This is the fourth time I’ve been to the Austin Film Festival. The last time was in 2003 when my script THE VETERAN was a second rounder in the screenwriting competition. The Austin screenwriting conference is held in conjunction with the film festival and it’s one of the best conferences for screenwriters in the country. A-list writers from Los Angeles and other parts of the country descend on Austin, Texas to talk craft, bitch about Hollywood, and enjoy tasty beverages.
I haven’t been able to go in a while since I made the switch from screenplays to novels. However, the perfect storm began to form earlier this year when my brilliant screenwriting teacher, (I’m not exaggerating) Max Adams, moved from LA to Austin. Max teaches online classes through her Academy of Film Writing website and runs screenwriting group 5150. Most of her students have never met face to face, so getting such an opportunity to meet Max and all these awesome people in person…was just too good to pass up.
Friday of that weekend, I drove eight hours and reached Austin around three o’clock in the afternoon, then I headed straight to the classic and cool Driskill Hotel. Everyone knows the bar in this hotel is the beating heart of the festival. No VIP areas here. Everyone is equal and welcomed. I find my teacher Max and classy writer friends Kitty, Jacqueline, and Deborah surrounding a leather couch, just hanging out.
At first, I thought I would have to introduce myself, but within seconds they yelled, “Doug!” It was like we were all best friends forever. I couldn’t believe how happy they were to see me. After multiple hugs, I sat down with my friends and we had a long night of drinks, friendship, and plenty of laughter.
That night I met the awesome Julie Howe, a student of Max’s who won the best screenplay award last year at Austin. Her script JASPER MILLIKEN was picked up by producers and director Jonathan Lynn (MY COUSIN VINNIE, THE WHOLE NINE YARDS) just signed on to direct the film. Hopefully it’ll be coming to a theater near you.
I also met Michael Canales. What a bubbling personality and so full of energy. Michael’s the type of person that lights up a room when he enters. I have a sneaky feeling he’s good at pitching his scripts in front of Hollywood execs.
Saturday I got up early and caught two morning screenwriting sessions. The first had a group of authors who wrote screen adaptations of their work. Tom Perrotta, wrote the book ELECTION which the Alexander Payne movie with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick was based on. Another author, Pamela Ribon, is also a writer for the television series SAMANTHA WHO and has developed many other television series. Cool stuff.
Lunch was an adventure. I teamed up with my friend Deborah Chesher and a few other new writer friends and walked into one restaurant, but the manager wanted me to dump out my Starbucks coffee and also search the girl’s handbags for smuggled food. Seriously? I don’t know why he thought twelve hungry people would smuggle food into a restaurant. So we go to the bustling Irish Pub on the other side of the street. The Irish stew was delicious.
Saturday afternoon begins with a panel about writing fantastic horror movies. Rhett Reese who wrote ZOMBIELAND was there. And the most awesome screenwriter ever, Alvaro Rodriguez, the writer of MACHETE and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3. I’m excited because Alvaro was in Max’s 5150 workshop and has been so cool about supporting me and a lot of other writers.
The last panel I go to is with four television show-runners. Rodrigo Garcia who runs HBO’s IN TREATMENT and has directed episodes of SIX FEET UNDER. Rob Thomas who created VERONICA MARS. Donald Todd writer/producer of SAMANTHA WHO, ALF, and CAROLINE IN THE CITY. It was moderated by Barry Josephson. Quite a panel of heavy hitters.
That night, I went to dinner with my friends. We find a nice Thai restaurant and discover our waitress is brand new and has trouble understanding English. You see where this is going. Luckily most of us did get what we ordered, except for Max. Instead of the Thai version of beef stew with bread that she ordered, out comes a bowl of pond water with colorful veggies floating on top. Yuck. But soon things got cleared up and Max got her bread and something that looks like it had beef in it.
That night we found another leather couch and hung out at the Driskill bar where I met screenwriter Terry Rossio. Terry is an A-list screenwriter and such a nice guy. I just listened as he talked about his Hollywood war stories.
Sunday Morning I decide to check out the Texas Book Festival on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. It was packed, but it was nice to see so many kids at a book festival. There were a lot of exhibitor tents with food, games, entertainment for the kids, and a big list of authors. I was so happy to see that young adult writer superstar Ellen Hopkins was going to be there that day.
Ellen’s panel took place on the floor of the House chambers inside the Texas State Capital. The audience got to sit in the large leather chairs the representatives use, each of us with a fancy wood desk with a metal panel that had Yay or Nay buttons for voting.
Sunday afternoon I returned to the good old Driskill Bar. Deborah Chesher finally had time to show me her short film END OF THE INNOCENTS. She ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund it and I tossed in a couple of bucks. The movie is so freaking good and she did a fantastic job directing it. The cinematography, the directing, the acting, everything was exceptional. Deborah made the short film as a visual calling card for her feature-length screenplay version of the story. Go to her website to view the trailer.
Deborah will be submitting END OF THE INNOCENTS to film festivals and I’m confident you will be see this film making the rounds. Keep your eyes out for it.
Late Sunday afternoon and the screenwriting conference is wrapping up. The bar at the Driskill gets quiet. Alvaro Rodriguez and his friend Jose sit down with me and we talk about writing. Alvaro is writing this cool western that I hope gets made because the premise sounds awesome. Jose is a trip. He’s from Philly and we bitch about the same things. As he told me later, it was a very cathartic conversation.
Sunday night comes and I must say goodbye to all my friends, old and new. Reluctantly, I steer my car North towards Oklahoma, convinced I’ve just had one of the best weekends of my life.
As my friend Trevor would say…Good People, Good Times.