Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Austin Powers: The Once and Future Festival

Passion makes the old medicine new:
Passion cuts the veins of weariness.
Passion is the elixir that renews:
How can there be weariness
When passion is present?
Oh, don’t sigh heavily from fatigue:
Seek passion, seek passion, seek passion!
Rumi

Passionately address yourself to work that matters.
Shane Black

And so we begin again. I’ve debated as to whether to dive right in, act as if nothing’s changed, no time has passed, just keep on trucking; or whether I should, you know, offer up a little meta-bloggery, discuss the approach we might take, the point of entry that would make the most sense. Perhaps you have a feeling about which way I’m leaning, perhaps not, but let’s just say that I’m glad to be here, blogging, and feeling good.

I spent several days recently taking the R5 into Philadelphia for a training course to bolster up skills demanded by the day job. It was not something I was altogether eager to submit to, as the event seemed perniciously corporate; but early on something changed, something probably inside my head, and the effort required to get there (including a longer-than-usual commute just to reach the station) made the whole venture seem worthwhile. I was out of my element in terms of schedule, location, routine; could not rely on the standard patterns; and oddly I found myself on something like an adventure.

Traveling along the Main Line, we rumbled past the spacious backyards of upper-middle-class suburbia, picking up elegantly dressed businesspeople at one stop after another: Wayne, Radnor, Bryn Mawr, Villanova. As the train drew closer to center city, you could actually witness the “progress” of socioeconomic degradation (but I’ll allow that downtown Philly is not the heart of darkness I once fancied it). Free from the responsibility of driving and the usual workplace demands, and without Jenifer and Hawk’s company, my thoughts often turned to my writing projects and the writers’ conference of the Austin Film Festival I’d attended what was now already some weeks ago.

I felt I was in a time of measured progress, at best; a restaging, one of those necessary interludes between full-bore efforts. For weeks I’d been struggling with time itself, the feeling of chronic jetlag, and a sense of toil without end. Even the I Ching’s counsel was bleak: “You have been wounded by dark forces.” This is not to suggest that I was unhappy, only to observe that a creature of routine finding himself without routine may be prone, at times, to fretting. And as Austin rolled around this creature also found himself without a new script in hand to tout, push, and sell; without a recent accolade or attaboy to trumpet; without anything, really, at all.

This proved to be perfect.

I took Jenifer’s suggestion to go without an agenda, to not concern myself with the unfinished state of my current script. This freed me to pitch the spate of new projects that had arrived unbidden in my noggin. It was both comforting and exhilarating to see a future beyond the historical epic, and I saw that even if I didn’t generate another idea I could easily have work for the next decade.

Austin was different this year, too. There was something richer about it, and I am not alone among my peers in expressing this. Perhaps we are in a different place now as writers, perhaps more receptive or just plain ready for the roof to blow off so the party can begin. The panel discussions seemed elevated, or perhaps the crowd, like us, had simply gotten older and there was an accretion of experience and skill and ambition and talent so that the whole beast of the conference was free to delve into the nitty gritty of writing and getting your writing turned into flickering images for others to clamor into a theater to view. I don’t remember, for example, repeated questions about what genres are hot and what are the studios looking for and should I write a spec that’s Hostel meets Wedding Crashers?

The overall thrust, from the writers generating content to the producers shepherding it and the actors embodying it, was that you need to write what you need to write. Concern yourself not with calculating the kind of spec that’s supposed to make a sale or garner assignment work—as if you could really ascertain this anyway. Trust that your own method, as wicked and flawed and weird as it might seem, will suffice—and is closer to that of the pros than to anything gleaned from books. To this end, Terry Rossio shared his inspiring theory of targeting, which boils down to writing beyond your current capacities. I know my heart swelled when Lawrence Kasdan, who knows something about screenwriting, said:

“The thing you must write is what will get you through.”

It’s going to be really cool to see what’s in theaters five to 10 years from now.

Sure, there was the occasional disappointment, such as the discovery that Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York would not be playing until Tuesday. I can’t remember when I was so excited to see a movie about a figure of speech. And, of course, the damn thing always starts later than I expect it to on Thursday (in the words of Rhino the fanboy hamster: “Let it begin!”). But on the whole the conference felt supportive, at times maybe even triumphant.

At registration, a young man, a kid, was signing up for the pitch competition. I don’t even remember whether he asked for my advice. Maybe I just let him have it, which isn’t really my style, but I was excited for him to be on his first outing and let him know that the event had been really good for Tom and me. He had no idea what he was in for—how could he?—and that was all the more reason to go for it. In that moment I felt like a seasoned veteran, and envied him a little bit, and neither is a bad thing when it comes to affirming yourself as a writer.

These moments happen all the time in Austin. They are a large part of the conference’s value. Another key takeaway is that you meet people who are more like you, in the ways that matter, than most of the folks in your ordinary life back home. You are now a card-carrying member of a scattered tribe, not the only one ensorceled by the stories of the silver screen.

When two such word-warriors meet, a common element of the introduction is “How many times have you been to Austin?”—this being the screenwriter’s arch equivalent of “How much ya bench?” In other words, beneath the posturing and angling (for there is that, too): How serious are you? That’s another question Austin will ask you. Are you doing everything you need to do? Are you letting go of those things you don’t?

My answer to the first question, five so far, includes an oddball ringer and a touch of the primordial. My first time in Austin was so long ago I hadn’t even started screenwriting. Not really, anyway. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to go.

A graduate student at the time, I’d had a paper accepted at the Society of Literature and Science, some fantastic Foucaultian thing linking cyberpunk, constitutional psychology, and 1930s bodybuilding. (I know, right?) I had already signed on to pack into a van and haul off to Atlanta for the conference when a friend of mine, a Ph.D. candidate in Communications, invited me to attend Austin instead. I was torn between what seemed like obligation and what seemed to hold a spark of destiny. It was one of the few times I have felt with a deep bodily knowledge that I was standing at a turning point in my life.

Until that point, I hadn’t acted on the dream that had started all those years ago with The Empire Strikes Back. That was the film where I first understood that films are made and before that written. In college I spent many hours standing in the stacks of the library reading journals of film criticism and books of Pauline Kael’s collected reviews, as if even sitting in a carrel would signify too much of a commitment. This was as close to screenwriting and filmmaking as I could allow myself to get, when my overriding obligation was to get a solid education in a reasonable discipline, when the university’s self-defined major in film meant cobbling together a courseload and the road to downtown Pittsburgh seemed much too far a trip for someone without a car, an understanding of bus schedules, or the time to squander on extracurricular pursuits whose end was something other than a corporate job with benefits.

Perhaps this explains why my memories of my first Austin are fragmentary:

In a warehouse listening to the soundtrack to Apollo 13 before the feature began, some film starring Denis Leary, Joe Mantegna, and Annabella Sciorra that, to my knowledge, never attained a wide release.

Pitching the late writer/producer Michael Piller on two-thirds of a script cobbled together in three weeks. He saw through our hasty effort but never hesitated to take us seriously.

Geena Davis iceskating furiously. That guy from Hack being really evil in a barn. Windmill. Water torture.

Ah, yes. The Long Kiss Goodnight. This film wasn’t part of the festival program in 1996, at least I don’t think it was. Now why exactly my friends and I would drive out to some suburban cineplex to catch a movie we could easily see back in State College or any other semi-populous district I have no idea. Even less clear to me is why I would preface this viewing with the alcohol-and-caffeine cocktail of a Shiner Bock (imbibed at the excellent but now defunct Gilligan’s restaurant) and a 32-ounce Diet Coke. Unaware that its writer, Shane Black himself, was probably already holed up in the Driskill lounge and beginning what would become his near-annual chautauqua, I got up no less than six times to pee during what felt like a very long night, indeed. Mr. Black, my apologies.

Clearly, we didn’t do the conference right. We had no rhythm. No preparation. We made no connections. Still, the conference made me feel like a writer and, more important, became the known thing I would return to when I was ready.

Let me put it plainly. My decision to attend the Austin Film Festival changed my life.

. . . . .

Saturday night, the last night of the conference, finds our posse down Brazos at a large pool hall that could only be found in a college town, or maybe only one in Texas, I don’t know. Tom is delightfully drunk, and he and I are getting schooled on the green felt field by our newfound friend Tim, a Los Angeleno by way of Chicago. Someone approaches me. The kid from registration. He wanted me to know, he says, that he’d won the pitch competition. He just wanted me to know.

He is proud, we shake hands, and I remember the intoxicating feeling of victory, but also more than that, much more: the tangible sense that you are moving forward, that others are seeing you, and that you have both the capacity and the responsibility to passionately address yourself to more than a Driskill cheeseburger.

The kid’s name, by the way, is Nick Hurwitch. I have no idea what will happen to him, how he will answer Austin’s questions, and whether he will ever return. But he was here, as my friends and I were, and perhaps he, like us, saw greatness sitting in the director’s chairs at the head of the Driskill Ballroom and felt that maybe, just maybe, there was greatness waiting for him, too.


“You have to have this thing that will not be extinguished.”
— Lawrence Kasdan

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4 Comments:

Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

That's the cutest picture of Hawk so far!

2:49 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

I've still not yet been able to fully wrap my mind around what was different this year for me. It's been a wild 14 or so months, and I keep thinking it's just the start of something weirder and (hopefully) wonderful.

I hope somebody in the tribe does something amazing soon. I just want to be able to stand there and smile a stupid slackjawed with them, regardless of who hits first.
.
.
.
B

12:19 AM  
Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

I must say that The Long Kiss Goodnight was not Mr. Black's finest hour. Though perhaps the script was lost in translation to screen.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

B: Weird and wonderful is fine by me. Let's do it.

E: To hear Shane tell it, TLKG includes some of his finest work, but I think he'd agree with you on the whole. Have you seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?

R

9:23 AM  

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