Day 1 (Thur 19 Oct 06)
Keen though I be for the warm fuzzy embrace of Dame Alcohol, within the narrow confines of the Austin Film Festival I am at once both carefree and disciplined, for in all my years of carousing and convivializing, I've not yet missed an early morning panel. More and more I wonder if that painful early morning alarm isn't some sort of penance I do to rationalize another night's brain cell slaughter. Maybe it's just that childishly defiant part of me again showing off that I can out-agonize any mere mortal in my path.
Whatever the reason, I'm up at 8 AM, showered, shaved, and out the door by 8:20, latté in hand and in the Driskill Lounge by 8:40. Greg Beal, aka "Mr. Nicholl Fellowship", wanders past and shakes his head. "Don't you ever leave this place?"
"Sure. Every year."
More of our odd little circle of friends wander in over the course of the morning. The first day of the conference usually doesn't boast very many "must-see" panels, as the conference workers are busy getting the bulk of the guests registered and working out the last second details in prep for the Opening Remarks panel at noon which serves to signal the official start of the conference. Having been to the AFF a few times, I don't bother with that first panel but instead opt to wander down Sixth Street for lunch with my buds. Jamie, Reece, Julie, Shawna, Aaron, Ann, Murray, Caz, and then we pick up T.J., an LA friend of Shawna who is also a first-timer in Austin and a finalist in the Burnt Orange contest. It turns out that TJ was a tank driver in the Army (between Gulf I and Gulf II, so he never saw actual combat), so we talk tanks and military bases and the odd way that all sorts of folks wind up writing screenplays.
After lunch, we all head back to the first real panels of the conference. Someone ducks into the AFF office to grab a daily update to see see if maybe something has been moved or rescheduled.
"Hey, man-- you're name is in here."
I shrug, assuming they are referring to some trivial list of second rounders or something from the contest.
"No, dude-- look!"
The daily news handout for the first day of the fest opens with a Welcome letter, and then there's a large -- half page -- excerpt from a blog post made by "a man named Brett."
I stare at it and can;t really believe it. There on the damned daily newsletter for the writer's conference, is a chunk from my blog. I reacted with typical grace and aplomb.
"Son Of A Bitch!"
I storm into the office and bellow for Maya, the festival honcho. She's not available, I'm told. "What-- is she out ripping off other writers?"
I demanded satisfaction. I demanded remuneration. I demanded something -- anything. A fruit cup.
I got nothing.
So I stomped away to find my first panel: What Gets Producers Excited. Maggie Biggar cancels on that panel, but producers Richard Bever and Anne Walker both do a solid job of describing what sorts of things really spark their interest in a project. Bever also piques my interest when he says he looks for story ideas all over the place -- news, short stories, history -- and that he's always looking for a good romantic comedy (which, is so happens, is my current in-development live project).
Note to self: find an opportunity to talk to Richard Bever..."
Good panel. Would have been better in a smaller more intimate room, with fewer people and more opportunity for interaction, but still good.
After that, I took in The Art Of The Pitch, paneled by Jessica "Bring It On" Bendinger and John "I Am Everywhere" August. Now, I'm not interested in learning to pitch more effectively -- I'm arrogant enough to trust my ability to dance well enough if ever I'm tasked to do so for a group of two or three in a real room, and I have zero interest in learning to do that ridiculously pointless and contrived form of pitching done at pitch contests -- but both of these panelists I know "give good panel," and that's enough to warrant my interest. The moderator is pretty underwhelming -- he seems more eager to impress everyone with his teaching philosophy and credentials than he is to elicit cool insightful comments from the panelists -- but August and bendinger are both just too smart, too interesting, and too engaging to miss, especially if you don't have any competing panels. Every time I hear them in Austin I come away thinking "they clearly have fun doing what they do." Plus, Bendinger dropped a funky cool new homemade word: sheisty. We all giggled to hear it, but we all knew exactly what she meant: kinda sheister-like, kinda like scheisse, kinda shady and cheesy and shaky. You know-- "scheisty." Exactly.
After that we all wandered over to the Conference Welcome Party over at an open air bar on 4th Street. There we saw loads of familiar friends -- fellow writers from previous festivals, now-familiar faces from the festival (including Conference Director Maya Perez, whom I accosted in my usual way. She laughed and offered to buy me a beer. "But the beer's already free!" I said, tossing her the set-up she wanted and needed. "Exactly! Which is why I offered to buy!" (Oh, the fun we had.) I elbow Maya and ask her to confirm that the blazer-clad gentleman behind me is in fact Lawrence Kasdan. She peeks, nods, and dashes away to take a phone call (likely to order some more plagiarizing... the woman is nefarious, I tell you). I suck back my fourth Dos Equis, breathe deep, and stomp over to meet Mr. Kasdan.
I always feel very uncomfortable with these sorts of fan-boy intros, as on the one hand I absolutely wish to respect the man's privacy: he didn;t come to the party, after all, just to be slimed and drooled upon by my adoring ilk, but on the other hand he has enjoyed a great deal of financial success thanks to guys just like me, and if he doesn't want to meet fans, then by jumped up Harry he shoulda stowed his candy ass back at the hotel. (And, yes, this is in fact what my normal every day interior monologue sounds like, and yes, it concerns me as well...).
"Mr. Kasdan, I'm sorry to annoy you at a party like this, but I can't let you stand within arm's reach and not ask to shake your hand, sir. You're maybe the reason I ever considered becoming a screenwriter, and I am a huge huge fan of everything you've ever written. Especially Continental Divide."
He smiles and shakes my hand. "Wow-- that IS going back a ways!"
He turns out to be, like a surprising and refreshing number of the Hollywood folks I've met, a surpassingly kind and decent guy. he accepts my little bit of ass-kissery, and then does something truly cool: he checks my ID badge, reads the name of my script from the festival contest, and insists on talking to me about my writing for a minute or two.
Lawrence Kasdan! Lawrence FUCKING Kasdan! I give him the briefest possible description, and he smiles and nods and says "wow, that really sounds interesting. I wish you all the best with that, really." I thank him, tell him to enjoy the rest of his evening, and turn to leave, where I see something else remarkable: Kasdan's wife, Meg, standing back, smiling and watching her man make a 42 year old father of four blush and giggle like a smitten schoolgirl. I lean in and tell her tahnks, and she smile and asks for what. "For sharing him with folks like me. It means a lot." She smiled and patted my arm. I toyed with the idea of copping an ass-squeeze, but opted against it.
Back inside I find more of my friends shmoozing and boozing, and then I see Bob Fisher, half of the team that gave us Wedding Crashers. I always tell my friends coming to AFF to study the damned panelist list and do some research to learn faces, as you never know who you'll meet or where. I walk over and introduce myself, and wind up having a few good minutes and some laughs with an established comedy writer.
Now, I don't do this with any idea or hope that Bob Fisher is going to meet some boob at a bar and then two minutes later say "On the off chance that you're a writer, here's some money," but in order for the lucky impossible accident to happen, you need to put yourself in position for such accidents to happen. Over the next few days I wound up passing Fisher a few times in the hallways and every time he smiled and recognized me and muttered some funny ref to our pointless bar banter. Who knows? Maybe he'll be back next year and I'll have more reason to develop a broader connection to him. The point is do not go to one of these events and ignore an opportunity to meet someone of interest or possible relevance. If you can't or won't get your mojo on when it matters, then just stay at home and whine on some sad incestuous little chat board where people piss and moan about how hard it is to make any connections in Hollywood.
'Cuz that's just bullshit.
After that party, a gaggle of us wandered around looking for dinner. We wound up back on 6th Street, right across from the Driskill, at some burger and beer joint. We had a nice groove going -- even proper English lady Caz seemed to be getting into the playfully nasty game of verbal slap and tickle which passes for social interaction in any group I fall into -- when my cellphone rings.
"Hey, it's Glynis. Susan said I oughta call you."
"Well, God Bless Susan, then."
Glynis is one of those women who makes me sad that I am an honorable and decent husband. She's gorgeous and tall and blonde and funny and smart and very married, so of course I love to flirt shamelessly with her, safe and secure in the understanding that I never have to back up any of it. On top of all that, she's a story editor for a production company in LA, an assistant to a cool writer, and generally just one of those people who is Very Good To Know.
"What are you guys up to? I'm here at the Driskill and have nothing to do."
"I'm across the street -- I'll come grab you and bring you back here with us. What are you wearing?"
"I'm in a blue sweater."
"Do you have a tube top you could slip into?"
"No, Brett. I don't have a tube top I can slip into."
"That's fine. I'll bring a couple you can choose between."
And I hang up and run across the street to find Glynis rolling her eyes at me even before I approach. I drag her back to our little gaggle of idjuts at the bar-restaurant, and Jamie, our newly-adopted Canadian pretty boy, pulls me aside as he sees me bring in Glynis.
"Dude! What, do you just collect hot chicks from the street or something?"
I smile and nod yes.
He pats me on the head. "Good man. Carry on."
Burgers, beers, etc etc etc. We wander onto 6th where Julie announces that she has to meet her new manager. We all hear her but pretend to not so that she can then announce again that she has to go meet her MANAGER. MANAGER. Cuz she's a big PRO, and has a MANAGER, and we are lowly filth on scum on dirt on grime. Half our crew wanders back to teh hotel, some to go watch movies, some to start drinking, and the rest of us (me, Julie, Jamie, Reece and Shawna) head over to a bar named Daddy's where Julie slides over to a table of Important People to hang with her new MANAGER. Jamie and I don't mind so much as there is some shit-hot cutie serving beers to our table. Eventually, Julie finishes meeting her new MANAGER and comes back down to slum with us paste-eating un-repped civilians, at which point we start wandering back to the Driskill to see what other trouble might be stirred.
In the Driskill, a good crowd is starting to build up a head of steam, as more of the Usual Suspects arrive and take their places on the stage. Bryan and Jon from St Louis wave from near the TV, cheering as usual for the damned Cardinals, now back in the Series, but I have little time to talk as soon it's time to head over to the WGA Opening Night Party, so again we convoy out into the dark and parade the few blocks over to Rio Grande, except Caz, our new English sister, decides to bail on us, claiming that she's tired from a day full of drinking and note-taking (I saw her at work in one of the panels and her notes look like a longhand transcription of the commentary-- amazing).
There we find a crowded restaurant party in progress, but there's free Dos Equis, and free Bombay Sapphire, so all is well. Somewhere in there I bump into Bill True and his annoyingly sweet and cool wife Robby. Bill has been an online pal of some of us for years, and last year at Austin Bill won the Narrative Feature writing competition for his movie Runaway. That would normally be reason to hate Bill, but Bill is one of those damnably nice guys who leaves you no choice but to cheer for him. Bill and Robby, smiling as always, wave, slap me on the back as I push toward the bar. As I grab a beer, I see Richard Bever, producer panelist from my morning panel, in a circle of folks all trying to give some sort of soft pitch. I wave, he waves, and at some point I swing by to hear what he has to say.
Now, here's the thing: I didn't go over to shmooze this guy. I just recognized him from my first panel and wanted to say "hey, thanks for being here for us newbs." But somehow we end up talking, and then we're swapping cards, and then we're talking about getting in touch and talking, and I just nod and excuse myself as quickly and gracefully as possible so as not to seem like I'm gonna screw it up by making the usual ass of myself (no-- really).
One of my buds comes over and tries to give me a high five. "Dude! What was THAT!?!"
Apparently he said that was the slickest no-pitch pitching job he's seen, so I'm his hero now.
"Great," I tell him. "Go grab hero another fuckin' beer."
What can I say-- I'm just a people person.
The party fizzles down, we slime our way back to the Driskill. A few more beers. A lot more laughs. Goodnights hugs. Promises to meet for coffee. We stumble away to our rooms somewhere around 3 AM.
One day down, and it feels like we've been going for a week already.
I love Austin.