Michael Bergeron
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AFF wrap: Part 1

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It’s hard to remember an edition of The Austin Film Festival that took place on Halloween weekend much less one where Austin was hammered by thunderstorms and tornados. Driving from Houston to Austin on Friday morning October 30, the sky took on a progressively hue of black and blue that you only see in nightmares.

Somewhere on State Highway 71 a bird committed suicide by flying into my car. The bird was tossed up 50-feet in the air. From my side view mirror I saw its body land on the road 100-feet behind. It all happened in a second.11260696_10153336220740958_8976257531045045919_o

Closer to Austin, 71 was flooded out and the Texas State Highway Patrol was letting cars pass one at a time. This was right next to that pecan store that has the large statue of a squirrel out front. Austin was hit hard by storms to be sure. The airport didn’t just cancel flights, the airport shut down completely after damage to the control tower and over a foot of rain.

Indeed, once I arrived at the safe confines of the Driskill Hotel I learned that several panelists and other guests had cancelled. The AFF held seminars and panels at the Driskill as well as the nearby InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, St. David’s Episcopal Church and the Omni Hotel.

Gary Ross, who was presenting an encore screening of his film Pleasantville, which had premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 1998, managed to charter a flight to nearby Pflugerville, a small town north of Austin with an airport smaller than the average Buc-ee’s. Ross, who also helmed Seabiscuit and the first Hunger Games, is currently shooting a Civil War epic The Free State of Jones with Matthew McConaughey.

Earlier in the day I had given a lift to the Friday Bar-B-Q, which had its location changed from the French Legation Museum’s spacious grounds to a nearby park due to rain, to director Kai Barry whose spy thriller Newcomer was premiering later that night. More on the movie side of the film festival later.

Best random conversation: The guy sitting next to me at the Bar-B-Q had worked for Pixar as a writer. For his audition he faced a panel that included Brad Bird, John Lasseter and others. He gave a pitch that was required to last 45-minutes. He got the job.

Best overheard conversation: “I was going to do a crowd source funding for my project but I didn’t because I couldn’t take the tax hit. You have to pay taxes on the amount you raise.”dracula-2

Saturday was a full day of seminars starting with the Script to Screen breakdown of Dracula presented by screenwriter James Hart, whose credits include Contact and The Last Mimzy. Hart has a detailed system of following character development in conjunction with the resolution of the plot called The Hart Chart. Hart’s script mapping tool was available to festivalgoers at a 20-percent discount.

One thing that Hart emphasized about his screenplay for the Francis Coppola directed film (1992) was his allegiance to the source material of Bram Stoker’s novel, which incidentally has never been out of print. Hart stumped the audience by asking simply who kills Dracula in the novel. The answer: a Texan with a bowie knife. Hart eventually rewrote his script 55 times under Coppola’s guidance. “Coppola took my final script and without changing a word turned it into something operatic,” said Hart.

Hart’s chat included some behind the scenes skullduggery such as Coppola having a creative fit and destroying the rehearsal room and ordering everyone to go back to their hotel rooms to wait to see if the movie would continue. “It was his way of establishing dominance,” explained Hart. Winona Ryder was the person who got Hart’s script a green light and to the attention of Coppola. She also approved the casting of Gary Oldman whom the studio didn’t want. Later during the production they famously didn’t get along. Why not asked someone in the audience? “Because he wanted to drink her blood,” quipped Hart sardonically.lethal-weapon-1-danny-glover-mel-gibson

Later that afternoon Shane Black and Jeb Stuart did a comparison of their respective scripts for Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. They both agreed that the Walter Hill film 48 Hours was an inspiration for their films. Another film that got a shout-out as a prototype action adventure was the Julian Fink scripted Dirty Harry (1971).

Black noted how in Die Hard the character played by Alexander Godunov appears in a scene after he has died. Stuart countered that writing a buddy movie is like having the characters in the room with you. Both Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3) and Stuart (Switchback) have also made the transformation to successful directors.

Stuart had a great story about one of the lines made famous by Die Hard: “Yippee ki-ay motherfucker.” It seems Stuart and his wife, a Broadway producer whose productions have won the Tony Award, were having dinner with a Pulitzer Prize winning author who was being a real dick at the restaurant, insulting the wait staff and such. As they left the eatery they kept passing kiosks that had ads for an upcoming installment of the Die Hard series that merely read: “Yippee ki-ay Dot Dot Dot.”

“Finally we were going our separate ways and my wife and I were headed in one direction and he was going to see some play that was closing in 30-minutes. He asked, what is up with these decals that say Yippee ki-ay? And my wife without missing a beat said, that phrase is what keeps the lights on at the Stuart residence.”

Black had a humorous account of pitching a story for an Amazon funded series. In the show, a western, he had a guy getting a blowjob from another guy. Someone shoots the guy giving head and the bullet goes through his skull, comes out the other side and blows the other guy’s balls off. When he asked if Broadcast Standards and Practices would have a problem he was told there was no S&P. “I’m in.”

death-star-lukeMichael Arndt, writer of Toy Story 3 and Little Miss Sunshine, wowed a packed audience on Sunday with a three-hour seminar titled The Good, The Bad, and the Insanely Great. Arndt, whose advice on story structure can be found on Youtube, among other places, gave a detailed presentation that involved showing clips from the following movies: Star Wars, The Graduate, and Little Miss Sunshine.

Arndt doesn’t just want a good ending but rather a spectacular and insanely great ending. He started by showing the last two-minutes of Star Wars and then backtracked to follow the arc of external conflicts, internal conflicts and philosophical conflicts, all accompanied by clips. The Star Wars segment went on for an hour-an-a-half but once the audience was familiar with his template the next two presentations flowed quicker.

Arndt also had admiration for the endings of 8½, Catch-22 and The Bad News Bears. You walk out of seminars like this with the gears in your brain grinding and your ideas concisely appearing in front of your eyes.

— Michael Bergeron