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Austin Chronicle Sidebar: Festival Happenings

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Opportunity can certainly bring out the ugly opportunist in people. And the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference is all about opportunity. The most overt attempt to get noticed? One woman sitting in the Driskill Hotel bar (not quite analogous to the Four Seasons' bar at SXSW time, yet) frantically banging away on her laptop, working on her screenplay and trying to catch the eye of someone important or someone with money.

Despite a few such blatant self-promotional incidents, the whole conference was actually low-key if for no other reason than screenwriters (the focus of the conference) aren't stars. You could be chatting up the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects and not even know it, not until you see him moderating a panel the next day, that is.

Generally, the panels were information free-for-alls loosely tied to some theme -- TV writers, indie filmmakers, producers, etc. The format was both good and bad: good in that there was the flexibility to serve the attendees' wants (panels could take almost any direction), but bad in that you weren't sure what the panel would cover or which direction it would take so you couldn't really judge ahead of time whether or not it would be an effective use of your hour and a half.

Some panels were informative, but not necessarily useful. At any number of these things you could hear amusing stories about how certain writers fluked into their agents, but there was no "How to Get an Agent" panel. Similarly, there was little practical advice to take away from "The 30-Minute Comedy: Hilarity Ensues" -- but damnit if Harry Anderson isn't more entertaining as Harry Anderson than he is as a TV character and damnit if Johnny Hardwick can't get a laugh simply by breaking into the voice of Dale from King of the Hill.

In fact the most worthwhile by-product of the whole conference was that, subject matter not withstanding, pick the right infotainment soirée, you could get treated to a wonderfully hysterical show. Take the "Killing 'Em: How to Write for Comedy" panel. There were four panelists: Buck Henry (The Graduate, Get Smart), Carl Gottlieb (The Jerk), Scott Thompson (The Kids in the Hall, The Larry Sanders Show), and Laurice Elehwany (The Brady Bunch Movie).

Nobody said a thing about how to actually write comedy (if that's something you can even teach), but there was this unbelievable comedic synergy between Thompson, Henry, and Gottlieb. You've got Thompson, the queen, who just added this burlesque flamboyance to everything he said; Gottlieb, who was quick and clever but had this very Everyman way of speaking; and Henry, who has this dry perspective on essentially everything, or at least everything brought up during the panel; and they are firing off line after line and playing off of each other perfectly.

It was bewildering to watch three people actually be that funny. It was also richly ironic because the entire time Elehwany was sort of silently stranded on the side. It was like someone sent her an invitation to the wrong party. Over 90 minutes, she had about three very dry, factual things to say and that was it. In retrospect, it was almost a scripted demonstration of the difference between being off-the-cuff funny and being able to sit in front of a computer and, over time, create humor (of course, the irony is that you could never script what Thompson, Henry, and Gottlieb said).

The post-screening Q&As didn't have quite the same spontaneity. Moviegoers have different questions than people trying to break into the business. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the downside is that the moviegoers tend to have the same questions year after year after year. So after The Graduate screening, Buck Henry reels off stock answers to things that he's gotten used to hearing over the past 30 years. In fact, to the slight annoyance and disbelief of Henry, one person not only asked the common question about how the movie got produced but also did so right after the previous questioner asked the same question.

Guess some people just can't resist the opportunity to converse with their heroes even if they don't bother to take the time to listen.

-- Michael Bertin

Four years after it inception, and look how big this puppy has gotten. Not just the crowds, although what was once a contained gathering of people who knew damn well screenwriters weren't getting the credit they deserved -- either at home or by the Academy -- has grown to 1,600 registrants. The very idea that Austin can support four separate and clearly distinct film festivals says more about the city than any tourism department ever could.

Apart from the usual check-in/registration glitches (i.e. badges that weren't where they should have been when they were slated to be there), the 1997 Heart of Film Festival appeared to have remarkably few snafus, at least from the outside looking in. Even the notorious Oliver Stone was subdued and talkative, greeting fans and fellow filmmakers alike at Saturday's Free-for-All Q&A at the Paramount. Not that he said anything that most people didn't already know, but it was nice he stayed lucid.

Apart from the screenings (which are still going on as I write this), the panels held the most flair, although scheduling them at 8:25 on a Saturday morning may not have been the wisest idea. After a night of films, parties, and schmoozing, it's hard enough for most attendees to drift out of bed in time for breakfast, much less to talk about the nuances of the psychological thrillers. Also on Saturday, The King of the Hill panel highlighted that show's terrific and unexpected success. Getting creators Mike Judge and Johnny Hardwick, along with writer Jim Dauterive, was a coup, and talk turned from fictional Arlen to the Austin scene, and back.

Personally, running into Buck Henry at a Friday night party was the highlight of my weekend. Looking grizzled and perpetually mussed with his trademark baseball cap riding high on his forehead, the elder statesman of television and Hollywood comedy sarcastically rebuffed my entreaties for a drink and instead moved off toward a gaggle of women half his age with a noticeable leer. Maybe those old Saturday Night Live sketches weren't so far off the mark after all.

-- Marc Savlov

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