With the conference winding down, I have found myself having AFF withdrawals. Now that I was able to breathe (and sleep in) again, I was able to actually look at a schedule and try to pick something to go to in advance.
I had no intention of seeing Inside Llewyn Davis. It's not that I wasn't interested, but I knew that it would be coming out in theatres soon (December 20, in Austin). So when my friend Alexa told me she was going to make it downtown again for the screening, along with a handful of other friends who would be there, I figured I might as well see what it's all about.
I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. Films like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are up there amongst my favorites. But lately, I felt the films they have put out haven't been their best. I tried to keep an open mind as AFF Film Department Director Ryan Darbonne introduced Oscar Isaac (who plays Llewyn Davis) and T-Bone Burnett (executive music producer on the film), who gave a quick introduction to the movie.
Saturday evening at Austin Film Festival, I ran into a friend from high school at The Hideout. As we stood in line talking with a college-age badgeholder about what we'd seen so far, we noticed some recognizable faces were basically cutting in line in front of us (with permission from AFF folks). Some cast members from NBC's Revolution wanted to check out the Shorts 4 program.
Among the actors I spotted were Giancarlo Esposito, Stephen Collins (7th Heaven) and Brenda Strong (who's on the new Dallas). Not a one of them refused a picture with a fan (as our new young friend was happy to discover). We got in, but I'm not sure all of the film passholders in line did. Indeed, two of the three shorts programs I attended that day were full to bursting. AFF might want to consider moving the shorts to a larger venue next year.
To say I have been all over Austin Film Festival would be an understatement. Although this is my third festival to attend, it is the first year that I have gone as a writer instead of an AFF staff member.
My experience has been a little different than that of my fellow Slackerwood contributors. I kicked off the festival Thursday afternoon in the OnStory Press Room, assisting in taping interviews for the television show's upcoming fourth season. We had a pretty packed schedule over the first four days of the conference, so I wasn't sure how being in that room for the majority of the festival would affect my overall experience.
It ended up being the time of my life. Even though I was just asking a certain set of questions for the show, I got to chat face-to-face with some great writers such as David Lowery, Rian Johnson, Vince Gilligan, Ray McKinnon, Jonathan Demme, Callie Khouri and many others. To hear these filmmakers talk about their process, including the challenges they face in their craft and how they overcome them, was truly inspiring. I may not have attended all of the panels I wanted, but I feel that I took away some very valuable information just from these interviews.
I never know how early to arrive to line up for an AFF panel; I tend to err on the side of caution and was downtown an hour before the first panels I wanted to attend. Before "A Conversation with Callie Khouri" began on Sunday morning, I actually saw her in the bathroom. Yes, I stopped myself from asking when Avery and Juliette will finally hook up on Nashville (but inquiring minds want to know!) -- and didn't even ask her about it during the panel itself.
Ben Blacker (creator of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast) led the interview with Khouri, who told us about her childhood in Kentucky (after her birth in San Antonio). She read a lot for stimulation, but as for writing, "I never thought it was something I could do."
Khouri wrote Thelma and Louise in six months after living and working in L.A. for a time. This screenplay was the "greatest experience writing I've ever had... I felt like something had come to me... it consumed me." She didn't follow any guidelines for screenplay structure and didn't even use an outline, "I knew nothing about screenwriting." She began with the idea that two women go on a crime spree, and it took off from there. She said the whole feeling of the movie came to her at once, like "being punched in the heart."
Once in awhile, you look at an Austin Film Festival panel listing and your heart just goes pitter-pat. Or thumpity-thump. Or whatever noise it is when you are especially excited about a panelist. I may be old and jaded but still susceptible. When I saw Elaine May would be in Austin for the fest, I decided I would go hear her speak no matter what time of day it was and what else I was supposed to be doing.
But last week was a little crazy for me, and I am never very organized with my fest scheduling, so it's not really surprising I got the date of Elaine May's panel wrong and missed it. (Dale Roe has a great write-up.) However, I did make it to Rollins on Friday to see A New Leaf for the first time and enjoy a Q&A from star/writer/director May.
This 1971 film is May's directorial debut -- she also co-stars in it with Walter Matthau. He's brilliant, she's brilliant, it's terribly funny, and I just found out it's on Amazon Prime streaming so I can watch it again soon. Preferably with my husband, who might find some sympathy with a character who's involved with someone terribly flaky who can't put her clothes on properly and has crumbs all over her front after eating and falls down and spills things a lot.
Gardner (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park) is a socially awkward, 25-year-old mail carrier in the indie romantic comedy Dear Sidewalk. He keeps to a usual routine which includes a postal route walking through Austin neighborhoods, a daily chat with sarcastic retiree Trudy (Lana Dieterich) and weekly meetings with his small philatelic club. This stamp-collecting group is made up of his postal service co-workers (Davi Jay, Hugo Perez and C. K. McFarland) who encourage him to get out more. Meanwhile, he sleeps in a boat in front of his best pal Calvin's (Josh Fadem, 30 Rock) house.
Then fortysomething divorcee Paige (Michelle Forbes, True Blood) moves into a house on his route and disrupts his daily pattern. She flirts with him and takes him to the Cathedral of Junk. She throws his watch in Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake, if you prefer). What does this mean for Gardner?
Mazzello at first appears uncertain of how he wants to portray Gardner, but grows into the role as Dear Sidewalk progresses (or maybe it just bothered me less as the film went on). The relationship between Gardner and brother-from-another-mother Calvin is sweet -- they are both odd birds -- and fits with the goofy vibe of the film. Indeed, their friendship seemed more believable than the idea of Paige and Gardner getting together.
The character of Paige comes off as incomplete. We're given some facts about her (she's recently divorced, used to be an artist and hates the blind dates her brother keeps setting her up on), but there is much left unknown about her and not as much depth to the role as I would like.
Sure, the plot is a smidge disjointed, but the writing made me laugh out loud more than once. The supporting characters (diverse in age and ethnicity, yay) were standouts of the movie. Trudy is fearless and flirty. Gardner's co-workers are quirky and full of advice for him. I can't neglect to mention Ashley Spillers, who injects some verve into Dear Sidewalk as a love interest for Calvin [see our interview with Ashley].
Dear Sidewalk is director Jake Oelman's first feature film, and shows Austin as a walkable city: Gardner doesn't own a car, and seems to take the path near Auditorium Shores daily. As the mail carrier traverses streets dense with trees, the film also features some colorful houses in town. The Austin in this movie has the feeling of a smaller suburban town -- with a great view of downtown easily available.
I started off my Saturday at the festival by sitting in on the "Veronica Mars: From Small Screen To Silver Screen" panel at the Driskill Hotel Ballroom. Ben Blacker (from the Nerdist Writers Panel) moderated this excellent conversation with Veronica Mars creator and Austin resident Rob Thomas and actor Chris Lowell ("Piz"). Over the course of 75+ minutes, Thomas spoke about the benefits and difficulties of crowdfunding the upcoming Veronica Mars feature film through Kickstarter, developing the screenplay, shooting the film itself and his post-production process (which has been going on for the past 11 weeks).
Over 90,000 people contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, which is the third highest-funded project in the site's history. While $5.7 million can create a decent indie film, this is a franchise that is controlled by Warner Bros., which means that the resources to make a full-length movie were still somewhat limited. In the end, Thomas calls it a "sprawling" movie with 60 speaking roles and lots of extras. They shot 115 script pages in just 23 days and were unable to shoot a lot of takes before moving on.
The final film is still being tweaked, but underwent a successful test screening this week. Thomas wrote the movie for the hardcore fans, but now is balancing the target audience with the awareness that there needs to be some "spoon-feeding" in the editing process to help the newbies catch up to the stories of characters established over three television seasons. When asked if a sequel could also be crowdsourced, Thomas didn't rule it out, mainly because of how rabid and excited the fanbase is to see this project come back to life: "If it's successful, maybe we can be the low-budget James Bond."
After voting early on Thursday, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse Village for the first night of the Austin Film Festival. Arriving 40 minutes before the 7:30 screening, I was #50 in the badges line for the marquee screening of Philomena. Obviously, many Austinites thought the Village theatre would be a safe choice for Thursday night... but besides the badges, not many of the attendees with film passes got in. The room was packed.
This new Stephen Frears drama (with comedic elements) stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman yearning to know what happened to the son she birthed 50 years ago. He was born in her teenage years at a convent where she was forced to work as he was put up for adoption. Former political figure Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to aid her in her search as he works on a human interest story about it.
Based on a true story, this heart-rending film had me tearing up minutes before Dench would make a comment that would crack me up. Philomena has a refreshing message of mercy, along with a clever script that makes much of the class differences between Martin and Philomena.
I realized as I raced to my car and hurriedly drove to the Texas Spirit Theatre that Philomena and the next film on my schedule, Political Bodies, share a commonality: Both films have to do with reproductive decisions. A teen in mid-20th century Ireland, knowing nothing of birth control, Philomena's choices during her pregnancy were very limited. And if conservative Republicans have their way in Virginia, options for the women of that state will be similarly limited... in 2013.
Political Bodies follows the players in the 2012 battle for reproductive rights in Virginia, from GOP lawmakers to women who run the clinics affected by legislation. Abortion provider Shelley Abrams talks of attacks the clinics had to prepare for in the past and says that currently "the assault has come from our own government."
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.