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K. Lorrel Manning and Michael Cuomo

K. Lorrel Manning and Michael Cuomo

Posted: March 17, 2011 02:17 PM

SXSW World Premiere and Vets Screening With Elvis


When we last wrote, the two of us were sitting in our hotel room in Austin, TX, on the eve of the world premiere of our first feature film, Happy New Year, shaking our heads in wonder. We couldn't believe how far we'd come in the last four years. A small one-act play about two Iraq War veterans reuniting on New Year's Eve had gone from an Off-Broadway stage to becoming an award-winning short film which eventually premiered online via the Huffington Post. Then we turned it into a feature film that was about to debut at one of the world's top festivals, SXSW. Frankly, it was the first time that we'd taken a moment to really pause and realize just how far we'd come in the last four years.

Our world premiere took place on a Saturday afternoon at the State Theatre, a beautiful, newly renovated theater downtown on Congress Avenue. As we approached the entrance, we looked up at the marquee and saw the words "HAPPY NEW YEAR." Wow. After a few minutes of pictures with family and friends, we entered the theater to do quality control on our print. We were blown away by the size of the screen, the amount of seats in the venue (there's a balcony) and the amazing sound system. As badgeholders entered the theatre, we tried our best to remain calm. This would be the first audience to actually see the film, beyond our family and friends. They would also be the first audience for us to gauge exactly how Happy New Year played, and a small example of what the overall reaction to the film would be. And just as the screening was about to begin, we were informed that one of the judges in attendance was none other than esteemed film critic Roger Ebert. Oh man.

But our pre-screening fears were quickly silenced when the lights went down. Happy New Year played beautifully, and the audience response was overwhelming. There was laughter, tears and finally a thunderous applause as the end credits rolled. After the screening, we celebrated with food, drinks and music at our post-party, which featured live music from Bobby Bare Jr., Robbie Gil and La Res.

The following morning we filmed interviews for various entertainment news programs -- one of which took place outside the convention center as a brass band marched by. But we persevered. After all, we were also prepping for our biggest mission yet -- screening for an audience of military veterans (from WWII to Vietnam to Desert Storm to Iraq/Afghanistan) and their families, as well as Austin's Head of Veterans Affairs! Though we were incredibly anxious about our world premiere, this particular screening really kept us up the night before. After all, our film is about veterans. We spent over two years interviewing dozens of vets for this project, a daunting task considering the fact that neither of us served in the military. The interviews were difficult but therapeutic -- for them and for us. Usually after the chilly first hour, we somehow managed to gain a level of trust with each person, and they eventually began to speak freely about their experiences. Thus, we wanted to create a highly entertaining film that any civilian could enjoy but also honor the men and women who shared their hearts with us. Not an easy task, but we were sure that we could do it.

However, having an audience full of vets and their families at our secnd screening would be the real test. If we didn't have their stamp of approval, what would that mean for the future of the film? It also didn't help that our friend Paul Rieckhoff (from IAVA), was serving on a panel a few days later titled "Did You Kill Anyone? Reality in War Movies." Yikes. (Paul was an advocate of the Happy New Year short but has yet to see the feature.) Our only choices were to cower in the corner in fear or to simply face it and take it head on. If there's anything that we've learned in our two years of veteran interviews is that fear is not an option.

After the credits rolled, the audience was silent. We had no idea what the overall feeling was in the room. It wasn't until our moderator, venerable film critic Elvis Mitchell (who's become a true fan of the project) called us onstage that we got an idea of what people thought of the film. The two of us, along with Guiding Light actress Tina Sloan (whose son is an Iraq veteran) and our military advisor, Joseph Harrell (a former Staff Sergeant in the Marines), were greeted with a huge round of applause. Afterward, people milled around in the lobby for nearly an hour (always a good sign) asking us questions and relaying to us how moved they were by the film and wondering when and how the rest of the world could see it.

We told them that SXSW was the first major step towards introducing Happy New Year to the world at large.

Time will tell.