I knew where the question was headed, and although he was speaking specifically about the presentation we were about to see, where no full film was shown and the studio carefully curated a few clips and a Q&A with Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal, it wouldn’t be terribly off the mark to compare the two events, where art is still celebrated and the audiences are passionate, but the lines have grown longer and you may be handed a “Kick-Ass” bumper sticker while you wait.
As festival producer Janet Pierson acknowledged early in the festival, these are good problems to have as a programmer — a film like Aaron Katz’s brilliant new “Cold Weather” fiercely competed for crowds with the likes of “MacGruber” (which, to be fair, cost a relatively cheap $10 million according to its filmmakers). But it’s a more complicated proposition for audiences, who are being asked far more to stand in two-hour-plus lines to see a film that they may or may not get into. It’s a festival of extremes, and not just for the fact that they showed the incendiary “Serbian Film,” but of the evolving complexion of the attendees (Jason Reitman came in just to see movies) and the types of films they’re showing.
The filmmaker who symbolized this dichotomy most was Michel Gondry, who was peppered with questions about his upcoming “Green Hornet” film while promoting the deeply personal “The Thorn in the Heart,” arriving in Austin after its premiere at Cannes. One of the highlights of the festival was the first screening of his documentary (and an accompanying Q&A with John Pierson) about his aunt Suzette, a retired French schoolteacher whose life was well-documented in home movies made by her son Jean-Yves, who has come to resent her in recent years.
This being a Gondry production, there are scenes of children fooling around with greenscreen during a game of dodgeball and a toy train that guides you along Suzette’s tour across France to reunite with former colleagues and pupils, yet its most enduring image is of a young Michel sprawled across the ground on his stomach, face-forward as he listens to his aunt telling a story in the forest, displaying the reverence that is the heart of the film.
The throngs of people standing inside the Austin Convention Center the next morning waiting for his conversation with IndieWire‘s Eugene Hernandez were nearly as reverential, taking the 30-minute delay of the panel’s start and the absence of scheduled moderator Elvis Mitchell in stride. Noting the crowd, Hernandez disagreed with Gondry at one point when the director played down his fame, to which Gondry demurred, “[I’m] famous to people who like me,” before telling a story of being puzzled when he was recognized only on a particular New York street corner before realizing it was in front of a film school dormitory.
Gondry rewarded the audience’s patience with plenty of details regarding his upcoming films, including an animated collaboration with his son Paul and “Ghost World” scribe Daniel Clowes called “Megalomania” (The Playlist has all the details on that and an IMAX 3D collaboration with Björk), a look at his book of portraits culled from fans who sent in their picture to his website (of the thousand that Gondry drew, three were in the crowd, leading to an on-stage compare-and-contrast between one of the real guys and Gondry’s watercolor-enhanced sketch of him), and a screening of his stitch-heavy music video for Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man.” That led into a discussion of Gondry’s obsession with abnormally sized hands, which originated with his memories of a nightmare he had as a child and a visit to a museum where he became fascinated with nerve endings (“I think it was the sort of misfit between how I would feel it and how my body would not be able to enclose my sensation,” Gondry said.) He explained earlier, “I’m a terrible sleeper, but… if you miss a night of sleep, then you’ve got to dream double.”
There was one point during the “MacGruber” panel where Ryan Phillippe only thought he was in a dream, recoiling from the table and muttering a “this is so weird” under his breath as a fan from the SXSW interactive side of things begged the assembled cast and crew to help her make a viral video. (The result, in which “MacGruber” director Jorma Taccone gets the crap pummeled out of him by his cast, is here.) It wouldn’t be the only weirdly wonderful moment from the panel, which extended the vibe of the “SNL” spinoff’s premiere the night before (and their subsequent interview with our own Matt Singer). Phillippe and a clearly amused Val Kilmer, who said the script was the best thing he’s read since “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” joined “Saturday Night” players Kristen Wiig and Will Forte and writers Taccone and John Solomon in a discussion about “Rambo III,” “courtesy pillows” (the patch used between Wiig and Forte’s naughty bits during a sex scene) and the Boner Ghost, a prank Forte pulled on a visiting Seth Meyers, who sat in Solomon’s lap as he recounted the tale:
There was, however, genuine horror discussed at the “Directing the Dead” panel, which disappointed initially since Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth had dropped out of their scheduled appearances on the dais, but was still left with Ti West (“The House of the Devil”), Neil Marshall (“Centurion”), Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) and last-minute substitute Robert Rodriguez, who naturally stole the show in front of the hometown crowd with stories of not splattering Mickey Rourke with blood (on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” he threatened to ruin Rourke’s custom suit with a squib; Rodriguez offered up his best Rourke impression, delivering a gruff “thanks, brother” as the actor’s response when he opted for digital blood) and being afraid of asking Jaime King to go topless for “Sin City” (for an early shot in the film that would give the impression there was a lot more nudity than there really was in adapting Frank Miller).
Other Rodriguez tidbits included how he originally planned to shoot “From Dusk Till Dawn” in 3D before bulky equipment discouraged him (and left the door open to resurrect that idea for a future re-release) and how the film as a whole turned out far gorier than expected since he expected a prolonged battle with the MPAA and wound up not having to edit much out. (He also desaturated the blood for the ratings board cut before cranking it back up to the appropriate red levels for the theatrical release.)