Cult Projections: At what age were you drawn to horror as a cinema genre? What were some of the movies that first really impressed you? Do you still hold them in high regard?
Briony: I wasn't exposed to horror much as a kid. But I enjoyed anything weird and a bit otherworldly—time travel stories, ghost stories, body swapping. Three films that were really influential for me were The Innocents (Jack Clayton), The Piano (Jane Campion) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir). I respect those films as much now as I did when I first saw them, if anything they only get better with time. Seeing the George Romero zombie films when I was a teenager had a huge impact too, in terms of my understanding of what horror can achieve.
CP: You founded Stranger With My Face with Rebecca Thomson. Who took the inspiration from the Lois Duncan novel, and tell me a little about “the horror within” and its influence on the festival’s manifesto.
B: Rebecca and I started the festival because we're both filmmakers who had been supported by the "women in horror" movement and we felt inspired by the power of that. We were initially just going to screen some of the films from the Viscera Film Festival's archive of short films (Viscera was women's horror festival in Los Angeles that also toured its films to other events). But then I found other things I wanted to add to the line-up and it grew from there.
The idea of the 'horror within' is really just a way of explaining what interests me as a programmer. It's always been me programming the festival, so it's fairly idiosyncratic in that sense. I personally am not as excited about straight 'monster' stories where's there's a bad guy and he's just trying to kill you and you have to fight. Of course I love Halloween, so it can work brilliantly - but even in that film it's the weird connection between Laurie and Michael Myers that's intriguing. It's the sense that there may be some link between the hero and the villain that I find interesting….or even that they may be the same person (metaphorically), because it feels very true to life. So maybe it's just a taste for horror that goes deeper into the psyche. The name of the festival came about because I was thinking through all these ideas and trying to work out how to sum them up and that's the phrase that popped into my head. Lois Duncan had explained it perfectly with that title. And luckily she was happy for us to use the name.
CP: What was the first year of the festival and what was it like? The festival had a year off, has the festival returned in any dramatically different way? Where do you see the festival in five years?
B: The first year of the festival in 2012 was low key but it took off straight away, in terms of filmmakers and guests attending from interstate and support from the local film community. So it really seemed like there was a need for it and we should keep going. The first three years were about growing a little bit each time, learning from mistakes, refining things. Last year I took a year off, because I'm the only one working permanently on the event and I needed to have a break and think about how it could move forward and grow. What I decided, with advice, is that the festival needed to get slightly bigger and become more of an international event, hence the name change. There are two elements to that - and one is that we can better highlight and support the lesser known and emerging filmmakers in the festival if we ourselves have a higher profile, and two is that we can also attract bigger films and premieres. It's striking the right balance between the two that is the trick. In five years I hope we'll have a sustainable model based on various funding sources and a loyal, committed audience. I guess that's what every festival would like to have!
CP: As the festival programmer, do you have any strict criteria you look for? What about the Bechtel test, do you employ that when selecting movies?
B: Apart from demonstrating skill in craft and writing, the key criteria is that films should have a point of view, some kind of “voice” or perspective. If it's just a mood piece or a scary story that goes nowhere, it's not worth the slot it's going to take in the program. I don't care so much about the Bechdel Test, my thinking being that I'm mainly selecting films by women and that, in itself, is a sort of “test” that's already been passed. If I'm looking at a film by a male director I might consider that a bit more.
CP: With advanced technology so readily available now, there are more filmmakers submitting short films to festivals than ever before. What key elements in a short are you looking for? What problematic issues (that will cause you to reject the short) do you see filmmakers making most frequently?
B: The main problem with most short films I see is that the filmmaker has no idea what they want to say. They haven't put anything of their personality or morality into it and so they're not risking anything, in that sense. Sure, it's valid to make something to test out a visual style or an aesthetic, but it's unlikely to resonate with an audience. Conversely, another big problem is the lack of any kind of specific visual style. So you'll see boring lighting, banal production design, terrible music that's like wallpaper. If you're not interested in that stuff fine, but then maybe you should find a different medium to work in. The other big one is length. Don't make your short film more than 6 or 7 minutes unless you have a highly original concept and story that has legs, that goes beyond a set-up and a payoff. And don't wait for a couple of minutes to have anything happen! We're bored already.
CP: There’s been a trend of horror movies of late harnessing a retro atmosphere/tone/mood, especially the late 70s and early 80s. Why do you think filmmakers are being influenced and inspired by this era?
B: I would speculate that filmmakers are inspired by more design-driven cinema at the moment because they're depressed at how low budgets have dropped and at being encouraged to do less and less with style (in terms of lighting something elaborately or using a lot of formal filmmaking techniques). I mean, sure, the found-footage thing was fun for a while, but as soon as it became this idea of “Oh, you don't really need much money to make a horror film, do it with handheld cameras” it became a problem. Perhaps the resurgence of certain retro styles is in direct response to that. It's about saying, “No, we actually do need time and money to make films.”
CP: What’s your opinion on remakes? Have you seen any you rate highly? If a movie is remade, what should the criteria be for remaking it?
B: Remakes are great if there's a reason for the film being made - such as if the director has a new take on the material, or loves it the original and wants to honour it while moving the conversation forward somehow (such as with Stoker and its links to Shadow of a Doubt). If it's just a “Oh we own this property so we might as well” sort of remake, I'd rather not see it.
CP: If you could feature a retrospective of any director, alive or dead, whose work would you programme? Name five movies you would definitely screen.
B: A lot of the filmmakers I'd like to screen the work of may not actually have five solid films to include in a list—or may not have even made five films full stop. I feel like there are only such a limited number of filmmakers in the world who've had that privilege, of building a large body of work over time (and it's no accident that there are not many women in that category). Off the top of my head, a filmmaker I can think of is Donald Cammel. He only made four features. So those four! [Ed: Great answer]
CP: Outside of the festival, are you working on anything as a filmmaker?
B: I have several feature film projects in development, including one through Screen Tasmania's Pitch Plot and Produce low budget feature initiative this year that's loosely a horror melodrama. I'm also working in theatre, such as a collective I'm part of called Radio Gothic. We create experimental radio plays to be performed in front of an audience, but we'll hopefully also podcast them at some stage.
CP: Thanks Briony!