The Adventures of a First-Timer at the Austin Film Festival
When my phone rang one day this past September with an Austin, Texas area-code, I thought it was just another robo-call from “Jennifer” trying to sell me solar panels for my house, or “Tim” offering me a chance to consolidate my debt, but no, it was a living human-being! Matt Dy, the Screenplay Competition Director for the Austin Film Festival (AFF), informed me that my horror script, Pray For Me, had advanced to the Semifinals in the Horror Category of their Screenplay Competition. And with that, came an invitation to Austin!
My friend and fellow writer/film-maker, Richard Stephen Bell, had been singing the praises of AFF for years. He had attended several times in the past (I had dubbed him the Mayor of Austin), both as a Semifinalist and Second-Rounder (AFF’s label for, essentially, a Quarterfinalist), and he again advanced this year to the Second Round. He advised me he was going again, also with the goal of promoting his not-for-profit filmmaking educational program: Cinema Ed. With Rich as my guide, I made my decision: I was taking my maiden voyage to the AFF.
Truth is, the name, Austin Film Festival, is sort of a misnomer. Through reputation and longevity, AFF has earned the right to be listed in the company of other film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, and South by Southwest, also hosted in Austin, Texas, but AFF focuses more on the writing aspect of all forms of entertainment. Founded in 1994, this venerable event has become an annual staple every October, as hundreds of writers, from novices who’ve just penned their first script to screenwriters with Hollywood credits, make their pilgrimage to Texas. (The running joke is that industry folk from LA go to Austin to meet other people from LA.) Of course, the festival screens many films during its usual ten-day run, mostly in the second half, but the first four days is their Writer’s Festival.
The Writer’s Festival offers panels, roundtables, Q&As, and, of course, parties in the evening. AFF consciously creates an atmosphere where actors, producers, directors, agents, et. al., must interact with people. There are no velvet ropes barricading them or back-stages for them to hide. However, from the opening ceremonies, one of the first polite admonishments they give is: “Do not pitch.” If you attend a panel, which featured a movie producer or literary agent, and decide to approach them at the conclusion, do not pitch your project. Talk with them, attempt to establish a rapport, but do not pitch. You’re creating relationships that someday may lead to professional ones.
The epicenter of events is the historic Driskell Hotel in downtown Austin, a grand architectural marvel that opened in 1886. The labyrinth layout and décor, despite being more compact and Southwest flavored, somewhat reminded me of being at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado (from The Shining), save for the mountainous landscape, snow, and Jack Nicholson chasing you with an axe. The apex of events within this epicenter is the Driskell Bar, that when built over one-hundred and thirty-years ago, probably never imagined the scores of folks who would cram in there every night when the Austin Film Festival’s operating.
The proceedings of AFF all take place within a couple square-of square-blocks of the Driskell Hotel on Sixth Street in Austin, a city-state in south-central Texas, which lives up to its reputation as a mecca for the arts and creativity (and doubles as the state’s capital). It’s the perfect surreal setting for this event.
Another connection I made between the Driskell and the Overlook is the hypnotizing atmosphere each location possesses, although the Driskell’s benevolence is the polar opposite of the Overlook. Every time I opened the tall doors of the Driskell’s main entrance and headed inside, I knew something special was going to happen:
One night, I’m walking through the Driskell Bar and see a commotion around a tall, thin African-American man. As I get closer, I discover the man to be Keenen Ivory Wayans (actor/producer/writer/director of In Living Color and Scary Movie and its first sequel). Standing next to him, and unfairly not getting as much attention, was comedian and producer, Robert Townsend, looking sharp in his suit and hat. I didn’t stop for a selfie as many others did; I just gave Mr. Wayans a fist-bump and kept moving.
The next day, I’m walking down the Driskell’s split-staircase, when I almost knock over an older, bald, white guy in gym clothes, who was ascending the stairs. I turn to apologize, only to realize it was David Simon (creator/writer of Homicide, The Wire, and The Deuce), who had probably just come from Gold’s Gym across the street, or just wanted to dress comfortably. By the time I processed this realization, he was long gone, and I didn’t pursue him; he didn’t look like he was in the mood anyway.
One morning, I attended a panel which focused on singular setting movies (i.e.: stories that take place in one location). Four screenwriters comprised this panel: Brian Nelson (screenwriter of Hard Candy and Devil), Chris Sparling (screenwriter of Buried, ATM, and The Atticus Institute), Frederick Mensch (screenwriter of Nightingale and proprietor of MovieBytes.com), and Dwain Worrell (writer on Marvel’s Iron Fist and screenwriter of The Wall). I’ve been kicking around an idea for a home invasion story that’s set entirely inside the house, and since many of these movies are thrillers/horrors, I decided to attend this ultimately, informative panel. That afternoon, I entered the Driskell Hotel and discovered Mr. Worrell sitting alone in the lobby. Even though he had his laptop open and cellphone out, and cold approaches aren’t my strong-suit, I remembered his friendly, grounded demeanor during the panel and decided to just say hi and thank him. He invited me to sit down and we ended up having a thirty-minute conversation. Again, no pitching or “Hey, can you give my script a read?” It was just two dudes, Dwain and Paul, talking about movies, life, writing, anything.
The most surreal experience, in a week filled with many, occurred one late-night while hanging out in the still-packed lounge area of the Driskell Bar. A seat across from me became vacant for a moment before becoming re-occupied by a male figure. I looked up to discover Shane Black. If you don’t know his stature in the industry or movie credits, he’s the no-nonsense writer who capitalized on the spec-script boom of the 80s and 90s, and penned Lethal Weapon and its first sequel, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and recently wrote and directed Iron Man 3. Although known for being a ubiquitous figure at Austin Film Festival, having him sit next to me was still a startle. After small talk (I’m from New Jersey, the World Series is great this year, etc.) that I suspect he grew bored of, Mr. Black joked that me and the two other folks I was sitting with look like members of the 90’s Brit-rock-pop band, Oasis. I guess he arrived at this description due to our artsy beards and/or long hair, but I don’t see the resemblance.
Now, I have seen several interviews of Mr. Black throughout the years, and had witnessed him that week on a few panels and Q&As, always wearing grey with red accents, and knew, obviously as a man who’s made millions using words, and one who does not suffer fools, I would not win any sort of back-and-forth, one-upmanship, neighborhood “dozens”-type of dialogue challenge with him. And any New Jersey-style, “You don’t know me like that!”, break a chair over this head maneuver, was not called for in this situation. It was neither the person, time, or place to do such a thing. So, what’d I do? I laughed it off, took a big gulp of my Captain and Diet Coke, and knew I’d write about it later. Shane Black: 1, Paul Williams: 0.
The Austin Film Festival, care of the aforementioned Matt Dy; Gabbi Lindgren, Screenplay Competition Administrative Coordinator; and the countless other workers, many of whom are volunteers and very young, run a professional, punctual operation. In the past, I’ve submitted a couple of films to the Austin Film Festival for consideration. Though ultimately not selected, they mail a formal letter advising you of the results. In early October of this year, Matt Dy called me again to regretfully inform me my script would not advance to the Finals. After I protested and demanded my screenplay be judged by different readers, Mr. Dy was gracious enough – totally joking – I thanked him and rejoiced in what a thrill it was to be a Semifinalist.
In case my previous narrative wasn’t persuasive enough, here’s a quick list of some of the industry professionals that attended AFF this year (not already mentioned): Walter Hill (writer/producer/director of 48 Hours, Aliens, and Alien 3; Kenneth Lonergan (Oscar-winning writer and director of Manchester-by-the-Sea); Scott Frank (screenwriter of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report, and The Lookout); Scott Alexander (writer of Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The People vs. OJ Simpson); and Michael Arndt (Oscar-winning writer of Little Miss Sunshine). If you’ll forgive another shout-out to a friend, but one that is immensely talented, and was a panelist at this year’s Austin Film Festival: Jenny Turner Hall, who is a Peabody Award-winner and executive producer/writer/director of the fiction-podcast, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. So happy and proud of you, Jenny.
For horror or science-fiction writers reading this, you’ll be happy to learn AFF offers two separate categories that accept submissions exclusive to those genres. For further information, you can visit the AFF site.
Due to living 1,800 miles away from Austin and having a mountain of family and professional obligations (much like all of you), I treated this venture to the Austin Film Festival like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and explained as much to my family and day job. Now that I’m an official AFF veteran and convert, it’s my goal to attend, if possible, every year in some capacity. I’ll just have to see if my life agrees with me… Thanks, Austin.
The Plot Sickens: Check out Paul’s three-part series on Horror’s Best Decade!
(Still photo of Suspiria via Scream Horror Mag.)