AFF: Scene & Heard

A few ramblings about this year's Austin Film Festival

AFF:  Scene & Heard

After a few years of going to film festivals and conferences – and Austin is home to plenty – you start to notice things. Each conference has its own look, its own personality. This is partially cultivated by the promoters, is partly instilled by the participants, and is partly because of uncontrollable factors like the weather.

Case is point, what people wear. During South by Southwest, the de rigueur fashion accessory is the straw cowboy hat with the sides curled in. While we’re in Austin, it still happens to be in Texas, and I’m guessing the hat is an homage to the Lone Star State. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a smart accessory as there’s a lot of walking around in the sun. And I won’t get into the three phases of SXSW, wherein the clothes change as dramatically as autumn leaves. (Hint, it moves from the slept-in look to vampire black, with the straw cowboy hat appearing here and there.)

At this year’s Austin Film Festival, I couldn’t help but notice that kicky, multi-colored cowboy-ish boots were the ode-to-Texas fashion accessory by many women. (I don’t think a real shit-kicker would be caught dead in these fanciful boots.) Not much walking in this festival. So boots, no matter how uncomfortable, could still be worn without too much damage, in order to declare one’s Texas flair. “Real” Texans would most likely be wearing Ropers, but hey – those kicky little cowboy boots are cute. You go, girls! As for the men, the untucked, long tail, waist hugging dress shirt, hanging over neat, straight leg jeans with either athletic shoes or a smart pair of leather shoes were the look. The narrow, rectangular shaped glasses were the look on either sex.

People are nice at the Austin Film Festival. People are likely to start small talk about any number of things under the guise of networking. I don’t mean to complain but because I have “Producer” on my badge, people assume a lot about who I might be, and seem eager to chat me up. This year, I must have been confusing. I was the one walking with a pimp cane (I had knee surgery earlier this year), with two blue streaks in my hair. I was also the one with a bright white rebozo over my portly shoulders (the Driskill Hotel is friggin freezing). Actually, one blank stare through a pair of sunglasses was enough to put off the eager person who wanted to strike up a conversation about the various flavors of Luna Bars or the taste of oxygenated water on their way to the discovery that no, I was not some TV exec or other behind the scenes person worth knowing. I’m not a writer with a screenplay in my bag. I’m just a working journalist, taking it all in. This is the part where the enthusiastic networker’s eyes glaze over and there is suddenly something more interesting across the room. (Uhm, not to be too snarky, but the phenom known as David Simon was a journalist before moving on to make stellar TV. The great novelist Gabriel García Marquez was a journalist before becoming a world class novelist. Just sayin.)

On the other hand, small talk is part of the charm of AFF as well. The “big” names rub elbows with the wannabes. Everyone plays nice. There’s not much pretense. I’ve never asked any of the name filmmakers or TV writers who attend the AFF, but it seems to me that given the ordeal of filmmaking and TV production, no one is particularly worried about giving away trade secrets. Panelists speak plainly because there’s nothing to lose. As Noah Hawley (My Generation, The Unusuals) said in his panel on TV Showrunners, “it’s a rarefied group of people who can do this job.” Only a few are truly cut out for TV work – someone who is intrinsically able to do The Work, keep all the plates spinning, while keeping their vision, and swiftly learning the career-saving skill of knowing when to throw a fit and when to shut up. I’m not sure you can teach that. I suspect it may be part of one’s DNA.

The bigger they are, the nicer they are: I interviewed Phil Rosenthal (Exporting Raymond). Is there a nicer, more down-to-earth man? TV and now film scribe John Wells (ER, China Beach, The West Wing) boiled down his successful career to the fact that he “comes from a long line of Southern liars.”

The truly great are brilliantly candid and candidly brilliant: When the amazing David Simon (The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Treme) was pontificating about the sometimes fractious relationship with studios and their execs during a last minute panel, screenwriter David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) chimed in:

Peoples: (amused) You don’t talk that badly about the crooked cops or drug dealers you’ve dealt with.

Simon: They’re good people.
People love being at AFF: Everyone. Sure, schedules change and big names fall on and off the speakers list, causing some consternation and a change of plans, but once you’re in those rooms, there is a wonderful exchange, an eagerness coming from both the speakers and the audience. Because when it comes right down to it, it’s all about hearing the story: success stories, failures, stories from the past, predictions for the future. As long as story remains a thing of value, no matter what the weather, no matter what the accoutrements of the moment, the economy, the number of wars raging, the Austin Film Festival will survive.

See you next year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Film Festival, David Simon, David Peoples, Noah Hawley, John Wells

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