Saturday, October 15, 2016

Q&A with Austin Film Festival Organizers Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez

Award-winning screenwriters and filmmakers, including Ron Howard, Callie Khouri, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Jenny Lumet, and Harold Ramis, discuss their careers and iconic films in lively conversations from the acclaimed PBS series On Story. The Austin Film Festival (AFF) has transcribed the best of these conversations and published them in the 2013 book On Story—Screenwriters and Their Craft and in the new book On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films with a foreword by James Franco.
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Austin Film Festival is the first organization focused on the writer’s creative contribution to film. Its annual Film Festival and Conference offers screenings, panels, workshops, and roundtable discussions that help new writers and filmmakers connect with mentors and gain advice and insight from masters, as well as refreshing veterans with new ideas. We asked Barbara Morgan, cofounder and executive director of AFF, and Maya Perez, a writer and producer/consultant for On Story and AFF board member, about what makes the festival different, how they plan programming, how James Franco got on board to write a foreword, and more.

The Austin Film Festival runs through October 20th here in Austin!

What makes the Austin Film Festival different from other film festivals?

AFF’s focus on the screenwriter as the heart of the filmmaking process and how much we focus on writers, in general – enabling, championing, and celebrating their work and process – is what originally put us on the map. 23 years ago, we were the only festival in the country that centered itself on the writer’s contributions to film. We’re thrilled others have followed suit, finally giving a public platform to the creative people who usually take backseat to the director, actors, producer, etc. What also makes us unique is the comfortable, “living room”-style of the Conference. Our hotel setting encourages people to settle in and continue their conversations hours after the panels have ended. Finally, I think the sense of camaraderie among the panelists and registrants makes us different from other festivals. Many of the panelists were registrants themselves only a few years ago and know the questions, concerns, and frustrations one can feel when trying to break a TV pilot or break into the film industry. They all share the same love for storytelling in film and TV – we all binge and obsess over the same TV series, cheer and groan when the winners are announced at the Golden Globes and Oscars – and that’s apparent in the panels and film screenings. What’s been especially fun over the years is when filmmakers want to interview other filmmakers – Judd Apatow moderated the panel with Harold Ramis, Pamela Ribon led the conversation with Issa Rae, Shane Black with Phil Rosenthal, Paul Thomas Anderson with Jonathan Demme, and many more; they are as curious to know the answer to “How do you do what you do?” as any of the registrants. It’s really inspiring and informative – and often funny – to watch.

When you start to plan the next festival lineup, what goals do you set out for programming? What decisions go into putting together the perfect program?

We look at what’s been trending in film and TV that year, see what trends we’re noticing in the film and screenplay competitions submissions – are we getting in a lot of horror movies this year? Stories with child protagonists? Noirs? – solicit opinions from past panelists and registrants on who they’d like to see at the Conference. We work hard to balance the program to cater to our diverse registrant-base, so we seek writers at various levels of success, people writing blockbusters, indie projects, linear and non-linear stories, comedies and thrillers, etc. And then, of course, one of the big perks of working at the Festival is inviting your personal favorites. We were big fans of Rachel Getting Married and so were thrilled when Jenny Lumet accepted our invitation. The year Johnny Depp attended was so special because before we had even invited him to be our Actor Award recipient, he had said yes because he wanted to celebrate Screenwriter Award recipient Caroline Thompson, who he’d become friends with when she wrote Edward Scissorhands.

What do these books offer to both experienced and aspiring writers beyond the content that the PBS TV show, podcast, and radio show cover?

The book gives us an opportunity to share more content than a TV or radio format allows. Whereas the TV show gives maybe 26 minutes of Ron Howard’s panel, the book gives you almost the entire thing. This lets the reader settle into the conversation a bit more. That said, since it’s broken into sections readers can easily pick it up and read a couple of pages when needing a burst of motivation or feeling a little stuck on their own creative projects. Another great thing about the books is that they allow us to share content from panels that didn’t have high enough quality recording for either of the shows, like Frank Pierson’s conversation and Robin Swicord’s, for example.

Can we claim that James Franco keeps a copy of these books in each back pocket of his pants or is that overkill? Kidding. But seriously, how did you get James Franco to write the foreword to On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films?

James has attended the Conference several times and what’s interesting about him – one of the many interesting things about him, I should say – is that every time he’s been here, he attends panels all day long and then goes to the competition film screenings at night. Most registrants don’t even know he’s there. I’ve heard people invite him to the big premieres and he always politely declines in favor of seeing the films that don’t yet have distribution. He’s always been especially interested in our Education Outreach track, the panels specifically organized for teachers and local high school students and his passion for and commitment to the arts is real. Anyway, so we sent him an email asking if he’d write the foreword and he wrote back and said yes.

What is the most surprising story to come out of these transcripts? The most inspiring? The funniest?

The funniest story, the one that makes me laugh every time I read it is Ron Howard’s story of directing Bette Davis for the first time. There’s so much advice and inspiration and experience in these pages that I can’t pick just one, but what sticks with me when feeling uncertain about this whole industry and what my place in it might be is Robin Swicord’s advice at the end of her chapter. It initially sounds depressing, but is actually really liberating. There are no guarantees, so write what you want, challenge yourself, and make it yourself.
We are actually in the middle of a moment similar to what was happening in the sixties and seventies that created the conditions for Dog Day Afternoon to be made: the film business is collapsing. So you get to write anything you want because they’re not going to buy your script, they’re not going to hire you, and you’re not going to get an agent. You don’t have to please a studio to be a filmmaker. The one piece of advice I would give is, be bold. Be as bold as Frank Pierson was and John Calley was and Sidney Lumet was. Go write that stuff and do it the way they did. They got their friends together and made a movie in the streets of Brooklyn. They brought it in under budget because they knew what they were doing. So go have fun.

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