Fantasia 2009: The Wrap-up with Mitch Davis

Fantasia 2009 (click for larger image)If you’ve ever been to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, then you know that Mitch Davis is a legend. As Co-Director of both the festival and International Programming, he can usually be found howling into a microphone as he introduces his favorite films to the adoring audience.

He may be the front man, but Mitch asked if we’d make sure to acknowledge the other programmers, all of whom contribute to make Fantasia the greatest genre festival in North America. So thanks not only to Mitch but also to Tony Timpone, Todd Brown, Simon Laperriere, Isabelle Gauvreau, Nicolas Archambault, King-Wei Chu, Marc Lamothe, Mijeong Lee, and, of course, festival president Pierre Corbeil. You stole our sleep and sanity for three weeks, but we love you for it!

Now that the festival’s over and life is back to normal, we asked Mitch to wrap up this year’s Fantasia coverage:

Mitch, congrats on surviving another year of Fantasia. Were there any unlucky 13th anniversary tragedies that occurred during the festival?

Thanks! No, none that I can think of. But then, 13 has always been a lucky number for people like us. If anything, it was the opposite. We had ridiculously good luck with a number of would-be downers turning around and working out for us at the 11th hour! Mojica initially had to cancel for medical reasons, but everything worked out and he made it in, was in terrific shape, and had a great time with everyone here. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS fell through and then came back. So did several others.

Actually, one tragedy – Sion Sono was originally going to be coming back to the fest, and he had to cancel when production on his new film got moved ahead. That was sad, especially because LOVE EXPOSURE is his best film to date, and as much as he’s used to seeing shrieking Fantasia audiences, the reception his film got would have had him buzzing for months And Walter Kronkite passed away, which had nothing to do with Fantasia, but it still sucked, and I got the news an hour before bringing Nishimura onstage for VAMPIRE GIRL!

This year’s Fantasia seemed to be a little light on horror fare. Why do you think this was, and what do you think it means for the genre?

It was a weird year in that respect. A lot of this season’s horror films being buzzed about didn’t really deliver, and we didn’t want to book them anyway just for the sake of filling some perceived quota, so instead we took on a number of films that can’t really be easily classified within genre film definitions but nonetheless had very dark souls and were absolutely brilliant, far better than many of this year’s true blue horror films ended up being. Films like WHITE LIGHTNIN’, LOVE EXPOSURE, BLOOD RIVER, LIFE IS HOT IN CRACKTOWN, CANARY, 8TH WONDERLAND, THE HORSEMAN, and the list goes on. We’ve always had a big place for films like this in previous years, but this year it made sense to push the edgy unclassifiables even further because they were some of the strongest films we fell in love with over the past year.

I don’t think it means anything in particular with regards to the international horror scene as a whole. We still had at least one straightforward horror film screening pretty much every day throughout the fest, sometimes as many as four, and a number of key horror films ended up either not being finished in time for our dates or were impossible to book by our deadline.

Now that you’ve seen all the movies you picked with an audience, have any of your opinions changed?

Ha, ha, that’s a very astute question to ask! It’s always a revelation to see a film come to life in front of an audience. Films that blow my mind, watched with friends on a screener disc or at an early morning industry screening at the AFM or the Berlin Film Market (where the audience is almost exclusively “buyers” who rarely respond out loud to anything and often wander in and out throughout the screening!) or alone in my underwear at 3 AM, can take on a whole other energy and impact when seen with a big audience.

Same for some of the films that leave me underwhelmed on a screener but can totally kill on the big screen. And the particular audience can make such a difference, too. I’ve seen the same film shown at Sitges, Rotterdam, and TIFF, and all three screenings had a very different atmosphere, with very different moments being underscored by the crowd. You do develop a kind of knack for knowing how a film will play with different crowds at different festivals, and even then, it’s an incredible rush to see a film take off in front of an audience, especially if it’s a film that’s been neglected or ignored at other places it’s been shown.

Fantasia 2009 (click for larger image)Just the same, I program based on my personal gut reaction to a film, the way pretty much everyone on our team programs, and if it plays differently than I expect it to play with an audience, and that’s thankfully a rare happening, I’m still proud to have shown it. Almost all of the time, a film that I loved when we took it on will play even better than I’d expected it to play. The LOVE EXPOSURE screening was electric – downright rapturous. Same for MUST LOVE DEATH, EMBODIMENT OF EVIL, and THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE, among others.

Those are the moments that make all those months of programming work so rewarding for us, especially when the filmmaker gets to be there to share the experience, because it’s usually not a regular thing for their film to be shown in a giant cinema in front of 700 screaming fans! One that didn’t play nearly as well as we thought it would was CANARY, a film that Simon and I both love. It’s experimental, whisper quiet, and, on the surface, not very rewarding, so we expected it to divide audiences, but in the end, almost everyone was tearing their hair out, including many people whose tastes we almost always share. We’re still glad that we gave it a chance to be seen, and our love of the film certainly has not wavered. One film that played ten times better than we’d expected it to was the no-budget indie zombie pic YESTERDAY, which I thought was a blast but wondered if people for the most part would be able to get past its visibly low budget and recognize how insane an accomplishment it was for a film shot (on film!) for under $17K CDN. The screening was sold out, and the audience adored it. That was very cool.

Programming is always such a strange trip from a viewing perspective because at a certain point in the year, every one of us is watching four films a day and we’re climbing the walls, because so many of the films that get submitted are absolutely horrible, and we do look at everything people send to us. So there’s always this risk where after seeing a bunch of middle-of-the-road blow-offs made by people who really don’t seem to have their hearts in it, we see a film that’s just slightly better than average, but it hits us like pure unadulterated euphoria because damn, here’s a film made by people who actually seem to care! So a slightly above average film can take on God-like status in our minds, with every minor plus about it seeming to be magnified. At that time of the year, we always pass every “discovery” title – meaning a film like NEIGHBOR or MUST LOVE DEATH, that hasn’t yet been shown anywhere or been written about in any language, and came to us completely from out of nowhere, without even the slightest buzz behind it – to a few close friends for some outside, sane second opinions, just to confirm that our initial gut reactions were bang-on!

I am disappointed to see that Must Love Death is still not receiving the attention it deserves, even after a number of rave reviews at Fantasia. Are there any films like this, that you loved, that managed to fall between the cracks?

I’m sad that more people didn’t come out to see CRACKTOWN, which plays so damn well on the big screen, and I did feel that MUST LOVE DEATH should have broken out bigger, but in that film’s case, it’s tough to quantify because while I think it deserved explosive overnight notoriety, it did play to a sold out cinema, the audience went totally nuts, the film got close to a dozen rave reviews in the press, and it ultimately won two different audience awards! Still, I thought the web would be on fire with buzz about it within hours of the screening. I still believe it will happen, though perhaps a bit more slowly. After our world premiere of the film, MUST LOVE DEATH went on to screen at PiFan in South Korea and has just been booked for Toronto After Dark and the Calgary International Film Festival, so the buzz will get stronger and stronger, and this is not a film that’s going to disappear off the map.

Any films picked up for distribution at Fantasia that you’re particularly proud of?

So far, BREATHLESS was picked up, and I know that NEIGHBOR, YATTERMAN, MUST LOVE DEATH, SMASH CUT, LOVE EXPOSURE, DIZZLE, SANS DESSEIN, VAMPIRE GIRL VS FRANKENSTEIN GIRL, THE HORSEMAN, and YESTERDAY are being looked at by major companies. THE CHILDREN was picked up for Canada by Alliance, but that deal was coming together before our screening, and the film had already been bought by GhostHouse – Lionsgate for the US when we booked it.

What’s the one film coming out of this year’s festival that fans should be tracking down by any means necessary?

Oooh that’s a brutal question. I’m absolutely in love with a crazy number of films from this year’s lineup. I can’t name any fewer than a dozen!

Fantasia was able to attract a number of major horror directors this year. Do you think this heralds an increase in big-name attention for the festival?

Could be, but for us, the biggest names are almost always the so-called smallest ones. Really exciting newcomers or under-appreciated legends like Jose Mojica Marins, Sion Sono, Larry Fessenden, Buddy Giovinazzo, or Richard Stanley. We’ve always had pretty big names at the fest either way, though, from the earliest years. Practically right at the start we had John Carpenter, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Don Coscarelli, Johnnie To, etc.

I’m sure you’re already programming for next year. Anything you want to share to get us salivating for Fantasia’s 14th edition?

Hmm, in the interest of national security I can’t reveal too much at the moment, but I can tell you that there are a number of films that weren’t ready in time for this year’s festival that we’d love to showcase next year, Frank Henenlotter’s doc on HG Lewis being one of many. I was praying that Frank would have had this one finished in time for this year’s fest so we could have tied it in with SMASH CUT, brought HG down for both films along with a retro midnight, the whole blood red nine yards. I think the doc will be ready around October, and I can’t wait to see it. Through his years excavating vault elements with Something Weird, Frank has gotten access to heaps of unseen footage related to most of Lewis’ most legendary works. I’m drooling just talking about it!

Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us!

Thanks for caring!

Big thanks to all that made this happen! See you next year!

Evil Andy

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  • The Butcher

    Great of Mitch to make sure the other programmers get acknowledged. Todd Brown (main man behind http://www.twitchfilm.net as well) is amazing, a kind of personal hero, and it’s great to see his name mentioned in the above.

    I am in the process of making the almost impossible decision between next years Fantasia or next years Fantastic Fest or next years Sitges.

    Can someone please send me a winning lottery ticket real quick? It would make it way easier for me. Thanks, ‘preciate it.