Monday, September 21, 2009

"How to do the Austin Film Festival" with Jessica Bendinger

The following interview with writer Jessica Bendinger was conducted by Aadip Desai, President of the Northwest Screenwriters Guild. Both will be speakers at the 2009 AFF Conference.

Aadip Desai (AD): What projects are you most excited about right now?
Jessica Bendinger (JB): My novel, The Seven Rays and my next movie. I call my stuff “commas” (not dramedies), it’s a coming of age story in whatever my genre is about the creative process at a music conservatory.

AD: How many times have you been to AFF? When was your first time?
JB: I think I’ve been four times, but maybe three. First time was 2001, the following year after Bring It On came out.

AD: Why should one go to the AFF? What do you think it offers that other festivals and conferences don’t?
JB: Why not go? I’ve never been to a festival where there is such pure undiluted access.

AD: Where does all the action happen?
JB: Everywhere, all at once. Sometimes the panels are really good, right after panel. Driskill Bar, obviously. What’s great about it is that anything can happen anywhere at any time.

AD: Which events do you consider "must attend"?
JB: If you see someone on a panel you like, you have to go to that panel. You need to connect the dots between your enthusiasm and your favorite writer.

AD: What should one bring to the conference (business cards, leave-behinds, etc.)?
JB: Business cards.

AD: Any "don'ts" for attending the conference?
JB: Don’t stalk. It’s cool to hang around, but don’t get stalky.

AD: What do you consider stalky?
JB: If someone is giving you a weird look, and it’s the fourth time…you might be stalking.

AD: What one piece of advice would you have for anyone attending for the first time?
JB: Open with generosity, rather than selfishness. You may be excited about your piece of work, just know that honey will get you more than vinegar. If you’re excited about your project, it can feel like vinegar, if it’s not in context.

Compliments are a nice social lubricant. If you don’t know someone, it helps you set the stage. You have to establish the connection point. Without that connection point you have no conduit. Try to find that genuine connection point.

AD: Have you met any personal heroes at AFF?
JB: Lawrence Kasdan, Ed Solomon, Michael Ian Black.

AD: What’s your favorite AFF story?
JB: I think the whole experience is such a good time, it’s hard to nail it down to one anecdote. It’s really just this great long weekend. But, here’s one. One of the winners of the AFF TV writing competition approached me. Her name is Martina Broner. After Austin, she just kept checking in with me in a polite, genuine way. She would send me links to things she thought would interest me. She gently persisted with me in a way that was great. I ended hiring her to work on my book, The Seven Rays. She ended up getting a job with me while I was editing. There’s a thanks to her. So that was a genuine connection that grew into a meaningful relationship.

AD: How can someone make the best of their AFF experience?
JB: Hydrate. Drink lots of water, take naps when you can. Don’t have an expectation. Expectation courts disappointment, but willingness and curiosity create a much better experience. Just be willing and curious and watch what happens.

AD: What do you think about the screenplay competition?
JB: Because it’s a writer’s festival, it’s a wonderful venue for writers.

AD: What is the reputation of the AFF screenplay competition within the business?
JB: For me, when I’m recommending competitions, AFF is the gold standard for me. I know it, I believe in it.
If you go, you’ll have a personal experience.

AD: How do you think writers should best represent themselves?
JB: I’m a big believer in authenticity. Be yourself. There’s only one of you, so it’s a waste of time trying to be someone else. If you can't be yourself, fake it until you make it…show genuine curiosity in other people. Become a great listener. If you are bad at listening, practice feigning interest. Nothing replaces genuine concern for people.

AD: What are some of the most common mistakes you see in screenplays?
JB: Top Three: 1. Jamming exposition into dialogue in a clunky way. 2. Overwritten action description. 3. Telling instead of showing. Remember, a screenplay is a piece of work and also a recipe for a movie. All the ingredients you want may not on the day of the shoot be there. If you can remember that a script is more like an inspirational cookbook, not a bible. You’re the authority of the movie, but you’re trying to inspire people to make your movie. To the extent that you can use your gifts to inspire your reader, that is the best use of your writing ability. To be super attached and precious and rigid, is gonna be a tough road. Screenplays are a jumping off point for a movie. Some stuff doesn’t work. It works in the theoretical, and you get into the actual and it just doesn’t land, you better be nimble enough to accommodate that reality. Be nimble.

AD: Is it important that writers move to LA?
JB: I don’t have any answers. Here’s why. Your journey as a human being is as important as your journey as a writer. If it will help put a fire under your ass, that’s legit. If it’s something that will drain, hurt, stress you out, weaken, then compromise your writing, be aware. Know your limitations as a person. All artists need different care and feeding. Every writer has a different carrot and a different stick that motivates them. It’s your job to know or figure it out in this self-employed, autonomous career. “Know thyself.”

AD: What should you have in the can before you start looking for representation?
JB: Everybody says good script. The real issue is, have you had credible evaluation? Credible experienced, OBJECTIVE, evaluation of your writing. The people who love you will tell you it’s good. What we really need is the truth or some proximity of the truth. I still pay people to read my material. Paying for their objectivity. A free good read is hard to come by…see Josh Olsen’s rant [check out]. You’re putting your self-esteem in someone else’s hands. I don’t want the responsibility. You could do a lot worse than Script Shark.

AD: What’s your advice for writers on how to get through the tough times (rejection, poverty, depression, writer’s block, rejection, rejection)?
JB: There’s that saying. You’re never as good as your great press and you’re never as bad as your worst press. I think that’s true. Know thyself. If you’re a hypersensitive bunny, there are probably a lot of gifts in your writing, but you’re going to have to cultivate some resilience. The best advice, live a balanced life. Do not place your entire self-esteem on the stick of how you’re evaluated as a writer. Get self-esteem from legitimate quarters, whether that’s service, volunteering, friends, family, a sport or hobby you’re good at, a place you find meaning in your life. That’s the best way to get through the tough times. At the end of the day, it’s just piece of writing. Puts it in its proper scale. Lack of scale is a killer for everybody. It’s about connecting, not about distancing myself behind a Hollywood throne.

Jessica Bendinger's Panel Schedule at the 2009 AFF Conference:
10/24 Young Filmmakers Program Panel, Texas State Capitol Building (10:45am-12:00pm)

10/24 Roundtable: Writers, Driskill Hotel, Citadel Room (3:45pm-5:00pm)

10/25 Hair of the Dog Brunch - Jessica's co-hosting with Terry Rossio!, Ranch 616 (10:00am-11:15am)

10/25 Adaptation, Stephen F. Austin Hotel, Ballroom (11:30am-12:45pm)

Aadip Desai's Moderating Schedule at the 2009 AFF Conference:

10/22 Breaking Into the Business (1:00pm-2:15pm)

10/23 What Gets Producers Excited (10:45am-12:00pm)

10/24 Breaking Into the Business (1:45pm-3:00pm)

Check out the full 2009 AFF Conference schedule here.