sxsw

Lessons from SXSW: "A Conversation with Jon Favreau"

SXSW Synopsis:

"In over a decade, Jon Favreau has established himself as a prolific writer, director, producer, and actor with his eclectic body of work. Jon Favreau began his career as a writer with Swingers, in which he starred, and made his feature film directorial debut with Made, which he wrote and produced. His credits include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, Elf, and Zathura. Favreau also served as the creator, producer and host of the Emmy-nominated IFC series Dinner for Five. He brings to SXSW, Chef, which he wrote and directed. The film follows a man who loses his chef job and starts up a food truck to reclaim his artistic promise. The film opens in May."

Notes:

It is impossible for me to explain how important and meaningful Jon Favreau is to me.

Getting to meet him and listen to him talk about film-making, and getting be one of the first people to see his film, "Chef", was unequivocally the highlight of my experience at South by Southwest this year.

As conversations tend to be, this one wasn't "organized" in a way that I could compile into neat little bullet points. However, Favreau was extremely quotable, so what follows will simply be a series of statements that he made during the course of the conversation which I found to be particularly interesting, insightful, and meaningful.

On quitting a banking job to become a writer & film-maker:

"You've gotta be passionate about what you're doing, because if you're not, you're only going to be using some smaller percent of your ability."
- Jon Favreau

"I thought the idea of working 50 weeks for 2 weeks off was scary to me... You only live in that 2 weeks."
- Jon Favreau

On directing:

"I just enjoy naturalism in general."
- Jon Favreau

"As a director... Tone is the one thing nobody can do for you."
- Jon Favreau

One lesson he did get more explicit about as a director was working coverage into a scene using a two-camera set-up for more natural takes. This was a technique he learned from Francis Ford Coppola, who reportedly always went back and got coverage and reverses of improvised bits.

Smart.

On acting and actors:

"You strip the cast away from any of the films I've done and they're not the same movies anymore."
- Jon Favreau

"There's a moment where experience and confidence comes together [and when it does, that's an actor I want to work with]."
- Jon Favreau

On storytelling:

"As long as you know [story] is the top priority, you'll make it your main concern."
- Jon Favreau

"When you write something good, it's like you're the first person who gets to read it. Like it didn't come out of you."
- Jon Favreau

"I didn't learn to be a director, an actor, a producer -- it was all one thing! Learning to be a storyteller."
- Jon Favreau

On modern distractions:

"It's not free if you could be earning 100s of thousands of dollars doing a rewrite and you're off defending your elixir pods."
- Jon Favreau

On Hollywood and the future of the film industry:

"I would argue that cinema is happening now on the small screen as much or more than the big screen... Technology is the only game in town, and you have to bet on it."
- Jon Favreau

On what makes a great film:

"It's amazing that some of the movies that do the best [at the box office] aren't as culturally relevant, year to year."
- Jon Favreau

He also told a few stories... At one point, he was talking about an experience on Iron Man where they'd wrapped production for the day, and he was sitting with Kevin Feige pretty much ready to go home when Jeff Bridges was making cocktails for everyone. As tired as they were, that experience was worth sticking around for, and remains a great memory. Favreau passed along Jeff Bridges' advice in that moment:

"This [taking the moment to enjoy life] is what it's all about, man... The movie is just the skin of the snake."
- Jeff Bridges (paraphrase via Jon Favreau)

Favreau also talked a lot about studio notes, and curiously, he said that when he directed Elf, he got copious notes from the studio about the comedy and the jokes, but not a single note about the fabulous practical effects work in the movie like the forced perspective shots, the North Pole village stuff, or anything like that... And then when he was directing Iron Man, he was inundated with notes on the action and the effects work, but didn't get a single not on the jokes or the comedy written into the dialogue. 

He concluded:

"You're almost better off going with the opposite of the genre you want for the least interference."
- Jon Favreau

And finally... On life:

"You will get wet on this ride."
- Jon Favreau

All in, I couldn't possibly have kept notes on every single bit of the conversation, but as I said, Favreau has been one of my cinematic heroes for a long time... Almost 20 years. There was no way to explain that to him at the time, but in some ways, much of my life and career started with "Swingers".

I was 13 or 14 when it came out, and perhaps 15 when I first saw it.

Swingers framed and informed my understanding of relationships, it informed my understanding of friendship. While I always placed myself into Favreau's character, "Mikey", my brother was always Vince Vaughn's "Trent", and probably still is.

The movie also inspired my brother and me to learn how to swing dance - which became one of the more significant and defining past-times in my life for several years, and remains a major part of my brother's life to this day. 

In some ways, the film contributed directly to us forming our own 7-piece swing & jump blues band, "Boss Tweed", when we were in High School. That band was a pivotal step on my road to becoming a performing jazz musician, and ultimately to studying music composition - which became my field of expertise and training through college and graduate school.

What's more - and Danny probably doesn't remember this - one of the first conversations I ever had with Daniel Glass, drummer for Royal Crown Revue (and more recently, the Brian Setzer Orchestra), was about RCR playing at The Derby and the disappointment they experienced by not being allowed (via their label) to perform on-camera in that movie. 

I don't know if this is entirely true as I didn't talk to Jon Favreau about this, but I believe that Royal Crown Revue - which I recognize as the greatest of the swing revival bands in the mid to late 1990s - was the inspiration for the dance sequence at the end of that movie.

Royal Crown Revue had an enormous influence on my musical tastes and in a strange twist of fate, I'm now very proud to call Daniel a good friend. It's not often that you get to become friends with one of your musical heroes, and Jon Favreau's work even had a role to play in that.

And then... After "Swingers" Favreau just continued making amazing films. Made, Elf, Zathura... Iron Man...

Good lord. Iron Man. 

Favreau's body of work has always just made me happy. I connect with it in a way I just don't connect with most other film-makers, including the so-called "greats". I don't know if he'll ever read any of this post, but he has my gratitude and admiration for everything he's done. I am a fan.

And as I discovered last week, Jon Favreau is very much like his films... He is witty, sharp, thoughtful, and entirely humble and unpretentious. In short, he's what I would aspire to be.

What an honor.

Lessons from SXSW: "The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Through his work on both independent and studio films, Pete Horner has developed an approach to film sound that explores the unique language of each film. In this presentation, Pete will share clips illustrating the potential of sound to express underlying emotions, with the intent of encouraging filmmakers to engage the audience more fully through sound."

Pete Horner Bio:

"Pete Horner is an Emmy Award-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer at Skywalker Sound. He studied percussion and music recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music and discovered the musicality of film sound at American Zoetrope, where he worked on films including Apocalypse Now Redux and The Virgin Suicides. His work at Skywalker covers a wide range, from large animated features like How To Train Your Dragon to documentaries like Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure. In 2012 he won an Emmy for his mix and design work on Hemingway and Gellhorn; in 2013, he was awarded the first-ever Sundance Special Jury Prize for Sound Design for his work on Upstream Color."

This one is going to be a lot harder to explain without access to Pete Horner's wonderful sound design examples. However, his discussion did generate a smattering of interesting quotes and pieces of advice that I may be able to condense for the purpose of this blog.

He opened with a clip from a documentary film called "Hell and Back Again", which tracked the lives of Afghanistan & Iraq War Veterans. In the scene, a veteran was discussing his treatment with a doctor, and the dialogue faded away and the soundscape was bathed in more abstract sounds and effects. While this made the sound harder to understand, that was the point - it expressed the soldier's lack of understanding of perhaps interested ability to focus on what the doctor was saying. 

It was pretty effective, and it served as a good lesson on how sound - or really any aspect of the arts that comprise film-making - didn't need to be literally reflecting exactly what is happening diagetically in the scene, but can be manipulated and mixed solely to express the subtext of the story being told.

Sound is a dramatic element in the film, just like anything else.

The next story he told was about working with Walter Murch on a film. A sound from a clock-tower needed to be recorded, and the director & producers suggested that they send an intern. Pete was too inexperienced to protest, but fortunately, Murch jumped in and said:

"If you send an intern to go record a sound, you may get the recording... if you're lucky. But if you send an experienced sound designer, the microphone becomes a divining rod."
- Paraphrase of Walter Murch

There's more to being an excellent sound designer than simply generating accurate recordings of specific sounds. Ultimately, Pete Horner went to record the clock-tower and in the process found a range of new opportunities for recordings which ultimately made it into the film.

Happy accidents only really work if you have the skill and knowledge to know them when you see them.

Another excellent piece of advice from this session:

"Take advantage of a film audience's open-state when the house lights go down."
- Pete Horner

As a film-maker, you have a virtually guaranteed moment at the beginning of any film to have the audience's undivided attention. Exploit that opportunity by using that moment to set the tone for the rest of the film.

Pete turned out to be a fountain of interesting quotes like that. His approach to sound design is built around using sound to create auditory poetry.

"The beating of the glass by the moth (wings) can be the chattering of lips... I'm always searching for some kind of sonic metaphor."
- Pete Horner

At one point, highlighting this concept, we were treated to an example of Pete using rattlesnake rattles to replace the sound of rustling leaves outside the Dachau Concentration Camp in the film "Hemingway and Gellhorn". That rattlesnake rattle returns thematically over the course of the movie, wherever there's a need to subtly express violence and danger. 

It is sound design as leitmotif.

"Anger is like a cold front that moves into a human place."
- Pete Horner

Pete was a fantastic presenter and I will be looking out for his work from now on.

Lessons from SXSW: "Life Automation for Entrepreneurs"

SXSW Synopsis:

"Join Dave Asprey, Veronica Belmont & Maneesh Sethi as they discuss automating your life while running your business. Running a startup is an intense, all-consuming undertaking and new entrepreneurs have a hard time keeping up with the demands of their business and maintaining their relationships, social life, family, health, etc. 

In this panel, we'll be discussing creative ways to utilize technology to automate your life while you are running your business. Moderated by Stephanie Burns."

Dave Asprey - @bulletproofexec :: Veronica Belmont - http://swordandlaser.com/ :: Stephanie Burnes (Moderator) :: Maneesh Sethi - http://hackthesystem.com/

Dave Asprey - @bulletproofexec :: Veronica Belmont - http://swordandlaser.com/ :: Stephanie Burnes (Moderator) :: Maneesh Sethi - http://hackthesystem.com/

Notes:

Mostly, this session was about finding ways in which to automate aspects of business and personal life in ways that save individual entrepreneurs - and really, anyone - from decision fatigue. 

The basic premise of this is that each time anyone makes a decision, it eats into a finite pool of willpower that we have in our reserves every day. The more we waste our time making little decisions - especially those that can, and should, be automated - the less willpower we have left to make more important decisions. So, part of the goal of automating parts of your life is to find ways to reduce the overall decisions made per day.

The panel recommended the following:

  • Delegate scheduling & calendar to assistant. Assistants also do not necessarily need to be expensive.
  • Schedule things that you normally wouldn't - like exercise, lunchtime, and other daily activities, so that you will stay on track and avoid unnecessary interruptions.
  • Pre-schedule long-term decisions like food (ie. make healthy food on the weekends and prepare to take it for lunch each day so that it isn't a unique decision on what to eat in the mornings or before lunchtime - this also cuts down on temptation to eat unhealthy foods); and recurring appointments for the doctor, dentist, etc.
  • Reduce scheduling decisions between multiple parties by reducing the number of available time options on your schedule, or using website to automatically align schedules.
  • Outsource travel arrangements as much as possible via secretary or websites like
  • "Anything you're not the best at" - Maneesh Sethi
  • Even gratitude...
  • Social media presence can also be automated through social media managers, and also:
  • Emails - Maneesh Sethi in particular has developed a system where nearly all of his email correspondence is run through an assistant. The assistant reviews all emails and categorizes them by importance and specificity. 

When asked if it's worth the trade-off to outsource personal information to assistants - especially internationally - Maneesh Sethi just considers it to be a cost worth bearing, noting that the worst things that can generally happen are "not that bad". Dave Asprey added, "Someone's already reading your email today. They're name is the NSA."

Things not to automate:

  • Sex & relationships (Belmont)
  • Mentorship (Asprey)

On internships, Dave Asprey also noted:

"There are people who will work for a surprisingly little amount of money, and they're not actually getting screwed out of the deal because they're getting an apprenticeship."

Interesting.

In the Q&A section, the panel answered several questions that I found relatively interesting. To the question of what we should do  if we don't have enough for our assistants to do to make a full time job, the panelists answered:

  1. Don't worry about it, they're there to assist you, not the other way around
  2. Add a constant job of ensuring accountability
  3. Work on forward-looking projects

To the question of how to start automating one's life, the panelists suggested that individuals start by asking the question, "What do you procrastinate on the most?" Whatever the answer to that question is, that's where you should start if possible.

Finally, to the question of what to do after college, the answers were:

  1. Eliminate debt as quickly as possible
  2. Look for the holes or what's missing in terms of what you currently don't outsource that you'd like to, and figure out how to automate those parts of your life
  3. Find great mentors & friends

All in all, this was a pretty informative session.

Lessons from SXSW: An Introduction

I was fortunate enough this year get to go to South by Southwest for work, and as it seems is usually the case with the event, I crammed an enormous amount of activity into about 4 days. In order to maximize the value I got out of the experience, I took notes (and photographs) at virtually every panel, event, and film screening I attended.

These events were, in order:

  1. Life Automation for Entrepreneurs
  2. The Emotional Language of Film with Skywalker Sound
  3. Premiere: "Chef"
    -- written & directed by Jon Favreau
  4. Narrative Shorts 1
  5. Documentary Shorts 1
  6. Premiere: "Space Station 76"
    -- written & directed by Jack Plotnick
  7. Austin Nightlife: The Broken Spoke & Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon
  8. Keynote: Jason Blum of Blumhouse Pictures
  9. A Conversation with Jon Favreau
  10. 5 Lessons from Movie Studios on How to Market Your Movie
  11. Deliverables Today
  12. Film & interactive Pary
  13. If Content is King, Who is Sheriff?
  14. A Conversation with Nicolas Cage
  15. Premiere: "A Night in Old Mexico"
    -- written by William D. Wittliff, directed by Emilio Aragón
  16. Premiere: "Doc of the Dead"
    -- directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
  17. How Crowdfunding Killed Hollywood with Adam Carolla
  18. Music Videos Program 1

A lot of the events I attended were filmed and will no doubt find a home on the internet in the coming weeks, but the lessons I took from SXSW are my own, so I figured that it would be worth copying my notes and sharing them here. It's a good way to keep my own records and maybe create some value for others as well.

Eventually, I might go back and upload music composition and orchestration notes from my years at NYU in graduate school and notes on music, film, writing and other creative pursuits from other conferences. 

With that said, I'm going to break this up into separate blogs to keep the notes easy to find. Check it out.