29 October 2009

austin film fest 2009 -- "Friday"

One of my odd points of pride w/r/t the AFF conference is that I have never yet missed a morning panel. Despite all the nights which bled into early pre-dawn mornings, the afterparties and overnighters and whatnot, all the drink and all the fun, I have, for whatever reason, always always always answered the bell and been cleaned up, dressed, caffeinated and able to be a part of that following morning's first panel.

Same this year. Despite Cabernet w/ Kasdan to cap a long hard night of indulging, by 9 AM Friday I was already deep into tapping notes into the laptop and scanning to determine which panel I'd take in. The fact that I finally decided to not do ANY of the 9AM panels had nothing to do with my readiness and everything to do with my familiarity with the panelists in the one or two panels there which seemed interesting: I already know and have relationships with most of the folks I might choose to see, so what would be the real point, especially given that I had some work to do on the laptop.

By the second panel (10:45 AM) I was ready to get cranking again. I opted to not see Kasdan and Turman do their SciFi panel (hey-- they're now old pals, right?...) so instead took in the "Turning Webisodes Into A Film Career" discussion. I did this for a few reasons, not the least of which was that one of teh panelists was Jocelyn "Jolly" Stamat, aka, Rossio's girlfriend and one of my fave females. Jolly is funny and beautiful and romantically linked to a friend which means that I thus have easy means to annoy said friend by continually hitting on said female, plus she's smart (as in "Harvard MD" smart). Plus she's now a panelist here thanks to a great experience this year producing and directing the "Turbo Dates" series of webisodes.

She and very funny Dan French talk about their respective efforts and experiences at finding a way to use this whole inter-webs thingy (you may have read about it...?) as a back/side/basement/cat door into the film biz. Two things become apparent in all the discussion: 1) there's tremendous freedom and opportunity in online filmmaking, and 2) nobody yet has a clue how to squeeze a nickel from it. Still, good fun panel, and a silly thrill to sit on the front row and see Jolly smile at me a few times with an expression that clearly says "Jeezus -- look at me! I'm a PANELIST!"

Afterwards, a bunch of our gang decides to try and scurry off for a group-lunch, and again somehow "Larry" winds up in our midst, but I have no idea what happened at that lunch as The Gods sniggered and denied me a seat at the grownup table this time, instead sending me to the back room with another group. I'll not dwell on this other than to say "Brett has anger issues, and Brett knows this, and on this day Brett managed to deal with these issues in a mature, responsible, and almost totally non-homicidal manner."

(Uh huh. Sure.)

The afternoon panels started (for me) with "The Art of Storytelling", featuring Peter "Gilbert Grape" Hedges, Dan "Dan" Petrie, and Lawrence "Larry" Kasdan. Moderator was one Marcia Nasatir, who clearly had a long relationship to Petrie and Kasdan which apparently predated even the beginnings of their careers, so that was a sweet little touch. Every one of the guys on stage had a slightly different take on things, and each had a different path to success to relate, but there was one consistent repeated thought connecting all of their stories and advice: "just keep writing." No matter what bullshit and insults and insanity this damned business tries to hurl at you, just keep writing. Keep believing in your own particular brand of magic, because in the final analysis, that's all you really have anyway. That surely might not seem like a huge shattering breakthrough wad of advice, but to hear it from these guys, all of whom have managed to sustain a career in a business known for chewing people up and spitting them aside like human bubble gum, it was good advice to note.

Final panel of the day was my scheduled round-table discussion -- "Producers & Executives" -- wherein attendees array themselves around several large tables (yes, they are in fact round...) as a group of lectures work their way from table to table for 15-20 minute close up discussion on whatever topics the people can manage to claim. It's always luck of the draw which of the slated panelists happen to hit your table, but I get lucky and draw some of the folks I most wanted to see: Julianna Farrell, a former lit manager turned indie producer whom I've spoken to on a few occasions and who seems totally tolerant of my bellicosity; Curtis Burch, indie producer based out of Dallas; and Jessica Julius, development exec for Disney Feature Animation. Farrell is her usual to the point smart self, Burch seems like a crusty old pro who's been around the wrong side of town a few times, and Farrell is a delightfully blunt no-bullshit pro who clearly explains what does impress her team and what doesn't. After the panel, I heard some folks at my table mumble that they found Julius a tad brusque or even cranky, but I found her take totally great and respectful, as she clearly spent no time trying to sugarcoat her answers: here's what it is, and here's what it ain't.

Friday evening means "BBQ At The French Legation" if you are a Producer Pass holder, so our crew piles onto shuttle busses and heads over the old French embassy, a gorgeous antebellum mansion inside a 2-acre stonewalled compound. There's a huge tented seating area with tables and chairs, a pair of buffet lines serving adequate though unspectacular BBQ, several drink stations handing out comped sponsor wine or Dos Equis, plus wall to wall Hollywood people. More than maybe any other event at the conference, the BBQ gives you a fighting chance to press the flesh and work it, baybee, with damned near anyone on the conference's roster, so I grab some vittles with my pals, then split off to wander and circulate.

I run into Rossio and Jocelyn, and it still blows my mind a bit to think that Terry is now not some pro that I try to approach for any specific insight or bit of wisdom (I know better... pppfftt), but because... well, because he's just another good friend here. We seldom talk at all about movies, instead playing verbal slap and tickle in that way competitive guys often do, usually because of an in front of and for teh approval of some woman. Jolly remains an eternally good sport about this idiotically reptilian behavior, and tosses me just enough bones and scraps to keep me interested in the game but not so many that I (or Terry) ever has even a moment's pause to wonder if there is in fact some other game afoot. "She gives good flirt," in other words, and that's a talent to be valued and respected in this damned fool gathering, where so many seem incapable of playing that harmless yet lovely game.

[Brett & Terry, Here To Cause No Concern At All. Really. You Can Trust Us.]

I wander around and bump into Greg "Mr. Nicholl" Beal, and he has in tow one of this year's golden show ponies, a 2009 Fellow (whose name escapes me -- mea culpa). He and I swap happy memories of the day the phone starts ringing like crazy with news of the FInalist announcement, and I give him a few quick notes of avice for his pending LA trip ("do not go drinking in Venice with a mad Mason on the afternoon of the big awards banquet...").

Ron "Please Don't Call Me Opie" Howard is led in, my old pal Linnea as his "handler," and I see a crowd of reluctant hesitant folks trailing behind like those tiny fish that follow big sharks, eager for a scrap but wary of becoming a snack themselves. Braced by my cervezas (stay thirsty, my friend) I opt for the frontal assault, so I plot an intercept and scramble.

Linnea sees me, and she gets that look that handlers always get: "Oh, no-- please! Don't approach him! My job is to make sure he has zero direct contact with humans!" She steps in to block me, and I smile, pat her on the shoulder as if to make it seem that I thought she was merely greeting me rather than trying to block me, then I defeat the jam at the line and break for the ball.

"A Yomiuri man? I would not have guessed that!" I say, and suddenly Howard beams widely and nods -- he was wearing a Yomiuri Giants Japan League baseball cap, and suddenly Ron Howard and I are chatting baseball for a few seconds as a crowd of other folks all keep a respectful/terrified distance. I do that thing I learned to do long ago -- I pull out of the convo early, long before it seems that we've now run out of all possible topics to fill the conversational void. I see new guy Marlon munching on a mondo plate of meat, nodding and chewing approvingly as he scopes the scene. I see Julie O making eye contact with me and pointing toward Peter Hedges, who just arrived late. I nod, and we link up in position for a gang intro.

Hedges winds up being a super decent guy. He's chatty and self-deprecating and demonstrative and reactive and exuberant, and more than anything he seems to exude a certain kind of sweetness. That always seems vaguely demeaning or perhaps just condescending, but it is what it is: he has an innocent sort of delight about the fun stuff happening around him, and he makes you feel happy just being close enough to hear him talk. Or, in my case, close enough to wind up holding his pigskin jacket so that he doesn't accidentally drop grease on it as he chows majorly on a huge late of chicken.

Apparently this is his first time back in Austin after a first/only visit a decade ago, and he looks around, shaking his head. "This is so wonderful! Is it always like this?"... "Oh, I am so coming back. I love this. This is all just so fun!"

A few minutes later, as I am standing around talking to some guys I vaguely know via bloggery, I feel a hand drag across my lower back as some woman walks past.

"Hey, Brett!" says Maggie Biggar, the very sweet and very cute but very shy red-head producing partner for Sandra Bullock.

I nod, "hey, Maggie!". She tosses her hair in that way women do that always makes men just shiver a little and smile.

"DUDE... says one of the guys I am with. "That was MAGGIE BIGGAR! How the hell do you know her like that?"

"The judge said we're not really supposed to talk about the details, but the gist of it is we respect each other, and the kids always come first."

The dudes swap weird looks and then just stare at me. Oh, I have fun, sometimes.

Bigtime agent David Boxerbaum continues his long-running disinterest in anything I might choose to say, but producer Dawn Wolfrom seems to counterbalance that with her almost-completely-camouflaged lust for me. Petrie gives me another hug. Rossio, Turman and me stand around playing dueling complainers. Diedrech Bader says hi. Conference director Maya Perez chases her kid around the grounds. Familiar faces abound wherever I turn, and every conversation seems to then fold into a reference to someone else, and the whole scene starts to get a really sweet roll to it just as it's time to shutter the scene and pack up to return to the Driskill for whatever comes next.

Back at HQ there's some interest in the movie PRECIOUS -- some folks are saying "it's this year's SLUMDOG!" -- but I can't quite bring myself to go sit in a dark room when there are friends around to play with, so we opt to set up shop at the Driskill Bar 'til it's time to do something else. We manage to burn the candle til time to head off to the late party at Ruth's Chris (no food -- just booze), and again somehow "Larry" winds up in tow. I decide to wander around and see what else is up, where I meet Mike and then Eilis the Mad Irish Lass and again see Richard and Derek and lots of other fine folk, and then I wander back and find myself chatting up "Larry" again.

"I was asking around about you," he says. "Everyone here seems to have a different Brett story they are fond of -- it's like you're at the center of this entire fiasco. What are you, Keyser fuckin Söze?"

OK, so at that moment all I could do was lean back and smirk with painful happiness -- this isn't really happening... I recall mumbling to myself. Except it just kept on happening. Kasdan and I sneak in some quiet private exchanges about movies and women and fear and passion and women and writing and women (a certain consistency of theme started to develop...) and then again too quickly the lights start to come up and it's time to turn back onto the street, and "Larry" says "OK, Keyser -- now what?", so we wind up doing that laughably adolescent thing where you "sneak" past the suspicious judgmental doorman late at night, trying poorly to not seem well and truly snookered, and then giggle all the way to the elevator as if you really pulled one over. And we find an afterparty in the suite of a friend there in the Driskill, and we hang out for a bit before "Larry" suddenly realizes that he has a 9AM departure back to LA, so he bails "early" (3:15 AM), waving goodbye to the room, and -- glory -- giving me a slight smirk and a wink just as the door closes behind him.

I sit exhausted and bleary-eyed over my PowerBook back in my room a half hour or so later, grinning stupidly, fumbling to tap out some soggy thoughts on what it all felt like. The best I seem able to come up with is "fuckin awesome."

In hindsight here nearly a week later, I think that still pretty much nails it.

(to be continued...)

28 October 2009

austin film fest 2009 -- "Thursday"

Thursday at the conference always feels like Round One of a big fight: you know there's going to be action, but early on it always feels like everyone is sorta gauging things, feeling things out, getting a sense of how it all will fit together this year.

More handshakes. More introductions. More excited happy reunions. Bill True, aka "The Nicest Guy In The World." Shane Black, aka, "Mr Self-Torture."

Some of our crew have been doing this Austin thing together for so long that some odd informal traditions seem to have developed. Among those are "Thursday is Irish Pub Day." I really have no idea how or when we started, but we once went strolling for lunch along Sixth Street and found a convenient and totally decent pub grub place just a block from the Driskill ("ground zero" for all AFF action). Now it's become a standard and accepted part of the routine, so a pile of 8 or so of us head off to grab burgers or shepherd's pie or fish tacos.

Julie O has to bail early, cuz she's no longer civilian like the rest of us, but instead she's now Miz Fancypants Paid Pro, having sold a script and seen it produced into an actual by god movie. In salute of this, she now rates invitation to participate in the festival not as a drooling noob, but instead as a wise old pro. The fact that we all laugh hysterically at how we all know how very little real difference there is between those two groups doesn't detract from our collective pride and happiness for her achievement: one of ours has made it up the mountain, and that's proof that it can be done. She waves and hustles off to get set up on her panel, while the rest of us snigger and brainstorm embarrassingly dumb questions to pose to her from the audience.

Her panel -- "How To Work The Austin Film Festival" -- is actually rather fantastic. She and Karl Williams -- another Austin long-timer whom I've watched grow from innocuous attendee into acclaimed up and comer and then into now hard working new pro -- both do an great job of explaining not just how to take advantage of the insane possibilities of this event, but why. At the risk of rankling the AFF officials, the real draw and value of Austin is not the panels and roundtables -- which are uniformly very good and often brilliant -- but instead in the social networking opportunities afforded as part and parcel.

In this day and age, the answer to pretty much any technical question one might ever have about the craft and business of screenwriting is only a Google search away. What Austin provides is a chance to connect not to just answers, but answerers -- the people behind that information, the personalities that give that information texture and flavor and relevance and specific application. It's the difference between seeing pictures of Yosemite and actually being there to smell the breeze and feel the sun on your skin. It's the difference between printing a recipe versus tasting a well-prepared meal.

Austin gives you recipes, but then turns you loose in a huge well-appointed kitchen staffed with chefs.


After laughing through Julie's try at seeming "expert" (she reads this, so I am allowed these juvenile sorts of stabs...), I catch Dan Petrie and Matt Weiner in "A Shot Of Inspiration." As Weiner, the rather hilarious and talented creator of MAD MEN, explained bits of his work history and experience, Dan -- whom I know and who recognizes me on sight now -- wanders around the room pouring actual shots of "liquid inspiration" ("Canadian Club" for those scoring along at home...). Petrie takes time from the beverage service to spin great tales from his days as a mailroom flunky at ICM, through his start with BEVERLY HILLS COP and THE BIG EASY and on through his time as WGA president.

After that, we head off to a club called Mohawk for the Opening Night Party where we hook up with yet more friends, and grab a few bottles of free Dos Equis, the official beer of the festival, so it's comped at all parties and thus the drink of choice (stay thirsty, my friends). smile to see new crew member Marlon from Atlanta with that "first year smile" as he starts to feel the vibe and realize how cool the opportunities are.

'Course, we were all about to be reminded of that fact when we returned to the Driskill Bar after the party at Mohawk, as we walk in and see James V. Hart and Lawrence Kasdan.

Or, as he is known in my head, "Lawrence FUCKING Kasdan."

It is no exaggeration at all for me to say that Kasdan is *the* guy who made me want to be a screenwriter. I recall coming home from THE BIG CHILL once upon a time way gone by and sitting down to try and write something... something that cool. 'Course, he's also done a few other little movies in there... BODY HEAT... RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK... THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK... SILVERADO... GRAND CANYON... WYATT EARP... IMMEDIATE FAMILY... THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST...

Kasdan is simply The Man.

And he's standing there in front of me.

Now, I've met Kasdan before. In fact, once upon a time I kinda sorta made comically inappropriate comments to his wife (she laughed), and the year after that I think I slobbered on him (literally) as I called him my hero, to which he sorta sighed and said "'K, that's nice." But here he is, in the Driskill Bar, hanging out around and among my class of doofus, so of course we (our group) sorta adopts him as ours, just as if he was a wayward spaniel.

We wind up dragging him across the street to the Late Night Welcome Party, hosted by Dan Petrie at Buffalo Billiards on Sixth St., and then, in a typically weird yet beautiful turn, he just kinda sorta stays with us. "Larry" hangs out and chatters and chuckles and tells tales and laughs at other's tales and in general drops right into formation as "one of the guys." At one point I'm sitting there, wedged in between Petrie and Kasdan, sipping beers and laughing and telling hideous slanderous lies about my friends, and it starts to get weird on me: "I grew up watching the movies these guys wrote, and now I'm sitting here blabbing away like I'm part of their world. And they're treating me like I am. And the weird part is... it doesn't feel weird...."

The party rumbles on, and I circulate around, and am forced to giggle at how many pros I find myself familiar and friendly and on old terms with. Eventually, the lights come up and it's 2 am and the party is shuttering, so we start blundering out into the Sixth St chaos, Kasdan still in tow and still treating us like we're worthy (which we are most certainly not). We're all standing around, swaying in the breeze of alcohol we all feel in our heads, as Lauren, one of my other great and gorgeous Austin pals, waves goodnight and disappears into the madding crowd to find a cab. I had a mouthful of kraut dog at that precise moment, so could not shout after her to come over to the Driskill where the valet might more easily hail her a cab. She disappears, and Kasdan slaps at me, smiling madly:

"What the hell, man? She was in your care! You dropped the ball! Brett, her husband told you to take care of her!"

I smiled through a mouthful of kraut dog. "Hey, he fucked up -- he trusted me!"

"Larry" laughed loudly, said "excellent quote," and I felt really stupid calling him "Larry" as I scribbled jumbo crayon notes in my internal diary.

So "Larry" continues to tag along with us. We decide to go back to the Driskill -- this despite the fact that the bar is now closed, and that the security is annoyingly tight and requires some creative fiction to get everyone past the guards ("writers"), and seven or eight of us -- including "Larry" -- plop down around the fireplace in the darkened deserted bar, and someone produces two bottles of red wine from their room, and we sit around sipping vino with "Larry" 'til 4 am or so.

And that was the day that was, Thursday, 22 October, 2009.

And as I ballroom dance back across 7th Street to the SFA, I can only laugh maniacally at the way the evening went. Sometimes -- just occasionally, and always without warning -- Reality well and truly kicks Fantasy's ass.

(to be continued...)

austin film fest 2009 -- "the return"

Anyone foolish to be a longtime or repeat visitor to this waste of bandwidth surely knows that I have a certain fondness for the annual screenwriter's conference at the Austin Film Festival. It's strange to try and recall that time before I'd first felt the insane rush of... "finally arriving at a place you were always meant and expected to be...". I'm sure there's some fancy word for that -- very likely something German and complicated. It's not destiny exactly, though that likely comes close to what I am fumbling to describe. It's a palpable feeling I clearly remember washing over me, like deja vu, only far more tangible and enduring and real -- as if I was somehow returning to a place that I'd forgotten due to amnesia, and suddenly a half lifetime of long-buried memory and sensation suddenly snapped back into clear focus.

This year was the same, only more so, and in a new and different and intoxicatingly wondrous way.

There is the moment when you realize what it is that you want to do.

And then there is that moment when you realize that you actually can do that thing you want to do.

And then there's that moment when you realize that the thing you want to do... is now already happening.

That's what Austin felt like this year.



We've been stuck in a totally weird weather pattern here in SE Texas in October this year. Where this month is traditionally among the driest of the year, in 2009 it seems as if we've been stuck under the same stationary puddle of drizzle. Amazingly enough, on Wednesday, aka "departure day," the skies turned a strange color -- "blue" -- and a bright shiny ball appeared in the heavens, and it was a gorgeous drive into Austin.

I swung by the airport to pick up my bestest pal Julie O and then we headed into town, checking into our respective rooms at the Stephen F Austin and then wandering over to pick up registration packages and see what other members of the tribe had already gathered. We grabbed beautiful Shawna, said how-do to a bunch of familiar folks, and then the three of us hopped into the car and rolled down to Threadgill's for dinner (for those scoring along at home: chicken fried steak w/ gravy on the side, mashed potatoes, turnip greens... larrupin')

It's a totally weird and disorienting situation: I love these friends dearly, as much as any friends I have anywhere, yet we get to see each other for only these four or five days annually when we all congregate in Austin. On the one hand you have a near-desparate need to make every single damned moment "count" -- let's do something memorable -- anything -- let's not waste a moment in which we could be celebrating these rapidly dissipating seconds of "us" -- but on the other you understand that there's no real need for such desperation. That just slipping back into a comfortable old friendship is often more than enough. That this... is sufficient.

Given that we were a block away from the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the huge urban bat colony, we decided to finally make good on a long-standing threat to actually go view the nightly exodus, but as always, "the gods laugh when men make plans," so of course as soon as we got under the bridge, the heavens opened forth and we stood trapped under a highway overpass as rain poured down for an hour, and the bats -- flying rodents with brains the size of a medium cashew -- looked out with amused disdain. "Uh, folks-- it's raining. We're staying home tonight. Go away."

After that moist excitement, we wander back to the Driskill Bar, aka, "the Happiest Place on Earth", plop into a leather sofa and commence the serious business of lounging about, drinks in hand.

I'll not even try to list every single name on the list of folks whose presence brightened the year, as I'll surely forget someone and then catch hell. Suffice to say, it's always a huge thrill to see familiar faces strolling back in, feel a warm handshake, grab a good squeeze of a hug, be surprised by the unexpected but welcome slap on the back from a friend you'd not seen walk in. It's a family reunion, but instead of gathering the family which fate issued you at birth, in this case it's those brothers and sisters you yourself selected from the grand catalog of humanity.

We hook up with some friends -- some old, some new -- and wander off into the Austin night, carousing til long after last call on this last night where there are no officially scheduled events and social imperatives. Silliness abounds, while clear memories become scarcer and harder to grab.

Wednesday night -- first day in. What went down? Nothing much at all, yet it's still one of my favorite moments in the festival experience.

The players are assembled, and the show will now begin.

(to be continued)

25 October 2009

back from austin minutes ago

Another insanely wild and cool and exhilarating and wonderful time. It's not very often that one gets to meet one's greatest hero, and then find not only is he every bit as great as you'd hoped, but he's also now your buddy.

And that was just one of dozens of stupidly beautiful moments, some of which I'll try to mention and describe (within legally acceptable bounds... ahem) in the coming days.

For now... blessed overdue sleep.
quasi-comatose B

12 October 2009

twitter remains the emperor's new clothes


Yeah yeah... a lot of people claim to like it and use it, but by the same token I know people who claim that chewing gum relives stress or that copper bracelets repel aliens or that Oreo cookies invented Atlantis.

"People is stoooopid."

Every time I check Twitter I see a huge long scrolling pile of laughably irrelevant inane uninteresting and (often) plainly idiotic blatherings from folks with whom once I had decent online relationships but who now seem to have given up communication in favor of tweets and chirps and farts and whatever.

It's like claiming to communicate via graffiti. The fact that it might work 2% of the time hardly seems like acceptable justification for the popularity of effort wasted in failed attempts.

It's not like BLOGGING which of course is a totally respectable way to complain, and always a surefire indicator of intelligence, charm, and lack of rationalized ironic bullshit.


Meanwhile, here's a schematic of a rear suspension: