The Newest ON STORY Book Is a Masterclass in Filmmaking

When the Austin Film Festival decided to take its many panels of writers and filmmakers and turn them into a public television show, it was a stroke of genius. The On Story project has since expanded to radio and podcasts and even books, including the newest volume, On Story―Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films.

With its focus on being a writer’s festival, it makes sense to get AFF’s content down on paper. While it is sure to be used as a textbook in filmmaking classes across the land, this collection of stories about the making of some very popular films turns out to be a great read for any movie fan as well.

Highlights include Jonathan Demme talking about The Silence of the Lambs, Harold Ramis on Groundhog Day, and many, many more. Cinapse caught up with editor Maya Perez to discuss this new work.

Cinapse: On Story has grown into quite an enterprise. How did it get started, and did you ever see it getting this big?

Maya Perez: More than 2,000 people attend the annual Austin Film Festival, but there are many thousands of others who are unable to for various reasons, and we wanted to make our content available to them. There’s also so much rich material from writers and filmmakers at AFF panels over the past 23 years, and we hated the thought of it just sitting in a closet getting eaten by silverfish.

The TV show was the first On Story project, and that came out of our partnership with KLRU, Austin’s PBS affiliate. That seemed like the most obvious medium to share our video recordings. We were delighted when, in the middle of the first season, KLRU asked us to do a second season. The show now airs in almost 90% of the national marketplace (all past episodes are also available for free viewing at and Season 7 starts in April 2017! We definitely didn’t anticipate this success and are thrilled so many people get to listen to the stories and advice from A-list filmmakers that our registrants got firsthand for years.

The show is a lot of fun to put together, but since it’s a half-hour show, there’s a lot of material that winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. A podcast and radio show seemed like a logical next step for getting out that content as well as the more “breaking news”-type content, like an interview with writer/director Paul Feig when the new Ghostbusters came out, or with director Jon Chu for Now You See Me 2. Their premiere schedules are so hectic that they don’t have time to fly to Austin for a panel, but they can do a phone interview and we can get that out on our podcast and radio show. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a great podcast!

Why a book? The TV show, podcast, and radio programs are of a piece and reflect the panel discussions directly. What does getting these stories down in book form do for the On Story project?

People have different ways they prefer to receive information and we’re trying to accommodate that. We also have recorded panels better suited for different mediums. The book offers a more in-depth look at the creative process, and it isn’t necessarily meant to be read from beginning to end. We envision readers reading a chapter before going to bed or when stuck on a project and needing a boost of inspiration. Hopefully, they’ll read, say, the section on screenwriter Callie Khouri and decide to re-watch Thelma and Louise, now that they have a better understanding of the personal experiences Khouri had that led to her creating those characters. Or maybe they’ll read about Ted Tally grieving his dying father while writing The Silence of the Lambs and the next time they see the movie they’ll see more of the search for a father figure in the story that they might have missed on their first viewing. Or they’ll learn about the unique challenges screenwriter David Magee and director Ang Lee faced in adapting Life of Pi from the bestselling novel by Yann Martel into a movie. Honestly, we don’t know a single screenwriter who isn’t also a book lover and there’s something significant about holding pages between your hands. Not to mention that the written word is the medium most of our panelists work in – they’re screenwriters!

What has it been like working with the University of Texas Press? How does their mission fit with yours? How did you come to work with them?

We were introduced to David Hamrick at UT Press by our dear friend, the late Mary Margaret Farabee, who was a huge presence in the arts community of Austin. (She founded the Texas Book Festival with former First Lady Laura Bush.) It was Mary Margaret who suggested we put together a book. The folks at UT Press have done a really beautiful job with both books – the layout, texture, careful editing – and have been so supportive of this project. In fact, we received an email from them at the start of this year’s Festival, not even two weeks after the book had been published, that they wanted to talk with us about doing a third book!

What does the future of On Story look like?

Funny, we were just talking about that this morning! We’ve got cassette tapes – that’s right, cassette tapes – of panels from the first few years, before we started video recording panels, and we’d love to clean those up and get that content out as On Story podcast and radio episodes. Robert Altman, Gary David Goldberg, Polly Platt, Wes Craven, and even the Wilson brothers, Wes Anderson, and James L. Brooks from when they screened Bottle Rocket at AFF – these are just some of the many conversations we have on tape. Any content that can’t be cleaned, we’re hoping to get out in book format, or at least on our website. With literally thousands of recorded discussions, we’ve got content for years!

Anything else you would like to add?

We just hope that people enjoy the book and find it informative. Where the first one was geared more toward creative people–particularly filmmakers and screenwriters of all levels–and focused on the writing process, from inspiration to researching to revising, this one is really for anyone who loves movies and television and just wants that viewing experience enhanced. There are so many wonderful, and often funny, stories about how a movie came to be and if readers enjoy reading it half as much as we enjoyed putting it together, they’ll be happy customers!

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the author

Rod hails from Austin, Texas where he currently works in software after a decade teaching English in a public high school. As a kid he watched a lot (A LOT) of television, and the older he gets, the more he romanticizes the act of going to the movies. Writing about television and film is a good excuse for him to watch television and film. Website: Twitter: @rodmachen