The toxic words came just after our second screening, at an Austin drinking-and-film establishment called the Ritz Alamo Drafthouse, which had gone even better than the first. As I walked downstairs into the lobby, a little high from all the praise we'd received, a woman of about 60, standing in the lobby with a festival badge around her neck, beckoned me over to congratulate me on my performance and the film's reception. "I've heard a LOT of buzz about you guys winning the competition. A lot of people are talking about your film. A lot."
The film is called My Effortless Brilliance. It's directed by Lynn Shelton and cowritten (and largely improvised) by her and the cast, including Basil Harris, Calvin Reeder, Jeanette Maus, and me. The competition the lady was referring to was for narrative features at the SXSW Film Festival. In the world of independent cinema, this is a pretty big deal.
From experience (and a bad Christopher Guest movie), I know that when someone says the horrible word "buzz" or tells you you're going to win something, you're supposed to smile, say thanks, and keep walking. But her words stuck with me, because she happened to be saying exactly what I had (secretly, secretly) been hoping to hear. This is my first film, and my first time at a film festival as an actor, and I'm happy just to be here. I would also love to win some damn awards, because I happen to think our movie is kind of awesome. However, me thinking that won't get us anywhere. We need other people thinking it. And this lady—was she a festival representative? a distributor? the mythical figure who would discover us all?—would do nicely for now.
I confess it took me about 30 seconds to begin making a mental list of people I needed to remember to thank that night at the awards ceremony. I later found out that the lady had said the same thing to Lynn and Basil, and that all three of us had spent the balance of the day freaking out in shameful secret silence. All known laws of taste dictate that you're not supposed to want to win an award. That it isn't the point. That it's a distraction. Which of course it is. It's also a good way to get your film noticed, which is exactly what everyone at the festival was trying to do.
Ever since I saw and loved the first rough cut of MEB, I wondered if it would ever be seen by anyone I didn't know personally; acceptance into SXSW and a spate of other festivals (including SIFF) made that seem likely. So would it get seen outside of festivals? As with every Northwest film that is screened outside the region, our company shared contradictory desires. We obviously wanted to be recognized as just as worthy as any of the works coming out of N.Y./L.A./Chicago, etc., but we also felt a strong regional pride in our deeply site-specific creation. Was it ridiculous to fantasize about willing ourselves into the winners' circle, and, thus validated, rolling onward to the raging glory that was basically our birthright as award-winning filmmakers? Was it folly to visualize the exact moment (Tuesday night, 6 pm CST) when we would break away from the pack of Seattle movies to become an overnight sensation? Was I being ridiculous? I wasn't the one who uttered the word "buzz," after all.
No one comes to SXSW to score a million-dollar deal (though no one would turn one down) or even a special jury award. They go to see films, see people seeing their films, meet filmmakers, make plans, and drink beer. I met some excellent people and saw some excellent movies (Baghead, Nights and Weekends, Full Battle Rattle, New Orleans Mon Amour, plus Jeffrey Tambor's massively illuminating acting workshop with Greta Gerwig and Kent Osborne). I had the thrill of just being included, with the added frisson of knowing that people were noticing our movie because it was in competition, and because of Lynn's pedigree. Though there are several competitions—narrative, documentary, short, etc.—within the festival, the atmosphere among the artists is 100 percent noncompetitive. Even when you're all drunk. And even when you're secretly thinking you're probably going to win the narrative competition because some lady said the word "buzz," but also because you're so awesome.
The camaraderie is pure pleasure. But it doesn't answer the burning question: Is anyone outside a film festival, even a cool one like SXSW, going to see this fucker?
Well, if they do, it won't be because we won any prizes. We didn't. We weren't even the runner-up, or the other runner-up. Three out of the seven films in our competition got prizes. We were one of the four that didn't. And as we sat clapping for our colleagues, silently cursing the evil lady who had poisoned our minds with hubristic flights of fancy and ourselves for letting her, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one thinking what an honor it was just to be there. And it was. It was!