Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to do the Austin Film Festival – an essential guide

It’s October, so that means Austin Film Festival time. I missed last year’s festival – something about being sensible about money or some such nonsense – but when I say I missed it, I really meant emotionally. Where else but Austin can you rub shoulders with A-list writers, directors – oh, and the odd actor? So this year it was back to Texas, where a friend from the 2009 festival had kindly agreed to put me up.

The festival kicks off with a four-day conference comprising roundtables, panels and pitches, not to mention parties, with films sprinkled in between. I tend to arrive on the Wednesday night to avoid jet lag, and stay until the Monday night, cos Austin is a fun place and Monday’s the only time you get to spend exploring it. The rest of the time, you’re sitting in freezing air-conditioned rooms or drinking beer in hot bars, but all the while hearing war stories and screenwriting tips from the best in the business.

Day One

The first panel began at midday on Thursday 20th October with a conversation between Austin writer and playwright Pat Hazell and Alec Berg, writer as well as  director and executive producer on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I have to hold my hands up and say that I’m much more interested in writing movies than TV. But this was a fascinating discussion – Berg said more about writing for TV in an hour than I suspect many TV-writing courses will teach you in a year.

He talked about writing comedy in college and how he teamed up with his future writing partner there. Working on Seinfeld was very different to the traditional writing rooms he’d experienced on other shows. Instead of writing with a room full of other writers, he would come up with some ideas, put them past Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and write them up by himself. Another thing that was different was that the usual sitcom show morality was turned on its head. Bad things were always happening to the characters and the moral was not, “don’t do that again”, but “don’t get caught!”

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, there is no script. Instead, they have an 8-9 page outline and the whole thing is improvised based on this. Many of the ideas come from real life – Larry David makes note of situations that make him feel uncomfortable and uses them on the show! There is no “they” on the show – the writers and David are free to cover pretty much whatever they want.

Berg now writes with two other writers, and claims that this works because they never get bogged down with disagreements. There’s always a tie-breaker!

He also talked about the movies he’s done. He and his partner wrote Eurotrip as something inexpensive to produce that they could direct themselves. He described this experience as their “film school”. It was weird working with film characters who have to have an "arc" compared to TV characters, who have longer to develop. They’re now working with Sacha Baron Cohen on his new movie The Dictator, having worked with him before on Borat and Bruno. Berg described him as mad but brilliant  - no surprises there!

One good piece of advice he had about movies was to take notes on your script from execs - even crap notes - but to try to come up with a good take on them. Also, try to figure out what the exec or whoever is actually trying to say about your script - read between the lines.

Other things they covered during the conversation: working from home – impossible, as family members keeping saying “you’re obviously doing nothing!” when you’re sitting staring into space. The episode of Curb with the “gay kid” – “The casting director tasked with finding a camp eight-year-old called and said, ‘I’ve found the kid!’”

Alex Berg is a guy who's truly been there and done the work, and it was brilliant to hear his advice and stories.

I skipped the next panel to have lunch instead with editor Frank Reynolds (thanks to Frank for taking me to Huts Hamburgers, which is awesome!) and director Whit Stillman, who is a lovely man.

That night there was two great parties (the free booze was only starting), one of them hosted by Black List founder Franklin Leonard. I also caught the one and only movie I managed to catch during the festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Starring Olsen sister Elizabeth Olsen as a girl who’s escaped from a cult, this is a brilliant film featuring an impressive performance from Olsen and a even better one from John Hawkes, the star of last year’s Winter’s Bone.

Then it was on to Day Two, otherwise known as Friday....

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