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.
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).