Davis, Mitch (Fantasia Film Festival)

Mitch Davis, the man, the legend, the Director of International Programming for the Fantasia Festival managed to peel himself away from Concordia’s Hall building for a while to speak with our man on the scene, Evil Andy. Mitch fills us in on the history of the festival, gives some of his horror picks, and reveals why he’s scared of Joe Coleman…

Evil Andy: So Mitch, what’s it like being the most popular guy in Montreal for the next three weeks?

Mitch Davis: No idea, man. You’d have to find that guy and ask him. I’m just an ostrich with a sleep disorder!

EA: It seems to me that Fantasia has really been building momentum over the
last couple of years, ever since that horrible, horrible summer of 2002 when
Fantasia was cancelled. Why don’t you tell our readers a little bit about
how Fantasia came into existence, and what you do, and what this year holds?

MD: Jesus! How do I keep the answer to that one below novel-length? To frame the very short version, Fantasia was founded in 1996 by a great friend of film by the name of Pierre Corbeil, who remains the festival president to this day. The inaugural year initially designed as a one-off blowout showcase of the last several years of Hong Kong filmmaking with several
Japanese Kaiju and anime titles peppered through the calendar, courtesy of
electric mojo monster programmer Andre Dubois, who is also still with us at
the fest. This was during the huge HK new wave period, when everyone had bootlegs of Ringo Lam and John Woo films and so many of us were dying to actually see these films in 35mm on the big screen with an audience, which was about as realistic a wish as hoping to see a grasshopper turn into a watermelon – and let’s be honest, who WOULDN’T want to see a grasshopper turn into a watermelon, yes? But I’m getting off-topic.

Anyway, Pierre four-walled the biggest cinema in Montreal for a full month of Asian action, fantasy and horror films. Every industry player thought he was out
of his mind but the crowds were extraordinary and by the end of the first weekend, armies of people were grouping together on the street after screenings to talk about Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh etc. It was completely surreal and dream-like. As for my own involvement, at this point in the festival’s history, I was just one of the legion who were hanging out at the festival. Since Pierre and I had mutual friends and were already talking, the moment he decided to make the festival an annual, continuing event that was now to focus on new releases, with an expanded scope to include productions of interest from all corners of the globe, he brought me on board along with Mi-Jeong Lee and my friends Karim Hussain and Julien Fonfrede (who have since retired from the festival to focus on active film production). During my first year at the festival, Fangoria editor Tony Timpone came down to cover the festival for his magazine and we all hit it off so well that by the time he returned to New York, he was officially part of our programming team. Now he and I are co-directors of international programming for the festival.

EA: Anyone who’s ever attended Fantasia knows that it is the most fan friendly, and least pretentious and corporate-ized film festival, anywhere. How do you guys manage to create this atmosphere year after year? Tell the losers, not in Montreal (Hi Johnny!) why they need to quit their jobs, and sell off their blood (Hi Garry!) to get their asses to Montreal.

MD: Aw shucks. No seriously, thanks for saying that. We would never want the festival to take on any airs of bourgeois exclusivity. Culture belongs to everyone and one of Fantasia’s most central missions is to encourage people to take risks on new kinds of filmmakers and filmmaking that might otherwise seem a bit intimidating to the uninitiated. As for the laid-back atmosphere I think this is mostly because it’s one of those lunatics-taking-over-the-asylum scenarios. The biggest payoff for everyone on the team is when a so-called small, unknown film that we adore gets thunderous applause from 700 people who will now never forget it. Those moments are nothing short of rapturous for us. When we fly filmmakers in for their screenings, we make sure that there will be no barriers between artist and audience. We feature extended and intentionally loosely-structured Q & A sessions after screenings – loosely-structured in the sense that audience members can ask questions right from their seats without lining up at a microphone and being pre-screened, there are no roped-off sections at our parties, filmmakers are not surrounded by security people and everyone is accessible all the time.

EA: There seems to be fewer North American & European horror films with a buzz behind them this year. Notable exceptions would be The Devil’s Rejects, The Roost, and 2001 Maniacs.

MD: It’s true. We’d tried to get films like Wolf Creek, the Dark Water remake etc., but things just didn’t work out. MGM were going to give us the World Premiere of Lucky McKee’s The Wood but once they were bought by Sony, the film’s release date was dropped and the studio can’t make any commitments with the film until they decide how they’re going to put it out, which makes perfect sense. So it was just an unfortunate series of fateful turns, but it doesn’t reflect any significant drop in interesting European/North-South American horror production. Actually, I’m happy to say that we just added the Canadian Premiere of David Payne’s Reeker to our closing night lineup. If you haven’t heard of this one yet, let me tell you man, Reeker is a total blast. After it’s premiere at South By Southwest earlier this year, it was aclaimed everywhere from Bloody Disgusting and Film Threat to Variety and The Austin Chronicle!

EA: What countries/continets are picking up the horror slack for this edition of the festival?

MD: It’s so hard to answer that with any real degree of authority. We’ve got really interesting genre productions from Belgium, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, the UK and Thailand, among other countries. I don’t think that any one territory is dominating over the others, both in terms of what we secured for the festival or in the realm of the past year of international film production. One thing I CAN safely say is that the Japanese horror wave is winding down in a very big way, as more and more films are being made for Western export, playing safely within formula parameters and with a weak if not sometimes nonexistent national identity. It was bound to happen. Still, some of my favourite films of the last year are from Japan, they’re just not conventional horror films – I’m awestruck by films like Survive Style 5+ and Karaoke Terror.

EA: One of the cooler things at this year’s Fantasia Festival is the inclusion of 4 spoken word/multimedia shows including Ray Harryhausen, Joe Coleman, Loyd Kaufman, and Stephen Bisette. Tell us a bit about this awesome new inclusion to the festival. Any chance of getting Loyd to arm wrestle Joe?

MD: That would be… interesting, but the dates are too far apart for it to be possible, I’m afraid. I’m really excited about Joe Coleman coming. I’ve loved his work since I was a tiny apocalypse kid and I’ve always wanted to see him perform live. His work is so extraordinarily powerful and shattering. He’s absolutely one of the world’s greatest living surrealists. He’s one of the only artists I’ve ever been afraid to call. When I initially contacted him, I was genuinely intimated until we finally spoke. I can’t think of anyone else that Joe can even be compared to, though many like to say that he’s this era’s Salvador Dali. I can easily imagine some people losing consciousness at his show. As for Lloyd, what can I say? I love that man. He’s been coming here almost every year since the beginning so in a sense he’s like the grandpa Munster of Fantasia. Bissette’s going to be doing a slideshow history of horror comics and Ray Harryhausen is coming down to do a giant spoken word show where he will discuss his career, screen rare clips, do an extended Q&A session and then present a restored 35mm print of Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen will also be the first-ever recipient of a Fantasia lifetime achievement award. But for me, Coleman is the biggest rush of the entire festival!

EA: Apart from the aforementioned appearances, I’ve always been suprised that Fantasia doesn’t draw more genre heavyweights every year. Can we expect to bask in any genre star power attending the 2005 festival? What’s this about Tarantino…?

MD: The QT thing was last year, when we were trying to get Hero for our opening film. Tarantino expressed interest in coming down to host the screening on opening night, but that film’s Canadian distributor, in their infinitely astounding wisdom, refused to give us the movie. Tarantino’s been very aware of Fantasia for quite a few years and hopefully we’ll be able to get him down some time. We tried to get Rob Zombie for Devil’s Rejects but he’s going to be getting ready for Ozzfest and already hosted a screening of the film in Vegas. We usually prefer to bring in filmmakers who have huge names elsewhere but not in this part of the world, or who are just starting to make their names, because they always prove to be the the most interesting to have around.

Bringing in people like Nacho Cerda, Hideo Nakata, Jaume Balaguero, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Michael Almereyda, Douglas Buck, Satoshi Kon, Larry Fessenden or Agustin Villaronga is so much more exciting. By focusing our energies in this direction, we’ve sometimes been able to take an active part in helping shape the career trajectories of filmmakers we admire. Having said that, we’ve also brought in well-established heavy-hitters like say, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, Malcolm McDowell and Bill Plympton, and that’s always very, very fun too. We try to get at least one or two well-known names in each year’s lineup, but our priority is to help bring the gifted underdogs out and get them the attention they so rightly deserve. I think it’s also what’s sometimes kept us ahead of the trends.

EA: What’s your pick for the goriest film of the festival?

MD: Probably Izo.

EA: What’s your pick for the scariest film of the festival?

MD: That one’s hard to quantify. So few films are truly, genuinely scary. Moments of Shutter are eerie as hell.

If I had to choose one title in our lineup that i actually found to be frightening, it would be the true crime film Zero Day, which is actually several year’s old and has just recently been released on home video. We’re playing it anyway, because it’s an amazing film – one we were going after back in 2002 before we were forced to cancel that year’s fest. Somehow, we had totally forgotten about that film in the last two years and this year, it came up again and we all said, to hell with it, this has to get shown! On the other end of things, the most unsettling film of the festival is definitely The Dark Hours, which is oddly enough, a Canadian film that came from out of nowhere and has been blowing people to pieces wherever its been seen. I can’t begin to convey the atmosphere of trauma that this film manages to achieve. In essence, it’s about a criminal psychiatrist and her family being held hostage by a cruel former patient and while that synopsis might give you flashes of the Huouse on the Edge of the Park/Death Weekend type of subgenre, this one hits so much harder, and with genuine anguished ferocity. It’s got fantastic characters, razor calculated direction and devastatingly intense performances across the board. The film’s director, Paul Fox, is a huge emerging talent and a name I think we’ll be hearing a lot of in the very near future. This film has so much respect for its characters, not to mention for the intellect of its audience. I think People are really going to be amazed when they see it here. It’ sso amazingly engrossing and its definitely in my top 3 of the 70+ films in our 2005 lineup.

The German film Antibodies has some tremendously disturbing moments as well and I actually find the last reel of The Birthday to be scary in a theatrical but very visceral and nightmarish way.

EA: What’s your pick for the most subversive film of the festival?

MD: Almost definitely Karaoke Terror, a brutal social satire based on a novel by Ryu Murakami that depicts a growing urban war between disaffected young teens and wealthy middle aged women. . It’s an almost ultimate cultural hand grenade of a film, and a absolutely nothing like what the title might lead you to expect – it’s very smart, very poetic and unbelievably
confrontational and nihilistic.

EA: If any film stands a chance of offending and/or otherwise horrifying the admittedly thick skinned Fantasia audience this year, which one do you think it’ll be?

MD: Live Freaky! Die Freaky! without a doubt. It’s a stop-motion animation pornographic comedy musical retelling of the Charles Manson crimes, voiced by members of Green Day, The Lunachicks, Rancid, Blink 182, The Go-Go’s etc. It’s just unreal. Operation Ivy / Rancid vocalist Tim Armstrong produced it and a witty sick fuck by the name of John Roecker wrote and directed it. This film is really going to freak people out, no matter how jaded they might be. I’m talking menstrual puppet penetration shots, sadistic jokes about child abuse, oh man, this thing is volatile.

EA: On a personal note, what’s going on at Infliction Films, and when can the
rest of the world expect to see Subconscious Cruelty?

MD: Well, Subconcious and Zero recently came out in Austria, Germany, Switzerland & Holland in a deluxe double DVD box set from Sazuma that’s jam packed with extras, almost to the point of surrealisim. I can’t see the films ever getting better releases anywhere in the world. As for a Region 1 NTSC release, one will happen eventually, but we’re in no hurry. We’ve had many offers over the years but the prices have been so low it made no real sense. I totally understand how such an extreme film is very difficult for any label to sell in US stores, but at the same time, we can’t sell the world’s 2nd largest territory for peanuts. I’m in talks with several companies at the moment in large part due to the renewed interest and recent waves of press that the Sazuma release has sparked, so who knows.

As far as future productions go, eventually, yes, but it’s not something I’m putting that much energy into at the moment, although I have several scripts that I’d eventually love to make. Shooting 16mm non-union on weekends with literally no money is incredibly fun and rewarding in its own special ways, but at the same time the constant compromises and disappointments that go along with that manor of working are so heartbreaking that I was literally getting sick whenever I was too deeply in the heat of the process. I mean, not sleeping, not eating, constant headaches and nausea, the whole nine yards. I think that doing film full-time on a professional scale would lead me to a very early grave. At the same time, I love helping other people get their projects together. Last year I produced an animated short for underground cartoonist Rick Trembles (Rick Trebmles’ Goopy Spasms Live Cartoon Show) and I’m an associate producer on Phillippe Spurrell’s 35mm feature debut The Descendent. I’ve also got a short I directed from two year’s back that I’ve shot and cut but have yet to finish sound on – each time we start up again, something gigantic happens in my personal life that forces me to stop. It’s always something different but it’s always something that is impossible to ignore – a death in the family, a flood… Very troubling. I’ve been gearing up to finally finish the damn thing when this year’s fest is over, so I’m kind of waiting for an anvil to drop on my head! But in general, I think film production will always be a kind of underground on-again-off–again side project for me, at least for the next few years if I want to keep doing the festival and Cinema Du Parc work, not to mention if I want to keep my sanity!

EA: For those visitors wanting to talk movies, get drunk and pick up French girls, where are the after festival drinking holes at?

MD: Really, all over the place depending on where the majority want to go. It often ends up being Cine Express (for the super great staff, amazing menu, insomniac-friendly operating hours and outdoor terrace) or Brewtopia (because we’ve got a beer sponsorship there), but we sometime go to Foufounes Electriques, Luba Lounge and when Scooter McCrae’s influence inspires us all, to Cleopatra’s!

EA: Thanks for taking the time out of your rockstar schedule Mitch. Can I touch your velvet coat 😉 ?

MD: Nah, trust me, the velvet experience is an overrated one!

Mitch is probably one of the nicest, most approachable guys you could ever imagine running a film festival, and it was a great pleasure to talk to him. Fantasia is on from July 7th to the 25th, so make sure you set aside some time and get thine ass to Montreal!

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