My Pilgrimage to Austin – Part 1

by Lew Ritter

Twenty years ago, when I met my future wife, I told her with a straight face that “any day now, I would get a call from Hollywood.” At that time, I was writing screenplays that were frankly “ Not Ready for Primetime.” The chances of getting to Hollywood, much less leaving New Jersey were remote. However, after all those years, she humored me. Writing screenplays in her mind was safer relationship than with a guy whose hobby was stumbling out of bars or playing poker all night. Mark Goffman of SleepyHollow and WhiteCollar

Twenty years later, I finally got an email that put my destination to Hollywood closer. It would take me not to the West Coast, but at least as far as Austin Texas. My latest screenplay, Whistleblower, had been selected a “Second Rounder” for the prestigious Austin Film Festival. This was particularly impressive, as it landed my script in the top fifteen percent of scripts. This was out of over eighty five hundred submissions. After many years of trying, my writing had finally elevated itself to a professional level.

After much soul searching, I decided to take a chance and attend the Austin Film Festival. I felt that I could only afford to take off one day from work, so I purchased a Weekend Badge. I had printed over two hundred business cards. They featured my contact information on the front of the card and on the back were a compendium of the numerous scripts that I had written.

After much preparation, I took off on an evening flight out of Newark’s Liberty Airport bound for the promised land, well okay, Austin Texas. My flight landed around midnight on the Friday. I arrived in my hotel at 1:00 A.M. I tried to sleep on the plane, but that is difficult at best. At the hotel, I slept maybe five hours that night and got up early. I wanted to make the most of my trip. This meant cramming as many events as possible during my weekend in Austin.

Saturday: Day One

I arrived at the Driskill hotel around 9:00 AM in time to register. The Driskill was a magnificently decorated hotel with marble floors, high ceilings, the epicenter of the festival. It was no normal hotel. It was impressive, a sort of Taj Mahal of hotels.

Improv Your Morning:

My first event was “ Improv Your Morning.” Led by an experienced Improvisation teacher. We were paired up and went through a variety of theatrical exercises. We were told to create a nonsense sentence. The other person had to respond with another nonsense sentence to keep the routine going.

The purpose was to loosen us up and teach us how to think on our feet. The results were wildly unpredictable. It prepared us to handle events like Hollywood pitch meetings, when an executive made an outlandish suggestions about how to improve your movie. Of course, such events would never happen in real life.

Sleepy Hollow:

The next event was a panel discussion on how the classic short story ‘Sleepy Hollow’ was transformed into a hit movie and then a popular TV series. It featured Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of Seven, and the 1999 movie starring Johnny Depp. The other participant was Mark Goffman, Executive Producer of the TV show ’ Sleepy Hollow’.

Walker talked about how he built up the elements of the classic short story into an intriguing movie. He had done extensive research into the early days of forensic science. Ichabod Crane was transformed from a gawky schoolteacher into an early Sherlock Holmes with a forensic science approach to fighting crime.

Walker created a detailed outline of the story before going to a screenplay. Once he had the outline, he began to write the script. He acknowledged that even though he got credit for the script, the final shooting script had been rewritten by others. Even the greatest writers must deal with the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

Goffman talked about the behind the scenes events that shaped the narrative of the show. They took the events of the American Revolution and translated them into a mythology of a battle of unleashing the coming Apocalypse. They researched mythical ghosts and goblins and events during the American Revolution.

The Headless Horseman would not be the main nemesis. It was merely the first harbinger of the Apocalypse. During the second season, the Horseman was further humanized by the introduction of a back story of his rivalry for the affections of Ichabod Crane’s wife, Katrina. However, by the end of season two, the producers had decided that the Horseman story had run its course.

At the end of the panel discussion, they were ushered out of the room. There was not much chance of handing either writers a business card. I was disappointed that the first event hadn’t been the meet and greet event that I had hoped for.

Second Rounder’s Roundtable:

The next event was the Second Rounder’s Roundtable. It was sort of speed dating for screenwriters. Several Second Rounder’s sat around a table. An Industry professional would rotate to each table. They would present their stories, and how they broke into the business.

After about fifteen minutes, they would leave, and another professional would sit down at the table. Ann Saunders from 24 and Kelley Fullerton from The Fosters were the standout professionals. This event was the best event of the festival. It put the industry professionals in front of the eager participants.

Tomorrow: Part 2!