FrightFest Week: Organisers’ Interview

By now Filmwerk has established its credentials as a FILM4 FrightFest fan. We’ve covered previous events and even sent one poor writer all the way to Glasgow in the Spring of this year to cover the event there.

While we look forward to the announcement of the full schedule for the 2011 London event, we managed to get some time with two of the four main organisers (PR man, Greg Day and horror journalist, Alan Jones) and asked them a few polite, but direct, questions on the coming together of the festival.

We also thought we’d find out a few clues and hints about this year’s schedule, ’cause we’re sneaky like that. Let’s see how we did!

FW: So let’s look back at last year. What do you think was a great success, and what do you think needs work?

GREG: Personally I think the panel discussion on censorship and the BBFC was a great success – and timed perfectly given that we announced withdrawing A Serbian Film only the day before. Plus, of course, the fact that we had to show a cut version of the I Spit On Your Grave remake. Jake West and Marc Morris’ brilliant documentary set the tone perfectly and I loved what Martin Barker had to say.

What do I think needs more work? My stomach.

ALAN: Every year I like the Discovery Screen strand more and more. It’s the perfect place for those quirky and challenging movies we know have an audience, just not a big enough one to justify us presenting in the larger venue. Plus, it allows us to underline previous selections, like Amer from Glasgow, and give our London fans a chance to see those favourites. This year’s Disco Screen, as it seems to have been dubbed (love it!), has the most diverse range we’ve ever selected.

More work? That Greg Day, he’s such a slacker! Obviously only joking, if Greg bottled what he does, he’d be a very rich man indeed.

FW: Change of venue aside, how do you set about keeping each year fresh?

GREG: The films do that plus, of course, the talent attending. Also, we always spring a few surprise presentations. I actually think the fans keep it fresh each year with their boundless enthusiasm and sheer joy of being there!

ALAN: I have to agree with Greg – it’s always about the films and the way they fall into step. Last year we deliberately avoided anything mainstream because it wasn’t up to scratch, the independent movies were far stronger artistically and creatively. This year Hollywood has made a few movies we all actually want to see so that refreshes the mix. “Tossing the salad” is a better metaphor I think. Our guests always add an X factor too. The likes of John Landis and Kane Hodder, Adam and Joe etc, love the fan attention so they will always be ready for anything FrightFesters chuck at them.

FW: How diplomatic do you have to be with fans, the press and the studios when giving your honest opinion of the individual films you showcase?

GREG: Alan says what he really thinks whereas I’m a little more diplomatic – especially with the press. Anyway, people care what Alan thinks. They don’t care what I think. However, if someone really wants to know, I’ll tell them – but in my experience filmmakers don’t want to know what you really think. 

ALAN: I haven’t had a 35-year career based on lying to people about their work. I started off with the best magazine in the world Cinefantastique – well-known for its critical look at everything genre-related. I’ve always hewed to the view that filmmakers are going to read my reviews of their work anyway so what’s the point in saying anything other than the truth. As hard as it can be sometimes to tell a good friend you hate their movie, I grit my teeth and do it because deep down they really do know. It’s all about respect really, so when I really do like something of theirs, they know I mean it. Some people write career reviews – praising something bad because it puts them in the producers/distributors/talents good books or so they can be on the poster. Who mentioned Empire Magazine?!!! I find that reprehensible and will now not speak to certain individuals because of their shameless behaviour in this regard. And you know something? These people don’t last, because in the end filmmakers do want to know the truth as hurtful as it sometimes can be initially. But if you dish it out, you have to take it too. And I’ve learned to live with, even relished, some of the awful things said about me. 

FW: Alan, you’re particularly known for being honest. In respect of the previous question, do you find it harder to deal with or even manipulate how you answer people in this context? Is it hard sometimes to hold onto honest integrity or putting the business first? 

ALAN: My integrity comes first because I don’t just co-direct FrightFest, then it’s the business and way down the list come Greg, Paul and Ian. I just tell people straight out and never beat about the bush. My fellow co-directors will tell you that diplomacy is not my middle name.

FW: An obvious point would be, how would you go about promoting a film you personally didn’t have a high opinion of that was on the agenda?

ALAN: FrightFest is comprised of so many movies that the four of us can’t do everything. So it’s easy for me not to have anything to do with the movies I don’t like. I must qualify this by saying some of my pet hates have gone on to do very well and achieve a status I’m astonished by. Nobody knows anything really, so it’s just my personal taste in the end. Even though I do get paid by many outlets to reveal that taste. 

GREG:  My opinion doesn’t really affect my job because films I don’t like might have promotable assets like a good cast, good images, well known director etc.

FW: Greg – as the PR – do you find it more of a liberty when talking films up? Is it a case that you will remove your opinion completely when doing your job?

GREG: Yes, as I said, if I’m not asked I don’t say anything.  Although if I really like a film I will show my enthusiasm in more ways and probably, naturally, work a bit harder to promote it.

FW: The four of you are still here – but as it grows have you found that you need to increase the staff that work on the festival? Can you give us a rough outline of the types of people you have involved in the lead up to and the execution of the festival?

GREG: Yes, Team FrightFest grows every year. We now have an events team at the Empire that does everything from getting Paul McEvoy his coffee to ticket allocation. We try and employ nice people as they have to deal with a lot of talent and if they like horror films then even better! 

ALAN: Paul’s partner Johanna is our saviour in this regard – she selects media studies students/would-be filmmakers to help out over the five-day period. We used to do it all ourselves of course, but it’s physically impossible for us now to oversee the goodie bags, tickets, general running and also talk to the fans. That’s a key component of the whole event to us. FrightFesters want to interact with us so we have to delegate the chores elsewhere and Johanna always find great people willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of FrightFest horror.

FW: Has any of this penetrated the top level of organisation of the schedule? Do others outside of the four of you have a say?

GREG: Well, we have a guy call Nick Gibbs McNeil who helps us with sponsorship and advertising. He’s a trusted member of the team and we listen to his advice. But then again, we try and listen to anyone who has something valid to say about the running of the festival. But we do try and spot hidden agendas!

ALAN: Aside from Nick, it’s just us four, and that’s enough. The four of us couldn’t be more different personality-wise even though we join together with one accord for FrightFest. We are as hard on each other as ourselves when it comes to decisions. In Cannes this year someone at a party told me that many people in the industry find us an enigma, they can’t believe how we work together so well considering our dissimilarity. But that’s precisely why it does work, and anyway, best not to over analyse it.

FW: You’d like to really break the big studios and have them showcasing films. Is there a danger here of having to take in material that might lower the level of quality? Or make the festival perhaps seem too mainstream?

GREG: We do have the studios showcasing films but we only want the good credible titles and how often do they make good (adult) horror films? In terms of the quality threshold – that can be lowered just as easily by a low-budget zombie movie! But curiously, our audience are incredibly tolerant and use their own quality threshold markers.

ALAN: But if you look back we’ve showcased many studio films from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and 1408 to Death Race and Hellboy. So we fight for the titles we know will be an asset, there’s no compromise on our part. If the studio plays hardball, we’ll drop it – there’s always another film we can show that our audience will appreciate. I was given a great lesson in this during our 2005 edition. We had to drop Boo from the line-up – the print hadn’t arrived – and we substituted Wes Craven’s Red Eye instead, a perfectly serviceable thriller. One woman in the audience collared me afterwards and said “Why did you replace that with something we can see next week in a multiplex? I wanted something I’m unlikely to see”. That made me realise how much our audience wants to be informed about the new and off-centre, and that if a studio film is included we have to showcase it for the right reasons.

FW: Does this also lessen the opportunities for more independent filmmakers?

GREG: No, if anything, they come first. Giving new talent the opportunity to shine gives me great pleasure.

ALAN: Ditto, we pride ourselves on being there for the independent arena. This year more than ever is a banner one for exciting British movies and we are highlighting that big-time. 

FW: Can you give me an example of where you may have to scratch the backs of the studios in order to compromise (i.e. taking in a film you don’t want in order to score one you do)?

GREG: That just doesn’t happen. Does it, Alan?

ALAN: There is no example because we’ve never gone down that avenue. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we did. 

FW: Censorship was a big thing last year and looks set to continue this year (currently with The Human Centipede)How do you feel about this? Is film winning any battles, or is it more of the same?

GREG: I personally would like to continue the debate on censorship at this year’s event but it might feel a bit stage-managed after last year’s more ‘organic’ debate. But hey, if Tom Six wants to come to the Empire and talk to us about his experiences and feelings about the UK ban, then who are we to stop him? I think, worryingly, what the BBFC has done means that no, film is not winning the battle.

ALAN: Only last year did we have any censorship issues, all stemming from one person ringing the Empire to complain we were showing A Serbian Film. One person! My views on censorship are well known. If film really does affect behaviour then why aren’t I a slavering maniac after 50 years of watching horror?  Pathetic. I know a few BBFC board members personally and like them, but I continually slag them off for their ludicrous choices and HC2 is just the latest. Good luck to Tom Six and his desire to pursue their ruling through the law courts. There is this thought that the current coalition government is responsible for the new conservatism at the BBFC. I don’t think that’s the case at all, it’s just filmmakers are presenting ever more challenging subject matters. That’s what art is all about, shaking up the status quo, and horror does that more than any other genre.

FW: Opening/closing films:  Del Toro is back! Can we expect appearances from cast and crew alike?

GREG: Watch this space but sadly, Guillermo can’t be with us for the third time. The Woodstock of gore must continue without him!

FW: Other films – any “surprise screenings” that won’t be announced on the schedule?

GREG: Yes, lots of surprises this year.

FW: Can you give us hints as to what else we may have on the schedule – any clues (countries, stars, directors…)?

GREG:  The PR said: “no comment”.

ALAN: Let’s just say one British world premiere we are highlighting features an Oscar-worthy performance by a very good friend of FrightFest.

FW: Bastards!

We’ll have to wait until Friday to see the full line-up. Filmwerk will be at FrightFest when it hits in late August to review and report in a daily fashion on the goings on of London’s biggest and still best horror film festival.

Steven Hurst


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