I ventured to SXSW for the first time this year as part of the Australian delegation supported by Global Victoria. I'd heard a few things from some veterans. Go to the parties. Don't bother with the speaker or panel sessions. Get into the activations, they said. No matter what anyone tells you, nothing really prepares you for the SXSW experience.
It's a creative entrepreneur's Willy Wonka factory and then some. It's not that Austin itself is the self proclaimed capital of weird #KeepAustinWeird, it's that the city seems to wholeheartedly embrace the 10 day disruption (although I suspect quite a few folks Airbnb their place away for that time). And despite the chaos, it's an incredibly smooth operation, for a relatively small city in Texas.
At no other event in the world, can you get an eclectic mix of some of the worlds's most creative, inspiring forward thinking people in critical mass. From Trevor Noah and his entire Daily Show team, to Instagram founders Mike Krieger & Kevin Systrom, to a gazillion authors like Tim Ferris and Brene Brown, to bright stars like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and presidential hopefuls Senator Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Howard Shultz. The collision to creative synergy ratio is high.
Parties, chance business meetings, film premieres, pitchfests and startup/tech exhibiting aside, SXSW was definitely about gaming the lines, the endless fish tacos and the scooters. Oh the lines. It became an enjoyable art, and a wonderful way to meet people.
There are a million experiences I could share, but one of the most memorable for me was the Masterclass with Jodie Foster and David Rogier. Often you could line up and not get into sessions, even with special badges, and express line reservations. By Day 2, I had worked out my session hacking technique. Go to the slightly unpopular session before, in this case world famous artist and curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist taking about AI and art, and don't move. My plan was full proof, except that my bladder did not thank me afterwards.
The session kicked on with an introduction from Masterclass founder David Rogier, who himself was still nervous, even though he had filmed an entire Masterclass series with two time Oscar winner Jodie Foster.
The room was of course packed, but the air was electric, as if every word she uttered would be placed delicately into a jar for future studies on greatness. There is something deeply intimate about being in a room with someone who has had 50 year career, revealing her artistic process with complete honesty and authenticity.
Jodie Foster is most defintlely one of the greats. She has appeared in more than 40 major films, directed four feature-length movies and won nearly 60 awards: among them are two Academy Awards, two BAFTA Awards, four Juniper Awards and three Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Foster started her career at the tender age of two and ascended to superstardom with striking performances in Taxi Driver, The Silence of The Lambs, The Accused, and Nell, portraying complex characters alongside acting heavyweights Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins, and Liam Neeson.
She describes her process as an actor, as being like a dance, where you are half choreographer, half dancer.
"Even though you prepare you have to leave behind all the preparation in the moment. You discover by experience."
She is also thinks she is quite different from other actors in that she was thrown into a craft as part of her family business, which she believes she didn't have the make up for. She revealed she often didn't feel like a "real actor", as she also didn't have any formal training.
"I still feel like an imposter. Like I don't deserve to be here. Every time I make a movie as an actor, I have to grapple with the fact that I don't know what I'm doing... I don't know if I can do this."
But she says she learned to develop a ritual to overcome her fear. She doesn't like to be made self conscious, or be aware of what she is doing. She can't look at a mirror before she starts shooting, for example. She always reminds herself to trust that she's prepared.
I have to admit I didn't expect to hear something so frank and honest. There's something inherently comforting about a two time Oscar winner revealing that even she has Imposter Syndrome. It made me feel that perhaps this was part of the human condition. From that moment, I respected Jodie Foster, for her ability to be authentic, even in a profession that demanded so much emotionally. What was really inspiring was how she described using her insecurities to become excellent.
"It takes a neurotic person to be excellent, because you repeat something over and over that's painful and you do it until you get it right...[you think] that unless I'm giving everything I 'm a failure, until I succeed at it."
When asked what she loves in her process, she simply says it's words. She loves language. Words are the connective tissue. That said, she acknowledges the irony in the first movie she wrote, produced and directed Nell had no words.
Nell is about a wild woman who grows up in a isolated cabin in the woods completely cut off from civilisation. When her religious mother dies of a stroke, Nell is left to fend for herself, developing her own language. Two scientists find her and try to decipher her worldview, decoding her words and introduce her into the world.
Without words as her anchor, Jodie revealed the performance was a challenge, until she connected with her physicality. She says she had no idea that she had her own issues of connection and abandonment, which were deep inside her body. When she discovered this, it became a powerful resource to her, in that could she recreate movements over and over, and it would instantly bring the emotion. Jodie demonstrated the movement she used in Nell to us on stage, and it still brought her to tears.
"We have these things in our body, and it's not until you discover this in yourself, that it can take you to a deeper place in your work."
When Jodie talks about the delicacies of her process, and creating Nell, you can feel it is so close to her. It was such a rare window into an actor's process. For someone in her head, she has a depth of feeling which is what makes her a true talent.
Despite her success with acting, she admitted that acting didn't come naturally to her and that she really found herself in directing. She was able to learn a lot from watching every great director she worked with at a young age.
Like many women in Hollywood she has also faced the challenges of being a woman and a director. She says she rarely saw women on set when she grew up, let alone one being the director. When pressed further about this, she believes it's an internalised sexism in Hollywood because of the risk factor, ie it has been difficult to not see women directors as a risk. This continues today, although it's changing slowly.
But she believes women directors do have different styles, and bring different perspectives and nuances to a story. For Jodie, her acting experience allows her to be a better director, and as an actor/director she has a unique perspective which is her strength. She says she can easily identify what different actors processes are, then gets out of the way of their process, whilst balancing the needs of the production.
"Everyone person that touches the screenplay changes it. Sometimes its hard for technicians to understand the embrace that the actor understands, because actors are working in real time."
Finally, on that scene in Silence of the Lambs. She revealed as much as she was terrified of Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lector) on set, he was actually scared of her too.
On the future of the industry, she believes there is huge access to new worlds through online distribution, but also the decline of people going to cinema has influenced the kinds of movies being made. She misses the going to the movies, because there is nothing like being with others in a room watching and sharing a story together. That will be lost she says, but it is always replaced with something else.
We go to events expecting one thing, or hoping to "do business", but sometimes despite the most rigorous preparation, the most valuable thing you can do is be in the present in the experience itself. For me, being in the presence of a master, and hearing her authentic creative process with all its chaos, doubt, fear and joy, made me feel connected and alive. This is what made my SXSW experience so valuable, and will keep me returning for years to come.
Be an apprentice: Learn from the greats, watch their stuff, learn everything you can
Always prepare, but be open in the moment of opportunity
Even when you are a master always be learning
In film every word, every prop, gesture, advances the story and if it's not meaningful, cut it out. (Perhaps the same goes for life)