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...)