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...)