Page Two

The agony and the ecstasy of SXSW 2002

Page Two
Tuesday, March 12, 2002, about 3:20pm: I've ducked back into the Chronicle offices from South by Southwest mayhem and am busy editing "Postmarks," picking letters and putting them in order. Usually, we print 60-75% of the letters we receive, but lately, for a variety of reasons, it seems to clock in at about 50% or less. Consequently, I'm taking more time with choosing and ordering letters (those we don't print end up online, if you're interested). I go to ask someone a question, and while walking through the office, run into Marge Baumgarten. She looks at me startled, saying "Aren't you suppose to be on a panel right now?"

I panic and start cursing. I don't realize what time it is, so I'm sure I've really screwed up, but at 3:30pm I'm supposed to host a discussion with John Sayles for SXSW Film at the Convention Center. I curse at Marge, my typical kill-the-messenger reaction, while racing back to my office and car keys. My cell phone rings. I carry a cell phone two weeks a year -- the week before and the week of SXSW. It is Charlie Sotelo, the Film panels coordinator, "Where are you?" he asks. "I'm on my way, just tell John to wait a bit! We can go on late!" I shout, as though louder means I'm moving more quickly. I get in the car, headed for a suicidal race down I-35 to the Convention Center.

Years ago, I gave up participating in SXSW panels. I'm not a good moderator and I'm not a good panelist. I agreed to talk to John because I've known him for coming up on two decades and, more important, he is a very easy interview. Ask John the hint of a question and he's off on an entertaining, enlightening answer. This one should be especially easy, because the focus will be on the John Sayles retrospective we're showing at SXSW Film 2002, four of his first five films, Return of the Secaucus 7, Lianna, The Brother From Another Planet, and Matewan. I know every story connected to these films.

A couple of nights later, at Fonda San Miguel, we dine with, among others, Sayles, his partner and producer and my dear friend Maggie Renzi, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim McCanlies (writer/director of Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 and adapter of The Iron Giant). Tim is about to direct his second film from his own script. Everyone who has read it refers to it as "the best script I've ever read." Still, Tim is nervous; it's his second film and first with name actors. Sayles and del Toro launch into the best directing seminar I've ever heard, dispensing advice and wisdom on everything from working with actors to directing a scene to placing cameras. It goes on. Eventually, I leave to work SXSW Music doors. Maggie and other friends go with me to be dropped off to hear music, but the directors stay and continue talking -- for a long time. I wish I had heard this discussion before my "Conversation With John Sayles." But racing down I-35, late, I'm desperately thinking of questions without any foreshadowing -- questions about history and community, about films of the past and films of the future, of working with actors and working with Maggie.

As I pull up in front of the Convention Center, the phone rings. It is Charlie. "You're right," he laughs, "he is Nick. When I told him you were running late, instead of waiting, he said he'd just start without you." I've long contended that John Sayles was very much like Nick Barbaro, Chronicle publisher, SXSW director, and my longtime friend and business partner. One of the reasons Maggie is such a good friend is that we have so much common experience. Charlie was seeing the light. I illegally park by the Convention Center, pulling the car partly up on the curb.

Running in and up the stairs, I hit the room out of breath. John is happily talking on stage. As I run up, everyone laughs. Foolishly, I clip on the mike first. Then Charlie opens the door, I toss him my keys and, with a stage whisper, note "It's illegally parked on the west side." Only the mike carries it out to the audience, who laugh harder. Finally, relaxing back in, I ready my first question, about history as a leading character in all of Sayles' films, even the contemporary ones, when my cell phone rings. The audience is delighted. Given Sayles' genius, the conversation goes brilliantly despite its overly dramatic beginning.

A few hours later, the SXSW Film Conference 2002 was over, though the Film Festival was still running and Music was just about to begin.

It had started for me on Friday night, March 8, introducing Sayles and Renzi to a disappointingly small turnout for Lianna, their second film, at the Convention Center (and folks, you missed a great one here -- it will be back). We then drove over to the Austin Film Society's Texas Film Hall of Fame celebration at the Austin Studios (this "Page Two" is like "Advertisements for Myself"; I'm not even going to begin to detail the conflicts of interest, but they permeate every line). There I helped run the show. After talking about Warren Skaaren and the Award named in his honor and introducing Dan Rather, who would induct award-winner Jack Valenti, it was back to the Paramount. Heading at great speed onto I-35 South, the car's trunk flew up. Backing across three lanes of access road and after pulling into a driveway, it was shut. Hitting the packed Paramount, I introduced Alexandra Pelosi's marvelous documentary, Journeys With George, to an audience that included Nancy Pelosi (her mother and the U.S. House of Representatives minority whip) and the governor. As I walked out of the Paramount after the film began, the audience was already laughing so hard they were losing punch lines a few minutes into it. I made it back to the TFHOF after the ceremonies were over but in time for the Flatlanders. Thus SXSW Film 2002 began.

Sunday night, March 17, the wondrous madness and exhilarating mayhem of SXSW 2002 ended. The next morning, I checked out of the hotel and drove back to the Chronicle, to begin work on this issue. Since that Tuesday when I was off running for my late panel, the Chronicle staff had finished one of our biggest issues of the year, the SXSW Music/Austin Chronicle Readers Music Poll results. They followed this by putting out three daily issues that were so much fun to read (keeping in mind I had nothing to do with them. I saw them for the first time in the morning at the Hyatt).

This year's great adventure is over. We are all very tired. We are all, I think, very proud. No matter how you were involved -- attending, listening, watching, reading about, hearing about, consciously avoiding -- I hope it was fun. As exhausting as it is, it certainly was on our end. Now I feel more numb than happy and more sad than anything else. I can't believe it's over; it went by so beautifully fast I feel like I missed the whole thing. I always do. At least there is next year.

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South by Southwest, SXSW, Postmarks, letters to the editor, Austin Chronicle, Marge Baumgarten, Marjorie Baumgarten, SXSW Film panels, SXSW Film, SXSW Film conference, John Sayles, Charlie Sotelo, Return of the Secaucus 7, Lianna, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewa

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