The Austin Film Fest: Insanely Great Panels

I guess the universe decided to make my return to reality as challenging as possible.  I came back to Los Angeles earlier this week and in addition to the expected jetlag and a newly acquired cold, I also encountered a blistery round of Santa Ana winds that decided to wreak havoc on the trees and power lines in my beloved Pasadena.  I have not had electricity or hot water for the past three days.  In other words, save for my power-sucking smart phone, I have not had TECHNOLOGY readily available to me for the past three days!  How am I supposed to get caught up on HOMELAND, people?!?  Yes, it is a heavy cross I have to bear.

Fortunately, I have set up a new branch of Deliberate Productions at a nearby Panera Bread Company.  Not only does Panera offer free wireless, but they serve a mean protein breakfast sandwich, too!  And have I mentioned the excellent coffee?  Yes, when life hands me lemons I try to make a lemon martini.

I WILL Survive!

I do want to finish up my recount of the Austin Film Festival for the last couple of panels I attended were some of my favorites.  One panel I knew I had to see was with screenwriter Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, TOY STORY 3).  Arndt’s panel was called Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great and it was one he offered last year and was asked to share again due to its enthusiastic reception.

In his presentation, Arndt analyzes three very different films, STAR WARS, THE GRADUATE, and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and posits why their endings can be considered insanely great. (Granted, his discussion on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was lined with humility since he’s a genuinely sweet and humble guy.)  He touches on a lot of vernacular familiar to writers, namely the idea of external and internal stakes for your main character.  For example, in ROCKY the external goal for Rocky Balboa is to go the distance with Apollo Creed.  His internal goal in accomplishing this is to prove that he’s not a bum.  But Arndt also introduces the idea of philosophical stakes, which speak to the larger themes of a film.  Rocky versus Apollo Creed is the universal David versus Goliath story to which we can all relate; by fighting Creed through all twelve rounds, Rocky is reaffirming for the audience that we, too, have the power to “go the distance” despite all of the obstacles in front of us.

Yes We Can!

And in Arndt’s point of view, it is when the external/internal/philosophical stakes have all failed – creating the hopeless feeling that there is no possibility of a positive outcome – that you are poised for an insanely great ending.  For out of that moment of despair comes the main character’s DECISIVE ACT: Luke forgoes the technology available to him and uses “the force” to land that final bulls-eye in the Death Star, Benjamin Braddock pounds on the glass at the church during Elaine Robinson’s wedding, Olive Hoover elects to perform in the beauty pagent’s talent show even though she knows she won’t win.  And through these decisive acts comes an ending that has three essential attributes – it’s POSITIVE, SURPRISING, and MEANINGFUL.  And it overturns all three stakes in a short amount of time.

Arndt also recommends that you give a lot of thought to the location of the climax and how it represents the initial order of the universe that must be overturned.  In STAR WARS, the climax is centered around the Death Star which represents the terrifying oligarchy of the Empire.  In THE GRADUATE, the climax happens at a church wedding filled with people who have conformed to societal conventions.  LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE  presents its ending at a beauty pageant where young Olive is going to challenge the warped standards of “beauty” propagated by these bizarre contests.  All of these films show their main characters going head-to-head with the “universe” that must be overturned.  And overturning the moral order of the main character’s universe is the key to an insanely great ending.


Okay, I still have one more AFF panel to discuss – the one that resonated most deeply for me – but I’ll save it for the next entry. (How’s that for a tease?)  I do want to mention that you can now submit your script(s) to next year’s AFF Screenplay & Teleplay competition.  I think I’ve provided some good reasons why it’s worth the price of submission, right?  Check out the details here:

In the meantime, I’d better stock up on more batteries for my flashlight.


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