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DISPATCH FROM TEXAS | Austin Film Festival Fetes the Screenwriter and Keeps it Weird

DISPATCH FROM TEXAS | Austin Film Festival Fetes the Screenwriter and Keeps it Weird

“Keep Austin Weird” reads the famous T-shirts available around town, proclaiming the city’s pride as a Texas anomaly, from the artsy, reclaimed highway strip of South Congress Street to the dozens of live music venues scattered around 6th street and the warehouse district. Scores of the T-shirts were on view at the historic Driskill Hotel, which this weekend was the headquarters for the 14th annual Austin Film Festival. “When we first started, we doubted we could survive as a local festival,” says AFF executive director and co-founder Barbara Morgan. “Austin wasn’t at all as big, and this was before South by Southwest really put its indie scene on the map, so we needed something else. We looked at over a thousand festivals, and not one of them was done for screenwriters. I knew a lot of screenwriters living here, and it just made sense.”

The writer’s conference developed by the AFF gives aspiring screenwriters access to scores of panels, talks and roundtables with dozen of established writers, industry executives and filmmakers. The screenplay competition awards thousands of dollars to its winners, whereupon the scripts are shared with industry scouts, and writers are invited to participate in an informal “American Idol“- style pitch competition. And the city’s famously social, unpretentious nature means that anyone has just as much of a chance of chatting with the same panelists at a festival party or local bar.

The response was immediate in its first year, the screenplay competition received 1,200 entries (despite only eight weeks of advertising), and guests included five Academy Award-winning screenwriters with Robert Towne among them. “We were surprised, most of these writers didn’t know each other,” says Morgan of the guests. “We learned quickly that since writers aren’t really included in the filmmaking process in Hollywood, they become the odd men out. But they love to congregate and talk- that’s what made the spirit here so lively, right from the beginning.”

If Morgan was surprised, it was nothing compared to the writers themselves; according to Morgan, Frank Pierson (“Dog Day Afternoon“) told them, “I can’t believe two women in Texas are doing this when the Writer’s Guild should have been doing this years ago.” While the Writer’s Guild did start its own conference several years later, it has been more sporadic; if this year’s 2,300 conference registrants are any reflection, the Austin Film Festival still holds sway.

The festival’s opening film was an interesting choice for a festival organized around the art of the writer Brett Morgen’s frustrating hybrid doc “Chicago 10,” which also opened up this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Filled with lovingly restored archival footage of the riots that surrounded the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the film overshoots itself in attempting to make the story of the Chicago 7 trials hip to today’s potential activists. While not all 1960s docs are required to use that decade’s music as a score, it’s doubtful that Rage Against the Machine or Eminem create any relevance, and the “Grand Theft Auto“-style animation completes the alienation effect.

Austin native Jeff Nichols won the Jury Award with his “Shotgun Stories,” a muted Shakespearean tragedy of family strife in a small town in Arkansas. The film takes its time setting up the story of two sets of feuding half-brothers thrown into conflict when their father dies. The film’s pacing and spare tone fit perfectly with Nichols’ sense of hopeless longing, and the depiction of rural life is absolutely spot-on.

Barbara Morgan (Executive Director/ Co-Founder), Kelly Williams (Film Program Director), and Jesse Trussell- Film Competition Programmer at “Chicago 10” opening night screening. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

In keeping with the spirit of the festival, the AFF jury prizes were given to the screenwriter rather than the director (though Nichols, in his case, was both), at a luncheon that also honored notable filmmakers at work in various entertainment fields, all of whom mingled with registrants at functions and special panels throughout the weekend. Oliver Stone, whose “U-Turn” was screened at the festival in 1997, was given the Extraordinary Contribution to Film award, and participated in several panels prior to his screening of “Born on the Fourth of July,” while screenwriter John Milius (“Apocalypse Now“) showed off his “Big Wednesday,” and television writer Glenn Gordon Caron screened several episodes of his seminal 1980s series “Moonlighting.”

Mary Stuart Masterson came to town, reminding everybody why they always loved her with her directorial debut, “Cake Eaters,” the story of two families interacting over several days in the Adirondacks. The film is balanced from its occasional tonal inconsistencies by its performances, particularly that of Kristen Stewart, one of the most interesting young actresses working these days. She plays a teenager with a progressive, fatal neurological disease who is focused on losing her virginity before her mobility fails her.

A less loveable Austinite was the subject of T.R. Young‘s fascinating documentary “Good Riddance,” which received its world premiere at the festival. Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, described by Life Magazine as “The most hated woman in America,” disappeared alongside her son and granddaughter, which went uninvestigated for nearly a year until local reporters took up the story.

Also premiering at the festival was British comedian Dave Gorman‘s documentary “America Unchained,” detailing Gorman’s adventures attempting to travel from Los Angeles to New York without spending any money on chain restaurants, hotels, or gas stations (it’s the latter that proves the most challenging), while making quixotic side-journeys to visit several towns named ‘Independence’ along the way. It’s one of several films recalling Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”). The other title, U.S. Premiere “Generation XXL” by Teresa MacInnes, is an examination of the obesity epidemic–this time in Canada rather than the States. MacInnes follows several teenagers attending a camp for obese children, making her point in humane character portraits rather than clinical fact-finding and brow-beating. It’s hard not to root for loveable Greg, the group comedian,

“Even in the documentaries we program, we’re very narrative driven,” explained head of programming Kelly Williams. “We always look for a good story.” That explains the appeal of Brad and John Hennegan‘s documentary “First Saturday in May,” the latest entry in the growing catalogue of sports documentaries charting a group of colorful characters leading up to a big competition, in this case the Kentucky Derby. If the characters themselves are a little too plentiful to sort out, the film keeps the adrenaline going through its focus on the action.

If the Austin Film Festival is no longer alone on the Austin scene, Morgan isn’t terribly concerned about the competition. “There’s a real interest in this city to become a film Mecca, and I think it can happen. There’s just such a strong indie community, because it’s such a maverick place. You can be really weird here, and nobody gives a shit.”

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