Austin Film Festival, 2017

Apparently my sister enjoyed reading about my 2016 AFF experience, so ha-ha internet, sucks-to-be-you and here we go again:

This year I had no governmental grant to pay my way, but a combination of flight vouchers from United (that might or might not have actually workedmore on that in a future post if those skyweasels don't refund me what I'm owed), a gift from my parents, and some work as a reader for the AFF screenplay competition got me a badge for the festival and a way to get there.

AFF gifted me another badge for making their List of 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2017, so my lovely wife Hannah and I decided she should come along as my wing-woman for the drunken revelries I'm too teetotaler to enjoy.


We flew into Austin on Wednesday, Oct. 25 and took the bus all the way downtown for a buck-twenty-five (Woo-hoo public transport! Screw you, General Motors!), then checked in out the Firehouse Hostel (which happens to be directly across the street from the festival HQ at the Driskill Hotel). After registering and picking up our bag-of-swag, we took a walk around Austin, up to the State House. The weather was perfect and the guards at the doors were enthusiastic in their welcome. The tour was free and the architecture did its job and made us feel like insignificant bugs.

After that we lounged on a shaded park bench outside, looking out over the city and all the statues with their plaques commemorating "the War of Northern Aggression." I threw my flip-flop at one of the ubiquitous squirrels and we lazily made our way back downtown as the sun set. A delightful way to spend an afternoon.

The only festival event that night was a fundraising dinner for celebrities and Austin's glitterati, so Hannah and I spent the evening hanging out with pals and co-conspirators Ben Joyner and Zach Hetlage, who had a short doc playing in the festival.

Thursday, Oct. 26:

Before Hannah was up and caffeinated I went over to the Driskill to sign up for a roundtable and ran into AFF panelist Jono Matt. Jono and I had hung out a bit the year before, so we spent some time catching up on his projects (A-List attachments, huge studio movies), my projects (super-low-budget, hardscrabble fun-times), and how to use film to fix everything that's wrong in the world.

After a continental breakfast at the hostel, Hannah and I started our day with "Opening Remarks" from a bunch of amazing screenwriters and AFF organizers. They were fun and funny and it was inspirational and exciting, and ha-ha on you for not being there (seriously: try a little harder to drop by next time—I promise you won't regret it). 

Then we went to "A conversation with Gale Anne Hurd," co-writer of The Terminator and executive producer on The Walking Dead, Aliens, and Armageddon. It was great. Fantastic! 

No time to talk about it because we were rushing off to Jono's first panel, "Alternate Ways to Break In," where he and a couple of other writers talked about all the weaselly/creative things you gotta be willing to do to squeeze yourself through the eye of the Hollywood needle. 

Then it was time for the Austin Film Commission Opening Reception, although we couldn't stay for too long for because we had to line up for Lady Bird, indie darling Greta Gerwig's solo-directorial debut. 

The movie was funny, it was beautiful, it was full of grace and wisdom. It brought me to the brink of tears on more than one occasion and made me wish I was a better, more subtle writer. So kudos to Greta Gerwig, and make sure you catch this amazing film in theaters if you get a chance.

After that we attended a "Story Mixer," which was a bunch of pro screenwriters reading short stories and the like. Very funny, very profane—a great button on a great day.

Or it would've been, if there hadn't been the opening-night party to attend. Very loud and very alcohol-driven, but also with a fine assortment of cheeses, fruits, and cracker-thingys. 

Back to the hostel to collapse and try to ignore the lights-on, jabbering rudeness of our roommates (who fortunately left the night after). 

Friday, Oct. 27:

Improv comedy freaks me out, so after another great continental breakfast at the Firehouse I went with Rodney Stringfellow (a fellow-writer from North Carolina who I'd talked into attending*) and did an hour of it at a morning workshop. And it was fun! Embarrassing, but fun, and probably a good thing for an occasional-comedy-writer to do. 

Next, Hannah and I went to a panel called, "It's the End of the World as We Know It: Writing Dystopian Stories," with Kelly Masterton (writer of Snowpiercer and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and Kira Snyder (writer/producer on The Handmaid's Tale). The moderator tended to get a bit sidetracked, but they were great and I learned a bit and—BONUS—we ran into both of these crazy-talented writers later at the festival and had a chance to gush to their faces a bit about their general awesomeness. 

After that we met up with Ben and Zach for the screening of their doc, I Have Something to Tell You. It was a fantastic little film, as was everything else in their block. In fact, it was probably the best overall shorts block I've ever seen at a film festival. So kudos, programmers!

The four of us walked back up from the theater to downtown, where we caught the shuttle to the Film Texas BBQ supper to socialize with a bunch of fantastic, interesting filmmakers as we ate some--oh-my-gosh-I'm-so-hungry-just-thinking-about-it! Crap. It's lunchtime. I'll get back to this later...

Okay, I'm back. Phew. Bottom line, re. the BBQ: be jealous about that mouth-melting meat and all the swag I got from the festival sponsors (Do I need a device-charging battery-thingy? No! But I'll take it!).

We shuttled back downtown and Hannah and I popped in for three episodes of Rob Huebel's new comedy web series, Do You Want to See a Dead Body? It was stupid, junior-high fun and I loved it.

Rob (Transparent) was there to present the episodes and was hilarious in the Q&A afterwards. 

Next up was a live recording of the Scriptnotes podcast, which is "a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters" hosted by John August (Big Fish, Frankenweenie) and Craig Mazin (Hangover II). The episode featured the writers of basically everything you've ever seen and enjoyed on film and television (from Get Shorty to Wonder Woman to The People v. O.J. Simpson), and as a result was stupidly over-packed. We managed to get a tiny sliver of butt-space on a side ledge in one of the biggest venues in the conference and were grateful for it, as there were a lot of people who didn't even get in. 

By the time it was over we were completely done in and barely made it to the last party of the night, which involved cheesecake that of course necessitated an at least perfunctory appearance. I had wanted to step in and introduce myself at the party to John August (he once quoted me fairly extensively on his blog, and I was curious if he'd recognize my name), but he was deep in conversation with Scott Frank and Michael Arndt, the writers of Logan and Little Miss Sunshine, respectively. 

Because that's how AFF rolls. Nuts. 

Saturday, Oct. 28:

The first thing on my agenda was a John August talk entitled "What Heroes Want" that proved to be one of the highlights of the conference for me—a mini master class that I think ripped some scales off my eyes. There was a lot I've heard before, but somehow the right-thereness of the talk made the message connect. 

Thanks, John (Yes, I did introduce myself to him there. No, he did not seem to recognize my name).

Next up, we went to a panel that was not particularly helpful (because not everything at AFF can be amazing), so we slinked shamefully out the back and found some friends to hang out with until the roundtable I'd signed up for at 12:30. The roundtable was basically a bunch of round tables (Mein Gott!!) with one panelist sitting at each of them, who shifted tables at intervals. 

My table started with some dude who produced virtual reality stuff, which was fascinating but also frustrating because he kept evading the questions I was asking in an attempt to insinuate that VR was going to lead us down a dystopian path that once-and-for-all turns the human race into a bunch of mindless blobs. Next was Kieran Fitzgerald, who I've just learned was one of AFF's "Screenwriters to Watch" the year before me, and who has rewarded their confidence by writing stuff for Oliver Stone and getting pegged to write the next Sherlock Holmes movie, among other things. He was as articulate and self-effacing as any Harvard-educated golden boy should be. The third guy at my table was a local filmmaker who spent his entire time telling us how he got his microbudget film made by basically believing that it would happen. 

No time, no time, no time. 

From there I rushed back to find Hannah and make our way to a panel that wasn't what we'd thought it would be. We slipped out again and took our place in an uber-long line to get into Lindsay Doran's talk on "The Psychology of Storytelling." 

Doran used to run a studio and has produced everything from The Firm to Stranger Than Fiction and boy was her talk worth it. She spoke for an hour and a half without notes or hesitation, and I swear she didn't say "um" even once. It wasn't just an impressive, funny talk to a packed-out room, though. She made me re-think not only how I'm telling my stories on the page, but also how I'm telling the story of my life. Tears may have fallen. Seriously. It was transformative. 

What better way to follow up something like that than the screening of the latest insane hilarity from writer/director Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I've enjoyed myself immensely watching McDonagh's previous films, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards didn't disappoint. Like those other two films, it had a sort of nihilist, empty feeling to it, but it was a fun ride and a great end to a day on which, I'm sorry, I just couldn't bring myself to walk down across the river for the latest middle-of-the-night party. Hannah and I were in bed by eleven and didn't regret it one bit.

Sunday, Oct. 29:

At this point, inevitable festival-fatigue had begun to set in, so after the "Hair of the Dog Brunch," Hannah and I skipped the next session we'd thought of attending and got straight into the line for Mudbound

Mudbound was Hannah's A-Number-One Priority for the fest, and we wanted to be sure we got good seats. So we lined up an hour and a half early and were right in the front (next to the writer of Snowpiercer, actually) and... SUPER AMAZING BONUS, a festival employee came along, gave us wristbands to save our seats, and took us to a special pre-movie Q&A with writer Virgil Williams (Criminal Minds, ER, 24). 

Williams is a dude from Chicago who oozes Chicago-cool but spoke with sensitivity about the spirituality of writing and his belief in the primacy of love. 

My Southern-to-the-core wife Hannah was already excited for a film set in the sharecropping South, and Williams's Q&A got her even more excited. The film did not disappoint. A beautiful film. Well paced. Full of truth. Beautifully shot, scored, and acted. 

I laughed, I got angry, and you better believe I cried. But I felt hopeful, too. Mudbound was easily a highlight of AFF 2017, and if it doesn't get any Oscar love, I'll be gobsmacked. 

After the film, Williams and one of the lead actors of the film (Rob Morgan) did a Q&A together and it was just beautiful to see their hope and positive outlook in the face of the truly painful filmic experience they had just put us all through. 

Later when we ran into Williams and Morgan on the way to our final AFF party, I stopped them and thanked them for their work. I started crying all over again (as did Hannah), which was a little bit embarrassing because we were with Ben Joyner (who hadn't seen the movie) but not really embarrassing, because those two men were so gracious and appreciative and cool about it. 

That night we attended one more film that didn't quite do it for us but it didn't matter because Mudbound, Mudbound, Mudbound, Mudbound, Mudbound. Go see it. A long-ish movie, but it's on Netflix November 17 and it is totally worth your time. 

After a meet up with one of my fellow 2016 Nicholl Finalists (Beanie Barnes—who I'd previously shared notes and spoken with but not met), I fell exhausted into bed. 

Another fan-flippin-tastic AFF under my belt. 

Monday, Oct. 30:

The Conference part of AFF was over and there weren't any films playing early enough for us to attend before our flight home, but Hannah and I did take a walk up to the museum at the University of Texas in hopes of checking out the David Foster Wallace papers housed there. 

We were informed that there'd be an orientation we'd have to go through and that for that and viewing the papers we'd need a couple hours, so we opted to wander through the museum's art exhibit instead. 

I add this tidbit to say that Austin is a fantastic town and if you do get a chance to pop in for the festival, make sure you take in some of the the sights as well. People are super friendly** and you will zero percent regret it. 

- - -

*I talked a couple of writers from my home-state into attending this year. I think they enjoyed it.

**Some random dude walking down the sidewalk beside Hannah and me saw our badges, asked if we were from out of town, and then welcomed us warmly to Texas. This was typical of our Austin experience.


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