Cult Projections: Tell me a little of the career trajectory that has brought you to Program Director for the Sci Fi Film Festival? Is this a dream role? Has it been challenging?
Simon: The career trajectory has been erratic, to put it succinctly, but I've always managed to spend most of my working years in the company of creative and/or dedicated industry types that inspire me. The latest has been SciFi Film Festival founder and director Tom Papas, who saw a determined, some might say desperate, need in me to apply in practical terms what I had learned after years profiling and attending festivals as a journalist or reviewer. It is a dream role, so the challenges were just part of that dream coming true.
CP: How far back does science fiction feature in your life? What were some of the early TV shows and/or movies that made an impact on you as a youth?
S: I was a pre-teen in the 1970s, one of the great periods of TV sci-fi. Earliest memories include Thunderbirds, U.F.O., Land of The Giants, Land of the Lost, Space: 1999; I'd watch them before anyone else in my home was awake and as soon as I got home from school. Then the impact of Star Wars, Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Battlestar Galactica dictated the course of my life, without me even realising it at the time. The influence of Star Wars on my life is undoubtedly why I reacted so powerfully to Adam Harris' beautiful documentary My Saga. And that sense of discovery that came with each new copy of magazines like Starlog or Starburst or Cinefex, with every page filled with incredible images and the artists that conjured them, was profound.
CP: What is it about science fiction movies that make them so broadly appealing, and yet so niche?
S: At their most broadly appealing, they are grand visions of imagined worlds; it is the very same sense of longing and adventure that has driven mankind to set sail for unknown destinations. That said, any artform that reflects a singular vision of an imagined reality will not always be to everyone's taste. Your question is addressed in cinematic terms with our Opening Night film, Johann Lurf's ★, which compiles starscapes from 550 films into a breathtaking montage work unlike anything I'd seen before; I watched the film transfixed and transported, of course, but also deeply moved. I found myself reacting emotionally to the images, despite there being no narrative. It is pure science-fiction.
CP: Science fiction movies run the gamut from spectacular action blockbusters to micro-budget mind-fuck pieces. Can you give me a couple of titles that you think are great examples of each?
S: James Cameron's Aliens is a masterpiece of commercial sci-fi/action cinema; so too, Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce. I steered away from Armageddon-type sci-fi blockbusters in my first program; they get plenty of play with massive marketing budgets and wide release patterns. Even my most "mainstream" film, Ryan Esling's UFO, starring Gillian Anderson and David Straithairn, is a smaller-scale, more intimate conspiracy-theory thriller. In terms of micro-budget mindfucks, we have arguably the best of the year in Luke Sullivan's shattering two-hander Reflections in the Dust. It's an emotionally brutal, nerve-shredding drama, largely shot in monochrome and starring the vision-impaired actress Sarah Houbolt. It will divide audiences, but festival films should challenge what is easy and acceptable in film terms.
CP: What are some of the popular themes this year?
S: A.I. and the imminent restructuring of our way of life via sentient robotics was central to so many of the submissions I watched this year. I sense that the science-fiction filmmakers feel real change in how we share the world with our own increasingly self-aware creations is about to impact us all. The documentary More Human Than Human is a startling examination of that near-future; in fictional terms, so are the shorts Stine and the utterly breathtaking Lebanese work Manivelle: The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow. There is also a sense of the changing nature of the ruling patriarchy in several of this years' films. The SXSW award winner Prospect examines how a stranded girl, the brilliant Sophie Thatcher, must defy then reconstruct her faith in a father figure; Bobby Bala's short The Shipment is a deep-space father-daughter drama. And the previously mentioned Reflections in the Dust examines toxic masculinity in the most graphic of terms.
CP: As a program director what defines a great program?
S: Not just as a program director, but as a film watcher in general, I respond to originality. I can appreciate a re-used narrative told in an exciting new way, such as Peter Stray's Welsh-set New Year's Eve alien invasion horror-comedy Canaries or Hector Valdez's Peaches, which is a remake of the Australian time-travel rom-com The Infinite Man. And I will always respond to bold and challenging new works, such as ★.
CP: What are the three most important elements of ANY science fiction film - for the budding filmmakers out there!
S: Commitment to your vision; a fearlessness that allows you to take risks; a strong, well-crafted technique in service of your creative choices.
CP: Any surprises lined up for this year's fest? Any treats festival goers should pay attention to?
S: Well they won't be surprises if I tell Cult Projections now, duh! The Closing Night film is something I'm very proud - the first screening of Steve De Jarnatt's 1989 cult classic Miracle Mile in nearly 30 years. And even if Q&As aren't normally your thing, hang around for ours. Marc Fennell is interviewing Adam Harris, the survivor of a brain tumour dealt with his struggle by making the Star Wars-themed doco My Saga. Marc interviewed Adam on the SBS show The Feed a few years back, when Adam was just beginning his amazing journey, so this ought to be a very emotional reunion.
CP: Finally, it has to be asked, what are your all-time top five fave sf movies?
S: Well, right now I'm obsessed with our opener, ★. But, bearing in mind this five can change at any time, I'll say my faves are Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Alphaville, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension, Sleeper, and Starship Troopers.
CP: Thank you Simon!