Austin Film Festival: Day One

As some of you may know, my buddy Alex works for the Austin Film Festival, and thanks to his generosity, I’ve been given a comped “producer” badge, which gives me full access to the festival – all of the panels, parties, and films. I asked off work today and tomorrow so that I can attend the panels.

Today was the start of the festival, and was a comparatively light day compared to what I have lined up for the rest of the weekend. Here’s a rundown of what I attended today: “Common Mistakes Writers Make”, “A Shot of Inspiration”, “Chicago 10“, and “The Walker“.

The focus of “Common Mistakes Writers Make” was fairly straightforward, although a bit duller than I expected. All of the panelists produced a handful of anecdotes and common scenarios that they felt had held back writers trying to break into the business. Most of the discussion was about fairly simple stuff, like formatting your script the proper way, or not using brads that are too long because they might cut the hands of a script reader.

Two of the panelists were writer/directors. Daniel Petrie Jr., writer of “Turner and Hooch” and “Beverly Hills Cop” and Alex Smith, co-writer/director of “The Slaughter Rule” with his twin brother. The third panelist was an agent named Gayla Nethercott. Mr. Petrie actually looked a bit like Philip Seymour Hoffman, and tended to pause interminably while gathering his thoughts. It definitely had a way of dragging things to a complete standstill, especially because he ended up dominating the conversation.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with this panel. Most of the stuff seemed like pretty basic advice, the sort of thing you’d find in just about any book on screenwriting, and most of which I had already heard before in various places. The only really standout bit of information I remember from this panel is a point made by Alex Smith. He said that when he was working on Slaughter Rule, there was a scene where he introduced a conflict and resolved it shortly thereafter in the same sequence. When it was time to edit the film, he discovered that the scene could be taken out entirely and the film just flew on by without it. Accordingly, his advice was to never introduce and then resolve a conflict in the same sequence.

There was also a certain amount of discussion about the USC theory of script structure. Building on the three-act theory, there is also a theory of eight “sequences”. An example would be the Death Star sequence in Star Wars, i.e. rescue the princess, trash compactor, escape, and so on. The USC theory goes that your first and third act each have two sequences, and the longer second act has four. This, of course, is one of the pitfalls of script structure, i.e. a second act that drags because of all of the extra business.

Panel #2, “A Shot of Inspiration”, was a big improvement, even though Daniel Petrie Jr. was on this panel as well. I was a bit worried at first when he stuck around, but it seemed like he had warmed up at this point, and he no longer brought every discussion to a standstill as soon as he began talking. In fact, he actually told some pretty entertaining anecdotes and had some good advice. The other panelist was Robin Swicord, who has done adaptations of The Jane Austen Book Club, Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda, and Little Women, among many others.

Ms. Swicord was an excellent speaker, and gave some really illuminating answers to everyone’s questions. She started off the panel by talking about the inspiration for an early play she wrote that got her moving towards becoming a screenwriter. Apparently the inspiration for her play came from reading Revelations in the Bible and wondering what someone would be like if they believed they were pregnant with the second coming of the savior. Interesting stuff.

She also had some good advice about doing playful exercises to keep yourself fresh when writing, i.e. writing scenes that are off the outline that you don’t intend to put in the movie, just to help yourself continue being inspired and keep the creative juices flowing. She also talked about (and I’m paraphrasing) letting your inner child come out to play under the eyes of a “watchful parent”. I.e. the structure should be there, but you need the freedom to be creative and playful when writing. She also talked about how she sometimes re-outlines her scripts once she has gotten to the ending, just so she knows for sure where she wants everything to go, and because of how the structure may have changed as she wrote.

I don’t remember which panelist said that “The creative mind flees from its obligations,” but that one definitely hit home…

Another standout moment was a joke that Mr. Petrie told: A writer, a director, and a studio executive are stranded in a desert without water. The writer sees trees off in the distance, which means there must be water, so the director gets them motivated and guides the three men on the treacherous path to the trees. Once there, they all start digging until they find water… at which point the studio exec unzips and pees in the water. The writer and the director, horrified, ask him why he peed in the only water for miles, and the exec says: “I felt like it needed something.”

I also saw two films tonight. The first one, Chicago 10, was an odd documentary/docudrama hybrid. Half of the film was existing footage, but to recreate the court scenes and other unrecorded moments, animated sequences were used with voice actors impersonating the real people. The film focused on the protests, riots, and aftermath during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was an interesting movie, but I’m not sure how I feel about the animated parts. Most of the time it was fairly cheesy CGI animation, although occasionally 2d animation was used. One problem I had is that the voice actors for the judge and prosecutor made them sound like cartoon villains. For all I know, their voices were probably based on the real people, but it still felt a bit manipulative to have the “bad guys” in the piece come off like stock characters in a Dudley Do-Right cartoon. Other than that, however, it was a fascinating portrait of a remarkably turbulent time in history, and the choice of animated sequences, although sometimes questionable, was a fascinating way of recreating the time period.

The second film I saw, The Walker, starred Woody Harrelson as a male escort or “walker” in Washington DC who spent time socially with rich socialite women. Early on in the film he gets implicated in a murder mystery when one of his female friends discovers the body of her lover and he helps her hide the fact that she was having an affair with him. At first, Harrelson’s performance was a bit too mannered for me, but once I got used to it, it grew on me. Other than that minor criticism, I really enjoyed the film – it’s a fairly simple thriller, but the characterization and dialogue make it unique, and Harrelson is absolutely hilarious.

Alright, well, now that I’ve written that novel-length post, I’m going to head to bed so I can rest up for tomorrow morning. I have to get up early so I can drive downtown and find parking in time to make it to a 9am panel, and then my day is jam-packed from there on out. I’m going to try and write about each day of the festival if I can, but considering how much I wrote about two panels and two films, I can only imagine how much I’ll have to write after a full day.

Oh, I almost forgot… while I was waiting in line for The Walker, I had a 20-minute conversation with the director of Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist. More on that tomorrow (or once I’ve seen the film), but that conversation is exactly the kind of thing that should happen when a guy like me goes to a film festival.

One thought on “Austin Film Festival: Day One”

  1. That’s the trouble when you write a post labeled “Day One” for a three-day event. Your faithful readers expect “Day Two” and “Day Three”. This coming from someone who has not updated his own blog in months.

    Anyway, reads like a great experience. You have some wonderful friends and met and heard very interesting people.


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