Many Austin Film Festival-goers kicked off their week by attending one of the first panels on the schedule -- "A Conversation with Jeff Nichols." In a Q&A session that lasted a little over an hour on Thursday afternoon (it was moderated by Christopher Boone), the Austin-based director discussed the three films he has completed so far (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) as well as his upcoming release, Midnight Special. As a writer and director who has achieved critical success while working with both small and big budgets, Nichols had plenty of advice and entertaining tidbits to share with the audience.
Nichols, who comes off as both boyish and wise, eschews traditional film-school techniques (such as following a strict screenplay formula) but stresses the importance of adhering to certain personal storytelling rules. He described his process as beginning with various large ideas (masculinity, first love, financial anxiety, etc.) and then filtering them through a story that is ultimately about the characters he has created. Nichols' actual writing process involves arranging notecards filled with scenes and plot points and holding tightly to the idea of point of view.
Humble about his creative accomplishments and clearly knowledgeable about the business of making movies, Nichols made for a practically ideal AFF guest. The audience remained rapt and appreciative throughout, and this panel was an excellent reminder that AFF is all about dissecting the filmmaking process and appreciating good work. Here are a few highlights from the session:
- Much to Nichols' disappointment, Shotgun Stories was rejected by both Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival. However, it was embraced at the Berlin International Film Festival and also screened here at AFF, where it received the Feature Film Award in 2007.
- Nichols often writes about white men (because he is one), but expressed the desire to include strong and realistic female characters in his work. That Jessica Chastain's character was domestically-oriented in Take Shelter was a reflection of his mother, who Nichols considers one of the strongest women he has known.
Making its Texas premiere at this week's Austin Film Festival is the debut documentary from Theo Love, Little Hope Was Arson. Love's film takes a close look at the string of fires set at East Texas churches a few years ago, talking to some of the communities affected by the arsons as well as the perpetrators of the destruction.
I conducted an interview with the director via email in the midst of his preparation for the festival.
Slackerwood: What drew you to the subject matter of the 2010 church fires in East Texas? Do you have ties to Texas?
Theo Love: I first learned about the story through an article in a Texas Monthly magazine two years after the events took place. I don't think I read more than two paragraphs before I knew that I had to make this into a movie.
I grew up as the son of missionaries in Southeast Asia, so naturally, I had a very religious upbringing but instead of going to a church building every Sunday, we would meet in houses or outside. My spirituality had no ties to buildings whatsoever. When I moved to California after high school, I got a job working as a janitor at a mega-church. As I cleaned this huge sanctuary in the middle of the night, I couldn't help but question the priorities of western Christian culture.
One of the made-in-Austin films having its premiere at this year's Austin Film Festival is Dear Sidewalk, a romantic comedy about a mail carrier (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park, Justified) who falls for an older divorcee (Michelle Forbes, True Blood, The Killing). Also featured in the cast is one Ashley Spillers, who has acted in many buzzworthy local films of late (The Bounceback, Pit Stop, Loves Her Gun) and even appears in the viral short Hell No.
The former Austinite also stars in the horror-comedy Saturday Morning Massacre (aka Saturday Morning Mystery if you are buying it at Wal-Mart), which screens at the Housecore Horror Film Festival on, appropriately enough, Saturday morning.
Before Austin Film Festival started up, Spillers took part in this email interview for us.
Slackerwood: How did you come to be involved in Dear Sidewalk?
Ashley Spillers: Well, I auditioned! Beth Sepko was casting and she called me in to audition (while I was on set of Zero Charisma) for the role of the Barista, but Jake and Ford Oelman were in the room, and I guess they saw me more as a... Tracy! Which I was thrilled about, of course.
It's no secret that Austin Film Festival has a stellar lineup this year. Although we here at Slackerwood are always eager to tell you our top picks for upcoming films, we thought we would switch it up a bit by also telling you a little about the conference panels we are most excited to attend.
AFF left no stone unturned with their lineup of speakers and presenters for this year's 20th anniversary celebration. If you know anyone on the AFF staff, you know how long and hard they worked to bring you these stellar writers, actors and filmmakers. The awardees alone are names to be marveled at: Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, The X-Files) will receive the Outstanding Television Writer Award; Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) will receive the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award (to be presented by Paul Thomas Anderson); Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise, Nashville) will take home the Distinguished Screenwriter Award, and AFF recently announced Susan Sarandon will receive the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking -- Actor Honoree Award. The fest will also present a special Heart of Film Award to producer Barry Josephson for all of his work with the festival these past 20 years.
In Hellaware, a sly comedy written and directed by University of Texas graduate Michael M. Bilandic, a young New York City photographer stumbles upon a crude and downright terrible YouTube video made by a group of suburban Delaware rappers. Oddly intrigued, he tracks them down in the hopes they'll offer up enough perfectly edgy material to help him break into the fancy art world scene, but all he really ends up exposing is his own naivete.
Bilandic's second feature has already captured more attention than usual for an indie film thanks to a creative promotional strategy. Weeks before Hellaware's first screening, the filmmakers posted the music video featured in the movie (which they designed to be over-the-top and hilariously horrible), and sat back and watched as it amassed over 100,000 combined views. Commenters called it out for being vulgar and just plain bad, unaware they were critiquing something never meant to be taken seriously.
Hellaware stars Keith Poulson, Sophia Takal and Kate Lyn Sheil, and it will screen Friday, Oct. 25 (10:45 pm, Alamo Village) and Wednesday, Oct. 30 (9:45 pm, Hideout) during Austin Film Festival. Via email, I had the chance to ask Bilandic a few questions about the video experiment, his life as a filmmaker thus far, and what he's looking forward to seeing at AFF.
Slackerwood: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Michael Bilandic: Yeah, pretty much, but I didn't really know what that meant. I remember reading some quote from Madonna a million years ago where she accused Abel Ferrara of sitting in a corner drinking wine while everyone else made the movie (Dangerous Game). I remember thinking, "Shit, I could do that! If that's what being a filmmaker is, I could get into that!" I honestly thought it would be some easy career.
Unfortunately, it's a lot harder than lurking around getting drunk. I actually wound up being Abel's assistant for a while, and it turns out he's one of the busiest and hardest working people ever. So the job description I was working with turned out to be wrong. I blame Madonna for disseminating that false info.
Austin Film Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, features an eight-day program of panels and films specifically focused on screenwriters. Along with a handful of highly anticipated festival favorites bolstering the lineup (among them 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis), the film schedule contains dozens of features, documentaries and shorts chosen for their original points of view and creative storytelling techniques. Of course several of these have Austin or Texas ties -- they were either made by local filmmakers or were filmed in the state.
Here are a few potential gems found on this year's AFF Features lineup that happen to have strong Texas connections:
All of Me (Documentary Feature Competition) -- This documentary was filmed here in town and features a group of friends who met through Austin's Big Beautiful Women community. The dynamic of their social club begins to change when many of the women choose to undergo weight loss surgery, and what results is a poignant study of relationships, body image and societal norms. All of Me is directed by Alexandra Lescaze.
Hellaware (Comedy Vanguard) -- Written and directed by University of Texas grad Michael Bilandic, Hellaware is a "biting satire of the art scene" and tells the story of a New York photographer who finds himself in a messy situation. The film stars a few familiar faces for indie fans: Keith Poulson (Harmony and Me, Somebody Up There Likes Me), Kate Lyn Sheil (Green, The Color Wheel, Somebody Up There Likes Me) and Sophia Takal (Gayby, V/H/S).
Highlights of the Austin Film Festival 2013 lineup, announced Tuesday, include Cannes Grand Prix winner Inside Llewyn Davis from former Austinites Joel and Ethan Coen, Toronto IFF favorite 12 Years a Slave, and the star-studded ensemble August: Osage County. The full lineup consists of over 70 features and over 100 short films, including several US and world premieres.
Other eye-catchers selected for the 20th anniversary lineup include Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela), Philomena (Stephen Frears' latest), a documentary directed by Whoopi Goldberg (HBO's Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley), and the previously announced Nebraska from Alexander Payne.
Films are presented in traditional categories like Marquee Screenings, Documentary Features, Comedy Vanguard and Dark Matters, and this year reveals a couple of new sections: Heart of Film and Write/Rec, which both highlight the best in low budget filmmaking and "out of competition jewels." (We were excited to see that Write/Rec selection 3 References comes from local filmmaker James Christopher, who guest blogged the film's shoot for Slackerwood.)
The full lineup for the 2013 Austin Film Festival has yet to be fully revealed, but the first wave of feature titles was announced a few days ago and news of the short film program has been inventively trickling out via the Twitter feeds of AFF Film Department Director Ryan Darbonne and Director of Programming Bears Fonte.
This week I checked in with Bears to find out more about the selections, which vary wildly in tone, style and worldview (that's a good thing, of course). He gave me brief descriptions of each film and also revealed which shorts have Texas and/or Austin connections. Whether you’re looking to push yourself to explore the unknown or just filling an empty time slot when you don’t know what else to see, sitting down for a couple of shorts programs is usually a smart film festival strategy.
To help guide you a little, here's what we know about this year's promising AFF Short Films lineup:
Are you looking for a place to network, bid on movie memorabilia, and nibble on tasty tidbits from local restaurants? Austin Film Festival's 11th annual Film & Food Party -- a fundraiser for AFF's Young Filmmakers Program -- offers you the chance to do just that in one night.
Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3) will be the honorary chair for the event on Wednesday, October 23 at the Driskill -- the night before AFF begins.
Jette took me as her plus-one to last year's party, and we got to taste a variety of flavors from local spots. While I was slightly disappointed that the "cheese balcony" only had two or three types of cheese available (I was expecting a ridiculous cornucopia of cheeses), I did enjoy them all. Mini cupcakes and sweet-and-spicy popcorn were among other yummy options available.
Restaurants involved in the Film & Food Party this year include Foreign & Domestic, Garrido's, Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, and Kenichi ... along with many more.
To give you some idea of the scope of the silent auction, items in 2012 ranged from a leather messenger bag (which Jette bid on*) to spa bundles to autographed scripts and movie posters. The live auction is likely to include some nifty getaways.
Slackerwood's own Marcie Mayhorn is on the planning committee for the festivities, so it's sure to be great. You can buy tickets on AFF's site; $100 online, $125 at the door, $80 for AFF members or badgeholders.
In addition to the short films already leaked via Twitter, the Austin Film Festival has now announced the first ten films of the 2013 lineup (including one from an Austin-based director) as well as a special retrospective series featuring an array of talented directors. Jonathan Demme will even screen scenes from a work in progress.
Standing out from the list are Alexander Payne's latest (Nebraska), a documentary about religious conflict within a family (Mom, Dad, I'm Muslim), and the world premiere of Sombras de Azul (production still above), based on the experiences of Austin director Kelly Daniela Norris, who traveled to Cuba in the hopes it would help her come to terms with her brother's suicide.
In an interview last year, Norris described the challenges of creating such a personal film and discussed how she was able to finish the project with the help of Kickstarter. Norris also drew from her experience working with award-winning television writer David Milch and calls Sombras de Azul "a diaristic manifestation of my need to heal."
Austin Film Festival will run from Oct. 24 to 31 at venues around the city. This is the 20th anniversary of the screenwriter-focused festival, and we'll continue to keep you updated as more films (with hopefully many more Austin and Texas connections) are announced. Badges for AFF 2013 are available here.