Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Pen-Ultimate Fest

By Russell Smith

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  It may well be that, as the conference title says, a screenwriter's words on paper are the heart of film. But according to Dennis Hopper, the heart of filmmaking is something else entirely: obscure and powerful urges emanating from mind's darker recesses.

"I don't know why I do this," the 61-year-old actor, director, and writer said during the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriting Conference's "Free for All" public panel discussion with Hopper and Oliver Stone, held October 4 at the Paramount. "I guess I'm just a compulsive creator. I can't justify all the shit I do in my personal life unless I create. That's about it."

Stone supported Hopper's notion that passion -- whatever its source -- and unwavering vision are crucial for those who aspire to a career in movies. "Your problem as an artist is that there are like 500 film festivals out there, and 500 movies in each one," said the controversial 51-year-old director. "That means you've gotta make a movie that stands out in some way. And the way you do that is to film it like a home movie... put the work into it and it'll become something more than that, something close to your heart."

This heartfelt endorsement of following one's personal muse seemed to resonate with the packed crowd (including former Governor Ann Richards), particularly the large contingent of baby boomers who grew up with the two establishment-twitting artists. The success of Hopper and Stone obviously registered, at some level, as a validation of their own checkered Sixties and Seventies histories.

At most other conference events, however, the demographics and sensibilities were those of a younger, hungrier crowd of aspiring screenwriters seeking any edge in their quest for a secure niche in the film and TV industry's unstable, frequently hostile ecosystem.

In all, about 1,600 people (including writers, producers, directors, random scenemakers, and vendors of screenwriting-oriented products) attended the three-day conference -- an increase of 400 over last year. And despite the outrageously beautiful late fall weather and a lively, informal conference format, the audiences in the workshops had their game faces on and the atmosphere crackled with a distinct static charge of collective anxiety. For every purposeful-looking 25 to 35-year-old on hand, one could imagine 20 kids, girlfriends, husbands, parents, and friends with quiet but steadily growing doubts about their loved one's stubborn dreams of Hollywood glory.

The panelists, including some of the country's most prominent screenwriters, directors, producers, and writing teachers, seemed without fail to respect and empathize with their audiences. Perhaps recalling their own not-so-distant lean years, they answered even the spaciest questions with respect, good humor, thoroughness, and a hard focus on providing specific, field-tested advice for neophyte artists facing the longest of odds. The following are some highlights from some of the 40 panels and workshops presented during the 1997 AHFF:

Free-for-All Q&A
With Oliver Stone & Dennis Hopper

Moderator Bud Shrake, a longtime Austin screenwriter and journalist, led a loosely structured 90-minute program, alternately plying Stone and Hopper with innocuous questions about their artistic philosophies and achievements and more provocative invitations to vent about the current state of the film industry. Under Shrake's questioning, stylistic and attitudinal differences between two maverick artists emerged in vivid relief. Though Stone is widely identified as an American counterpart to the vision-focused writer/director/photography director giants of the French New Wave, he proclaimed that, "A movie may be credited to one man, but it's always the work of a collective soul. If you want total control, you should be writing something else -- a novel or something." Hopper forcefully disagreed, arguing that "Being an auteur filmmaker is where it's at."

Stone, looking like a man who's missed a lot of sleep lately, delivered his opinions with a measured, professorial manner that contrasted starkly with his high-intensity filmmaking style. Hopper, more than a decade into his clean-and-sober phase, actually appeared younger and more vibrant than Stone despite being 10 years older. He shouldered most of the session's entertainment and raconteurial burden, reeling off a series of captivating yarns about experiences with the likes of James Dean, legendary acting guru Lee Strasberg, and John Wayne. The Duke starred in some of the most amusing anecdotes, including one in which he spied athlete's foot powder on Hopper's pants and lectured the younger man (to whom he habitually referred as a "pinko commie") on the perils of "the white powder stuff."

Both directors delivered forceful salvos against the economics of contemporary Hollywood. "Marketing costs $30 million for a typical picture," Stone said. "Pay the actors and production expenses, and you need $85 million to break even on a domestic picture about a couple in Baltimore."

"The need for a big-bang first weekend is squeezing out indie films," added Hopper. "Most of 'em go straight to tape. I don't know why if every time we build a 10-screen cineplex, we can't set aside three screens: one should be dedicated to art movies, one to foreign films, and maybe one screen for classic films, so people can remember the history of film."

In his most fervent speech of the Q&A, Stone defended the integral place of violence in his body of work. "Birth is violence," argued Stone. "I came into the world as a forceps baby, pulled out by metal tongs. In Greek drama, fathers kill daughters. Medea killed her children. It's like the (Jon Voight) Indian character in U-Turn said: "We're human, but there's an animal in us too. We can never deny or forget that."

The Stuff Nightmares
Are Made Of:
The Psychological Thriller

Despite an 8:25am start time, the Driskill Crystal Ballroom was nearly filled for a session headed by Tobe Hooper (director and co-writer, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Ted Tally (writer, The Silence of the Lambs), Andrew Walker (writer, Seven), and Nick Kazan (writer, Reversal of Fortune, Dream Lover). From the tenor of questions posed by the audience, it was immediately obvious that longstanding fan gripes about clichés of the psychological thriller (aka horror) genre have found sympathetic ears among younger horror writers. But while the panelists conceded that clueless victims, inexplicably evil villains, and stock scenes such as women trapped with maniacs in dark, confined spaces are overly familiar, these devices exist for good reasons.

Tally: "People ask me, `Why does the victim always walk alone into the darkened house? Why is she so stupid?' Well, without stupid people in the movie, it'd be over in half an hour."

Walker: "See, the problem is, that person doesn't know she's in a horror movie. If she could only hear the music and see Tobe Hooper standing behind the camera, she'd stay the hell out."

Tally: "After The Silence of the Lambs, I've heard it said, `Well, here's another woman in a basement with a madman. We've seen that a million times.' And that's true. But the reason is, you've promised right from the start that these two people will meet. You've gotta do it."

Walker, responding to the common fan beef that horror directors don't provide enough backstory on precisely how and why one becomes a hockey-masked, brain-eating, sorority house-terrorizing psycho, maintained that, "You can't over-explain the villain by saying, `Well, you see, the last time his mom spanked him as a kid, it was just one time too many.' You do that and you're just making it easier for people to pick your movie apart."

"Exactly right," said Kazan. "To over-explain the villain is to overexpose him."

However, one frequently levied complaint that met unanimous agreement among the panel was that today's horror-suspense films -- in common with mainstream films in general -- are subscribing too slavishly to the notion that perpetual, slam-bang action must be maintained at all costs.

"It's true, I'm afraid," Hooper said. "You've got to deliver that `thrill-a-second, roller-coaster ride' stuff now. It's getting way out of hand. For me, that approach is like putting a bucket on my head and banging on it."

"It's unfortunate," agreed Kazan. "For dramatic reasons you need to include some mundane stuff in there somewhere. It's indispensable. It's what connects you with real life (so the horror is more powerful). It's what allows a viewer to say, `Hey, I've done that... I'm in there with them.'"

Silver Tongues:
Writing Good Dialogue

Discounting the possibility of a brain cell-destroying chemical in the Greater Los Angeles water supply, why is it that dialogue in Hollywood films no longer boasts the exhilarating sophistication of classics such as Double Indemnity? According to panelists Robin Swicord (writer, Little Women), Pat Duncan (writer, Courage Under Fire), and Meredith Stiehm (writer and executive story editor, NYPD Blue), it's the death of the studio system.

"Movies were developed (autonomously) by the studios then," Swicord observed. "Nowadays, with the vertical corporate structures in place in the movie industry, there's always one more higher-up who has to approve the script."

Duncan concurred, adding that, "Screenwriters then were writers first -- novelists and other literary types. Now, you find writers who don't really want to be writers. They want to direct. And really, it was just a completely different environment back then. As badly as writers were treated in the Thirties and Forties, the directors didn't interfere. They, by god, shot the script!"

But even given the decidedly non-writer-friendly climate that prevails in the film industry of the Nineties, the panel's audience was encouraged to soldier on, striving to create the sharpest, smartest, most credible dialogue possible. Panelists emphasized the utter absence of substitutes for research, close observation, and reality-checking when venturing outside one's familiar cultural sphere.

Stiehm, whose work on NYPD Blue often requires her to put words in the mouths of urban ethnic characters, recalled that, "We had an African-American writer on the show last year and I often relied on him to help me with speech for black characters. To do that, I had to get over my squeamishness about saying, `I'm white and you're black, so I need to ask you how this person would speak.' But as uncomfortable as that is, it's just something a writer has to do."

Case Study: King of the Hill

For Austin-based animator Mike Judge, there not only is life after Beavis and Butt-head, but life in abundance. Judge's new animated series, King of the Hill, is now in its second season and rapidly gaining viewers well outside regions where expressions such as "Busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kickin' contest" are widely heard. With KOTH collaborators Jim Dauterive and Johnny Hardwick, Judge discussed the show's innovative approach to animation, which amounts to (as the G-rappers like to say) "keepin' it real."

Referring to a script he once read, Judge remembers a teenaged character saying, "The last time you brushed your teeth there were 10 more communist countries in the world."

"I see that all the time, people spouting these lines it'd take a Harvard Lampoon writer a week to come up with," Judge said. "I say you can't be afraid to let people talk the way they actually would in real life."

Judge rhapsodized about the work of a fellow animator who tapes unrehearsed speech by non-actors (for example, a man moving into a new apartment) and juxtaposes it with movements of fanciful clay figures. Referring to his own characters, Judge said that specific people (or composites) provided most of the inspiration for Hank, Boomhauer, Dale, and the rest of King's beer-swilling backyard posse.

Authenticity of another sort comes from KOTH's exclusive use of traditional cel animation techniques.

"There's a myth that animation is all done with computers. Not true. Every image in King of the Hill is hand-drawn. Our whole show is inked and painted on cels, then shot with 35mm film. That's something I really like about watching (traditional) animation. It's kind of cool to know that it takes like 60 separate drawings just to show a guy lifting a cigarette to his mouth."

For writers not sufficiently inspired by the panels, extra encouragement to persevere came in the form of awards presented to veteran and upcoming screenwriters. Buck Henry (The Graduate, Catch-22, To Die For) received the Distinguished Screenwriter Award. Previous winners include Horton Foote and Bill Wittliff.

Winners of the screenwriting competition are Christina Eichman's Royal Suckage in the Adult category and Kathryn McCullough's Santa Hood in the Family category. Suckage chronicles the efforts of two stir-crazy young women to escape the dismal little mining town in which they've grown up. McCullough's script concerns an elderly part-time burglar whose granddaughter finds his stash of stolen boodle and becomes convinced that he's Santa Claus. Runners-up are Richard Yancey's The Orbit of Venus and James Becket's Kokra.

The winners will receive a $3,500 cash stipend, all expenses paid to the conference and the chance to participate in a one-year mentorship program with leading screenwriters.

In the film competition, the feature film winner is Colin Fitz, directed by Robert Bella and written by Tom Morrissey; winner of the short film category is The Clearing, written and directed by Kat Smith; and winner of the student short film is MAD Boy, I'll Blow Your Blues Away, directed by Adam Collis and written by Russell DeGrazier. The feature film winner receives a cash stipend of $750 and the short film winners receive a cash stipend of $500.

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