Austin Film Festival, or, Bill & Ted Are Gurus

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As I wrote in the newsletter leading up to this, I recently came back from the Austin Film Festival where a TV show I wrote based on my memoir was in competition.

At the festival I had a rather extraordinary encounter with Ed Solomon the man behind the movies Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Men in Black, Laverne & Shirley and the HBO show Mosiac with Steven Soderbergh.

Ed may not think what I’m about to tell you is extraordinary, but in my life - what I’ve been through, and more importantly, where I’m going - it was (is) everything. And a bag of chips. And a large popcorn with buttery flavoring.

I spent a number of years preparing for an opportunity like the festival. I had worked for 3 years getting ready. In truth, I had been getting ready my entire life. I had built a coaching company so I could make a living helping others heal. I had written novels, TV shows, movies, and built a few websites.

I’ve always wanted to dream for a living, as Steven Spielberg one famously said.

My memoir is about how I survived getting the crap kicked out of me as a kid to become the loving, loud and tenacious man you may meet some day. I was always determined to be happy. Even when I was involved in some rather dark times as a child, teen and younger guy. Somehow I always knew I’d be okay.

What I’ve come to realize is the shame we have around showing our scars is the root cause for much of our suffering. We live small, we live in fear. Mostly we live in the mind frame that we’ll relax and feel satisfied and joyful when A, B and C happen. Until then, we simply ‘get through’.

At the festival I met a number of extremely well-known writers in the film and television business. As is often the case with writers, the discussions were meaty and substantive. All talk went to the core of why we’re here and what we’re looking to create. Reasons for living and where the hell someone finds amazing barbecue. Look away, vegans. Look away.

I heard and met many people who were deeply inspiring, but there was one man who stood out like a beacon in a room full of beacons. He had wild grey hair in curls that fell over his forehead. He wore a fitted sweater, jeans and bright, red sneakers. Clearly new. I wondered if I was simply attracted to him. I mean, he fits my type with a T and maybe another T. Jewish, middle-aged, in-shape, smart, hopeful, funny and authentic. But when I met him I knew it wasn’t that.

I know this seems radically absurd, but he felt like a brother in some odd way.

The fact we sorta/kinda resemble each other made me ask if I was simply attracted to him, which of course made me the biggest narcissist at a film festival (and that’s saying something), but it wasn’t that. Too easy, too pedestrian.

Writing this blog post I found an interview he did with the Jewish Journal on his work with Garry Shandling, a personal hero of mine, which shed some light on his inner light.

“Garry Shandling taught me…always make sure you’re writing from truth,” Solomon said in the interview. “[Make sure] that you’re clear about the internal truth of whatever the project is and that you are faithful to that truth. I think the combination of our Jewish shared history of sadness and loss, displacement, cultural identification no matter where you are geographically, and sense of humor has deeply informed my work, life and sense of empathy, along with a willingness to find joy in life, joy in pain.”

Solomon spoke at the opening ceremonies. What he said wasn’t startling. He said the festival was about connecting with peers and not trying to get ahead, not trying to find that one person to make our careers. He said we were there to make new friends and find people who would have our backs no matter what.

What he said wasn’t startling, but how he said it was. It lacked all ego. It was centered and balanced in a business that thrives on celebrating the ego at everyone’s cost. Consciousness is an afterthought in Hollywood.

As everyone spilled out of the festival, I felt this urge to thank him. I saw he was swarmed by people and took that as a sign to simply wave and leave.

I stood on the stair to the entrance of the hotel afterwards and stared at my phone trying to figure out which panel to go next, when I felt this presence beside me. It was Ed.

Up close he surprised me. His eyes had the depth of someone very much in the here and now, but also somewhere else. Somewhere (I imagined) where he got his ideas.

I told him how his speech was ego-less and remarkable. I wondered if he talked with Garry Shandling about Zen and Buddhism. Ed was kind and engaged. I was a bit taken back he wasn’t doing the Hollywood reflex of looking about for the next best thing.

Into the Texas light of day we walked. Texas sun is warm and soothing. An invisible electric blanket set to just the right temperature, which surprised me, a New Yorker. New York sun feels like you’re being slapped with a palimony suit suck in a cab ensnared in midtown traffic.

Ed and I walked and talked and then we stopped and discussed work, New York and a bit about life. As we parted I again told him I liked his shoes.

Days passed and I followed him from panel to panel. I kept trying to pretend I wasn’t follow him to hear him talk, but I was. I felt sheepish, silly. I knew he had something to say. A lot of people had something to say. There are too many to note, but among them was director, writer and novelist Peter Hedges. His eyes literally shined when he talked. What he said about the human condition and the creative process is the stuff of legends. I know that’s hyperbole, but he did speak the stuff of legends.

At the end of the festival Ed screened his breakthrough work Bill & Ted in a theater in a remote part of Austin. As I watched the movie I was shocked at how relevant the film was. It more than worked. Like all classic movies, its engine was indestructible. Movie engines are a marvel to me. Good ones stand fire, storms and terrible reviews. They simply move.

Ed’s a very good engine builder. Master builder.

At the end of the screening he gave a Q&A and as with his other panels, he was generous and open. He laughed and said that he loved how pure and almost G-rated Bill & Ted was. He said it was his favorite film, noting the lack of cynicism in the movie.

“I have to say, I love what the movie is out. I honestly feel we have to be most excellent to each other, “ he said, echoing the famous tagline the main characters said in the film.

I felt sheepish (again) walking up to him after. I was afraid he’d think I was some freakish stalker.

He saw me and smiled. I could see he was being open, aware and what I guessed was a bit cautious. I had followed him from panel to panel. I told him I lived in Manhattan and wanted to see if he wanted to have coffee which must have caused some trepidation on his part.

He asked me as I walked up, “What size are your shoes?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Are they the same as mine?”

“8 1/2. Maybe 9.”

Ed nodded his head and then proceeded to take off his shoes and gave them to me. “Take them” he said. “I want you to have them.”

I balked. What was he doing? I couldn’t take this man shoes. But he insisted.

I took them and schlepped them to New York City. I took them out of the bag after I landed and put them on my kitchen counter and looked at them over a glass of wine and realized what I would do with them.

I now only wear them when I write. They are the Magical Solomon Shoes and I only wear them to write and when I do I remind myself of what Shandling reminded Ed at the beginning of his career.

When I wear them I remind myself to write of sadness and loss and displacement. I write with my shoes firmly encased in the Magical Solomon Shoes with a constant eye on my natural humor and growing sense of empathy. I mostly remind myself to always find joy in life and joy in pain above all. When I remind myself of that last part I swear the shoes make a slight humming sound.

The Magical Solomon Shoes will never touch the filthy New York city streets. Germs freak me out, so that rule suits me just fine, and magical shoes should be protected and nurtured.

Thank you for the shoes, Ed. They’re magical in a most excellent way.

Michael C. Bryan1 Comment