09 November 2009

austin film fest 2009 -- "Saturday"

I've noticed a funny development in recent trips to AFF: where once I had to set alarm clocks (yes, plural) in order to wake myself for morning panels, now I find that I tend to wake up around 7:30 no matter what time I slimed back into my rack the night previous. Likely as not this is just the pain in the ass habits hammered into my brain as part of parenting -- I've been waking to wrestle kids out of bed and through breakfast and to the bus stop and off to school for so long that it's alien to not have that duty hanging every morning.

So there I am again in the Driskill Lounge by 9am, bushy tailed if not overly bright eyed, and yet again I find there's no one panel really screaming for my attention, so again I'm left to do some actual useful work on the laptop, slurping back coffee and gnawing on a CLIF bar ("blueberry asphalt dryer lint", I think it was...) for breakfast.

Second session found me packed into the always-crowded Maximillian room to hear Shane Black, Billy Brown, Chris McQuarrie, and Dan Petrie hold forth on "Write What You Know; Crime & Suspense." Again I'll point out to any relative newbs that very often the best panels are chosen not so much by topic as by panelist, and I know from experience that every one of these guys "gives good panel." They know their stuff, they love what they do, and they're able to make that love and ability clear and accessible to anyone in the audience. Fun stories, useful insights, some silly banter and self-deprecating humor... good stuff, and it's all over way too soon.

Saturday is "Awards Luncheon" day at AFF, and while I attended the luncheon one year (mainly just to see what it was about), more often nowadays I skip that added expense in order to have just a few more minutes of playtime with my friends. Our Saturday tradition now seems to be a stroll over to Stubb's BBQ 8 or so blocks away, where a dozen or so of us pile around and swap nibbles of meat and soul food veggie.

It's these odd moments that I always end up missing most in those 360-day stretches of desert between festivals, as it's these moments when I look around the table and see all these faces of people who can so easily make me laugh and think and feel happy about this miserable damned impossible pursuit, yet I know that I'll obly have these few minutes with these people all gathered in one place. There's a rush of excitement, but also a melancholy background counter melody of desperation and sadness: the clock is ticking... and this moment is already passing into the past....

Yeah, that's likely a twisted and morbid way to look at things, but then, if we were normal, we'd not be writers. We'd instead be plumbers or CPAs or astronauts or shark wranglers or some simple occupation where you do the job and you don't spend 95% of every experience off alone in the corner doing a vivisection on that still-breathing experience, deconstructing every memory and flicker of happiness into its component molecules (and thereby reduce it to... nothing).

What is it about this damned pursuit that makes me want it so badly -- need it so badly -- that I am content to torture myself in this way even while getting the exact experience I hoped to find? As much as anything, this is what I come to Austin to learn: "how can I better steer this unwieldy contraption known as Me?"

Lunch ends -- it always does, dammit -- and we then wander back towards the festival where I and a few hundred other folks all pack into the main ballroom at the Stephen F Austin Hotel to hear Ron Howard talk about his career and output. Howard is a warm and laid back guy, but he comes across (to me, at least) as so casual and laid-back that there's not a great deal of useful passion or insight to be had. He grew up in the biz, with parents and siblings in the business, and his entire life has been spent in Hollywood, so he lacks any sort of outside experience or perspective to use as contrast to what he's always known.

Great guy, generous honorable gentleman whom I've never heard a single unkind word about, and in the few demo-moments I have any interaction with him he seems a genuinely decent fellow... who somehow lacks any of the pungency and sharp edges and thorns that always seem present in the folks I most closely identify with. I mean, "tortured" is not a word that comes to mind when you meet or listen to Howard, and at this stage of the game I understand that sane well-adjusted people are just not going to have much I can use, advice wise.

I then opt to head over to the gorgeous old Paramount "movie palace" where Howard, Steve Zaillian, and Mitchell Hurwitz share the stage, swapping stories about their careers and projects together. Hurwitz is a nut, so he keeps the proceedings ever from becoming too staid and stuffy, so again the panel flies by way too quickly.

Another swing through the Driskill Bar, another round or two, more old friends and new friends, then off the the Pitch Finale.

Now, while I am a huge fan of and believer in the Austin Film Fest, the pitch contest remains that one part of the weekend which leaves me totally and in all ways unimpressed and uninterested. Some people seem to enjoy it, but for my money it's a near-total waste of time and goodwill, as 1) the environment and experience has nothing whatsoever to do with real pitching, 2) the "judges" are seldom ever actual industry types accustomed to or experienced with taking actual pitches, and 3) no matter how 'well" anyone does, it still means jack squat as nobody is there to listen to a pitch in the hopes of finding one to option, purchase, or pursue in much any form or fashion.

Add in the fact that the finale almost always takes place in a venue with overpriced alcohol coupled limited opportunity for interesting or useful conversation, and it kinda sorta starts to amaze me that I wind up at the event every year... usually just long enough to look around and ask "what the hell were we thinking?"

Luckily, the annoyance was short-lived, as we grabbed some food (double stuffed gyro w/ extra feta), swung back through the Driskill to hobnob til time for the late party, then wandered down to the Belmont for the Conference Wrap Party ("hosted by Shane Black," as if Shane were lugging in kegs and cups from the trunk of his own car...).

First time I can recall The Belmont hosting an AFF event, and I really really hope the venue stays in rotation, as it was a great place and hosted a great shindig. The lower floor was a dark and undersized place with lots of booths for private... whatever... but upstairs was a great rooftop patio under a tent, with a long bar along one side, and a railed overlooked into the neighboring open-air alleyway patio where a decent cover band was still banging out Pixies tunes. Below the rooftop and accessible by two sets of wrought iron stairs was a second hanging balcony stretching the length of that alleyway, giving a cool "special access" sort of space for those daring enough to claim it.

Dos Equis was again flowing free and easy, and by 11:30 the joint was jumpin', with Woody Harrelson proving a great sport by posing near endlessly for party pics with oodles of new friends (most of whom seemed female and attractive, it seems worth noting...). I hung out with Richard and Derek and Rebecca for a bit, swapped smirks with Julie O at several moments, saw Eilis (again) at the bar (again), finally caught up with Matt "I'm a Lil' T-Sip" Summers and swapped updated contact info with him.

At some point I find myself leaning over the balcony, enjoying some surprisingly left-field cover (don't blame me for forgetting which -- people kept handing me beer), and I look down to see Maggie Biggar on the balcony below, chatting it up with Robert "Star Trek/Transformers/Eagle Eye/MI:3" Orci. I lean over to my buddy of the moment (don't blame me for forgetting which -- people kept handing me beer) and say "hey -- isn't that Robert Orci with Maggie Biggar?" to which vague and unnameable buddy says "yeah -- how you gonna swing an invite into THAT conversation?", to which I remember smiling, leaning over the rail and whistling loudly down to the balcony

Maggie looked up, startled.

"Hi, Maggie!" I waved with my best beer-happy idiot smile. She chuckled and waved me down to the balcony.

I smiled at anonymous buddy and said "any other questions?" and trotted off to the stairs.

Orci and Biggar seemed in an actual conversation, so I merely said hi and stood back so as to not impinge, then Orci took a phone call and excused himself, so I nudged in.

"Hey, Brett. Enjoying the party?" Maggie asked, and I said 'Yeah, it's great. So... why are you being so visibly nice to me this weekend? It's great for my ego -- don't get me wrong -- but it's confused me that you've been so familiar and friendly to me throughout this festival when -- and correct me if I am wrong -- this current exchange is far and away our lengthiest conversation ever."

She laughed, we talked, and she said some ridiculously nice stuff that made me want to run around screaming victory (I didn't, cuz I'm cool like dat), and I related the story of how, the day before, I'd been on Sixth Street when Maggie had walked by and made some friendly comment as I was in a phone conversation with The Wife. Wife, hearing some female making some friendly comment and then me making an at least equivalently friendly response to said comment, had asked "OK< and who was THAT?"

"Maggie Biggar. Sandra Bullock's producing partner. We're just being silly."

"You have my permission to give her a baby if it helps get a deal done."

The Wife remains a pragmatic woman.

Maggie laughed at the story -- no deals were done or even proposed, dear readers and friends of The Wife, so fear not -- but it was a very good conversation and one that ranks up there with The Kasdan Incident as personal highlights for this year's festival, but things were not done yet.

As Maggie and I both turned our separate ways to give some love to other folks, I fall into a fun little conversation with another producer whom I know, one who I know and like a lot and who seems to know and like me, but for whom I've never yet managed to find a project to spark major interest (we just have very different passions and interests in movies). Producer mentions a pressing desire to find a specific sort of holiday movie.

I say "Well... as it just so happens that i've had an odd idea for a specific sort of holiday movie, and Producer presses me for details, so I give a totally off-the-cuff and totally unprepared pitch for a project I have at best maybe 75% clear in my head. Producer looks at me for a moment, asks "who else have you pitched that to?" and I laugh "Pitched? Hell, I dunno that I've ever even thought it through as clearly as what I just did in trying to describe the idea to you just now!

"Well, go home. Start writing. I want pages on that as fast as you can deliver. I've had maybe 220 pitches for this project, and that was easily the most interesting and original."

So again I stifle that urge to strip off my shirt and run around doing a full-on Brandy Chastain re-enactment -- "YYEEEEEESSSSSS!!!" -- cuz, ya know, I'm cool like dat.

More beers. More love. More good times. Someone asks "wouldn't it be great if every night was like this?" and for various reasons I understand what they mean, but I say "If every night felt like this, it wouldn't feel like this, cuz what makes this feeling so great is the fact that it never feels like this, so when it does feel this great, you remember how great it felt and hold that memory special."

The party peaks, then ebbs, and then ends, and at some point a crew of us is again doing the Sixth Street Crawl sometime well past last call, and we're wandering in a large happy crowd of strangers, all milling and goofing with friends, all trying to squeeze just a few more drops of juice out of this lovely night, and we wind up buying street pizza at 3 am and sitting on a broken concrete wall, giggling madly and huddling against one another and giving private thanks that we are in this place, in this moment.

It's that kind of moment that makes me love AFF: that moment of total exhaustion and total exuberance and total happiness that comes when you are completely content and totally unthreatened by and unconcerned with any of the usual real world fear and paranoia and inadequacies and doubts. Here, for one glorious flickering and totally fictitious moment, we poor lonely unknown pathetic writers become the god-kings of our little worlds, the heroes of our own absurd little comic dramas, and we find ourselves surrounded by those who understand exactly what we are feeling, what we are wanting and hoping, and we can all dance naked around the bonfire of our crazy screenwriting dreams secure in the understanding that on this night, at least, this crazy dream, this impossible pursuit, is perhaps not so crazy, not so impossible, not so totally insane and demented and isolating.

Our happy little herd wanders back to the Driskill for one last night of pretend relevance, and as we enter the lounge, we find one of those Austin moments that is hard to fully describe: Shane Black, Terry Rossio, Danny Rubin, plus a dozen aspiring writers, all piled around the rawhide sofas and lounge chairs of the deserted lounge. Talking about writing.

Repeat that previous paragraph for a moment and pause to consider how amazing and wonderful and totally bizarre that experience is for most of us. For most of us aspiring nobodies, we spend the vast majority of the year locked in an imaginary world inside our own heads. By day we are housewives and husbands. Paralegals and purchasing officers. Schoolteachers, little league coaches, quiet neighbors next door whose office windows are lit well past that hour nightly when those of other folks on the block go dark.

But suddenly it's 3 am in Austin, Texas in the deserted closed down lounge of a 120-year-old hotel, and suddenly we're talking to peers -- new friends -- who've accounted for a few billion dollars in box office, writers who have actually penned several of those movies that have made you announce even if only to yourself "THAT'S what I want to do....".

And, miracle of miracles, these guys are not at all alien. They are, in fact, staggeringly familiar, describing exactly the same difficulties and obstacles in their own writing as what you know only too well from your own. Their fears are the same as yours. Their thrills are the same as yours. In fact, aside from the fact that some of them have monster credits to their name on IMDB, they are almost disturbingly familiar and recognizable.

And that's when it hits you that "Hollywood" is not some distant imaginary planet which exists only in movies and legends. It's a business, same as any other, and if you can just work your ass off and maybe catch the right kind of luck and have the defiant pugnacious pig-headed tenacity to just stand tough and keep on digging when it all seems the most impossible... then maybe you wake up and find yourself not just writing some impossible fiction, but actually living it.

And it's that idiot spark of hope which sustains your soul for one more year. You walk away that last night swearing private oaths to yourself: "Next year, By God, I will be here not as some nobody, but as one of the chosen few. I will make this happen, and I will not quit until I do."

In terms of "end of conference impressions" to take home and pin to your psychic cork board, that's not an awful one to claim.

(to be continued...)


E.C. Henry said...

Great story, Brett. Wish I could have been there. (Jealous) You sound like a very fun guy to party with.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

P.S. VERY curious what kind of person Shane Black is. I remember seeing him after a screening of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," at a Screenwriting Expo Extra event, and I thought the guy was kinda cold. Could use some added perpsective -- if you're willing.

Open for Discussion said...

The word cold and Shane Black shouldn't be in the same sentence! He is a very warm and open person if given the chance!

aggiebrett said...

Shane has always been oddly warm and decent to me from the very first moment I saw him, though I have him seem tentative around people he doesn;t have reason to know and trust (I was brought in via a small group he already knew, so perhaps I came "pre-vetted" in some sense-- no real clue).

I do know this much: he's among the most passionate guys I have ever met when it comes to discussing craft and soul and dedication in the context of writing. I'd walk barefoot over coals just to listen to Shane talk about the power of words.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

Who you callin' pig-headed?

aggiebrett said...


None we know.

E.C. Henry said...

Open for Discussion,

Like what you had to say about Shane Black, but unlike Brett's response your's lacks weight and punch behind it. How do you know Shane Black anyway, which would warrant such an affirming endorcement?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

aggiebrett said...

On this blog, her comments carry great weight and punch -- so much so that I see no reason for her to validate or qualify her previous remarks.


Unknown said...

This is a very interesting read, and although I have no similar aspirations of grandeur, I totally relate to the event. Especially now that I am doing more parenting than traveling the country in my industry, my once a year convention means a great deal to me. Seeing all my old industry friends, getting a little charge out of making a presentation or getting a lead on a potentially big project. It kinda keeps me going. Also there is much drinking, partying and many late nights of bonding.