Cult Projections: It's the 9th year of A Night of Horror and the 6th year of Fantastic Planet. What is it about horror and science fiction/fantasy that appeals so passionately to genre fans?
Dean: The films in these genres take us on trips to imagined landscapes that are closer to our dreams, our nightmares, and the dimly lit corners of our subconscious, than those more mundane journeys offered by other types of cinematic fare. At their best, they allow us to view the dramas of the real world through a wonderful, and sometimes terrifying, allegorical lens. Plus, lets face it; they tend to be more fun.
CP: It all started as a single night of Australian made horror shorts. Next year A Night of Horror will celebrate its tenth birthday. Did you ever think or hope it would be where it is today? Where do you hope it will be, and in what form, in another ten years?
Dean: When we started the festival almost a decade ago, I'm not even sure that we meant to do it more than once. We were filmmakers who had just made a horror short film ourselves and, after screening at some horror fests overseas, realised that there was no horror friendly fest in Sydney. We figured that there had to be a few dozen local filmmakers like ourselves, hungry for somewhere to showcase their horror short. Then we only ever imagined a one night, one session event, featuring maybe a dozen locally made short films (hence the fest’s name “A Night of Horror”). We soon discovered there were hundreds of horror filmmakers, all around the world, looking for a Sydney home to screen their films, and we were kind of swept away with the wave from there. So I'm reluctant to even imagine where we'll be in ten years, given how un-tuned my radar seems to have been in seeing into the future, now our present, ten years ago.
CP: The two festivals champion the independent scene; what are some of the difficulties in finding the balance of arty content with a real edge vs. commercial content that will guarantee bums on seats?
Dean: As a programmer it interests me far more in discovering films and/or filmmakers than screening films that already have distribution deals in place and will be at a megaplex or out on Blu-ray or VOD within a month. Even setting aside my programmer hat for a moment, seeing original cutting edge content interests me far more as an audience member as well. One of the reasons the festival introduced the “Launch Pad” component three years back, was to make sure that we were focusing even more on world premiere films. It's wonderful to see the trajectory of films that launch, or play very early in their run, at the festival, go on to play even bigger festivals after A Night of Horror, and achieve distribution.
I think far too few festivals today play anywhere near enough films that were entered through their open submission process. That's disingenuous: taking money from hundreds (perhaps thousands) of independent filmmakers, and then sourcing almost your entire program from what already has major buzz, i.e. films that already have sales representation/distribution in place, or that have already played several major festivals. I would like to think that part of our mission as a film festival is to help create, rather than cash in on buzz. Many fantastic films over the history of the festival have started long and successful festival runs with us. And several films have been sold at, or as a result of screening at, the fest: including Family Demons, Found, All Superheroes Must Die, Father’s Day, Fury: The Tales of Ronan Pearce and Inner Demon to name a handful. It's a tradition I'm very proud of and one I intend to maintain for as long as I continue helming the fest. Hopefully the festival's audience knows the high calibre of films we program, and are prepared to continue taking chances with us on independent genre films.
CP: What specific elements do you look for in the horror genre and in the science fiction/fantasy genre?
Dean: I like to see traditional genre tropes spun in directions that I wouldn't have expected. I love a wonderful story, skilful execution of the script, strong performances, etc. But most of all I love to be surprised.
CP: How has the scene - both the industry and the movies themselves - changed over the past decade?
Dean: I think it keeps ascending. Ever since the digital revolution and the accompanying democratisation of filmmaking, more and more independent filmmakers seem to be working in the genre. The percentage of films that are great might not be any higher, but because there are so many more films being made, as a result there are more great films being made. The calibre of submissions in the last couple of years has reached the stage where I wish I had three times as many slots to fill in the festival program, as I could do it easily.
CP: What three horror movies have had a lasting impact on you as a cinephile?
Dean: There are plenty, but just three: Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, and Rosemary’s Baby.
CP: What three science fiction/fantasy movies?
Dean: Again, plenty, but three: Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior), Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope), and They Live.
CP: The Australian short film showcase, the international short film showcase, and the Lovecraftian-themed shorts are the festivals longest running mini-programmes. Do you have a favourite short, off the top of your head? What is it about HP Lovecraft?
Dean: Yes, the Lovecraft program – always as a Sunday matinee - is the longest running program at the festival (we actually didn't use to separate the Australian and international shorts into different programs). It's funny to recall that in year one we held the Lovecraft matinee screening in an RSL club!
Off the top of my head ... a short I still probably think about more than any other is AM 1200, which played in the Lovecraft section several years back. Terrifying, fantastic production values, and perfectly executed. And an exception to the rule, that a short film should be short (it's running time is 39 mins!)
Lovecraft could spin a horror yarn like no other writer before or since: an artful construction of that building sense of dread, an evocation of pervasive cosmic malice, a new mythology that feels like it should be real even though it isn't (at a level that only Tolkien and few other writers have ever been able to construct), all conveyed in that cultured and unmistakable New England voice, itself harkening to a time that now seems so distant that the prose alone evokes a sense of mystery and wonder.
CP: Ok, this will be a hard (and potentially time-consuming) one: Pick a favourite feature from each year of the festival?
Dean: Damn, that's tough. I really shouldn't have favourites; so instead, I'll list the one that first comes to mind from each year's fest. (That's got to mean something right?) Year 1: The Ancient Rite of Corey McGillis, Year 2: Doctor Inferno, Year 3: Finale, Year 4: The Revenant, Year 5: Skew, Year 6: Love, Year 7: All Superheroes Must Die, and Year 8: Fury: The Tales of Ronan Pierce.
CP: What three movies from this year's festival have particularly tickled your fancy and you’re more than a little excited about screening?
Dean: I'm excited about the entire program this year (yes, I know that's my job as a programmer to say, but I wouldn't have programmed anything that I wasn't really excited about). But since you asked for three, here’s a few that spring to mind: Landmine Goes Click Just blew me away (pun intended). I had no idea what was coming in the third act, and man, what a brutal and twisting surprise ... in a film already filled with brutal and twisting surprises. Normal is nothing else I've ever seen. A dark Eros building to End of Days apocalypticism. Director Michael Turney is definitely someone to watch. I'm delighted that we're world premiering his feature debut at the fest. And third, Be My Cat: A Film For Anne.
At a time when filmmakers have to really impress if they're working in the “found footage” medium this entry delivers like no other. The film follows a mentally unwell filmmaker (a mesmerising performance from Adrian Tofei, the film's director) who is obsessed with making a film starring Anne Hathaway. The film is presented as a macabre love letter to Hathaway, as the delusional lead does horrific things to other actresses in a twisted attempt to impress his Hollywood heart-throb into starring in his next film. Dread Central calls it “potentially revolutionary and potentially dangerous”. They are right on both counts.
CP: Thank you Dean!