Austin Film Festival: A Trip to My Namesake

On October 27 & 28, I attended Austin Film Festival in—you guessed it—Austin, Texas. I had the opportunity to see my film screened, attend Q&A’s with people in the industry, watch movies before their release, and explore the food and culture (and more food) of the “weird” city.

So let’s get weird, shall we?

A Prelude

The trip seemed meant to be from the start.

Back in early 2018, I received an email from Film Freeway recommending Austin Film Festival. It caught my eye for two reasons:

  1. My name was in the title. (I’m narcissistic like that.)
  2. It was set to start on my birthday this year: October 25.

So of course I had to submit to it.

But on their Film Freeway page, it said that films were only eligible if they hadn’t yet been released. It also seemed geared for adult filmmakers.

I didn’t realize that there was a student category with different guidelines until my film school teacher shot me an email, suggesting that I submit The Phone Rang, a short film I wrote and directed about a boy who blames himself for his friend’s suicide.

I did it. It was now up to the powers that be at Austin Film Festival to decide my fate.

With the Stars Aligned

September 14. A Friday. A day struck by bolts, flowing with volts.

It was a really exciting day.

I received an email from Stefan Allen, coordinator of the Young Filmmakers Program, informing me that they selected The Phone Rang to screen at the festival. This meant the world and a half to me. I have never felt more satisfaction with any of my films than The Phone Rang, and their selection of the dramatic short for their festival seemed a confirmation of my pride. I did some research on the festival and—

Okay. I’ve been to festivals for my work before. I’ve seen my films screened, I’ve attended Q&A’s, and I’ve even won a few awards. But I’ve never been part of a festival as legitimate and well-known as this one. There’s even a quote about it by Ron Howard. Ron Howard.

I had to go. It was hours away and I would have to miss school, but none of that mattered. I had to find some way to go. This was just too good an opportunity.

After weeks of waiting, my dad was able to find cheaper plane tickets. He booked a hotel and began to plan our two days in Austin. The Young Filmmakers Program offered two free weekend passes.

Okay, enough of the before. Let’s get Texan already.

Friday, 10/26

I don’t have much to say about Friday, considering my dad and I arrived at 11 PM CST.

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While waiting in the airport, I wrote my pitch for a feature-length film. (More on that later.)

I did some homework on the plane, and I also did some sleeping.

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And we were in Texas!

I even saw an advertisement for the film festival in the airport!

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Saturday, 10/27

It was a very packed day. Of course, I mean that in the best possible way.

On Saturday, my father and I attended panels, an early screening, and my own short film on the silver screen. We also spent some time in the heart of Austin, exploring its unique culture.

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Running the Show, 9-10:15

To start off the day, we attended a panel with Donald Todd moderated by Alisa Perren called Running the Show. Todd discussed the unorthodox path that led him to become a showrunner and his experiences running various shows, including one of my all-time favorites: This Is Us.

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This was my favorite panel. I gained so much insight on how a TV show is written and managed from Todd’s perspective. For example, he said that he prefers one main writer to write an episode’s script rather than sending off disjointed units to each produce a scene because he wants to maintain the same style throughout. He also discussed how writing for streaming services differs from writing for network television: there aren’t three-week breaks that you have to hold the audience’s interest for.

Overall, it was intriguing to hear about the production of one of my favorite shows and educational about the logistics and economics of running a show.

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My Screening, 11-12:30

I attended the first screening of my film at Galaxy Highland, a movie theater.

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My film screened first of the seventeen. This was the first festival I’d attended for The Phone Rang, so it was really exciting to see the single shot play out in a theater of people.

There were some really amazing short films, so I’ll talk about a few:

  • “Wavy Head” and “Sincerely Anthony” both combine live action and animation to tell a story. In “Wavy Head,” a documentary about an invasive surgery he had as a baby, Max Shoham proposes philosophical questions about how physical appearance could impact one’s identity with maturity and visual creativity. In “Sincerely Anthony,” a beautiful film of loss, Shoham once again proves his prowess in both animation and storytelling.
  • “Astronaut Starbright” and “Inclusion on the Air” are documentaries about people who changed lives by working for inclusivity. Lana Taylor’s “Astronaut Starbright” tells Taylor Richardson’s story of putting herself through astronaut school and raising money for young girls of color to see Hidden Figures and A Wrinkle in Time. In Eli Canter’s “Inclusion on the Air,” Sesame Street writer Emily Perl Kingsley describes how, after her son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, she showed countless families that disabled children have great potential by including her son in an episode.
  • In the Trees” is a beautifully-shot horror film about two boys taking pictures in the woods. Will Nordstrom’s cinematography is original and his direction suspenseful. The camera always feels alive and I’m living for it. Check out the trailer for a hint of what I mean.
  • Elly Hong explores cultural identity in “Orphan,” following a teenage girl adopted from China who feels pressured to adopt a culture she doesn’t identify with.

After the screenings, the filmmakers went to the front for a Q&A. I had the opportunity to share my experiences writing and directing The Phone Rang. I shared how I came up with the premise and how much cooperation the shoot required.

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Panem et Circenses

And now, folks, the moment we’ve all been waiting for…

Food.

My favorite meal on the entire trip—and this was not an easy choice by any means—was my lunch from The Mighty Cone, a food truck.

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Read how delicious this sounds:

White meat chicken and avocado crusted with almonds, sesame seeds, chili flakes, corn flakes, and seasonings in a tortilla cone with a mango-jalapeño slaw, topped with ancho sauce.

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It tasted delicious, too.

Afterwards, we bought some iconic Austin merchandise before heading to the pitch session.

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This shirt was perfect: I’ve been keeping myself weird for 17 years.

Pitch Session, 2:45-4

The pitch session was an opportunity for youth in the Young Filmmakers Program to practice presenting a pitch to a trio of business professionals:

  • Emily Mollenkopf: Development Executive at Pixar
  • Charmaine DeGraté: Screenwriter and Television Producer
  • Michael Fry: Author, Illustrator, and Screenwriter

I modified my short screenplay “In Memoriam” into a 90-second pitch for a feature-length film. Having volunteered to present first, I gave my pitch to the jurors and received feedback.

Both developing and presenting the pitch taught me a lot about the pitching process. In writing it, I learned to condense a feature-length plot into a 90-second slot. In verbalizing it, I found enthusiasm within the text to play off of—you have to keep their interest somehow!

The Path to Inclusivity, 4:30-5:45

Next, I attended a panel called The Path to Inclusivity: Empowering Young Filmmakers moderated by Richard Stephen Bell of Cinema Ed and featuring four women of color:

  • Hope Farley of Adolescent Content (a website I’ve been featured on)
  • Raamla Mohamed, a writer and supervising producer of Scandal
  • Taylor Richardson, a.k.a. Astronaut Starbright
  • Lana Taylor, director of “Astronaut Starbright

The four women each discussed their past, present, and future projects and diversity in the workplace.

Boy Erased, 7:15-9:09

I had been anticipating this movie long before the festival, so when I saw that it would be screening at the festival a week prior to its U.S. theatrical release, I knew I had to see it.

I suppose everyone else had the same idea, because that line was long.

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I don’t have quite enough words to describe Boy Erased. I’ll start with a general plot summary:

At the request of his father (Russell Crowe), Jared (Lucas Hedges) attends gay conversion therapy for several weeks. Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, the film follows Jared’s experiences as he witnesses cases of emotional and physical torture and is emotionally targeted himself as the religious leaders try to change him. All throughout, his mother (Nicole Kidman) questions whether this is right for her child.

It was my favorite film of the year.

It’s a story told in an honest, sympathetic way. Writer and director Joel Edgerton never presents a character as an unsympathetic villain: every character believes that what they are doing is best for those around them. Some characters may be misguided, but never malicious.

One note I made while watching was that the director seemed to make many specific choices. This sounds strangely obvious, so let me explain what I mean. There were many small details in the film—from shot placement to set design—that someone made. I’m not saying that they served any purpose, but they were there and they made the film feel more present and alive. In other words, I appreciated that the director made these minute decisions rather than caring solely about the basics. I’m still not sure if that made any sense. I’ll give an example: there were many candles in a shot, and one suddenly went out. I’m not sure if this was purposeful or if it just happened, but either way it made the film feel more real, more alive.

Boy Erased is such a relevant film in a time when 36 states still allow conversion therapy to be conducted on minors. Hopefully, this film will educate the public on how conversion therapy can harm LGBTQ+ youth at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

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This was one of the best movie experiences of my life, not only because of the quality of the film but also because of the theater itself. Paramount Theatre was beautiful and colossal and the audience, most of whom were filmmakers themselves, reacted together. I really felt like I was sharing the experience with several hundred people.

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I was sitting next to Pedro Formigoni, who directed Down, a Brazilian short film in the festival. Coincidentally, we both made one-shot short films!

An advertisement for the Young Filmmakers Showcase was on the screen before the film. It was really cool to see the name of my film on the screen of such a massive, historic theater!

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Día de los Muertos (Casi)

After the movie, my dad and I walked down 6th Street and explored the unique culture of Austin. We came at the perfect time: there was a Day of the Dead parade! Countless people strutted down the booming, flashing street in costumes.

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We went to local shops, including some rather weird ones.

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And of course we ate!

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All in all, Austin was an awesome city to spend a Saturday night in, especially with the added fun of the parade!

Sunday, 10/28

We started our unique eating very early on Sunday.

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Voodoo Doughnut offers a variety of doughnut styles, with just about any combination of cookie, candy, or syrup.

I bought The Loop, a yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and fruit loops!

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The cereal on top made me feel better about eating a doughnut for breakfast.

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My Screening (Again), 11-12:30

I got to see my film screen again!

It was also fun to see all the other films again. I noticed details I hadn’t the first time around.

Next, I answered more questions about my film, which is always a great experience.

I got to meet some amazing people who weren’t there on Saturday! I met Richard Stephen Bell from Cinema Ed and Max Shoham, who directed two of my favorite films from the showcase.

On my way out, I got interviewed by On Story, Austin Film Festival’s series of podcasts and videos, about my experience at the festival and my own creative work. It was not only cool but also great practice at speaking clearly and concisely.

Amy’s

We were told more than once during the trip that our time in Austin would be incomplete without getting ice cream from Amy’s.

So we couldn’t let that happen, could we?

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I would recommend their Mexican Vanilla.

Green Book, 4-6:10

Another great movie! Like Boy Erased, I had been looking forward to Green Book for a while, so it was really cool to see it weeks before its wide theatrical release! Also like Boy Erased, the film is based on the story of a true friendship.

Here’s a general plot summary:

“Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen), an unemployed Italian-American bouncer, takes on the job of being the driver and body-guard for Dr. Don Shirley, (Mahershala Ali) a world-class African-American pianist, as he tours in the Deep South. Though completely opposite in demeanor and mannerisms, they form a bond as Shirley encounters violence and discrimination.

Green Book was a real pleasure. It hit the notes perfectly: the humor, the heart, the relationship. The light-hearted moments balanced out the heavier scenes, so the film was never too difficult to watch nor a sugar-coated adaption of serious matters.

It was not the story of a character’s journey, nor a quest to be completed. Sure, characters changed throughout the runtime and each had intentions compelling their actions, but, all throughout, the film truly was a story of a friendship.

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It was light-hearted but hearted nonetheless, so I would recommend this charmer to anyone looking for an enjoyable two hours.

Monday, 10/29 (and beyond)

After a spectacular time in Austin, TX, it was time for us to return home. We woke up super early and made our way to the airport.

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This trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I met uber-talented people, gained valuable advice, and (most importantly of all) had an amazing time in the weird city. I’m thankful for all the people who brought this trip upon me: Chris Messineo, Stefan Allen, and (of course) the parents I’m lucky to have. Thank you.

In my next post, I’ll look back at a project I completed last week: Baucis & Philemon, an adaption of Ovid’s myth about a couple who dies together as a pair of intertwining trees. In the post, I’ll write about how the hastiness of the project and unfortunate weather led to a highly imperfect film, and why I’m nonetheless still proud of my first dip into romance.

Cut to black.

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