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Ebertfest Thursday panel: “Getting the damned thing made”

Roger Ebert’s (not necessarily overlooked) Film Festival’s “Academic Panel Discussions” are usually not exactly academic. They’re also not really press conferences, junkets, promotions, or interviews, either. Although the panels are composed of filmmakers and other festival guests, they often don’t deal in a direct way with the content of any of the festival’s films; they don’t provide a lot of opportunity for people to observe, pay homage to, or applaud Roger Ebert; they take place more than a mile away from the rest of the festival; and they aren’t heavily advertised or often referenced in the festival proper. So it’s no wonder that this is the part of the festival that I, and most other people, usually skip. I’ve been to these panels a few times — there’s always a pretty big audience, but on a weekend in April, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to shove your way through an even bigger crowd of the Society of Young Engineers or whatever, as I did today.

But before I continue on reporting on today’s panel, a disclaimer: I am not in any way, shape, or form trained to be a reporter. I don’t know how to write about events, or take shorthand so I don’t misquote, or write in really short, declarative sentences and paragraphs. We’re talking about a guy who quit his job at the Daily Illini the day his first non-review article was due after writing half of it. I’m a pretty one-dimensional writer. I have a laptop, a DVD player, and fingers, and it is soley upon these facilities which I rely.

Case-in-point: your intrepid reporter, two minutes late to the (thankfully slightly delayed) panel, forgot anything to write on that didn’t have keys. Through some stroke of luck I had a pen in my backpack, but unless I wanted to deface the books I was carrying with me in case the panel got dull, I needed something to write on. Ebertfest programs, you may have noticed, are ubiquitous at this time of year, especially at legit festival events. This year, instead of using a stock photo of healthy Ebert for the cover as they have for the past couple years, they have a rather adorable drawing illustrated from the first-person by Roger Ebert himself. The pages on the inside are thin, non-glossy and very conducive to writing. Soon after I sat down, someone untethered a whole stack of them on a chair next to me, I picked up what is already my third program since Ebertfest started last night, and now I’ve got several dozen words of notes crammed into the austere Macy’s ad on the back page.

According to my notes, this morning’s panel was called “Getting the Damned Thing Made.” Panelists were: Nate Kohn, festival director and panel moderator; Elvis Mitchell, critic and festival mainstay; Michael Tolkin, director of The New Age; Jennifer Burns, director of Vincent: A Life in Color; Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of Synecdoche, New York; James Mattern, writer and director of Trucker; and Lee Isaac Chung, Jenny Lund, and Sam Anderson, director, sound-person, and co-writer of Munyurangabo. The panel opened with Tolkin making a (relatively good-natured, in that admirable artist-y way that’s self-aware and self-serious at the same time) remark about wanting to consider his work neither “damned” nor a “thing,” to which Kohn awkwardly acquiesced, inasmuch as he could do so without actually changing the name of the panel thirty seconds and 100,000 Ebertfest programs into it.

What happened at the panel:

  • Tolkin did most of the talking, and fittingly so, as he’s been working in film since the early 80s-ish and seems to have a wealth of knowledge regarding the industry. Although he didn’t have great things to say about contemporary big-budget spectacles, he wasn’t virulently anti-Hollywood, and even said a thing unthinkable at Ebertfest: that television is, at the moment, by and large better than film.
  • There was much talk of distribution and the state of the indie industry at the moment (consensus: not good). Kaufman suggested that things have changed dramatically even since he got SynecdocheSynecdoche and Adaptation (which he wrote for Sony in the early aughts) would never be made now.
  • (For the record, it’s my goal during this festival to meet Kaufman [who looks pretty much nothing like Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, by the way — very short, very thin, clean shaven]. I have until Saturday night, which is the day I will be blogging the ‘Fest proper. I will try to save the climactic moment for then, my dear readers.)
  • We got a helpful definition of the word “turnaround” in Hollywood-ese — a studio buys a script, pays for some level of development, and then abandons it but retains the right, puts it up for sale, and demands not just the asking price of the script, but everything it’s paid toward the film up to that point.
  • Tolkin found a couple excuses to toss around a couple high-brow literary quotes, which I thoroughly appreciated, and Kaufman topped him one by throwing in a cine-literary quote he attributed France’s poet de cinema, Jean Cocteau: “Movie-making will become an art when what you need to make it is as cheap as pen and paper.” Some lazy Google searches have not confirmed that Cocteau actually said this, but we’ll take Kaufman’s words for it (those words, “I think… I’m pretty sure it was Cocteau who said…”)
  • Nate Kohn referred to Hollywood as a colonial power and Tolkin made a face.
  • During the audience Q&A session, someone asked how the filmmakers stay dedicated to filmmaking despite the odds that are stacked against them and the tedious bureaucracy that so often goes along with this peculiar art form. I forget what everyone else said — by this point the abundant negative space in the Macy’s ad was all used up — but Kaufman intimated that, in fact, he was not at all dedicated and does not want to work in the industry permanently. He’s working on a screenplay — it has something to do with superheroes, thank God — for Sony again which he hopes he’ll get to helm, but the chances aren’t very likely the film will even get made (see: “turnaround,” above). This admission that Hollywood can actually wear you out was almost as refreshing as Tolkin’s praise of television.

independently financed, which couldn’t have been more than four years ago. He said films like

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll be covering tomorrow’s panel, hopefully with a pad of paper this time.

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