SXSW 08 Film Conference

Snapshots from the SXSW 08 Film Conference

SXSW 08 Film Conference
Photo by John Anderson

Speaking Truth to Power: Harlan Ellison holds court

Harlan Ellison does not suffer fools gladly. Like the biblical adage against suffering a witch to live, indeed, the 73-year-old novelist, screenwriter, film critic, bon vivant, raconteur, and all-around tire iron in the side of the pompous, boorish, ill-spoken, and just plain idiotic has taken great pains to publicly eviscerate, debone, flense, fillet, and, in grand high style, often to the bewilderment of his target, expunge the wind from the tattered and tatty sails of the mediocre and the mundane, sending them crashing headlong against the rocks of their own hubris, crushed betwixt their own, just-deserved Scylla and Charybdis.

With some 60-plus books, more than 1,300 short stories and essays, and an absolute surfeit of intellect on all things cultural, literary, filmic, and virtually all else, Ellison is quite rightfully a living legend among those who still take the time to read for pleasure (a precious, dwindling group, as he is quick to point out). He speaks truth to power, and power cowers, rattled and bent.

Ellison's gleefully profane use of skillfully deployed oratorical ordnance, honed over the last six decades to a razored executioner's edge, was on display in his nearly two-hour conversation with Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles. What was ostensibly billed as a chat between the two old friends about, among other topics, director Erik Nelson's fine, smart, and long-overdue Ellison documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, transformed very quickly, like Larry Talbot into his toothy, hirsute alter ego, into the Harlan Ellison Show, equal parts uproarious, scathing anecdotal evidence that the world is, indeed, going to hell in a handbasket tended by illiterate, incurious imbeciles and a celebration of the joy of writing.

"I got in a lot of trouble when I was writing my film reviews," explained Ellison of his critiques, which are collected in the book Harlan Ellison's Watching, "because, really, there were only ever five good directors in the history of film. Only five. Everybody else is a craftsman, or craftswoman, of varying degrees of talent, with somebody like the Coen brothers at the top and somebody awful, like Vincent Ward, the guy who butchered Richard Matheson's beautiful love letter to his wife of many years, What Dreams May Come, at the bottom.

"The five who are directors, or were at the time, were Fellini, Alain Resnais, Kubrick, Coppola, and Kurosawa. Those five, if you had no one else, if you had no other directors whatsoever, your lives would be so golden, so wonderful, so fine. As much as I like any number of directors, directing, in Bogart's words, 'is a mug's game.'"

Telling stories, with passion and heart, however, is still a sacred calling for Ellison, and as he deployed his enormously entertaining payload of anecdotal yarns, white-phosphoric in their ability to illuminate and/or defoliate the ever-current, frustratingly commonplace thickets of uninspired, Hollywood-backed status quo that passes for mass-market, pop-culture entertainment, it was akin to hearing a prophet, a sage, a storyteller nonpareil gift his audience with golden gab and inspire them to be better than that, always and forever.

Excelsior! – Marc Savlov

A Conversation With Harlan Ellison: Sunday, March 9, 3pm

(l-r) Neil Patrick Harris, John Cho, Kal Penn
(l-r) Neil Patrick Harris, John Cho, Kal Penn (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Forget the Writers: Fans strike out for star power

Want to know why writers go on strike? Consider the dozen or so people who showed up to talk about the three-month Writers Guild work stoppage; then compare it to the overflowing crowds who squeezed in to bask in the star power of Neil Patrick Harris and Jeffrey Tambor. For screenwriter Tim McCanlies, the strike gave him much-needed time to work on his long-awaited, low-budget film The Two Bobs, which will shoot in Austin next month with Ann Walker producing and P.J. Raval behind the camera. McCanlies described the film as in the tone of The Big Lebowski and Trainspotting. It follows two guys who are legends in the gaming business, whose new, much-anticipated game is stolen just as they finish it.

Jeffrey Tambor and Greta Gerwig
Jeffrey Tambor and Greta Gerwig (Photo by John Anderson)

Oh, and about the writers' strike? McCanlies and fellow screenwriter (and Variety editor) Mike Jones joined Kay Schaber Wolf of the WGA in explaining its angst and rewards. Jones called it a necessary event in order to assure writers get their fair share of newer technology. "The Internet is the next source of television, and the guild didn't have any jurisdiction there," he said. Schaber Wolf confirmed that unsuccessful efforts in the Eighties aimed at securing writers a decent take of video/DVD sales likely prompted the union to dig in its heels this time. "We learned from the past that if you wait too long, you miss out," she said.

Panel moderator Robert Wilonsky had to chide photo-happy Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay fans into noticing the films tag-team writers/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg were even on the stage, as cameras took aim at stars Harris, John Cho, and Kal Penn. Cho, for the record, preferred talk of female body parts to a discussion of the film's statement about our nation's current political climate. "I felt like it was a device to amp up the stakes," he said. "I don't think the movie has anything to say politically. It just uses the current political climate to make vagina jokes." Not that politics aren't lurking. Penn recounted how airport screeners pulled him aside because of his skin color once, while the pinker-skinned friend with him – who happened to have a large hunting knife in his bag – went through unfettered. Cho has also faced the wrath of screeners, including the last time he was at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Meanwhile, Tambor used actors Greta Gerwig and Kent Osborne to give an enthusiastic throng – including a few actual thespians – a view into the craft as he urged the pair to overact, do monkey impersonations, and generally dig deep. Among his many words of wisdom: Character is contradiction, revenge is sweet, and there must be silences. "You can't get hurt in acting; you can only get better," he offered. – Joe O'Connell

What Has the Writers Strike Taught Us?: Saturday, March 8, 11am

Race, Politics, and Drugs: A Harold & Kumar Panel: Saturday, March 8, 1pm

Jeffrey Tambor Acting Workshop: Sunday, March 9, 1pm

Building Buzz: How to flatter and cajole your way onto the Internet

Blogs are the changeling child of new media. Though they are not quite taken seriously in some traditional media circles, no one can deny that blogs and their bloggers earn rock-star status when they hit big. While the assembled panelists were specifically addressing filmmakers, their remarks could help anyone who has a project to promote. A few key tips:

Blogs are labor-intensive. If you're an artist just trying to get your work finished, turning to well-known bloggers who cover your field is a good move. Be prepared when you approach them, said panelists Karina Longworth of Spout.com and Alison Willmore, editor of the film section on IFC's website. "Prove to me that you're contacting me for a reason. ... Flattery always helps." Get past the "look, I have this film, book, game, album." "You're not just selling your film; you're selling your story," Longworth said. A succinct approach is always appreciated – a few enticing words along with a link to your project's website is a good rule of thumb. Just like in old-fashioned print media, know whom you're approaching. "I spent a day on Karina and Alison's blogs before I sent to them," said Victor Piñeiro, producer of the documentary Second Skin. A form letter approach is not going to pique interest and automatically labels you as an amateur at best, lazy at worst.

Be social! Besides hitting up well-known bloggers in your field, promote your project on several social networks (MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). Artists who want to start their own blogs should offer useful, up-to-date information. Voice is important. In fact, having a distinctive voice and becoming a source readers can trust are the cornerstones of any successful blog. Encourage comments. Fear of flamers and other mean-spirited folk should not deter you from allowing visitors to comment on your blog or social-networking site. These conversations can take on a life of their own, encourage visitors to your site, and in the end, get more people to learn about you and your project. Like they say, all publicity is good publicity. Maybe you can't make buzz, but you sure don't want to stifle it. – Belinda Acosta

Blogs, Buzz, and Buddy Lists: Sunday, March 9, 3:30pm


For continuing coverage of SXSW Film and Interactive, see austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/blogs/SXSW.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW 08 Film Conference, Harlan Ellison, John Cho, Kal Penn, Tim McCanlies, Mike Jones, Karina Longworth, Erik Nelson, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, Alison Willmore, Jeffrey Tambor

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