It doesn’t take long to realize that South By is a waterfall of information, and that you’ll be lucky to ingest a few drops. As life on the “outside” begins to creep in, friends in town, emails from the office, etc., you become consciously aware of all that you must miss. I joined my brother and our old friend and co-worker, Rommel Sulit, who now runs both his own architectural practice in Austin as well as a theater company, for Mexican breakfast at a place called Cisco’s. A delightfully kitschy and popular joint, this would be one of two sit-down meals I’d eat over six days.
Sometimes, the best-sounding panels are the most disappointing. I entered “Future 15s: Indie Film” just in time to hear Dan Berger of Oscilloscope Laboratories (the Beastie Boys-affiliated film distributor) excoriate the audience for the number of bad indie films reaching theatrical distribution, as if those filmmakers in attendance were planning to make bad films. To his colleagues: “If you see bad films, fuck that, sweep them under the rug,” he said, addressing his fellow distributors and exhibitors, more than the makers. Not that anyone would especially argue with such a manifesto.
Berger was followed, unfortunately, by Owen Egerton and Stephanie Trepanier, who delivered platitude-infused pep talks, at widely varying paces, based on their own experiences. I can’t speak for everyone in the room—perhaps some needed it—but skip the encouragement and give me information!
Information I got, of the overload kind when I sat in on Deliverables Today, a session geared toward equipping producers to be ready for distribution. Terminology flew at such a furious rate that I could not even transcribe bullet points from slides before they were on to the next one. DSM, DCP, HDCAMSR, sound deliverables, etc.—the barrage of information was a kind of producer’s “Scared Straight”—”You thought this was going to be easy, punk?” Nevertheless it served as a good way to serve yourself notice to make sure to learn these things when you’re crafting a budget.
After this, I stopped by the trade show to see how the Chicago Made booth was faring, and spoke to reps from both Choose Chicago and World Business Chicago. Just the first day of their presence, but the city was pleased so far. They mentioned that there was one Chicago film playing in the fest—how did I miss that?—”Animals,” which to my luck was showing at the Ritz in about an hour. I hustled over.
A little more than 1,300 films were submitted to SXSW; of those, eight were chosen to compete for the Grand Jury Prize, including “Animals.” Filmed at multiple locations around Chicago, “Animals” is the story of two young heroin addicts living in a car near the Lincoln Park Zoo. First-time director (and Columbia College grad) Collin Schiffli shoots much of the film close-up and even through the windshield, effectively conveying the encaged state that these two characters are living in as they drift from small crime to crime to raise money to score. David Dastmalchian (who wrote the film) and Kim Shaw deliver raw, authentic performances as the adrift junkies who cling to each other in some combination of love and fear. During the talkback afterwards, Dastmalchian revealed in a teary answer that much of the vérité of the film comes from his own personal experience as a junkie living in a car in Chicago in the late nineties.
Afterwards, I bumped into Mike McNamara, who runs the Midwest Independent Film Festival. McNamara is a one-man compendium of all things film in Chicago—he knows everyone, and unabashedly cheerleads for the future of the medium in our town. We slowly made our way to the film’s after-party at On-Airstream Studios, an only-in-Austin kind of venue where a vintage Airstream trailer sits inside a storefront. Though the film’s principal creators have since decamped to pursue their fortune in LA, the party oozed Chicago, with a bevy of hometown producers and other industry players, not to mention the large Columbia College display in the corner.
From there, I headed back to Rainey Street, a once modest residential neighborhood transformed, structurally intact, into a nightlife district. This week, it’s anything but intact, as it’s become the playground of the Interactive festival, and every house has been taken over by one household name or another. At one such party I ran into a very likable local filmmaker named Richard Reininger, who’s had films play SXSW in the recent past, but tonight is most excited to share a long, intricate story about encountering and sort-of-stalking Tilda Swinton at a bar the day before. (“I asked her if she had an Etsy. ‘What’s an Etsy, Richard?’ she responded.”
A little bit later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly guy—beard, tattoos, black t-shirt—hanging out near the food trucks close to my temporary lodging. He was just working at a truck for the time being, he told me, he really wanted to be an actor. “Oh,” I asked him, “have you done any films or plays?” “No,” he said. “I figured I needed to write a kick-ass screenplay first,” to break in. But he was, he said, getting in good with some celebrities, and then proceeded to tell me about serving a couple at his food truck, and seeing another going into a convenience store.