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AFF panel wrap: Awardees Susan Sarandon, Vince Gilligan and more

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

The five awardees took to the Stephen F. Austin ballroom stage Saturday at 2:15 p.m. for an engaging and collegial conversation the highlighted the importance of writing, the honorees’ personal and professional history and some comical anecdotes. Despite the size of the panel and their vast history, the conversation was tight and smooth.

Each began by talking about the time in their lives when they knew they wanted to tell stories. Producer Josephson (“Bones”) referenced a line from “An Officer and a Gentleman” when discussing why he started in the storytelling business: “I had nowhere else to go.” It was a sentiment later echoed by Khouri. The brilliant Vince Gilligan, whose somewhat squeaky voice belies the harden anti-hero he created on “Breaking Bad,” said he wanted to be a fireman until he was seven, wanted to be an astronaut from the ages of 7-10, and then wanted to make movies/television.

Gilligan admitted that he now prefers the instantaneous nature of making television and being able to see your product go to air (as you intended) soon after writing, as opposed to riding the roller coaster of film development and production over years. Gilligan got his start as a professional writing in 1989 when he won a screenplay competition sponsored by the Virginia governor’s office. One of the celebrity judges on the competition, in which Gilligan was named one of three winners, was producer Mark Johnson. A few months after winning the competition, Gilligan was contacted by Johnson who eventually made Gilligan’s winning script, “Home Fries.” (Side note: The film title came from one of Gilligan’s NYU classmates, where Gilligan had used to script as his thesis project.) In a nice bit of symmetry, who ended up serving as Gilligan’s mentor and a producer on “Breaking Bad,” was also at the festival.

Graceful and poignant without an ounce of pretension, Sarandon talked about how all of our lives are about telling stories and how it is part of “just being a human being.” Sarandon responded to a question about which types of films she most likes making by saying that all of her films are, at their core, love stories and the importance and profundity of sharing and accepting love. Sarandon’s collaborator on “Thelma & Louise,” Khouri talked about how the idea for that screenplay came to her fully formed in her car at four in the morning after working all night on a music video for the hair-band Winger.

“It felt like something had just landed on me,” Khouri said of the inspiring moment.

Khouri, who now runs “Nashville,” shared with the audience that studio execs had tried to pair Cher and Goldie Hawn in the classic story of friendship. Sarandon played as if it was the first time she had heard the news.

Most of the panelists talked a bit about luck and being in the right place at the right time. Demme had gone from being a movie critic (so he could get into movies for free) to working as a publicist for films when he met legendary director Roger Corman who hired him to make a movie after reading Demme’s production notes on a film. Demme also shared some pretty juicy gossip about how Goldie Hawn and how her romance with Kurt Russell led to the movie “Swing Shift” being re-cut to make for more of a love story. Demme worked on the edits and re-shoots under protest, turning his name upside down on the slate during filming, a subtle act of defiance he took from earlier filmmakers who would do the same when having to shoot scenes with which they did not agree. That incident led Demme to making sure that he always had final-cut rights on all of his films going forward.

There were other stories of setbacks shared, but Josephson helped wrap up the panel by preaching perseverance, something that seems to be a calling card for this year’s awardees and anyone working in the collective creation of entertainment and art. Besides, what else are they gonna do?