News Column

Remembering 20 years of the Austin Film Festival

October 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 19--Barbara Morgan and Marsha Milam knew they were in trouble in September 1994. Their inaugural screenwriters conference and festival was set to start in a few weeks, and they realized they had 68 panelists scheduled and only 86 registrants.

"We sort of had the 'If you build it, they will come' idea," Morgan. "Sometimes you got to put on the sandwich board."

The things you learn.

They re-doubled their marketing efforts, and the Austin Film Festival & Conference ended up with more than 350 registrants, who attended events at a leaky Austin Opera House.

On opening day, their computer crashed. The women ended up registering people the old-fashioned way, distributing hand-written name tags on stickers.

Two decades later, AFF has established itself as one of the world's premiere screenwriting conferences and this week will welcome more than 4,000 registrants. The 20th iteration of the festival kicks off Thursday and runs through Halloween.

In addition to welcoming some of the biggest names in film and television writing -- Oliver Stone ("Platoon"), Lawrence Kasdan ("The Empire Strikes Back"), Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men") and David Simon ("The Wire") -- AFF has showcased world-renowned films. Danny Boyle received AFF's Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award in 2008 and presented "Slumdog Millionaire," which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. He returned to the fest in 2010 with eventual Oscar-nominee "127 Hours." That same year, AFF screened fellow Oscar-nominee "Black Swan" from director Darren Aronofsky; in 2011, the festival screened another eventual Best Picture winner, "The Artist."

The popularity of AFF's intriguing screenwriting panels has led to the television show "On Story," which airs on PBS stations across the country, and a book by the same name, which celebrates its release at this year's festival.

The festival has also helped launch the careers of local filmmakers such as Jeff Nichols and Kat Candler. And though AFF prides itself on the people behind the camera, it has welcomed big stars over the years such as Johnny Depp, James Franco, Owen Wilson and Sandra Bullock. This year's festival features talent such as Vince Gilligan (creator of "Breaking Bad"), Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon, and comedy greats Elaine May and Will Ferrell.

The festival was born from the kind of big Texas talk you might expect from Morgan (even though she's a Philadelphia native). At a dinner party in 1993 the conversation turned to establishing a film festival in Austin, an idea encouraged by then-Gov. Ann Richards. Morgan, a film lover with a background in finance, said she was interested and believed she could pull it off.

"Who knows why I said that?" Morgan said recently from her busy and crowded AFF office, home to 11 employees and a checkpoint for about 650 volunteers. "I still can't conjure up today what made me say that."

She'd never even attended a film festival when she made the declaration.

Undeterred, she wrote a business plan and submitted it to Marlene Zuretzky, director of the Texas Film Commission at the time. Zuretzky got on board, and a ball started rolling that hasn't stopped moving in the 20 years since. Milam, who was working with Chuy's when she and Morgan founded the festival, left AFF in 1999 for a career in media promotion.

Local producer Fred Miller read a story in the American-Statesman about the nascent festival and got in touch with Morgan and Milam, lending them some advice that would give an identity to the festival and set it apart: Focus on screenwriters.

Austin was home to a bunch of writers at the time, and Morgan credits board members Bud Shrake ("Songwriter") and Bill Wittliff ("Lonesome Dove" miniseries) as keys in giving the fest early support and credibility. Morgan also found an ally in an unlikely place. Friends connected her with Columbia Pictures president Barry Josephson, an early champion of the festival in Hollywood. Josephson bought the rights to Utah housewife Max Adams' winning screenplay from AFF's inaugural screenwriting competition and developed with her the 1997 Alicia Silverstone action-comedy "Excess Baggage." It was a move that gave AFF and its conference credibility.

Morgan believes screenwriters are the great unsung heroes of the filmmaking business. It's an opinion shared by almost everyone who has attended the festival.

"The screenwriter is the observer in the room. Usually they're the most cerebral person in the film chain; they're the most interesting intellectually and they're articulate," Morgan said. "They can get up and explain things and talk to you about how a story got to be what it was. And they're the guys who write that dialogue that you attribute to the actor."

The writers' ability to break down screenplays and willingness to share writing tips and war stories provide the engine for a conference that features dozens of panels and conversations.

"They also tend to be fairly humble, and they don't take a lot of credit for stuff," Morgan said.

That humility has led to a collegiality that makes AFF unique. The festival doesn't offer VIP areas for visiting filmmakers, and none of them ever asks for special treatment. Oscar-winning writers mix with aspirants, sharing advice and creating inspirational memories. In the second year of the festival, "Lethal Weapon" writer Shane Black was riding high, having just set screenwriting history by selling the spec script for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" for over $4 million. But there he was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking to a group of wannabe screenwriters. The group ended up asking Black to walk to lunch. He happily agreed. And it's a good thing -- the young festival didn't have lunch planned.

"That was incredible for all those people," Morgan said. "The courage it took for them to ask the guy they probably considered a hero, because he wrote 'Lethal Weapon,' to go to lunch."

Black, who most recently wrote and directed "Iron Man 3," has been a regular presence at the festival ever since.

That first year things may have looked a little shaky. The food was bad. There were holes in the ceiling at the Austin Opera House. The awards luncheon was held at Shady Grove during the lunch rush (and, no, they didn't have the restaurant rented out) -- a far cry from the catered, sold-out event they have now for the likes of Depp, Pixar boss John Lasseter and, this year, "The Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme.

"But they didn't come for the sandwiches and the sunshine," Morgan said. "They came for the content."

Morgan credits the festival's enduring success to AFF employees, early support of some big names, hundreds of volunteers, and a large dose of kismet. But it always comes back to the writers. The screenwriters may not be big celebrities to some, but Morgan thinks they're all stars.

"It's not a star having Shane Black and Ed Solomon here? They wrote some of the biggest box office smashes ("Lethal Weapon" and "Men in Black"), so why don't you know their names? Why don't you take the time to know their names? You should."

Here, some former attendees share their favorite memories from 20 years of AFF.

Jeff Nichols

(His feature debut "Shotgun Stories" won the audience award at AFF in 2007. The Austinite has since gone on to make critically acclaimed films "Take Shelter" and "Mud." Nichols formed a friendship with former AFF programmer Kelly Williams and is currently serving as executive producer on the Williams-produced feature "Hellion" from director Kat Candler.)

"I remember when 'Shotgun Stories' played at the festival I had invited one of the actors into town for it. They unfortunately couldn't get my actor a ticket to the awards ceremony, so not wanting to be rude to my guest, I decided to take him to lunch rather than attend. I got a frantic phone call during lunch saying, 'You need to come down here. You've won.'

"The next day I was at an AFF luncheon where I first met Barbara Morgan, the executive director. She glared at me and said, 'You're Jeff Nichols. You weren't there.' I was horrified. Luckily, she was quick to forgive and we've since become friends and even collaborators, but it felt like a rocky start ... Having 'Shotgun Stories' be selected and then win at the Austin Film Festival was the first time I felt, as a filmmaker, like a bona fide part of the Austin film community. That means a lot to me."

Anne Rapp

(A longtime script supervisor on films such as Lawrence Kasdan's "The Accidental Tourist" and Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple," Rapp wrote two screenplays for legendary director Robert Altman -- "Dr. T. and the Women" and "Cookies's Fortune." Rapp met Morgan at the festival in 1999 when she appeared on a panel with Altman and credits the vision and determination of the AFF co-founder and executive director for turning AFF into "one of the best and sexiest film festivals in the world.")

"I had just moved back to Austin, wasn't real familiar with the festival, and I thought this would be just another one of those events that was nice and pleasant and good-intentioned but nothing to write home about (pardon the pun). I couldn't have been more wrong. Once in the AFF environment, I instinctively knew I'd landed in a rich and special place, and a place to which I would gladly return for years to come.

"It was immediately obvious to me that someone had given the concept of this festival some serious thought and had touched a filmmaking nerve that no other festival had bothered to rattle. And that was the importance of the writer. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? After all, what is the seed, the genesis of all these great movies we have devoured and cherished in our lifetimes? A good script. But for some reason the writer aspect didn't seem to be sexy enough for the focus of most film festivals.

"But that's the thing about Barbara. Not only does she view the writer as one of the most important elements in the game, if not the most important, she thinks we're all sexy! And guess what? She's dead right.

"I've attended numerous AFF panels and Q&As over the last decade and I've never been to one that didn't ooze and tingle with satisfying information about the writing racket -- its ups and downs, breakups and makeups, the doubts, the trust, the landmines, the maps around them, the grind, the payoffs, what it's like to be in the cold dirty trenches, and how to line your trench with velvet even if it means stealing your grandmother's old drapes. And how heartening it is when you poke your head up and crawl out alive, having written something worthy of a movie screen or a television screen. That, my friend, is sexy."

Jim Dauterive

(Dauterive is a former executive producer and writer on "King of the Hill" and creator of Fox's "Bob's Burgers." He first attended AFF in 1995 as a "wannabe writer living in L.A.," where he spent his time working on spec scripts and watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Hearing people like Anne Flett-Giordano from "Frasier" and Dawn DeKeyser from "News Radio" opened his mind to new possibilities. The spring after his first visit to AFF, he was hired on "King of the Hill," where he worked for 12 seasons. He came back to AFF in 1996 as a working writer and panelist and has returned about eight times since.)

Some of his favorite memories...

"Sitting close enough to Johnny Depp at an awards luncheon to touch his magnificent Hollywood butt. I didn't, but I will forever have the satisfaction of knowing that I could have."

"The 20th anniversary of the Coen Brothers' 'Blood Simple' ... and the embarrassment of meeting M. Emmett Walsh right after 'King of the Hill' had replaced him in the role of Buck Strickland."

"The Hansen Brothers' appearance at the 20th anniversary of 'Slap Shot.'"

"Having to knock back a couple of Shiner Bocks to calm my nerves before moderating a panel with the legendary Buck Henry."

"Being inspired by Johnny Depp (he of the magnificent Hollywood butt) when he said he always knows he's on the right track when he's about to be fired. And by the Pixar director John Lasseter when he recalled Steve Jobs telling him 'just make it great.'"

Herschel Weingrod

(The man behind the screenplays for "Trading Places" and "Kindergarten Cop" first came to AFF in 2003. After hearing and reading about AFF, he contacted the festival, volunteered to be on any panel they wanted him on and paid his way to come. He has returned for the festival every year since, and for the past five years has served as a judge on the screenplay competition. Weingrod says the thing that distinguishes AFF is the festival's dedication to celebrating screenwriting and screenwriters. "It's utterly unique, energizing, and inspiring," Weingrod said. "And, by the way, Austin is always a blast -- the parties, the food, the camaraderie, the vibe of a city unlike any other ... I like to describe it as Berkeley with better food, music and weather.")

Some of his favorite memories:

"In 2008, I had the pleasure of being on a panel with the late great Polly Platt (production designer on 'The Last Picture Show' and executive producer of 'Broadcast News'). At some point, I referred to Howard Hawks as Mister Hawks, at which point Polly snorted and interjected: 'He was no MISTER!' Of course, she was right -- he was a great director but hardly a gentleman. I cracked up. Afterward, we were headed to the same place for lunch, and she linked her arm in mine as we walked down the street. I'll never forget it."

"In 2007, John Milius was given the Distinguished Screenwriter Award. When I was introduced to him, I told him that I'd met him many years before when he hosted a series of Writers Guild events dedicated to introducing screenwriters to the wonderful world of firearms. After a meal (no alcohol), we all went to a firing range where off-duty police officers instructed us in the safe use of guns, and then we proceeded to fire our guns at targets. The group was called Armed and Literate."

"In 2008, Danny Boyle brought 'Slumdog Millionaire' to Austin. It had previously been screened only at Telluride and Toronto. After the screening, the film received a thunderous standing ovation. When I returned home, I told everyone I knew that I'd just seen the best film of the year and it was going to win the Oscar. No one had ever heard of it; I said 'Well, you will; mark my words.' In retrospect, I should've made a few bets on it."

Kat Candler

(The Austin filmmaker and University of Texas lecturer had her first film festival win when her "Cicadas" took home Best Undistributed Feature at AFF in 2000. Her short film "Love Bug" won the audience award in 2009.)

"The 2000 Austin Film Festival was the first time I screened a film at any festival. My parents were on either side of me in a sold-out theater (the old Arbor). When the lights came up during the end credits, people were clapping. I remember shaking and then just crying. I'd never shared something I'd made with so many people. And the fact that an audience connected with it ... truly one of those defining moments in my life."

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The Austin Film Festival takes place October 24-31. Ticket options include general admission to specific films, $65 film passes for all eight days and conference badges from $125 to $675. For tickets and information, visit AustinFilmFestival.com.

The Statesman at AFF

See our guide to the festival, including an interview with "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, Friday in Austin360. Also in Life & Arts, look for interviews with Susan Sarandon, Callie Khouri and "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen. And check Austin360.com's Movies blog for updates and more.

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