Austin Film Festival 2014
The lines start right outside my office building, extending from the Omni Hotel and across the block to the Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue. Austin Film Festival has begun and the crowd is buzzing. Filmmakers and film buffs alike are speaking with enthusiasm about the opening film: an indie drama called The Humbling, starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig.
After an hour, the doors are finally opened to the elegant theatre. The audience files in, many clad in the unofficial filmmaker uniform of skinny jeans, flat caps, stylish Warby Parker frames and the occasional man bun. We introduce ourselves as writers or cinematographers and exchange business cards before launching into passionate discussions about our favorite films and current projects.
Voices die down as the lights dim and we settle in to thoroughly enjoy the film. It’s the best audience a filmmaker could hope for, laughing and crying and greeting the ending credits with hearty applause. Afterwards, young screenwriter Michal Zebede is invited onstage for a Q&A. An audience member asks how she got where she is today and she answers simply: “It took persistence, passion and luck.” This answer sets the tone for the rest of the week. The spirit of the Austin Film Festival is nothing if not optimistic, with an unapologetic love for story.
The week’s lineup is a collection of well-crafted indie films, some with familiar names attached: Reese Witherspoon stars in Wild (based on the memoir of the same name), Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley star in Oscar hopeful The Imitation Game, and Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in his western drama, The Homesman. Other films of note include One Eyed Girl, a dark psychological drama about a disturbed therapist entangled in a cult, and Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, which earned a standing ovation on closing night for its depiction of journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran.
Meanwhile, a smaller venue down the street is hosting short film screenings. The Hideout is a bit cramped, but an eager audience celebrates each short and the filmmakers who created them. Afterwards, the cast and crew members in attendance climb onto the small stage for a talkback. Most are young, barely out of film school or presenting their capstone projects, and many are international filmmakers on the festival circuit. All are passionate about their stories and well aware of the many things they have yet to learn. An Australian writer/director speaks about the joy of seeing a live audience respond to a story he told. The director of a Russian short confesses the embarrassment she inevitably experiences when sharing a film she will forever see as lacking. Afterwards, I chat with a Toronto-based filmmaker who tells me about the strain on her budget as she submits to festivals, even with her full-time day job in marketing.
The next morning, I recognize the same filmmakers attending panels with the creators of the world’s most beloved films. Austin Film Festival is the writer’s festival, so it’s the screenwriters who are applauded as they settle into film set chairs for their interviews. Scott Myers, writer of The Blacklist’s Go Into the Story blog, leads several panels throughout the weekend and later describes the festival as “Woodstock for screenwriters” in a follow-up post on his blog.
In one panel, the writers of Fight Club, Dead Poets Society and Dallas Buyers Club discuss the theme of the status quo as explored in each of their films. In another, Guardians of the Galaxy writer Nicole Perlman walks through her experience in the Marvel writer’s program, describing how she fought to keep Rocket in the lineup and rebooted Star Lord’s character for the film. Star-struck, I introduce myself to Big Fish writer John August after his panel on point-of-view choices in screenwriting.
In the Round Table sessions, small groups of festival attendees join industry professionals for intimate discussions of the craft and business of filmmaking. Erin Brockovich writer Susannah Grant advises young filmmakers to watch their money, opting for a cheaper car in order to earn the creative freedom to work on passion projects.
John August hosts a live recording of his Scriptnotes podcast in St. David’s church nearby. His guests include the creators of brilliant shows like The Office, Breaking Bad and True Detective, but when an audience member asks if they are confident as filmmakers, they launch into a discussion of impostor syndrome and assure the audience that no one ever feels like they’ve “made it” – least of all them.
Austin Film Festival wouldn’t be complete without a celebration of the local film industry. A documentary titled 21 Years: Richard Linklater explores how the Austin director has impacted the environment of indie filmmaking. The pilot of a bold new TV series called American Crime screens at the State Theatre, followed by a discussion with screenwriter John Ridley, who won the 2014 Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave. The series explores issues of racial prejudice in the justice system and is shot right here in Austin, pulling from a pool of talented local actors.
After the final screening on Thursday night, festival attendees linger by the glowing marquee for as long as they can. Eventually we wander away, exhausted and inspired to tell stories of our own.