#4–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s
AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To conclude our journey, here are #s 7-10.


– – – – –

7. Caught the preview screening of “W.” – Austin, TX was, of course, THE place in the country to see this flick.

Strange…I mean, I realize that Bush spent a lot of time in this city.  Duh, right?  I had, in fact, my own brush with the man as his motorcade blocked in (and blocked from view) my rental car when I was in town for the ’05 festival.  So I walked around the downtown for hours thinking I was going insane.  On the phone with Robbye trying to explain why this joker she’d just started dating was missing his flight home, praying she didn’t hang up thinking I was an absolute loser.  FINALLY!  Three hours later, the multitude of black SUVs pulled away, and there was my little car—two blocks away from the coffee shop where I’d met my friend, Troy.

If I haven’t officially said it before, let me say it now.  Thanks, George W. Bush.  For nothin’.

Bush has always been kind of a "Big Brother" character for me.  Larger than life, looming above.  Like a movie star or a fictional character, except that his impact on all our lives and safety and pocketbooks is far from stellar or fictional.  So I knew he was real.  Quite real.  And yet…with the distance between us, it was hard to think of Bush as a real person.

It wasn’t the movie, itself, that changed this perspective for me.  It was the conversation after the movie that did.  In the Driskill, later, talking to the several Austinites with whom Robbye and I befriended, I was suddenly cognizant of how many of these people actually KNEW George Bush or knew someone who knew the guy.  People who had interacted with him before he was President or Governor.  When he was a mere mortal.

I’m not gonna dish any dirt here about the guy.  Buy your own ticket to Austin; you’ll get plenty.  My point is that it was a little freaky hearing about this man, who had basically ruled my world (and tried to rule the world) for the last eight years—someone whom I hold in righteous contempt—like he was Joe the Plumber down the street.  Weird.

Anyway, the movie was fine.  Not Oliver Stone at his best.  The whole affair felt a little slapdash, which it was, apparently.  The script was the biggest problem, as it was pretty uneven.

It was the cast that made this movie.  Josh Brolin did about the best Bush impersonation I think I’ve ever seen.  Richard Dreyfus was bang-on for Cheney.  And though she’s taken some potshots for being too much a caricature, I think Thandi Newton was an absolute treat as Condi Rice.  Yeah…she played it for laughs, but that was the intent of her character.  She performed, I believe, exactly as Stone wanted her to.  And every time the woman opened her mouth or gave one of those goofy looks, I laughed out loud.

The highlight for me, though, was James Cromwell as Bush Sr.  More on that in the next highlight.

8. Sat in on a talk by James Cromwell – The morning after the “W.” screening, James Cromwell graciously offered up an ad hoc panel to talk about—well, I presumed his amazing career and a little about his work on “W.”  I’m not quite sure where the moderator’s wires got crossed, but the questions on her list were such that virtually the entire talk I felt like I was back in junior high.  “So…what did Oliver and Josh do?  What were they saying?  And why did they do this and that?”

It was odd.  I felt for Mr. Cromwell.

Especially since, given the tenor of some of his answers, it seemed that he and Stone might not have had the best working relationship on the film.  You could hear the tension in his voice.  If it was me, I woulda left it well enough alone, much less forced the guy to second guess a guy with whom he’d obviously struggled.

Cromwell, however, performed admirably.

And even when the talk kept straying from movies to politics, Cromwell stepped up to the plate in grand fashion.  It was quite amazing, in fact.  Every question for him was an opening for a grand soliloquy.  He’s quite articulate and passionate and poetic—far more so than the characters he plays.  As he spoke about everything from getting out the vote to saving the planet to why he turned vegan, the entire room was captivated.  His talk really inspired me.  To vote and to save the planet, that is.  I’m sorry…I tried the vegan thang once.  ‘Nuff said.

I did get a chance to ask him one question.  Everyone was wandering aimlessly with their questions, and no one was asking him about how he prepared for his part.  Because he was brilliant.

The night before, in the brief Q&A post-film, he’d mentioned that he had tried to mimic Bush Sr. early on in the shooting, but Stone had pulled him away from that.  I was shocked to hear it.  Then I realized, oh my god, the guy didn’t sound like Bush Sr.  Rather, he was simply (and so thoroughly) Bush Sr. that I never questioned it.  The voice, which was such a distinctive thing about Bush Sr., didn’t matter.  Cromwell had inhabited his character so well; I bought him as the person hook, line, and sinker.

Needless to say, my opinion of James Crowell—which was already pretty high—bumped up several notches as a result of my 2008 Austin experience.

9. Met my new friend, writer Scott Richter –
Not a whole lot to say here, except that Scott’s a really cool guy.  I talked before about how we were one panel together and had a great time of it.

I was tickled and grateful when Scott offered to take some time out of his Saturday morning to have breakfast with Robbye and me, and help me prepare for moderating my “Know Your Rights” panel.  Of course, little did I know that we’d hit it off so well that the “discussing the panel” portion of our breakfast would be shoved into the 15 minutes before we said our good-byes.  After all, we’d already been sitting there for over two hours.  Oops!

It’s a good thing to meet good people who are not only in the business, but also live in the LA area.  The prospect of moving there can be a scary one, the conventional wisdom being that the place is a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah on blow, and the industry chews people up and spits people out in little, broken pieces.  Robbye and I have been fortunate that we’ve had the exact opposite experience.  Everyone we’ve met out there is really cool and really supportive and really decent.  We’re amazed at how many friends—and what a great support system—we’re amassing in CA.  In fact, two of Robbye’s bestest girlfriends, Lisa and Miriam, live out there.  Who’da thunk?

10. Met the “Dr. Evil” of the ISS – The other big treat of the AFF was meeting our new friend, Bill Frank.  I am reading one of Bill’s scripts right now, but that’s not the only interesting thing about him.  He works for NASA and he is one of the leads that helps train astronauts how to handle problems on the ISS.  In his own words, he “breaks the space station” so astronauts can figure out how to fix them.  How cool is that?

We met him in the line for “W.” and were virtually inseparable after that.  I am amazed when I meet old friends for the first time.  That’s what it felt like…like we went to high school together and were getting back together decades later.

Bill said that if we find ourselves in Houston, that he’d take us for a tour of the ISS simulator.  That’s great, but what do we have to offer in return should he and his family come to pay us a visit?  The Mall of America..?  Whatever.  How “terrestrial”.

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