News Column

Austin Film Festival celebrates established talent, cultivates new talent

October 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 31--The Austin Film Festival concluded Thursday night with a Halloween-themed horror film "All Cheerleaders Die," capping off eight days of films, panels, conversations, parties and a celebration of talent both new and old.

Familiar faces from TV and movies walked the red carpet -- Will Forte represented Alexander Payne's father-son dramedy "Nebraska," and funnyman Will Ferrell participated in a staged script reading of "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan's screenplay "2 Face" -- but the real stars of AFF are the people behind the camera.

The festival welcomed a wealth of writing and directing talent. One of the most star-studded conversations in the festival's 20-year history took place Saturday at the Stephen F. Austin InterContinental Hotel when "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood" writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson interviewed Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme.

Considered by many to be America's finest working filmmaker, Anderson engaged one of his biggest filmmaking influences in a conversation heavy in the language of cinema, touching on all aspects of Demme's career. Demme talked briefly about his early days with filmmaking legend Roger Corman, his use of "subjective camera work," the influence of the Dogme films on his shooting of "Rachel Getting Married," and the genesis of "Stop Making Sense," his concert documentary of the Talking Heads.

Demme also shared some fascinating stories about casting for his Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs." He originally wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, who starred in Demme's 1988 film "Married to the Mob," for the role of FBI agent Clarice Starling, eventually played by Jodie Foster. The director had no interest in Foster, but the actress was indefatigable in her desire to make a movie she saw as being about one woman going to great lengths to save another woman in the face of terrible men. After several meetings, Demme eventually relented and even ended up naming the film's production company Strong Heart Productions in honor of Foster, the courageous and powerful woman at the heart of the film. The rest, as they say, is history.

The two filmmaking giants met again Sunday at the State Theater for a presentation of cult filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.'s absurd 1973 Western "Greaser's Palace," taking the stage afterward for a Q&A that highlighted both of their admiration for the unique renegade. Earlier that day, the State played host to a funny and poignant script reading of AFF screenwriting awardee Vince Gilligan's "2 Face." The reading starred the always hilarious Ferrell, Thomas Haden Church ("Sideways"), Linda Cardellini ("Mad Men") and Giancarlo Esposito ("Breaking Bad").

Gilligan warned the audience that the dark comedy centered on race relations and would have some uncomfortable moments. It did. But it also had plenty of heart and humor, with Ferrell driving the reading as he alternated from bombast to empathy without missing a beat. With director Rian Johnson reading the screenplay's direction and action during the scenes, the event offered a fascinating look into the structure and details that make up a script from one of the hottest writers in the country. Gilligan also appeared in conversation at the festival and presented the pilot and final episodes of his Emmy-winning "Breaking Bad."

Other conference highlights included Elaine May discussing her career with "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator and AFF alumnus Phil Rosenthal, who engaged the comedy legend in a funny and informative talk. AFF Distinguished Screenwriter awardee Callie Khouri appeared in several venues, presenting a screening of her breakout movie "Thelma & Louise," whose star Susan Sarandon was also honored at the festival, and discussing her career in two separate conversations. The creator of the ABC show "Nashville" praised TV as a medium that allowed her to tell female-centric stories that can't find a home in movie theaters and shared the story of her inspiration for "Thelma & Louise" -- she was sitting in her car at 4 a.m. after working all night on a music video for the band Winger when the story just "landed on her."

Khouri's husband, T Bone Burnett, also attended the festival, representing the Coen Brothers' folk-era dark comedy "Inside Llewyn Davis" at the Paramount on Monday night along with the film's star, Oscar Issac. The young actor should receive plenty of Oscar buzz when the film is released in December. Another film destined for the spotlight at the Academy Awards is Steve McQueen's soul-shaking "12 Years a Slave." McQueen's brutal masterpiece, which takes a sledgehammer to previous gauzy cinematic representations of the antebellum South, played new AFF venue the Galaxy Highland on Wednesday night.

The festival celebrated its honorees Saturday and handed out jury awards at the annual ceremony held at the Austin Club. First-time writer-director Chris Lowell took home top narrative honors for his "Beside Still Waters," which follows friends reuniting back home for an amble down memory lane.

The jury award for documentary feature went to Christopher Englese's timely "Political Bodies," which follows the 2012 battle over reproductive rights in Virginia. British filmmaker Darren Paul Fisher won the Dark Matters Feature Jury Award for his sci-fi romance "OXV: The Manual."

Highlights from Austin filmmakers included the world premiere of "Sombras de Azul," the stirring feature debut from writer-director Kelly Daniela Norris. Filmed in Cuba, the quasi-autobiographical film traces a journey of mourning, catharsis and healing for its lead Maribel, played by Norris' cousin Seedne Bujaidar. The Mexican actress is mesmerizing in her portrayal of a woman grieving the loss of her brother, and Norris displays a mature vision, great ear for natural dialogue and abundance of heart with her debut. During an eight-day period that celebrated a wealth of established talent, AFF also helped many attendees discover some wonderful new names.

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(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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