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  • Finding Inspiration, Motivation and Opportunity in Austin

    November 4th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    Sometimes all you need to keep going is a little creative rejuvenation. A little brainstorm Botox. A writer’s reset button.

    That’s exactly what I found in Texas last week at the Austin Film Festival. It was an enjoyably exhausting vacation from the mind-fuck of monotony that sometimes plagues this business. It was a much-needed respite from the bad scripts and solitude of writing notes and a reminder of all of the best reasons I went into this business. It was, in the most basic of terms, an inspiration.

    It was basically non-stop from 8am to 3am for 5 days, with panels, screenings, parties, networking, walking, and lots of drinking. But sometimes that adrenaline, that insanity, that busy-ness, is what can unstick you from your creative rut.

    I went into this business to be heard. To be respected. To have a creative outlet and make a difference with my words. Or at least make a splash. I went into this business to work with the best, talk with the best, learn from the best. And find ways to improve my own talents, and help other improve theirs. And that’s what AFF is all about.

    I had never been to the AFF, despite a few years of campaigning. So when I got the invite this year to come and be a moderator on a few panels, I was really excited. I had heard so much about the creative energy and spirit of Austin Film Festival, as well as the HUGE A-list names that attend and speak every year, that I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. And then as the event neared, they also asked me to be a judge for their pitching competition and teach the Pitch Prep Panel alongside writer Pamela Ribon (Samantha Who), which was a great experience. In all, I was involved in 5 panels. Moderating two, teaching one, and pitch judging for two others.

    I had been to Austin once before, this past June for the Writers League of Texas Conference, which was a wonderful event though it was also 103 degrees in the shade with 140% humidity. I’m pretty sure that’s possible. But even as I sloshed my way through the city, I could feel an air of creativity. From the music to the art to the passion they show for books and films.

    But Austin Film Festival harnesses that creativity and produces a conference and festival unlike any other. It’s not as stodgy as Sundance, not as overhyped as Comic Con, not as expensive as Cannes. And AFF offers something you can’t get at any of those events….direct access.

    This year, the undisputed star and main-draw was Vince Gilligan, writer/creator/God of Breaking Bad. It didn’t matter who else was speaking, Vince Gilligan was the one person even the other celebrities were hoping to meet. I will speak about my experience with Vince in another article.

    In addition to Vince Gilligan, Will Ferrell was there, Susan Sarandon was there, Giancarlo Esposito, Callie Khouri, Barry Josephson, Elaine May, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Demme (who was perhaps the second biggest draw), plus major A-List screenwriters like Zak Penn, Scott Neustadter, Leslie Dixon, Leigh Wannell, Craig Mazin, John August, Phil Rosenthal, Shane Black, Scott Rosenberg, Terry Rossio, John Swetnam, Justin Marks, Kelly Marcel, Lee Aronsohn, Rian Johnson, John Hamburg, Robert Rodriguez, Roberto Orci, David Shore, etc., plus tons of agents, managers, producers, and industry leaders (if you don’t know those names, you’re not reading enough!).

    I don’t list these names to name-drop or make you jealous, I promise. I list them because they were (almost) all accessible and inspirational. If you couldn’t find inspiration in some form from listening to these people speak and meeting them and learning about their journeys, then you just might be dead inside.

    Sure, some were more guarded than others. But for the most part, everyone’s wearing the same badge and waiting on the same line and drinking in the same bar. And just being there, having that direct access, being able to go up to Terry Rossio and go “Hey, can I buy you a drink” is the very thing new writers and young producers dream about. Very few of those huge names turned people away.  Instead, they engaged in real conversation, answering questions and giving nuggets of encouragement.

    I watched Shane Black chat it up with newbies in the bar like they had known each other for years. I watched a socially awkward comic book nerd who (amazingly) didn’t even know who Zak Penn was, out-nerd him on a comic book question (a hilarious story you’ll have to ask me about in person). And I watched myself getting shit-faced with multi-million-dollar screenwriters and forging relationships I hope last a long time.

    I also got to finally meet many of my Twitter followers, which was great! And got to chat with some of the people I follow on Twitter and whose articles I read, like Scott Myers of Go Into The Story and Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List. Was good to put some twitter-warring to bed and forge new relationships.

    Sitting in on a few panels, there were a few that truly motivated me and inspired me but for different reasons.

    First, listening to Vince Gilligan speak and just watching him interact with the hoard of people who were trying to meet him all weekend (including myself), I was amazed at how sometimes, nice guys do win. If there was a more gracious, humble, kind man at this festival, I didn’t meet him. He was a lesson in how to be successful as a screenwriter, and as a human being.

    Best part? While listening to Vince speak about Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s method and if the characters will live on in some way, I came up with a new idea for a script that came so quickly into my head I had to text it to myself right then so I wouldn’t forget any of it. You never know where the kernel of an idea will come from, and this time it came from Vince Gilligan. So I’ll be sure to thank him in MY acceptance speech.

    At the panel for those getting an award this year – Gilligan, Sarandon, Khouri, Demme and Josephson – what struck me most was that NONE of their stories of how they became who they are, were spectacular. They were all interesting and fun to listen to, but they all just seemed to take random opportunities when presented with them, no matter what it was. It’s all about capitalizing on opportunity. Jonathan Demme and Susan Sarandon spoke about their journeys to fame, and they both just kept saying ‘Yes’ to things. Sarandon never had any training, but she had innate talent and did shitty movies, soap operas – whatever she could to get that next job and learn. She didn’t wait around for that ONE big starring role to launch her career, she worked her way up.

    Demme was a film critic and had no wanting to direct, but he got put on a Roger Corman film to do publicity and eventually was just asked to fly to London, write a movie, and it got made. He was asked, ‘Do you think you can write a movie about motorcycles?’ and he said “Sure.” And that was it.

    I see new writers passing up opportunities left and right as they try to break into this business, because it doesn’t pay enough or it’s not a high-profile enough producer, or it’s “only straight to DVD.” Take every opportunity you can to improve your craft and get a foot in the door, because you never know which door will actually open.

    Vince Gilligan won a Virginia screenwriting contest over 20 years ago and it just happened to be that one of the judges was producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), who went to the school and was doing them a favor. He liked the script so much, he contacted Vince months later and made the movie (Home Fries), and has been a mentor to Vince ever since, serving as exec producer on Breaking Bad.

    What I learned from these industry giants is that it’s not just about trying hard. It’s about having natural talent – an innate ability – and then having luck, good timing and opportunity. But once those stars align, you have to then be willing to work harder than everyone else and trust your own instincts and never quit.

    Another inspiration came from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, etc). I have always been a fan of his and this year, he was doing the REWRITE class, and as someone who does a lot of rewriting, I was very interested to hear his technique and see what I could learn (even professionals are always constantly learning).

    Unfortunately, while Terry is incredibly likable and engaging on stage, I didn’t find the class to be as informative or on-point as I would’ve liked (and got into numerous arguments about it after). But Terry did do something no one else does – and that is polish a script sight-unseen right there live on stage. It’s an impressive feat that most couldn’t do. And while I didn’t always agree with the changes Terry made, and he admitted they weren’t so much rewrite changes as polishing changes, it inspired a new class for me to teach and a new way to teach it. Now I look forward to teaching my own rewrite/polish class in 2014!

    And finally, on one of my panels, The Spec Script, a writer named John Swetnam was one of my panelists. He had written 18 scripts – 18!!! – before he sold his first one. He admits he didn’t think he had that innate ability and had to learn it and work hard. He decided after those 18 scripts that he was going to put his producer hat on and write something he knew could sell and get made quickly according to the marketplace. And 8 months later, he was in production with Stephen Moyer and Radha Mitchell starring in his first film. Now he’s writing Step Up 5 and has completed a couple huge budget studio films that will be out in 2014 and 2015.

    It doesn’t always take 18 scripts. Another panelist, screenwriter Matt Cook, who has had 2 scripts appear in the top ten of The BlackList, wrote one script, gave it to the ONE guy he knew who happened to be an agent at WME, he got signed, and the rest is history. By the way, Matt still lives in Austin.

    Across the board from all the dozens of panelists and screenwriters and producers and agents at AFF, the one thing that become clear was that there is no ONE way to break in. But let me tell you, attending Austin Film Festival is one hell of a great first step.

    Just hearing all the stories from these pros and getting to really talk with them and hang out with them gave me a kick in the ass like I haven’t felt in a long time. It was exactly what I needed because to be honest, I’ve felt like I’ve just been treading water the last few months. And so if you ever feel that way, do yourself a favor, and book yourself a pass for next year’s Austin Film Festival. I’ll see you there!

  • Don’t Worry About Them – Just Do You!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    Two weeks ago, one of my best friends in the world got engaged. Three weeks ago, another good friend of mine had a baby. That makes (no exaggeration) – 13 friends in 8 months to have babies.  So this week, I want to pass along some advice that applies to both your writing and your life. It’s advice that I’ve personally never been able to follow, but am really trying to make efforts to do so. And the advice is…

    Stop worrying about where you’re supposed to be, and enjoy where you are.

    I have struggled with this for over 20 years now. I have never, ever been able to live in the moment – it’s just not who I am. When I was in junior high, I wanted to be in high school. In high school, I was raring for college. In college, I couldn’t wait to move to Hollywood and finally start writing for a living.

    And now I’m in my 30s doing something I love, but never planned on doing.  I’ve always been so worried about what everyone else is doing and how I’m matching up to them and where I’m supposed to be at this stage of my life and at this stage of my career, that I haven’t been enjoying what I’ve accomplished.

    Yes, a couple of my friends are selling scripts for a million dollars. Yes, my old assistant is now a staff-writer on a major network show. Yes, almost all of my college friends are married and/or pregnant while I’m still trying to find the next first date. And no, I didn’t win an Emmy by age 30 like I had planned. But, I have been working full-time in Hollywood for almost 10 years. I run my own successful business and brand that I built almost completely on my own. And sometimes I have to take a breath and just appreciate that.

    I’m sure you all have your individual accomplishments that when you think about them, make you proud of yourself. So you have to let go of the 5 and 10 year plans and focus on what you’re accomplishing right now, today.

    And the same goes for your writing. Don’t worry about where you THINK you’re supposed to be at your given age or point in life. Don’t worry about if you planned to have sold your script by now or have an agent. Don’t even worry if your progress on the script you’re writing right now isn’t on target yet. Just be content with the progress you are making and the improvement of the quality of your work from when you started writing.

    We’re not all on the same time schedule of life. It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with and realize in the last couple years, and it’s still seeping in. But if you can just be happy with the work you’re doing, the life you’re living, and if you’re still inspired to work hard to achieve your dreams, who cares if someone else has achieved theirs first?

    When you get stuck and you’re feeling like the writing is hopeless or everyone around you is eclipsing your success or talent in some way, just think – “Okay, fine, today is their day…But tomorrow can still be mine.” Good luck and keep writing!

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