As much as I hate Daylight Savings Time and the impending colder weather, fall means it's time for Austin Film Festival. I first attended AFF last year, just a few months after moving to Austin. It holds a special place in my heart - for the inspiration I received, the friendships I forged, and as a temporal marker for my arrival in this city. I immediately decided to make it a tradition, and this year was just as fulfilling as the last.
AFF is unique in that it's the only writers-focused film festival. Screenwriters are held in high esteem and panels are generally centered around the craft and business of screenwriting. And of course, lots and lots of film screenings are held in theatres around town.
Below is an extensive recap of my experiences this week.
Legend: If you can get past the foul language, Tarantino-level violence and one-dimensional female characters, you'll greatly enjoy Tom Hardy's performance as both a London gangster AND his criminally insane gangster twin.
Baby, Baby, Baby: For fans of 500 Days of Summer, this hilarious and honest exploration of love and heartbreak is sure to endear you, just like the adorably awkward cast and crew that charmed me at the Q&A following the screening.
Two Lunes: Probably the most important film to me at the festival, Two Lunes reveals the parallel experiences of a South Korean international student in L.A. and a Vietnamese student in South Korea. I chatted with writer/director Huieun Park following the screening, telling her about my personal connection to the themes of cultural transition and loneliness as an outsider, and she was deeply touched. We exchanged contact info, so I hope we can build a friendship around our passion for that particular perspective which is so rarely shared.
Brooklyn: Nothing particularly innovative about this period piece telling the story of an Irish immigrant to New York, but the characters are heartfelt, banter witty, romance satisfying, emotions honest and setting glorious.
Father's Day: A daughter's begrudging Father's Day visit uncovers past wounds as her dad continues his guise of playful affection. A lovely and honest depiction of broken family relationships, and how it's possible to love someone despite their many faults and persistent frustrations.
Red Rover: Ripe with religious undertones and uncertain optimism, this haunting film follows the short journey of two teenagers who escape the mass suicide chosen by their small community in the face of a supposed apocalypse. Exploring the abandoned countryside, they reassure each other with a bittersweet narrative of what might have been.
Sophie: When a Chinese mother abandons her daughter, the little girl and her reluctant grandmother struggle to come to grips with their new reality and eventually find a way to connect. I loved this short for shining a light on a situation that is far too common in Asia.
Motherland: When I realized this short was in Thai, I got REALLY EXCITED. It presented an interesting perspective on Thai culture and family dynamics. I introduced myself to writer/director Dew Napattaloong after the screening, a Thai UT film student who grew up between Thailand and the States.
Central Texas Barbecue: I'm not much of a barbecue person and I rarely seek out documentaries, so major props to this short doc for giving me a legitimate meat craving.
20 Somethings Premiere
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to be an extra in a short film directed by Will Bakke and Michael Allen, the creators of Beware of Christians and Believe Me. Will Bakke was one of the judges at ACU Film Fest when I was still a student there, so of course I jumped at the chance to connect with them and support their project now that I was in Austin, too. My bestie, Katheryn, came down from Abilene to help them with the shoot as well. Two all-night shoots, one freak storm and a handful of one-take shots later, we finished filming. The short turned out beautifully so of course I was delighted when I heard the news that it would be premiering at AFF! Seeing it on the big screen was definitely a highlight of the festival. I'm already looking forward to the eventual 20 Somethings feature!
Wisdom from Gary Ross
I attended a conversation with Gary Ross, writer/director of Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games, and writer of Big, Dave and The Tale of Despereaux. Unsurprisingly, he had a lot of brilliant things to say.
On Big: "It was the easiest thing I ever did. Pure fun."
"I highly recommend getting a writing partner. It can be so lonely in your 20s."
On Dave: "I realized I would only be able to live with myself if I wrote the movie I was happy with, even if they didn't like it."
On Dave: "It was such a cheesy idea that could easily be awful."
On Dave: It required a sustained suspension of disbelief, so casting real people from the political sphere was crucial to creating a sense of realism.
"The only thing that ever kills a movie is running out of time."
On Pleasantville: "It's not so much a statement as an examination. It's Genesis: about accepting the the Garden - snake, apple and all."
"I want to be a director, not just shoot my script. You have to obliterate and reimagine the script while you're shooting, and then again in the editing room. It takes personal bravery. You have to be inventive and calm and have a bit of a chuckle that you're jumping out of a plane. Don't be too attached to the sound of how you wrote your script. Be open to happy surprises. Investigate the potential inherent in each scene."
"You need to keep your vision intact. Is it your movie or theirs? Satisfy yourself."
"I'm scared all the time, but I surround myself with people who make me brave. I'm as scared as you are, but we both have to try."
"Edge is the easiest place for filmmakers to hide. It's simple to be cynical and not reveal yourself and your true feelings."
On Seabiscuit: "The hardest thing you could possibly write is a movie about kindness. It's about broken people in the Depression, an unlikely nuclear family. These people were kind to each other. They healed each other with kindness."
On Seabiscuit (inspiration for a particular scene): "I was galloping a horse along a trail by the sea in Baja, which was a sleepy little town at the time. Bushes ran on either side of a packed dirt road that went for maybe ten miles straight. Warm wind in my face as it went from dusk to twilight. Eventualy, I realized that while I could no longer see, my horse still could. It was the most exhilirating (but safe) horse experience of my life."
"Movies are thematic investigations. My favorite scenes pose a question rather than supply an answer. You can have a clear point of view - you just can't put it on a fortune cookie."
Some of the best opportunities at AFF are the round tables, where attendees have the chance to engage in small group discussions with experienced filmmakers. Here are a few tidbits:
Mark Swift: "Don't underestimate the social aspect of the screenwriting business. Get better at talking to people. Take an improv class."
Mark Swift: "Write what you want to write. Write one for them, then write one for you. Cut through the noise. Find a producer who likes your voice. It's a matter of breaking through, then staying there. You have no idea how good you have to be to get the opportunity to write a crappy movie."
I asked: "What advice do you have for me? 22 years old, a year out of school, working at an office job. How do I stay inspired and develop myself as a writer?"
Mark Swift: "Get close to people who are already working. Be a production assistant. Read scripts. Find other writers and read each other's work."
Matt Cook: "Go on some adventures. I spent four years in the military when I was your age and I am constantly drawing from that experience. Keep writing and the cream will rise to the top."
Mark Swift: "Don't be like all the other film students. Get a weird job. Have a point of view. People will recognize authenticity on the page."
Two of my favorite people from last year's festival were John August (writer of Big Fish, host of Scriptnotes podcast, and ridiculously nice person) and Nicole Perlman (writer of Guardians of the Galaxy and one cool lady). John August does a live podcast recording at AFF every year. I was in the audience last time when he interviewed the likes of Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Jane Eyre), Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), Peter Gould (Breaking Bad), and more. I also attended a fascinating panel in which Nicole Perlman described her process of writing Guardians of the Galaxy, which is where my ladycrush began.
This year, John August and co-host Craig Maizin had Nicole Perlman on the podcast, along with Steve Zissis of HBO's Togetherness. Sadly, I wasn't able to attend the live recording this year (or anything with John, Craig or Nicole for that matter), but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it after the fact. Nicole Perlman continues to kick ass. (Notice me senpai!)