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Austin Film Festival Journal: Part Two

November 3, 2019

I didn’t think I would have my very first Austin Film Festival panel discussion at St. David’s Episcopal Church.  We were even in what is called “The Old Sanctuary”–which means stained glass, wooden pews stocked with hymnals, and a monastic atmosphere.

It seemed a bit out of place to have Michael Grillo and three screenwriting semifinalists seated before an Austin Film Festival banner in this setting, but that’s where we were.  As it turned out, I would be visiting this church on multiple occasions over the next three days.  Dad was an Anglican, so I guess a part of me felt a bit like being home.

The three semifinalists were selected at random, and Mr. Grillo had read their scripts.  He had significant praise for all of them, which meant a great deal, given how many scripts he has likely read in his forty plus year career.  One of the writers, David Prosser, I later connected with at a party hosted by the Nickelodeon Writers’ Program, and we exchanged scripts.  I’m looking forward to reading his this week.

What Mr. Grillo did was very cool–he made it clear that his job as a producer was to find a way to ensure your vision on the page makes it on the screen.  Using the three writers on “stage” with him, he pulled examples from the scripts of what would likely be production challenges:  fight scenes, CGI, rain, animals.  He described how as a producer, he would be inclined to try and talk you out of some of the challenging things in the scripts.  He also made it clear that if you think there is something essential to your story, that you don’t want to remove–fight for it.  Don’t just give in, because you want to be seen as a team player.  If you want it in, Grillo said, then it’s my job to figure out how.

He also made another really important point:  don’t let my concerns as a producer affect how you write your scripts.  Write the story you want to tell–if you have a rainstorm on 2/10 of a page, and it’s important to your story, leave it in there.  Don’t edit your script as you write it, thinking a producer will want to change it.   If the story is good, and a producer wants to make the script, let him/her worry about that later.

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This I felt was excellent advice.  A few years ago, when one of my scripts was optioned (sadly, it was never produced) , I found myself compromising more than I really wanted.  I was trying to be a team player, I was trying to get the film made, I wanted to show I was flexible, etc.  After listening to Michael Grillo, I decided to go back to that script and remove everything I added from the producer’s notes I wasn’t comfortable with (in fairness, some of their notes did improve it–but not all).   I’m much happier with it now.

After that first panel discussion, I decided to go see a film (it is a film festival, after all).  The movie was playing at the awesome Hideout Theatre–a combination coffee shop and improv theatre!   I had some time before the screening, so I ordered a Dirty Chai, prompting the barista to ask me if I wanted “Stormy Daniels dirty, or Hillary Clinton dirty?”

The film I saw was called “The Witness.” I knew it was a story about a lawyer from the International Criminal Court trying to find a key witness from the Bosnian War, and that it was one of the last performances of the great Bruno Ganz.  I was expecting something along the lines of a serious courtroom drama–“Judgment at Nuremberg” for the Serbs.  I was not expecting an adventure story, and the attorney’s arc took him to places I did not anticipate.  Overall, I really enjoyed the picture, and was pleased that director Mitko Panov was there for a post film Q & A.  Sadly, the volunteer tapped to interview Mr. Panov seemed ill-prepared, so instead of waiting for more poorly thought out questions, he just kept talking about the things he thought we should know about his film.

There was a Writer’s Guild of America, West party after the film; however, a Texas thunderstorm was now tearing through Austin, and I had been awake 23 straight ours.  Knowing I was tired, with no desire to be soaking we, and that there would be other parties over the next few days, I summoned a RideAustin vehicle and went to my hotel.

A few hours of sleep, then I would be ready for a big, full day on Friday.

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