I felt like Bill Murray in the beginning of Lost in Translation only instead of being the tallest person in the crowded hotel elevator, I was the only one not donning wings, latex or a Storm Trooper uniform.
I had just checked in at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency where I’d come to attend Dragon*Con, America’s largest annual popular arts convention for Gamers, Trekkies, and die-hard aficionados of all things sci-fi, horror, and/or fantasy. Admittedly, I am none of these things really. I am a filmmaker who had come for the sole purpose of screening my latest short Teenage Bikini Vampire which was a finalist in the film competition. So, entering into the very foreign world of Dragon*Con (or “The Con” as those in the know refer to it as) was quite the eye-opening experience.
After wading through scores of scantily-clad goth fairies, superheroes, and what appeared to be the entire cast of the Muppet Show, I finally managed to locate the Learning Center, the auditorium devoted to the film track of The Con and my new home away from home for the next seventy-two hours. I found myself among instant new friends – filmmakers, film promoters, and film lovers alike, all dressed in standard filmmaker black jeans and t-shirts featuring an array of cult and horror films ranging from Troma to Hellboy. Ah, home at last.
I would spend the next nine hours glued to my seat, watching a wide variety of innovative shorts featuring everything from murderous sock puppets to a fiery claymation hell, as well as any number of fascinating panels covering topics such as special fx make-up, indie film funding, and b-movie horror acting. In between sessions I mingled with my filmmaking peers, exchanging business cards and wild tales of one another’s adventures in films. Matthew Foster, the fabulous organizer of the film track (and no, I’m not just kissing ass) occasionally entertained us with assorted odd shorts, many featuring demented animated bunnies.
I honestly didn’t want the day to end, but eventually hunger, dehydration, and the need to stretch my legs pried me away from the safety of the Learning Center and back out into the chaos of the bizarro world that loomed outside. Only now instead of hundreds of outrageous costume-clad creatures, I suddenly found myself amidst thousands of them.
The pirate Jack Sparrow tipped his hat to me. Predator leaped out in front of me and growled. And if I’m not mistaken, a randy hobbit slid his hand under my short skirt and copped a feel. Before I could turn to scold him (or thank him for that matter) a relatively harmless-looking young gent asked me if he could take my picture because I looked “normal.” My mother would have been so pleased. Always a sucker for an innovative pick-up line, I acquiesced.
Then a familiar sound greeted my ears. It was the gothabilly tune “Killer in Texas” blaring out of a nearby speaker. I looked up to see a booth featuring the band Ghoultown and learned they would be playing a concert the following night. Perhaps I was not so out of place here after all.
As I wandered around through the surrealistic carnivale atmosphere, I couldn’t evade the feeling that everything around me was in fast forward mode while I was floating through space in slow motion having some inexplicable out-of-body experience. I felt utterly alone in a giant crowd of strangers with way too many things to do and see. It was completely overwhelming, but it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. In some ways it was quite liberating. Strangers would strike up a conversation out of the blue. Stranger strangers would speak in funny voices and rub their noses on my cheek.
No doubt picking up on my Alice in Wonderland state of mind, a young fellow with pupils so tiny I questioned his ability to see offered me some “party favors” in the form of small, oblong, yellow pills. I declined, feeling sufficiently warped in the head, and was not at all surprised to see him engaged in deep discussion with a wall thirty minutes later.
By night’s end it would take me approximately forty-five minutes to finally squeeze into a dangerously overpopulated glass elevator and return to my room on the ninth floor. I made a mental note to rely on the stairs from here on out. Behind the closed door of my dark hotel room I could still hear the faint sounds of chatter, laughter, music, and elevator alarms going off periodically. I gratefully undressed and slipped under the inviting covers of my plush, queen-sized bed, but visions of sugarplums, among other things, danced in my head and it fast became clear that I was way too wired to sleep.
Once again I was reminded of Lost In Translation, only now I related more to the Scarlett Johansson character and wondered if my Bill Murray might be waiting for me at the downstairs bar. But, as I was to learn, he was not to enter the picture until the following evening.
I think I managed a total of two hours sleep before sunlight trickled under the velvet curtains and I remembered there were more films to be seen. Teenage Bikini Vampire was not scheduled until 5PM the next day, but whenever I attend festivals I try never to miss the opportunity to catch as many of the short film screenings as possible. Short films to me are among the most magical because they are always little labors of love, made for the sole purpose of the love of film. They rarely if ever make money and they are generally limited to festival audiences and the few folks who know where to find them. So when you sit in front of a short film you always know you’re watching something extraordinary. And, if the previous day had been any indication, there was no doubt in my mind that all of the films at Dragon*Con would be particularly mind-blowing. Who needs sleep anyway?
I crawled out of bed and felt nearly human after a steamy shower. The elevators were practically empty at this early hour and the only traces of the previous night’s insanity were a few leftover vampires and some voluptuous Renaissance wenches scattered around the lobby sipping from giant vats of coffee and donning equally giant bags under their eyes. I purchased my own vat of liquid caffeine and nestled in between my new best friends from the film track, settling in for another glorious day of film viewings, panels, and decadently self-indulgent discussions about Peter Jackson and Muppet porn, among other delightful topics. I had found my own personal paradise.
The day flew by at lightning speed once again, though I still seemed to be moving in slow motion. It was night before I knew it and the time had arrived for a panel I was highly anticipating. Matthew Foster had organized a group of directors to critique his favorite four short films of all time and this panel happened to include Lloyd Kaufman – one of my personal heroes. As luck would have it, one of the panelists failed to show, and before you could say “shameless self-promotion,” I had volunteered to fill in the slot and found myself taking the empty seat by Mr. Kaufman himself.
To kick things off, each panelist introduced himself, so when it came my turn I naturally plugged my film, and I also added that I teach a film course at Notre Dame so as to establish some semblance of credibility. At this point Lloyd leaned over and asked if I’d care to go out for a drink afterwards. Somehow I managed not to wet myself and nodded timidly. That was unexpected.
Fortunately the films relaxed me considerably and my tongue gradually unknotted itself. The films were an odd assortment of outlandish humor and M. Night Shyamalan-esque eeriness. It was a blast to hear the other directors’ comments and too fun to impose my own opinions on a captive audience. “Up yours, Roger Ebert!” I mused to myself, triumphant.
After the panel, Special FX guru Tom Savini showed his latest project and Matt treated us to more demented bunny shorts. I almost forgot I was nervous until Lloyd approached and asked, “Still up for that drink?”
He guided me effortlessly through a maze of enthused fans (his not mine in case you were confused) and we left the packed Hyatt and ducked into a nearby bar that was all but empty. I hadn’t even stopped to question what was happening here when Lloyd confessed he was about to offer a course at NYU and wanted to pick my brain about teaching. I stifled a giggle, suddenly relaxing. Here I was sipping Cosmos with Lloyd Kaufman and discussing academia. I wished that randy little hobbit would reappear so he could pinch me, lest I was having some fantastical surrealistic dream. We talked for some time about film and teaching, then parted on friendly terms. He promised to catch my film the following day, and I watched him go. I was floating on air.
But I was not even out of the bar when my out-of-body experience ended abruptly and I landed full force back into my skin. . I got the distinct sensation that I was being watched so I turned around to face a pair of thoughtful eyes that appeared to be studying me. I recognized those eyes, only I had never seen them up close before. I stared back until I remembered that was rude, then offered a shy smile and looked away. Out of the blue I found myself back in a Sofia Coppola film. I was Scarlett Johansson sitting across from Bill Murray for the very first time.
He held out his hand, “Nice to meet you. My name is __________.” I smiled, amused by his modesty. “I know.”
I introduced myself and he offered to buy me a drink. He had seen me speak on a panel earlier. I had long been an admirer of his work. We talked about art and travel and food and politics. He defended my honor when a strange guy came up to me and made weird suggestions. He made me laugh. He made me tremble. He made me forget to catch the midnight movie and the Ghoultown concert. Oops.
We were the only ones left in the bar and by now we had settled into a booth. The bartender had put a movie on the small overhead TV/VCR. It was Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy. He hadn’t seen it yet. I had and loved it. We continued to talk about endless topics, occasionally getting distracted by a meaningful moment in the film. When it ended, the bartender looked impatient and we decided we had better leave. We walked around the city a while. The air was cooler and he helped me on with my coat. “That was a great film,” he commented. I agreed. We reluctantly parted at the Hyatt. I was quite certain I would not see him again, but grateful for the brief encounter. I felt inspired.
I re-entered The Con and felt almost at home in the chaos. Back in my own skin, I suddenly didn’t mind being pushed, shoved, groped, and propositioned by intergalactic species. I felt hyper-alive and wanted to revel in all things Dragon*Con. I wandered in and out of different rooms catching glimpses of all sorts of fantastic spectacles: musicians, artists, acrobats, strippers, frantic strangers with limbs intertwined, singing, dancing, merriment. Life was just one big Fellini Film. When I’d had my fill, I bypassed the elevators and worked my way over to the stairwell. (Nine flights on foot at this hour would surely induce me to sleep, I was convinced.) The stairwell was far from empty, and I was amazed at how friendly were all those who passed. Many invited me to join them on this venture or that. One fellow backed me into a corner and told me he loved me before running off. Another stopped and looked at me for a second. “Something amazing has happened to you tonight,” he said. I smiled, “Something amazing is happening to us all tonight.” “Right on!” he shouted and ran down the stairs.
By the time I reached my room I was physically exhausted and was certain I’d have no trouble sleeping. I was wrong. Perhaps it was because I knew this would all end too soon and I didn’t want to waste a second of it with my eyes shut. I listened to the merriment beyond the door and let my mind wander. I hadn’t felt like this since I was a teenager – there were no rules, no boundaries, only endless potential and possibilities. This is what art is all about. Everybody needs to experience this at least once a year. Ever the writer, I began to compose all the thoughts racing through my head.
I must have slept at some point, though I certainly didn’t feel rested come Sunday morning. Again I ventured down to the Learning Center in time to catch the 8:30 short film screenings. I was greeted by other film aficionados and happy to feel somewhat grounded for a change. It was reassuring to see familiar faces and know I had likely made at least a few friends that would endure long past this magical weekend.
Once again I was blown away by the quality of the films I was seeing and was downright honored to know mine would be shown among them. I attended several more thoroughly entertaining and informative panels then decided to venture out to the Dealer’s booths I had heard so much about at this point. For those who have never attended such an event, let me say that the dealer’s booths are an extravaganza of all things kitschy, gothic, intergalactic, and pop. There is a “walk of fame” where celebrity cult figures offer autographs and anecdotes about their unusual careers. You can buy art, clothing, medieval weapons, games, and all sorts of eclectic paraphernalia. Nerd that I am, I was pleased to find an impressive selection of academic books about classic silent and horror films. There’s definitely something for everybody.
At some point I made the mistake of looking at my watch and came to the dreadful realization that my own film would be showing before too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching my films in front of an audience, but there is always the chance that the response won’t be positive. And after having seen the high caliber of all of the other films (and in many cases much higher budgets and way better production values) I was feeling somewhat self-conscious. Maybe they’d forget to put mine in I secretly hoped . . .
I sat in my now familiar seat, third row center in the Learning Center. It was filling up fast. I saw many of my new film track buddies; I saw complete strangers to whom I’d pitched my film; I saw Lloyd Kaufman; I saw . . .Him. I wanted to crawl under the seats and silently creep away. The weekend had already been more than enough fun, why be greedy? Leave wanting more, I always say.
It was too late. The auditorium darkened and the projector began to roll. My film was third in this block. Naturally it had to follow two stunningly beautiful films that mesmerized me as well as the rest of the audience. Fuck! Then it was my turn. As I’d feared, the DVD transfer didn’t look nearly as nice as the original version on my computer. It was darker and the colors were off. I felt sick to my stomach and this was but the first five seconds of the film. Then we reached the tenth second. Somebody laughed. Then more people chimed in. And in all the right places, no less. They were laughing with me, not at me. In front of me sat Nikki Taylor Melton, my seven year old actress, with her mother, Tracey, who has become a good friend. They turned around and winked at me – eyes glowing. We were a hit. I was relieved. I could actually enjoy myself again. The rest of the films were fabulous, and I was thrilled to have been a part of it all.
Later on, I ran into Lloyd Kaufman again. He congratulated me on a “brilliant” film. It meant more to me than an Oscar ever could. He told me to submit my film to the Tromadance festival and asked me to spread the word (www.tromadance.com – happy, Lloyd?) Complete strangers came up to me as well – asking for pictures, autographs and wondering what my next project would be and would I be here next year? I certainly hope so.
There were too many things scheduled for the rest of the night – Japanese Horror films, a Rocky Horror Picture Show event, concerts, parties and special screenings. I was at a complete loss as to what to do next when fate decided for me . . . those eyes again peering at me. That now familiar twinkle. A connection.
It’s funny. The Dragon*Conners around me had long since ceased to be the pod people, the aliens, the masked creatures that I had first see them as. I bonded with so many wonderful new friends over the weekend that I no longer felt like an outsider, but rather perfectly at home in this magical fantasy world.
But, for those who are fans of Lost in Translation you will recall that having fun is not quite enough to qualify as a religious experience. And I suddenly realized that a religious experience of some sort was in order. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. Like the Scarlett Johansson character, I am married. Unlike her, I am happily so. What I wasn’t necessarily seeking, but somehow found, was my own private muse. A mentor. A kindred spirit with whom but for a moment I would expand my mind, get in touch with my senses, renew my passion for art, film, and life itself. We walked around Atlanta, and eventually found ourselves back in our bar. We were both sleep-deprived. This time some corny Nicole Kidman film played on the TV. It didn’t matter. It might as well have been the highest form of art ever created. I was exalted, inspired, alive. By getting in touch with him, I felt more in touch with myself.
It was Sunday night and the bar closed much earlier. We wandered around, then found ourselves back at the Hyatt. He had an early plane to catch the next morning. This was goodbye. I would likely never see or hear from him again. His fingers brushed against mine as though unsure if touching me was acceptable. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear, “We’ll always have Hellboy.” Then he was gone. I did not turn to watch him go. I wanted it to end just like that. A perfect moment . . . a perfect moment interrupted by Wonder Woman nearly running me down as she fled from an overeager Mad Hatter-type. Oh, right, I was at Dragon*Con. I went downstairs to see if I could catch an exclusive showing of the Japanese horror films (never before released in the U.S.) but it was filled to capacity, and they were not letting any more people in. I peeked into a number of rooms, but the various spectacles before my eyes did not quite seem appropriate for my mood. I found myself nearing the stairwell. Then I was on the ninth floor. A neighbor was sipping from a can of Budweiser, looking down over the banister at the activity below. “It’s more beautiful from up here, don’t you think?” he asked me.
I looked down. It was beautiful. The colors, the music, the laughter. I nodded, smiling.
“You want a beer?” he asked.
“Maybe later,” I responded and headed to my room. I knew what I had to do. I pulled out a sheet of paper and began to write: “Lost in Translation – Dragon*Con Style.”
It’s a week later, and I’m back in reality now. I’ve been corresponding with many of my new Dragon*Con friends via e-mail and earnestly editing my latest film Confederate Zombie Massacre! in hopes that it might bring me back to Dragon*Con next year. It suddenly strikes me as a pity that in the real world people do not regularly wear feathers, wings, or latex. It’s sad that we can’t just strike up conversations with complete strangers whenever we feel like it. It’s a shame that we ride elevators in cold silence. And it’s downright tragic that we can’t spend more time inspiring each other.
Thank you Dragon*Con, Matthew Foster, Bob Coughlin, Film TrackAttendees/Filmmakers/Panelists, Lloyd Kaufman, Sofia Coppola, and Hellboy. I am truly inspired!