Fade In

Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference & Festival

Programmer Jason White and co-founders Barbara Morgan and Marsha Miller

photograph by Kenny Braun

Now as ever, the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference is driven by a singular passion for (imagine at this point the hushed, incantational tones of Steven Spielberg) the word... the written word. And once more, in the nooks and crannies between workshops on topics such as self-agenting and coping with the pain of superfluous rewrites, they'll also be showing some movies at the Austin Film Festival. But major changes are afoot this year for a film program that, in the overall scheme of the conference, has been little more than a rudimentary tail on a very large dog. With more movies than ever (about 80 films, divided pretty equally between features and shorts), the Austin Film Festival now has not only a stand-alone identity and a fulltime coordinator but an ambitious plan to attract general-public film buffs with enthusiasms ranging from the Cannes Un Certain Regard winners to TNT's Movies for Guys Who Like Movies. Thus, unlike previous years, the people lining up for screenings at five participating festival theatres may not be the same pasty-faced, carpal tunnel syndrome-splinted screenwriters who will pack AHFF's 40 panels and workshops.

"We're actively trying to reach out more to the one-movie-a-week viewer this year," said festival co-founder Marsha Milam. "It's a natural progression from being interested in movies to developing an active interest in how and by whom they're made. So by having public screenings with people like Oliver Stone, Buck Henry, Bud Shrake, and Dennis Hopper doing intros and Q&As, we hope to give them a little inside dose of the moviemaking process. We've brought Jason White aboard as film program director to get that done."

Perhaps the ultimate expression of AHFF's embrace of the huddled multiplex masses is a program, scheduled for Saturday night, Oct. 4, 7:10pm, at the Paramount, during which pop culture shaman/webmeister extraordinaire Harry Jay Knowles will introduce his personal Best of the Fest selections. Even off-line moviegoers will instantly recognize Knowles as the big, Falstaffian redhead who seems to be present at every free screening in town. Live and in cyberspace, he advocates for film with Red Guard-like fervor and promises to deliver one of the more impassioned and entertaining sessions of the festival.

Other festival highlights include:

* A 30th anniversary screening of Mike Nichols' The Graduate (Friday, Oct. 3, 7:15pm, at the Paramount) at which screenwriter Buck Henry will be present for a Q&A session. Henry, an omnicompetent artist who also wrote Catch-22, Day of the Dolphin, and To Die For, created the Get Smart television series, and has made numerous movie and TV acting appearances, possesses one of the industry's more articulate, provocative minds, and can be expected to shine in the Q&A setting. Henry will also be on hand to introduce What's Up, Doc? (Saturday, Oct. 4, Barton Creek Cinema) and The Third Man (Saturday, Oct. 4, 12:10am, Texas Union).

* The opportunity for a five-hour, total-immersion Oliver Stone Experience Friday, Oct. 3 at the Barton Creek Cinema (unfortunately, it overlaps with the Buck Henry/Graduate program at the Paramount). The evening opens at 7:30pm with a screening, for which a separate conference-attendee ticket is required, of Stone's brand-new film, U-Turn. A Q&A will follow at 9:30pm, then Stone will introduce a presentation of his harrowing 1978 feature, Midnight Express, at 10:45pm. He'll also be available to sign copies of his new book, A Child's Night Dream.

* If you still haven't had your fill of Stone, you can get up the following morning, Saturday, October 4, and attend the "Free for All With Oliver Stone" panel discussion starting at 11:15am at the Paramount. Public tickets are available for this event.

* A Saturday, Oct. 4 Tribute to Dennis Hopper at the Austin Music Hall. Easy Rider, the 1969 film that imbued millions of disaffected suburban teens with the desire to roam wild and free on customized choppers, take drug-assisted mental voyages of discovery, and flip off homicidal rednecks, will open the program at 7:30pm. Hopper will then field questions at 9:05pm. The night will conclude with Hopper introducing a 10:20pm screening of the U.S. premiere showing of his new film, The Blackout, by controversial director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral). If you just can't get enough of Dennis Hopper, swing by the Paramount Monday, Oct. 6 at 7pm for another debuting film, Space Truckers. This sci-fi comedy is directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) and features Hopper, George Wendt of Cheers renown, and Stephen Dorff.

* A special screening of the 1973 cult Western Kid Blue (Friday, Oct. 3, 10:20pm, Paramount). The movie will be prefaced by comments from writer Bud Shrake and -- who else? -- Dennis Hopper.

* A showing of Paul Chart's Cannes award-winning film, American Perfekt (Thursday, Oct. 2, 7:10pm, Paramount). The film's star, Amanda Plummer, will join Chart for a Q&A.

* The presentation of Neil Mandt's independent feature, Hijacking Hollywood (Thursday, Oct. 2, 9:40pm, Paramount). The film, starring Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Valmont) and Scott Thompson (from TV's Kids in the Hall and The Larry Sanders Show), is the story of a young Midwesterner taking his big shot at a career in the movies. Mandt, Thomas, and Thompson will answer audience questions after the screening.

* The closing night program, of yet another American premiere screening: Robert Greenwald's Breaking Up (Thursday, Oct. 9, 7:15pm, Paramount), written by Michael Christopher and starring superstar-in-waiting Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, Romper Stomper, Proof) and Salma Hayek (From Dusk Till Dawn, Fled). Christopher and Crowe will be on hand afterward to discuss the film.

Additionally, several general-release features will be shown at the festival, albeit without any attendant celebrity appearances. Some include James Toback's Two Girls and a Guy, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Heather Graham, and Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, with Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, and Emily Lloyd. Two Girls and a Guy (Tuesday, Oct. 7, Texas Union) is a comedy about a couple of women who find out they've both been dating the same man for two years. Sarajevo (Saturday, Oct. 4, Barton Creek) is based on a true story about a British foreign correspondent who tries to save children in an orphanage located near some of the Bosnian conflict's bloodiest battlegrounds. Other soon-to-be-released films include the futuristic Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman (Friday, Oct. 3, 7pm, Austin Music Hall); the teen thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer (Thursday, Oct. 9, 10pm, Paramount); and the Sundance dramatic prizewinner Sunday (Sunday, Oct. 5, 1:15pm; Texas Union); and the dark family comedy House of Yes, starring Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, and Tori Spelling (Thursday, Oct. 2, 7:25pm, Austin Music Hall).

If all this heavy throw-weight Hollywood lineup leaves you cold, consider attending a brace of independent films, many with Texas connections, to be hosted by the Union.

Plan B (Friday, Oct. 3, 7:32pm, Texas Union) is written and directed by Texas alumnus Gary Leva. Leva's endearing comedy, the title of which may have been subliminally inspired by Plan II, UT's famed eclectic, slacker-friendly undergrad major, explores the gnarly romantic and work lives of five young Angelenos. Jon Cryer and Lisa Darr star. The evening will also feature UT graduate Stephen Schwartz introducing a special preview of a new film (the title and subject matter of which are being coyly withheld) by Sidney Lumet (9:56pm).

Another buzz-generator is sure to be Hands on a Hard Body (Saturday, Oct. 4, 7:30pm, Texas Union; and Monday, Oct. 6, 7:15pm, Texas Union), S.R. Bindler's documentary about participants in a contest staged by a Longview car dealer. In order to win the prize, a Nissan "Hard Body" pickup truck, contestants had to stand with their hands on the vehicle until only one was left standing. The focus is not the suspense of who'll prevail (although that turns out to be a bit of a surprise) but the people's matter-of-fact explanations of why they're subjecting themselves to this agonizing, dignity-trashing ordeal.

David Zellner's shot-in-Austin feature, Plastic Utopia, also unreels its cranky, off-beat satire about an obnoxious street mime with dreams of massive success and adoration (Saturday, Oct. 4, 9:50pm, Texas Union; and Monday, Oct. 6, 9:30pm, Ritz Lounge).

Fans of short films will find a passionate ally in programmer Jason White, who has lined up a terrific-looking slate of short films to be shown at the Union, Paramount, and Ritz Lounge.

"Across the board, this is probably as strong and original a batch of shorts as I've seen," said White. "The student shorts, in particular, are terrific." A few of White's picks to click include "Mad Boy I'll Blow Your Blues Away" (Friday, Oct. 3 at the Texas Union and Wed., Oct. 8 at the Ritz), Adam Collis' 19-minute fable about a 12-year-old girl smitten with a young boy who is pathologically obsessed with Mad magazine; Jodie Myers' "A Full Cup" (Friday, Oct. 3 at the Union and Wed., Oct. 8 at the Ritz), a story of a woman's undying devotion to her dearest girlfriend -- a cross-dressing man; Nara Garber's "A Quiet Chapter" (Friday, Oct. 3 and Wednesday, Oct. 8, both at the Ritz), which focuses on the emotionally complex relationships among three generations of women in a family; and "A Banana" (Thursday, Oct. 2 at the Union and Wednesday, Oct. 8 at the Ritz), Christopher Roy's surrealistic tale based loosely on the theme of a grocery story robbery. Fans of David Lynch (assuming any remain) should find ample sustenance here.

Other shorts that warrant consideration, if only for their promisingly wacked-out concepts, include Carina Chocano's "Samuel Beckett Orders Out" ("Samuel Beckett orders pizza in this existential meditation"); Don Reed's "Lucky the Irish Pimp" ("He's bad, he's mean, his bitches better have his green; he's Lucky, the Irish pimp!"); and Reed's "Pookie Watson: Hood Detective" ("Pookie Watson, hood detective: he be solvin' crimes n' shit"). "Beckett" screens Sunday, Oct. 5 at the Ritz, "Lucky" is Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Union and Wednesday, Oct. 8 at the Ritz, and "Pookie Watson" is Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Ritz.

Similar novelty value is promised by David Grotell's "Melvyn Schmatzman: Freudian Dentist," a "Freudian musical comedy" about a Jewish dad trying to steer his gay son toward the straight-and-narrow path of conventional sexual orientation (Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Ritz).

Festivalgoers with kids -- and Hollywood talent scouts with an eye to the next millennium -- will want to check out the Austin Children's Museum Short Showcase (Saturday, Oct. 4, 5:30pm, Paramount). This is a program of short films made by youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16.

However, lest the point be obscured by the abundant growth of the film fest, the ultimate rationale for this event is still the development, empowerment, and celebration of screenwriters and their solitary craft. This point is reinforced by the head-spinning topical range of the panels, which start with the basic rudiments of the business ("Rules of the Game: The Basics of Screenwriting"; "Formatting Your Screenplay") and extend to the most excruciatingly specialized of subjects ("Have You Got a Twenty Seven-B Stroke Six?: Permits, Passes and Legalities," a rundown of the various municipal permits you need to shoot films in urban areas).

Scripts pile up at the
Heart of Film office
photograph by SKenny Braun

A key, if unexpressed, assumption of the conference organizers is that the relationship of film industry executives and dealmakers to most screenwriters roughly parallels that of pharmaceutical companies to penicillin-producing mold. With this sobering point in mind, several of the panels acknowledge the need for guile and vigilance in dealings with Hollywood ("Negotiating a Deal: How to Keep From Getting Screwed"; "You, Too, Know Someone in Hollywood: Getting Into the Business Through the Back Door").

And in recognition of the expanding role of television in the writer's market, the selection of TV-oriented panels has continued to grow, covering everything from the one-hour drama format to the growth of the "indie TV" phenomenon (e.g., Austin Stories).

Encouragement for the anticipated 1,500 attendees to persevere in their efforts is provided by the abundance of celebrity panelists. For a writer with a day job at T.J. Maxx, an overdue repair bill for her aging PowerBook, and a food pantry full of Top Ramen packages, there's strong inspirational value in personal contact with successful writers such as Buck Henry, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), Joe Tropiano (co-writer of Big Night), and Polly Platt (Pretty Baby).

More tangible motivation is provided by the Austin Heart of Film Screenplay Competition, which offers $3,500 cash prizes to one winner each in the categories of Adult and Family/Children screenwriting. Two runners-up will be chosen in each category, with both receiving prizes of an as-yet unspecified nature. According to contest coordinator Darrell Kreitz, more than 3,200 screenplays were submitted this year, an increase of roughly 1,000 over last year. The first contest, in 1994, drew 1,600 entries.

"The response has been pretty staggering," said Kreitz, an Austin-based screenwriter and director. "We got submissions literally from around the world. And it's not just quantity of the screenplays that's increasing, but the quality too. We've got about 60 people -- everybody from local fiction writers to UT faculty -- reading and evaluating these scripts, and what I'm hearing is that the process of narrowing them down to semifinalists and finalists has been incredibly difficult."

As desirable as cash awards are, the Promised Land of screenwriting remains the onscreen credits list in a major-release film. One participant who has already made it there is 1994 competition winner Max Adams, whose screenplay was the basis for the recently released Excess Baggage, starring Alicia Silverstone and Christopher Walken. Goodbye Love, a 1995 entry by Ron Peer, was picked up by Gotham Entertainment. The film version, directed by Roland Joffe, is scheduled for release in January. Based on a screenplay submitted last year, Gotham has also signed writing partners B.J. Burrows and Alan Odom to a three-picture deal.

Examples such as these inspire, embolden, and (the sad truth be told) delude thousands of men and women who each day enter darkened rooms and try to pour images of self-created worlds through the luminescent glass windows before them. Only a handful will ever see those worlds in their fully realized forms or experience the eerie rush of hearing their words quoted by strangers on the street. But simply by engaging in the creative act and daring to place their visions in the public domain, screenwriters have already enlarged themselves in a way that allows failure without regret. Regardless of how it is ultimately received, the inch-thick sheaf of bound pages bearing one's name is always its own justification.

"People are always asking me why we don't just make people submit these things on diskette," Kreitz said, gripping a freshly printed screenplay with both hands, feeling its weight and dimension. "Those people aren't writers. No writer would ever make such a suggestion."

The Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference takes place Thursday, Oct. 2 through Sunday, Oct. 5. The Austin Film Festival continues Thursday, Oct. 2 through Thursday, Oct. 9. Consult schedule for showtimes. $175 Weekend Passes (good for all Saturday and Sunday films and panels) are available by calling 478-4795. $25 Film Passes (good for all films except U-Turn) are on sale at Star Ticket Outlets or can be charged by phone (469-7469). $5 Individual Tickets will be sold at all theatres prior to showtime (space permitting).

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