Four years ago, the Austin Film Festival started producing a little television show for local PBS affiliate KLRU about the screenwriting process called On Story. The show, which was composed mainly of interviews with screenwriters conducted during festivals over the years, captured the essence of AFF, a festival that built its name on the belief that the writer is the "core of the creative process in filmmaking."
That first season of On Story did so well in Austin that KLRU General Manager Bill Stotesbery came to the producers and suggested putting the show into the PBS distribution system. If they were lucky, Stotesbery said, maybe 12 PBS affiliates would pick it up for the following season. The show had no marketing push and no permanent staff, but within two months it had been picked up by 28 stations. Now heading into its fourth season (and with a marketing team now behind it), On Story can be seen on 151 stations around the country.
AFF co-founder Barbara Morgan credits the show's subject matter for its success.
"There aren't a lot of entertainment shows out there about the writing process," she says. "We stick to our zealotry – writers and writing. And we try to focus on the inspiration and creativity of the writer, not so much the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. We want to know about how an idea for a story came about or how some source material changed during the writing process and before it got to the screen. We're not so concerned with what it was like working with Julia Roberts."
In the world of movies, the battle over who deserves the credit for the success of a film – the writer (ask Gore Vidal) or the director (ask the entirety of the French New Wave) – has been raging forever, and the image of the screenwriter standing around aimlessly on a movie set has become shorthand for a lost soul looking for purpose. Which may account for why a writer-focused festival like AFF and a writing-focused show like On Story have turned much of their attention over the last few years to television writing. In some ways the modern-day showrunner – say, Sopranos creator David Chase or On Story guest Matthew Weiner, who came up with Mad Men – is the embodiment of the AFF ethos: the true venue for the auteur, where one person can guide an entire narrative experience, from the mind to the page to the screen. Seeing a trend before it was a trend, AFF has been presenting TV shows and TV writers for 15 years, and this season of On Story will feature five TV writers, out of a total of 14 episodes.
It's no surprise then that the guest of honor for the fourth season's premiere is perhaps the most famous showrunner around, Vince Gilligan, creator of the recently deceased television masterpiece Breaking Bad and the undisputed star of last year's Austin Film Festival. Gilligan spoke no fewer than five times during the festival – about how he came up with the idea for the show, the creative process he and his team of writers employed, even the technical, aesthetic, and sartorial influence William Friedkin's The French Connection had on the production (think handheld cameras and porkpie hats), and episode one of On Story's fourth season is a greatest-hits compilation of his insights.
"We were very fortunate to have Vince Gilligan at the festival," Morgan says, pointing out that the writer had as many groupies during AFF as any of the movie stars in attendance. "He's as articulate in person and as generous with sharing his process as anyone we've worked with. He has an encyclopedic mind and a true creative vision, which is what AFF is about.
"Sometimes you just get lucky."
The new season of On Story debuts Saturday, April 19, 7:30pm on KLRU-Q. Check listings for additional airings. Past episodes are available at www.onstory.tv/watch.
Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.