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AUSTIN, TX. – Passholders at the ongoing Austin Film Festival, a writers-centric event, began lining up hours early on Sunday in order to snag one of the 300 coveted seats at the State Theatre for a live-reading of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan‘s long-unproduced script 2 Face. Gilligan would have drawn crowds if he was the only big-name participant, but the fact that his work would be read by a number of other high-profile individuals — including Will Ferrell, Oscar-nominee Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), Emmy-nominee Linda Cardellini (Mad Men) and Breaking Bad alum Giancarlo Esposito — made this the hottest ticket of the weeklong fest.
Gilligan, who came to town to accept AFF’s Outstanding Television Writing Award — and appear on a panel with fellow honorees Jonathan Demme, Barry Josephson, Callie Khouri and Susan Sarandon, moderated by yours truly — on Saturday, kicked off Sunday’s gathering by introducing two of his closest Breaking Bad collaborators, director Rian Johnson (“the best director I know, the best director working”) and executive producer Mark Johnson (“my mentor for many years,” who “has believed in this project for 23 years and has been tirelessly trying to get it made ever since”).
Johnson, who called 2 Face “the oldest unproduced screenplay in Hollywood,” noted that he first came to know of Gilligan while serving as a judge for the inaugural Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting contest. He read the 23-year-old’s script Home Fries, which greatly impressed him — and ended up winning — and then began working with him. He eventually produced Home Fries nine years later and says he still has several unproduced Gilligan scripts that he would like to help to get made, as well, emphasizing, “This is at the top of that list.” (In the wake of the triumphant success of Breaking Bad, Gilligan is now mulling over what he would like to do next.)
Before Johnson introduced the readers — who included the aforementioned notables as well as Paula E. Brooks, Johnny Dowers, Billy Burke, Wiley Wiggins, Catherine Willis and Rob Brown, as well as John Merriman, who voiced an intro and writer/director Richard Kelly, who provided sound effects (Johnson read stage directions) — Gilligan cautioned the audience, “It was written to be a comedy, but it’s a comedy about racism,” adding, “There are some uncomfortable things in it.” (Those proved to be several uses of the n-word and other racial slurs.)
Without providing any major spoilers, I can say that 2 Face, which took roughly two hours for the cast to read, is something of a cross between Harvey and Blazing Saddles. It revolves around a schizophrenic man (read by Ferrell) who, by day, is a racist prick egged-on by his even more bigoted friend (read by Church), but, by night, morphs into an amiable guy who thinks that his name is Rodeo Bob and that he lives years into the enlightened future. This dichotomy creates problems for his wife (named Holly after Gilligan’s girlfriend, like a character in almost every one of his works, and read by Cardellini), daughter (who is deaf and has no dialogue) and black neighbor (read by Brown), a psychologist who wants to try to get to the root of his affliction.
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