating and tired and overwhelmed and went scurrying back to my hidey-hole.

Until, of course, Free Food.

Free food is one of my favorite things, so of course I had to hop a shuttle for the Film Texas BBQ supper. And I gotta say, Texans know their BBQ. I live in North Carolina and Northern Carolinicans love to boast about their pulled-pork, but they've got absolutely nothing on this.

I could probably spend a rapturous paragraph or two on the food at the BBQ, but since this is an "official report," I'm going to pretend my focus was on the networking.

So anyway, I met up with DJ, the random dude I'd met on the couchsurfing website and with whom I'd be crashing for the latter half of the festival. DJ is a local filmmaker and was shooting the Q&As at some of the A.F.F. events. He's also a super-extroverted guy, who took the opportunity to introduce me to a couple of local directors. 

I also met one of the actresses (Monique Shaw) who'd be handling the titular role for my workshop-reading of my semifinalist MARLENE THE DIVINE script the next day. She seemed fabulous.

Then it was back to the festival HQ for a last check-in with Samantha Levine, the festival-hero who's been coordinating the casting and everything for my reading, and after that another desperate scurry back to my Firehouse-hostel hidey-hole.

The Driskill Ballroom, waiting for Scriptnotes. That's me in the front, on the left. Photo credit: random AFF-photo-person.




I would probably have called it a night at that point, but one of my roommates (who's also here for the festival) told me they'd tweeted about a secret panel that had opened up, a live recording of the Scriptnotes podcast. 

I went, and it was Craig Mazin with guests Tess Morris (MAN UP), Phil Hay (RIDE ALONG), Malcolm Spellman (EMPIRE), and Katie Dippold (GHOSTBUSTERS 2016). Tim Herlihy (HAPPY GILMORE) shouted out from the back that he'd forgotten to pay Mazin for dinner, and then Michael Weber (500 DAYS OF SUMMER) popped in mid-podcast to deliver donuts to the panelists. A celebrity-writer-driven evening.

They talked about breaking into Hollywood. They were all mildly drunk, and it was highly entertaining and even informative.

Mazin ended it with a rousing call of "Let's all go get more drunk!" and then the whole gang traipsed a few blocks up the street to some club, where I tracked down Jeff Nichols to tell him how much I loved each and every one of his movies and wanted to be his man-baby-child, and how MIDNIGHT SPECIAL had gut-punched me in the heart-bone.


October 15, Day 3:

Before coming to the festival, I was cheezed-off to find they scheduled my script-reading workshop rehearsal during the ONE roundtable session I had most wanted to attend, which is this thing where I would sit at a (round) table with a few other screenwriters and an industry person, chat for 25 minutes, then switch tables for another industry-person.

I had a half hour before my rehearsal, though, so I crossed my fingers and sat down with... Rick Dugdale, the owner/founder of the absolutely-legit Enderby Entertainment. Rick was better dressed and more handsome than myself by a factor of around ten, and had a lot of great insight into the industry. 

I was glad I'd picked his table, but bummed I didn't get to meet more of the roundtablers.

The rehearsal, though, was worth it. 

My painstakingly-chosen actors were Monique Straw, Arthur Simone, Nicholas Saenz, Kristin Chiles, Steve Brudniak, Brooks Laney, and Mackinlee Waddell. My narrator was Tom Minier.

None of them'd had a chance to read the script before we met, so it was fun to work our way through the script and listen/watch as they discovered the humor and pathos. I could feel the energy growing in the room. The enthusiasm.

After we'd finished, it was very apparent that I had zero to worry about. That it was an amazing group of actors Samantha had helped me put together, and that they were going to kill it. 

I gave them all a few notes, and pointed out that given the nature of the beast this might very well be the only time this film gets performed ("I hope not!" said Monique), so we should give whomever came a real experience. There were rousing nods of assent.

Also, Mackinlee gave me a bag of breakfast burritos, which had bacon in them.

I could tell it was going to be an epic day. 
Because, bacon.

Next I attended an intimate little one-hour roundtable with writer/director Jacque Edwards, who's currently a showrunner for a daytime soap. I have little interest in writing for television and zero interest in daytime soaps... but it was still cool to get some insight into that world.

After that, I sat down to my fourth breakfast burrito and turned on my laptop to find the results of the Page International Screenwriting Awards competition, in which I'd been a finalist. Drumroll, please... I had taken first place in the comedy category. 


After calling le wife to tell her and texting the news to some film-folks, I went looking for a familiar face to whom I could spill the story. In the Driskill bar, I ran into Jim O'Heir. Yep, that Jim O'Heir: Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation. A very familiar face.

I said hi and that I loved his work and he was nice and when he asked if I was at the festival with a script or a movie I almost giggled as I told him that I was here for my script MARLENE THE DIVINE, and I'd been looking for a familiar face to tell the Page-news to, and he was the first. He was super-congratulatory and super-cool and just everything you'd expect Jerry Gergich to be.

Mildly-elated, I headed over to the hotel where we'd be doing my reading.

I popped in for another festival-attendee's script-reading workshop, then got a little jittery as my actors all showed up.

We began.

It was... a lifetime-high experience. Seriously. I'm going to toot my own horn here and say how amazing it was, because otherwise you'll just think I'm stoked at having had my script read in public. That wasn't it because, listen, I've had short films that've screened for much larger, likewise-enthusiastic festival crowds, and they were nothing like this.

This was amazing.

The actors were totally invested. They weren't reading their parts, they were performing them to each other. After just one read-through, they were bringing my script alive to that room, and the room was energized. The laughs started right away, and didn't stop. Until they did. Because I'd wanted them to. Because I had written scenes designed to make people cry.

Me, blabbing an intro before stepping back to let the actors absolutely kill it. Photo Credit: Geeta Malik.


MARLENE THE DIVINE is a comedy, but it's a comedy with guts. And it worked! There were literal freaking tears in that room. Laughter, tears, more laughter and tears. I got the spine-shivers.

The response afterwords was incredibly flattering. Approving. And from that crowd...?

See, most everyone in that room was a solid screenwriter. My Nicholl-and-AFF-winning friend Geeta said she felt it was already a movie. That it could be made without changing a thing. Another dude said it made him want to go home right away and start rewriting. Another (Tim, who's also cleaning up this contest season) told me it was the best thing he'd attended at the festival, to date.

Mind. Blown.

Still elated, I went with a couple of the other screenwriters and got in line at the Paramount for Damien Chezelle's new film, LA LA LAND. A transcendent, inventive, strange, tear-jerking musical. Full of nostalgia, but somehow incredibly current. A truly beautiful film.

Even more elated, I wandered through the Driskill bar, where I caught they eye of Rick Dugdale. He smiled and waved me over. I told him about how well my reading went, and about the Page. We chatted a bit about career strategy. He gave me his card, asked me to send him the script, and suggested we meet up when I'm out in L.A. next month.

Mind completely absent, at this pointreplaced by a haze of awesomeness-particulates.

From there I went to the late-night "Heart of Film Conference Party," where I met up with my ofttimes co-conspirator Jacob Kirby, who is here screening his short film LAS CENIZAS. Hung out with him, with some of the actors from my script-read, with a few random other screenwriter-friends, and then at the end with DJ, the dude I was supposed to stay with the next night.

In bed by 2 a.m. after a long, exhausting, amazing day.


October 16 - Day Four:

In line for the "hair of the dog brunch" down at some club/restaurant, I got to talking with a producer who harangued me for not getting a lawyer for my last writing project (which I wrote on spec and agreed to a lowballer fee "once the money is released," because it was for a friend), then asked to read MARLENE THE DIVINE. 

After that I wandered off to find Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the celebrity-writer "hosts" for the event.

I had a mission.

See, a few years ago I went as an extra to the set of the film PAPER TOWNSmostly for the chance to maybe meet and chat with the author of the source-novel for that movie, Mr. John Green. He was there and I did talk to him, but when he got a phone call and had to go, a dude materialized at my side, introduced himself as a producer on the film, and attempted to figure out who I was (and why I was talking to "the talent").

When I admitted that I was there as an extra (read: bottom-rung nobody) he politely bid adieu.

Moments later, the extras "handler" appeared at my side, dragged me back to my car, and watched me like a hawk for the rest of the day.

I couldn't remember the producer-dude's name, but from my vague recollection of what he looked like, I kinda thought it might have been Scott Neustadter who'd gotten me thrown into extras' jail. Scott and Michael are the uber-talented writer/producers of not only that movie, but a bunch of other quality films, as well.

When I met Scott, however, his face didn't jog any memories. But by that point I had too much story-inertia, so I started venting my tale.

They laughed a little between themselves, conferring and deciding it was probably Isaac and was it Isaac? and for sure, yeah, it had to be Isaac. Michael pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of a group of arms-linked people and, sure enough, I recognized him. It had been Isaac.

They laughed, enjoying their quick-identification of their set-nazi friend, and insisted that if they'd been there they would've let me talk to "whoever the f*ck I wanted."

They congratulated me on my script ("semifinalist" is written on my festival badge) and I asked them what they're working on, now.

Scott said, "We're writing the next X-Men movie... trying something new."

Daaaang.

After going back for second-brunch, I meandered off to a panel called "The Writers REPerspective," where four working screenwriters talked about their experience with managers, agents, and lawyers. It was hugely informative and I thought about jumping from there straight to another panel, but after three-plus days of this my brain was fried, so instead I chose to vegetate in a movie theater.

I picked THE MUPPETS, which was presented by Jason Segel...

Who happened to be already sitting there, in the sparsely populated theater. Thinking the writer/director/star of the movie would probably have been situated in the most cherry seats, I took the one behind him and watched, amused, as a steady stream of fans came up, gushingly asking for autographs and selfies.

By now, you're thinking I'm an incorrigible star-hound.

I probably am.

I leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Excuse me, Jason?"

He looked back.

"Yes."

"Hey, I noticed you graciously handling a steady stream of harassment, so I was wondering--

"No, no. It's fine," he said, laughing at my hilarious joke.

"I have an eight year old son," I went on. "He loves this movie and I'm wondering if you could..."

I handed him a pen and my day-planner, opened to a blank page. He clarified the spelling of my son's name, took the notebook, and handed it back.

"To: M_____," he'd written. "Best dad ever." Then his autograph. He handed it back. I thanked him, feeling a bit sheepish, and grateful for his graceful attitude toward my intrusiveness.

A few minutes later, I leaned forward and said his name again.

"Yeah?" he looked over his shoulder.

"Sorry to bug you, but I'd meant to tell you that last summer I made my first feature"

"Congratulations!"

"Thanks. Yeah. It was just this tiny, no-budget thing with my friends, but I'd meant to tell you that you were, like, the dream-celebrity we'd talked about wanting to cast for the lead, if we'd had the budget for that sort of thing."

He smiled and thanked me. I went on.

"Who knows? Maybe some day my career will..." I made an upward-rising motion with the flat of my hand "...and I can cast you for real."

"Thank you," he said. "I would love that. That would be great."

I tell this story not to point out how gracious a movie star was despite what has to have been a wearying barrage of attention, but to note how incredibly equalizing the Austin Film Festival can be, with wannabe screenwriters mingling freely with the writers and producer of classic films and, yes, with movie stars.

Next I wandered into the "Script Library" room, to peruse a few of the semifinalist/finalist scripts.

While there I got a text from a manager/producer named Chris, who'd read a bit of my stuff already and wanted to meet up. So I headed over to the hotel bar and we sat out on the veranda and talked. He had this idea that my novel, POUNDERS, might make a good serialized TV show, and said he had a connection to a dude in Alberta named Tom Cox, who was looking for Canadian content. 

I got jazzed talking about treeplanting, and he got jazzed about the possibility of a TV show.

Good meeting.

We parted ways and I went back to my hostel-room to skype with my son, then traipsed down the street to the "On Story" party after getting directions from a guy named Jono Matt... who it turned out was a panelist at the festival and had just sold a couple of projects to the Studios.

Mingle, mingle, mingle.

Chris-the-Producer showed up at the "On Story" party and said he wouldn't mind attending a screening I'd talked about, earlier. So we hoofed it the umpteen blocks up to the theater, squeaked in just before they locked the doors, and sat down to watch AMERICAN WRESTLER.

It was pretty much the end of my day, and the end of the conference part of the festival. 

From then on out it would be films, films, and more films.


October 17 - Day Five:

There was nothing showing until noon, so I just hung out at the hostel until I had to pack up and check out, and my buddy Jacob Kirby dropped by to give me a ride up to his shorts-block screening.

It was probably the best overall block of shorts I've seen at any festival, ever.

From there we grabbed a gut-violating lunch at Chipotles (thanks for the coupon, AFF!), then popped over to the sanctuary of this cool old Presbyterian church for a talk by the legendary Frank Marshall, producer of pretty much every movie you've ever seen. It was a good, entertaining talk. 

Shortly thereafter, in line at the Paramount Theater for a film, I managed to shake Mr. Marshall's hand and tell him I'd worked as an A-List Production Assistant (I jest) for four days on his film SULLY last year, when it came to Charlotte. He was, of course, boundlessly impressed, and we quickly built a deep and abiding friendship-for-life.

While still waiting in line, I flagged down George Kosturos, star of the AMERICAN WRESTLER film I'd seen the night before. George and I got to talking about MARLENE THE DIVINE, which he thought sounded cool and ergo asked me to send it to him. Which I did. Because that's the sort of thing that can/does happen at the Austin Film Festival.

The movie we saw was called THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. It starred Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, among others, and was high-freakin-larious. Also, poignant.

Writer/director Kelly Freemon Craig was in attendance for a Q&A afterwards, along with producer James L. Brooks (who's produced all the other films that Mr. Marshall missed).

After that we popped next door to the State Theater for a late-night showing of the movie IMPERFECTIONS.

My ostensible couchsurfing host had picked up some middle-of-the-night gig and wasn't going to be home until stupid-late, so I ended up crashing on the couch at Jacob Kirby's Air BnB.


October 18 - Day 6

Films:

Shorts Program 6: Boy Meets Girl / Boy Meets Boy / Girl Meets Microwave.
Lion

Parties:

Filmmaker's BBQ at Ruby's for lunch
Film Pass Party at Fado Irish pub, from 10:00 pm to 1:00 am

In sum: Exhaustion

Solution: Fall into bed at DJ Veloz's apartment, sleep like a log for 8-ish hours. Best night's sleep since getting here. Two more days of this. Ready to go home.


October 19 - Day 7:

Films:

Shorts Program 13: Animated shorts
Shorts program 8: A Reunion

And then a film-overload, afternoon/evening-long wander around Austin. My host had to be up at the butt-crack of dawn for work the next day, so we turned in early. Sleepy bliss.


October 20 - Day 8:

And then, just like that, it was the last day.

I meandered around Austin amusing myself. First, all the way down to Whole Foods for blunch (yeah, that's rightblunch). Then across the river to people-watch in the park and stare uncomprehendingly at a big bronze statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I suppose I should be familiar with, but am not.

After that a screening of the Tony Hale movie BRAVE NEW JERSEY, with the typical, line-duration conversation with whichever screenwriters and filmmakers happened to be standing nearby.

Then up to the Driskill bar for a little meet-up with the directors of the screenplay competition and the few semifinalist/finalist writers still kicking around (five of us, I think).

One last show at the Paramount theater (BLEED FOR THIS), then directly over to the closing night party (presented by Dove chocolate), where I snagged pocketfuls of chocolate, mingled/conversated, swapped business cards, and watched everybody else get progressively more drunkerer.



And that was it.

A.F.F. in all its glory.


In Conclusion:

I've been to a bunch of film festivals (always previously for screenings of my short films), but A.F.F. was far and away the most useful to me as a screenwriter. So much education, and so many serendipitous meetings/connections. 

Well-spent money, Northern Carolinicka guv'ment, if I do say so myself.

[I do.]

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