Day 3, March 15, 2015
I was already starting to feel the toll of the midnight lifestyle by Sunday, so I decided to do something radical. Radical for “festival travel” and “business travel” and even “vacation travel”, for me, anyway. I decided not to set an alarm for Sunday morning. I ended up waking up relatively early anyway (9ish?) but the lack of pressure really helped me feel less like a person who is swimming with lead weights on. Sign #56845697 that I’m getting old: an inability to stay up until 2am for more than two nights in a row without wrecking my productivity the following day. Oh well, it’s festival life, who’s complaining?
Colin and I had a leisurely breakfast and caught up on a few emails before heading to the nearby B-Cycle station to zip down to the convention centre for our first panel, “So You Want to Make a Midnight Movie?” which included lots of useful info and a great pitch from an audience member for a slow-burn horror film called The Venison Eater. He had me at … well, The Venison Eater.
“Catching up on emails” is one of those tasks that back home, when I’m on a regular schedule and mostly on top of my work, is no big deal. While I’m away, on the other hand, it feels like a crushing avalanche of busywork that I will never be able to dig myself out from under. I have so much Birdland stuff to do, it’s unreal. Being mostly offline (except in the early mornings and late nights) doesn’t help. It means that if I respond to something at 9am and then leave the house (and its precious wifi zone) until late in the evening, any followup that might have been required at, say, 10am has to wait until the following morning. Losing entire workdays like that is very painful. When I get back, I’ll have to stuff five workdays into two. But for now, I’m in Austin, where the streets are paved with brisket, the rivers flow with beer, and it’s always summertime. Not complaining. Checking my jet-setter privilege, etc.
After the midnight movie panel, we met with Jeff Wright (here scouting for CMW‘s film programming, among other things) and scoped out the technology side of what’s currently going on at SXSW. I don’t understand the Interactive festival at all, but I know that I’m just an old grandma shaking her fist at the sky and grumbling that she doesn’t “get the twitters”. Clearly, some of the stuff being showcased in the huge interactive arena of the Austin Convention centre is a bit nutty, but much of it will just as clearly change all our lives sometime soon.
I shook hands with an amputee who was using a fully-functional 3-D printed arm (each finger could bend and move at each joint, just like a real hand) and met a pair of Swedish composers who create “audio identities” for companies and products (you know how you have a logo and letterhead … well, like that, but sounds).
After checking out the very tip of the interactive iceberg, we went to a beer tent that seemed to me like a very SXSW-ish thing, even though I’ve only been here for a few days and may not have a complete sense of this festival’s identity. The outdoor lounge was sponsored by mophie, a company that makes portable battery packs for iPhones (I use one, it’s great) and they had not only free beer, but a Saint Bernard petting zoo. Yep. A tech company sponsored a patio on which you could drink for free and play with big dogs. A+, SXSW.
From the Saint Bernards we went to a happy hour hosted by VHX, then to another happy hour hosted by the North Carolina film commission, where we drank our fill of Cheerwine and met a guy who was working on a “stripper horror” film called Peelers. Good times!
Dinner was one of those fun, impromptu events that brings together a bunch of cool people – Jeff, Zach Hagen (the producer of He Never Died, which is premiering at SXSW) and our friend Diana, who has a super cool job with a company that holds the rights to a story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. We had steaks, we had fun, and then we had to keep ourselves peppy and awake for three hours before the midnight screening of We Are Still Here. Luckily, we had the fabulous Nick Robinson to help us with that endeavour.
I was very glad to have stayed up for the film, because the finished product was tense, had great atmosphere, a fantastic look, creepy sound design and was a really fun watch. It’s such a pleasure seeing friends get to make their dreams come true, and watching Ted get up on stage to introduce the world premiere of his film was really touching and awesome!
Some things are worth staying up late for.
Day 2, March 14, 2015
On Friday, everyone in the world is starting to descend on downtown Austin. We woke up early and decided to walk from our hosts’ home to the Convention Centre (about 40 minutes, totally enjoyable in the glorious weather, in spite of what some car-accustomed Americans led us to believe).
Once we got down to the convention centre, my first task was to figure out how ticketing works at SXSW. Turns out, it’s really not as complex as I’d been led to believe. It just involves lining up, which, for those of us who came of age in the public screening line-ups of TIFF, is no big deal.
Hard tickets exist, but they’re mostly for filmmakers and their friends. If you have one, you will get into the film, and it works just like any other ticketed event. If you are a badge holder (which most people seem to be at this fest) then the process is quite straightforward. There’s a badge holder line-up outside the venue. Show up early enough, and you’ll get in. That’s it. Of course, there are different types and levels of badges, each with their own set of benefits and perks. But the basic process is: you have a badge, you line up early enough, you get in.
If you don’t want to line up for an hour to ensure that you’ll get a seat, you’ve got one other option. At the start of each day, a certain number of “express passes” is released at the SXXPRESS Box Office in the convention centre. If you snag one of those, you go into a separate, shorter line that gets let in first.
Do you see what I’m saying about it being pretty simple? I think industry types are used to festivals like TIFF where an entire “press and industry” shadow festival allows them to breeze in and out of 90% of screenings, and when they come to a fest that expects them to line up like everyone else, they get sniffy about it. It’s actually very easy to navigate this place. The problem is not that it’s confusing. It’s that there are a thousand things happening in every time slot and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
On the advice of a producer, we decided to check out The Boy, a film that seemed to make it onto everyone’s “must see” lists for the festival. The premise is simple enough: in the summer of 1989, 9-year-old Ted lives with his father (David Morse) in a crumbling hotel in the American West, and the boy’s darker impulses are further unleashed with the arrival of a mysterious drifter (Rainn Wilson). The finished product is a wonderfully atmospheric and creepy-as-hell portrait of a disturbed youngster, which the director apparently plans to turn into a trilogy about the boy’s life as he grows up. The film was produced by Elijah Wood’s Spectrevision label, which has been doing some pretty rad stuff, actually. They were also behind A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and last year’s Sundance hit, Cooties, which I have yet to see.
The film was playing at the Alamo Ritz location, and it took all my strength to not order everything on the menu, because the idea of eating and drinking in a theatre is still so delightfully novel to me. After the film, we contemplated getting right back into line to see another well-recommended title, A Bone in the Throat, but the desire to spend time with friends won out, and instead we went to a backyard BBQ and hung out, chatted and watched some fireworks get set off (and nearly set Colin on fire – see his video on Facebook for proof). The ribs were to die for.
We figured out how to use Austin’s very handy B-Cycle system (similar to our Bike Share program) and tooled around from theatre to residential neighbourhood across the river and felt free & easy & kind of out of shape. The service only costs $8 per day, so for us, it was heaven-sent compared to the hassle of getting cabs (it’s nearly impossible especially downtown during this festival madness) or the inconvenience of Uber (everyone loves it, but everyone is also American and not offline due to exorbitant roaming charges, whereas we are not and therefore can’t use the damn app).
After the back yard party, we hitched a ride with some friends back downtown and attended the cocktail party for Deathgasm and We Are Still Here, the two midnight titles that Dark Sky is repping here. A great opportunity to see old friends and make some new ones. I met Alejandro Brugués, who directed the Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead, and we chatted about everything from hair colour to marriage to the benefits of working in episodic television, to being bold about the projects you work on.
After cocktails we went back to the Alamo Ritz to watch Deathgasm, where we found Deathgasm baseball caps, buttons, and free beers provided by the director. Pro-tip: when you’ve been at a cocktail party for the past two hours and someone hands you a free beer, don’t also order a margarita just for the novelty of getting it delivered to your seat at a cinema! Anyway, the film was fun but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the lead actor looked exactly like Kiera Knightly from certain angles. It’s not really visible in the picture below, but trust me. He’s the one on the left.
Day 1, March 13, 2015
We arrived in Austin around midnight on Thursday March 12th and hung around the airport waiting for a couple of friends to land so that we could share a cab into town. When we arrived at our final destination (the home of the generous and wonderful Tim & Karrie League), our host and the other people who are staying at the house were in the basement enjoying some fine bourbon and conversation.
If you start socializing at 1am, don’t be surprised that it’s after 4am by the time you roll into bed!
Our actual first day was fine and mellow. We woke up on Friday and had a light breakfast, in anticipation of the crawfish boil that would be taking place at the Leagues’ a few hours later. A perfect start to any festival? A cookout in a friend’s back yard.
After the crawfish, we rode downtown with the inimitable Aaron Hillis (our impromptu date for the day) to pick up our badges. The process was simpler than anticipated, and even though the crowds did seem chaotic and endless, SXSW does not seem to be as complicated to navigate as I was led to believe.
Next up, Aaron took us to a taco stand by the side of the road, a completely delicious pitstop before our first screening of the fest – Jonathan Demme presenting a programme of Austin-made short films from 1980.
Apparently, Demme, saw the program back in the day and was so impressed that he took the collection to New York to present there, and was returning to re-present them in Austin this year. The hit of the night was a manic, black & white, Super 8 short called Invasion of the Aluminum People.
After the screening, we decided to skip the official opening party (and the undoubtedly countless other parties that were probably going on) in favour of an early night’s sleep to prepare us for a hefty weekend of socializing ahead.
Lessons learned on Day 1:
- Just like at any other festival, you can choose the hyped films & activities, or you can make more obscure choices at SXSW. It can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
- The number of people in downtown Austin during this festival is just bananas (I know, it gets worse once the music section starts, but damn, it’s already crazy).
- Alamo Drafthouse cinemas are the undisputed kings and queens of film exhibition. It doesn’t get better.
- If you are a badge holder at SXSW, you can pretty much get into anything you want, as long as you’re willing to line up early enough. It’s not so hard!
- Austinites may dispute this, but I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a bad taco in this town.
p.s. HOLY GOD THE WEATHER IS SO GREAT HERE! FORGIVE ME FOR GOING ON ABOUT IT, BUT I AM, AFTER ALL, CANADIAN!
Tuesday September 9, 2014
This was a well planned day. I saw three movies quite early on in the day, which is really the way to do it. It left me with time to eat dinner and get down to the SXSW party early, which was my biggest goal of the day. Start partying early so that I could, in theory, also quit early. Of course, I did not quit early. But hey, you win some, you … drink a lot of gin and tonics.
First up was the charming story of a somewhat autistic math whiz, X + Y. The awkward teen dreams of competing in the math olympiad, but when his chance comes, he struggles more than he realized he would, with the fact of no longer being the only “weird one”, nor for that matter the only very, very smart one. There’s a touching side-story about his single mom and his math tutor, and on the whole this was one of the few uplifting films I saw at TIFF.
Next, the fairly heart-wrenching story of the early days of the FLQ, Corbo, a story about a young man in mid-60s Quebec who was so inspired by the liberation movement that he ended up getting involved in some bombings. These events would, a few years later, culminate in the October Crisis, but Corbo is just the tragic and powerful story of one young man and the fierceness with which youth embrace the causes they care about.
Third, I saw the Korean film Cart, which was a simple but affecting story of temporary contract workers in Seul fighting against unfair dismissals, and trying to unionize. The hardships the (mostly female) workers endured were difficult to watch, all the more so because the film was inspired by true events, and is a common sort of tale in South Korea, where 60% of the workforce are “temporary” workers and earn 50% of what their permanent counterparts can make.
In the evening, a lovely dinner with Fabrice du Welz, the director of one of Colin’s Vanguard picks, Alleluia. I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s probably one of the best films I’ve seen all year. This man deserves to be a much bigger name in international cinema, and hopefully after this spotlight in Cannes and TIFF, he will be. Alleluia is playing again on Saturday night. Go see it!
After dinner, I walked down to the SXSW party, which is the one social event at TIFF where I’m guaranteed to see the largest number of my American (and other international) friends. I prioritize it because it’s a perfect opportunity to catch up with folks I haven’t seen much of otherwise. Plus, it’s fun as hell. I managed to hang out with many of my beloveds, get some good movie recommendations, get a Twitter friend into the party on an unexpected plus one, and dance & sing along to several karaoke classics without ever getting up on stage myself. Oh, and drink like a dozen gin & tonics. Basically, a perfect night?