Southern Fried Film Festival By Mike Thompson (with additional reporting by Rich Osmond). The first weekend of the Austin Film Festival features the Writers’ Festival, a combination of conference and competition...

The first weekend of the Austin Film Festival features the Writers’ Festival, a combination of conference and competition. I attended the fest as a reporter for Cashiers du Cinemart. Actually, this was more of an excuse as my main intention was to provide some moral support to fellow CdC writer, Rich Osmond who had made the semi-finalist round of the screenplay contest.

Neither of us knew what to expect. The picture I had in my mind was the one in the brochure of Tobe Hooper trying to get Joel Coen to shake his hand while John Landis watched the whole thing wearing a bizarre smile on his face. Were we going to be surrounded by all these writers? Was there going to be agents just waiting for us to walk up to them?

The Writers Festival had writers and agents, but it wasn’t a meat market. Instead, it was a place for inexperienced writers to come and listen to people-big and small-who had made it to some extent in “The Industry.” The advice they dished out wasn’t always kind or hopeful, but at least it was honest.

My first panel at the conference was “Entertainment Law Forum: The Ethics of Entertainment Representation.” Here’s how the program described it; “A panel of agents, managers and lawyers square off on the issue of ethics, particularly conflict of interest, in entertainment law.” Square off they did. The two lawyers and one manager spent most of the time trying to defend their positions as the one agent questioned and condemned the actions of almost all lawyers and managers.

The panel gave terrific insight into just how happy everyone in Hollywood would be to screw everyone else over. All of them agreed that the one thing Hollywood does not want is for writers to realize how important they are. At the same time, they made it clear that they weren’t here to help anyone if it wasn’t in their best interest.

The most striking aspect of the panel was their honesty. Lawyers, agents and managers, aren’t exactly known for their strong sense of morality. For a starting panel, this was the perfect way to be uplifted and beat down simultaneously.

By far the most entertaining panel I attended was “Car Chases, Explosions and Fist Fights, AKA the Fun Stuff,” featuring screenwriters Scott Rosenberg and Shane Black. The panel started roughly with Shane Black rambling on about how he hated the words “action movie.” Meanwhile, Rosenberg said plainly, “I have no problem with them whatsoever.”

While Rosenberg admitted he was hungover, he seemed sharp as ever as he took this opportunity to apologize for Gone in Sixty Seconds. He assured us that while he knew his script was not the greatest (see CdC #11 for review), it was certainly better than the finished film. Rosenberg said his goal with Gone in Sixty Seconds was to provide a transition film for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “There are no explosions, Jerry,” Rosenberg recounted with glee. Two weeks later, Bruckheimer called him up and told him, “We need an explosion.”

“It’s all about the trailer shots,” Rosenberg said. “Just put a guy walking toward the camera with a giant fireball behind him and you’ll be fine.”

Both Rosenberg and Black seemed particularly down on the action genre, saying that today’s writers are allowed fewer freedoms than they were in the ’70s. Shane Black related that even with the first Lethal Weapon he ran into studio problems. The studio didn’t want Riggs to be suicidal. “Why can’t they just be two kick-ass cops?” they asked. When they test screened the movie, they devised a new title: “Hot Shots.” This provoked a laugh and a shudder in the audience.

In terms of character, Rosenberg and Black were both frustrated with the fact that in order for heroes to do awful actions they have to have some good in them. Black seemed particularly disgusted with the apparent moral of The Professional that condones Jean Reno as a killer because he takes care of a plant.

Toward the end, the panel was just people throwing out movie titles to see what reaction they would get. Both of them loved The Sixth Sense. They thought The Matrix was okay, but agreed that there wasn’t any way to write a scene to express the fighting style in the movie.

At the end, after being asked about a good villain, the two began talking about how the audience needs to almost want to see the villain succeed. Rosenberg used the example of Alan Rickman in Die Hard. Black talked about the pedaphilistic father in Happiness, and Rosenberg noted how remarkable it was when audience members wished the psychiatrist father to sodomize his own son! At that point, Rosenberg turned to the audience and said, “That is a really fucked up movie.”

The only disappointment of this panel discussion was that Rosenberg couldn’t really talk about his involvement in Spiderman. He did say that he wanted Tom Hanks to play the Green Goblin because we’ve never really seen Hanks play a bad guy before. This seems unlikely, however, as Internet rumors place either Willem Dafoe or John Malkovich in the role.

The only things Rich and I knew about “Horror Night” was that a bunch of horror movies were going to be shown and that Tobe Hooper was going to be in attendance. Yeah, there was something else in the program about a horror documentary premiering and some host guy, but we put that information on the back burner. Tobe Hooper was going to be there. The man who gave us not one, but two Texas Chainsaw Massacres.

We climbed on board the “shuttle bus” and waited for a ride to the theater. Actually, it was just a regular big yellow school bus with the name of the theater written in marker on a sheet of paper taped to a window. After waiting to see if anyone else was going to Horror Night, the driver finally put it in gear and took us-the only two passengers-to the theater. She eventually got us there after making the same turnaround four times.

Upon arrival, we asked the driver if she would be running until midnight as the program had promised. She informed us that someone would be “around at eleven,” but that was probably it. We got off anyway and proceeded to wonder/panic about how we would get back to our hotel room. The festival volunteers were little help with such responses as “Shuttle bus?”, but the man in charge was kind enough to offer us a ride back when the entire night was over—at 9 a.m. the next morning. Resolved to stay through all the films playing if we had to, we set our sites on trying to enjoy Horror Night and Tobe Hooper.

Our host, Professor Griffin (not to be confused with “Professor Griff” from Public Enemy), appeared as the bastard stepchild of the bankrupt idea behind Count Scary and Sir Graves Ghastly. Professor Griffin addressed the audience as “night creatures.” His schtick got very old very fast.

Finally, things got rolling and all my irrational worries of getting back to the hotel subsided as The American Nightmare began. A horror documentary from Adam Simon, director of Carnosaur, the film focuses on the wave of horror films that came out during the late-’60s and early ’70s. Similar to Robin Wood’s book, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, the film explores how the Vietnam War and fear of nuclear disaster influenced horror films. Featuring interviews with George Romero, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and Tom Savini, it’s John Landis who steals the show with his unbridled enthusiasm for the genre. While Landis’s films aren’t even looked at, he provides the fanboy enthusiasm that this documentary desperately needs. While the interviews and clips are good, The American Nightmare plays a little too long. The point of the film is well made by the forty-five minute mark but it just keeps unspooling.

After The American Nightmare finished, it was time for a little Q&A with Tobe Hooper. He came across as the “Bob Dylan of horror directors.” He would start to make a statement and then drift off into some other zone of thought. He did seem particularly proud of his idea that if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were made today the killer wouldn’t be called “Leatherface,” but “Moneyface.” Ha Ha Ha...Huh?

There were lots of kids in the audience whose voices hadn’t changed yet. They were eager to ask Hooper questions that he answered earnestly. The low point of the Q&A came when Harry Knowles—Austinite and “big shot” behind the infamous “Ain’t It Cool News” site-decided to drop as many names as possible when posing a question to Hooper. Yes, Harry, we all know you know people but just keep it to yourself and ask your damn question.

At this point we left the theater to see if the shuttle bus was there and/or if it was ever coming back. A festival staffer told us that another bus would be coming at midnight. This gave us plenty of time for the first classic film of “Horror Night.” There’s something wonderful about being able to say I’ve seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the big Texas. The print was horrible. It looked as if it were crumbling before our eyes. But, the movie is so solid and so out of control that it didn’t matter.

Rich and I were quoting dialogue for the rest of the conference:

“Franklin, I like meat! Don’t say that!”

“You’d probably like it if you didn’t know what was in it.”

“Oooh, he’s weird-looking! Noooo!”

I figured the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” panel would be primarily a geek fest as the topic was writing comic book movies and the panelists included Harry Knowles, Ed Solomon (Men in Black), and Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant). Before the panel even began, however, it took a bizarre turn when Scott Rosenberg showed up and sat in with the audience. It seemed odd that the writer currently reworking Spiderman was not a member of the panel.

The panel started with introductions and opinions on comic book movies. True to his writing style, Knowles spoke more than anyone, talking about how great he thought the first Superman movie was. It wasn’t too long until the panelists seemed to be talking among themselves, with Knowles spewing out information on all kinds of upcoming comic book movies.

As the panel progressed, someone asked Solomon about his work on The X-Men and commented on how impressed she was with the opening scene in the concentration camp. Solomon went on to give Christoper McQuarrie credit for the scene and then expressed his disappointment that the film never really reached a point where it connected with both comic fans and people who had never read “The Uncanny X-Men.”

It wasn’t too long before the topic turned to Spiderman, and all of the panelists began to complain about the direction they had heard the movie was going. Rich and I both locked onto Rosenberg, waiting for him to react, but he sat rigid, neither nodding nor shaking his head. While tempted, I figured it was probably best not to stand up and say, “Hey, if you’re really that concerned, why not talk to the guy in charge?”

As the Spiderman talk subsided, it was time for the Q&A. Not too many questions in, some asshole got called on. “This is a question for the two people up there who have actually written stuff,” he began, referring to Solomon and McCanlies and trying too hard to snub Knowles. Folks sat thunderstruck. One of the panelists muttered, “Christ.” Knowles clammed up, tight. Solomon and McCanlies did a good job of pulling Knowles back into the panel, but it was really too late.

David Mamet’s latest, State and Main, played to a packed house at the Paramount Theater. While the movie was humorous, it was apparently exactly what the audience was looking for as they laughed hysterically at even the smallest of jokes. Rich hadn’t seen an audience so nuts into a film since Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.

The movie follows a film crew that turns a small town upside-down as they attempt to shoot a historical drama. Mamet manages to make fun of and revel in the insanity of movie making with almost everyone involved either scum or a sell-out. Mamet alum William H. Macy is great as a ridiculously over-the-top director, who continues to become more evil as the film progresses. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the writer of the movie within a movie and his “little boy lost” look fits right in. Apparently out to corner the market for playing bad actresses, Sarah Jessica Parker is spot on as a star whose newfound sense of morality further complicates the film’s production. And Alec Baldwin is perfect as the superstar actor, whose “hobby” is underage women.

Ultimately, State and Main is nothing more than pure entertainment. Mamet’s trademark dialogue is there, but not with the same force as something like Glengarry Glen Ross. Still it’s nice to see him sit back and have fun.

The last panel for Rich and me was “The New Sunday Inspirational,” featuring veteran screenwriters Dean Riesner and Paul Mazursky. Both embodied the style and class you would expect of an actual writer. They didn’t take themselves or anyone else seriously at all.

After listening to so many younger writers complain, it was nice to see these two guys pretty much still enjoying themselves and their careers. Reisner talked about working with Don Seigel and how his was the draft that was ultimately used for Dirty Harry.

Dropping more names than Harry Knowles, Mazursky talked about meeting Fellini for the first time, the importance of casting and how in today’s movies are different from the past’s. “Today [if we started with a room full of people like this] you would all have to die, in the first ten minutes.”

Ultimately, the Writer’s Festival was a surreal experience. Writers and agents dished out the hard facts of the business. A bizarre kind of inspiration came out of it. In one sense you realize that you are one of so many others who is struggling to make it in a business that doesn’t want you. But in another sense you realize that you aren’t alone, and that regardless of the odds, people do make it. In its own way, the festival provided exactly what a writer needs-a firm dose of reality about the ridiculous world of writing and making movies.

Back to Issue 12