I returned home last night from the Austin Film Festival and I’m still buzzing with excitement and inspiration. I can’t wait to get back to work. But first, a review.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Austin Film Festival is esteemed for its associated writers conference, which brings together some of the best—okay, the best—screenwriters in the business, putting them face to face with aspiring writers and filmmakers in a long weekend of panels and parties. Along with the writers there are producers and agents and studio execs and actors and every one of them is as friendly and approachable and supportive as can be.
In addition to the conference, there’s also the screenwriting competition—more than 8,000 entries this year—and the awards banquet. This year’s honorees were Callie Khouri, Jonathon Demme, Vince Gilligan, Barry Josephson, and Susan Sarandon.
As an aside, if you learned one thing at the festival this year, it’s what you heard over and over again from everyone who met him: Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, is the nicest guy in the world.
Here’s how I spent my time at the festival:
Salt Lick Barbecue
I arrived a day early for a massive meatfest with old and new friends. I think there were thirty or forty of us. The place is BYOB, so we arrived trailing coolers from our car. There are Salt Lick Bar-B-Que outlets in the city and even at the airport, but the one in Driftwood is one of the wonders of the world. The word at our dinner was that Jerry Bruckheimer has even flown Salt Lick out to California to cater his own parties. Mmmmm, pork rib.
After the opening remarks at noon, I headed over to the
Nerdist Writers Panel
Moderated by Ben Blacker (whose Nerdist Writers podcast I must start listening to), this session featured a conversation with Ashley Miller, Kell Cahoon, and Kelly Marcel.
Miller told a fascinating story about how he met his writing partner during an online Star Trek argument in the mid-90s. For the first two and a half years they wrote together from opposite sides of the country without ever meeting or even seeing pictures of one another. They’re still writing together today, having produced over one hundred hours of television, and having expanded into feature writing with credits such as X-Men: First Class and Thor.
Cahoon was very funny, doing Larry David imitations as he talked of the first success he and his writing partner had with a pitch and a story for Seinfeld. Marcel writes alone and made it sound almost as if her success came easily (selling her first two television pitches in one week) but I think she was also a bit self-deprecating about the work she must have put into her projects—especially with her chaotic writing methods.
Nerdist might have recorded this session. I’m not sure. Listen if it shows up. It’s worth it.
A Conversation with Jim Taylor
Jim Taylor is the writing partner of Alexander Payne for such films as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and Citizen Ruth. I’m a huge fan of Election, so I was a bit disappointed that this talk didn’t spend much time on that film. And the moderator was a bit dull, too often steering the talk back to his planned questions and away from more interesting sidetracks. On top of that, Taylor’s own speaking style isn’t especially exciting, so they weren’t the greatest match.
I wished I had gone to see the Elaine May conversation (moderated by Phil Rosenthal) instead. I heard that was excellent.
Austin Film Commission Opening Night Reception
Free beer and free gourmet grilled cheese at an open air bar on Nueces. This was a nice place to make new friends and to catch up with old ones who I hadn’t seen since my last trip to the festival four years ago.
WGA West Late Night Welcome Party
Loud and crowded. We arrived on time and left after twenty minutes. We heard that other people waited over an hour to get in.
Late Night at the Driskill Bar
The beautiful old Driskill hotel is home base for the conference, and it’s where everybody congregates after hours. The conversations go on all night, but pace yourself if you want to make the 9 a.m. panel the next morning!
Umm … this was good? Was I late? Was I still half asleep from the night before? I wish I had taken notes because I don’t remember much. But I can guarantee you that Shane Black was a hoot, because he always is. I do remember the panelists made a few good jokes about the Chicks With Bics panel going on at the same time, referring to their own as Dicks On Flicks.
(I did hear that Chicks With Bics was very good.)
The next session was a tough call. I passed on the Script-to-Screen: Brick talk from Rian Johnson because I wanted to go to Pixar’s Story Development Process. But that was in a small room and by the time I got there it was shut out. So I fell back to one called The Unreliable Narrator featuring John August and Jim Taylor. Okay, Jim Taylor again … but this time he talked about Election the whole time! Yay! And John August focused on his Big Fish. The moderator was good this time and it turned out to be worthwhile. But dammit, I really wanted to see that Pixar session.
There was a Script-to-Screen: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Shane Black, which I would have loved to see, but I needed lunch. So I ate and then headed over to
Ashley Miller and John August again, talking about and playing clips from the movie. I enjoyed this but I overheard some film students later who weren’t impressed with the analysis. It wasn’t that the analysis was bad, I think, but that the film students were young and already knew everything, or thought they did. Anyway, what stuck out for me was that both Miller and August first saw Alien on videotape, already coming to it with foreknowledge of crucial scenes, because they were too young to have seen it in the theaters when it first came out. I saw it in the theaters. Does that make me old?
Anyway, the best part of the panel was the last ten or fifteen minutes when the door opened and they brought a woman on stage. It was Veronica Cartrwright, fresh off the plane from London. We got to hear some good stories about her audition and the filming.
The Rewrite with Terry Rossio
This was pretty fascinating. Terry Rossio talked about his rewrite process, covering a number of aspects of that, but also did some script edits of scenes that had been sent in ahead of time by session attendees. “Sorry if I’m being a dick,” he said, as he made cuts and changes and told us exactly why he was doing what he was doing. His edits mostly consisted of finding ways to condense the action and dialogue to its core essence. He told me later that he had been hoping the submitted passages would be a lot worse so that he could take more drastic action, but they were all in pretty decent shape already.
I did get something out of this that I hadn’t expected. He brought up a concept he called “Performance Dialogue.” It’s something I hadn’t come across in my time studying screenwriting. Maybe this is common knowledge and it’s just a blind spot for me. It’s something that has occasionally bothered me in my own writing, but I never really knew why or even that I should do something about it. Basically there are two things:
- When your dialogue is a question, it forces the actor to deliver a line in a certain way. It limits the performance options. When possible, consider rewriting the line so that it’s not a question. For example, an exchange like “What’s your favorite color?” “I like blue.” would have so much more life if you did something like this: “I don’t believe in favorite colors.” “I like blue.”
- It can be difficult for actors to time and play a line that ends in a dash— (when that dash signifies an interruption from the line spoken by the next actor).
I tend to use those dashes often enough, but I don’t think too often. That doesn’t concern me so much since I’m writing books these days and not screenplays.
But the question thing has been bothering me for a while. It often nags me and doesn’t read correctly in my mind when I write a question. Maybe I’m subconsciously recalling my brief time as an improv performer, where asking questions was a big no-no. But this rewrite session has really given me a new way to approach this.
Film Texas BBQ Supper
Catered by the Salt Lick. We were all looking forward to this one. So when we showed up and the meat was already gone, we were pretty disappointed. Whoever organized this thing seriously undercounted the number of attendees. So it was beans and bread and potato salad and a couple bottles of wine. But the conversation was great as always.
There was a late party scheduled for that night but we forgot to go because we were having too much fun bar hopping and watching the Halloween decadence. We spent time with a mechanical bull but mostly we hung out at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, which is an absolute blast. The music is non-stop and those guys can play just about any song you request.
I am not allowed to tell you who rocked the penis-shaped beer bong.
Late Night at the Driskill Bar
Here we go again.
The Neo Noir
With Shane Black and Brian Helgeland. Such a tough choice. I skipped A Conversation with Vince Gilligan for this. I heard that was great (such a nice guy!) but I’m glad I went here. Here’s a better write-up than I can give you: annerocious.tumblr.com
I wasn’t interested in any of the sessions, so I had breakfast in the Driskill Cafe. It’s a shame they no longer serve the awesome breakfast burrito I ate there four years ago, but they do a great Texas-shaped waffle.
Veronica Mars: From Small Screen to Silver Screen
With creator Rob Thomas and Piz (Thomas told the actor Chris Lowell, when he cast him as Piz, that “everyone will hate you” for being the guy who comes between Veronica and Logan. And I did.). Lowell showed up a bit late because he was at the awards banquet, accepting a trophy for the film Beside Still Waters, which he directed.
[Can I just say that Austin has some of the most beautiful trophies ever? I came soooo close to winning one four years ago. Seeing them again makes me almost regret my decision to stop writing screenplays. Almost.]
This was a great session. They talked about the movie and Kickstarter and they debuted a featurette, but they only said the words “Party Down” once. Come on, Rob, the Veronica Mars move is practically finished. Where’s my Party Down?
A Conversation With The Awardees
I tried to see this, but the line was crazy so I just wandered around and ended up chatting in the bar.
A Conversation With Jonathon Demme
And not just Demme, but Paul Thomas Anderson. It was a mutual love-fest, which was pretty cool. These guys are both great, and they’ve done some amazing films. The problem is that right at the start, a friend mentioned something about donuts and fried chicken and honey just around the corner. Totally broke my concentration. I couldn’t focus.
The official Conference Wrap Party was being held all the way on the other side of the river, so I just hung out at the Driskill again. More writer talk, more good times.
Hair of the Dog Brunch
Food. Talk. My writing partner saw a guy who seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place him. It was bothering her so she went up and introduced herself. He thought she looked familiar, too. Turns out he was a patient of the dentist she used to work for; he was also Nick Kazan.
Vince Gilligan Presents: A Special Staged Script Reading of 2 Face
This was at 2 o’clock, but we had to line up at 11:30 to make sure we got in, so we missed a session or two. This was the hot ticket of the day—maybe of the whole festival—because, you know, Vince Gilligan. Did I mention what a nice guy he is? Among the actors on stage: Will Ferrell, Thomas Haden Church, Linda Cardellini, Giancarlo Esposito. Rian Johnson directed. Richard Kelly stood in the aisle doing sound effects.
The script itself was something Gilligan wrote in the early ’90s. It was nothing like Breaking Bad. It was a semi-dark comedy about a man with a split personality. By day he was a redneck racist; but every night at sunset he became his loving, tolerant alter-ego—a time-traveling spaceman from the future named Rodeo Bob. The concept was fun and at times it was very funny. Will Ferrell was excellent in his role and it would be great to see him in the movie if it were to get made. But overall I thought it ended flat and too preachy.
It seems almost sacrilegious to say this, since Vince Gilligan is such a nice guy, but I came out of this thinking that, wow, my last script was better than this.
It was like Ten Little Indians that night in the bar as we watched our friends leaving one at a time. There were so many people I didn’t get the chance to talk to at all, and so many more I would have loved to meet.
But next year? Yeah, next year. We’ll be back.