When it comes to booking Fantastic Fest, Creative Director Evrim Ersoy has a simple philosophy: “Unique voices that are telling either unique stories, or telling the stories in new ways.”
The festival returns for its 15th outing with one of its most eclectic showcases to date, with headliners like Taika Waititi‘s Third Reich satire Jojo Rabbit, Rian Johnson‘s murder mystery Knives Out, and the latest from Japanese cinematic icon Takashi Miike, boxing crime drama First Love. They may seem mainstream for a festival that has become synonymous with sci-fi and horror, but Ersoy argues the fest isn’t just about ticking genre boxes, but about films that use “the tropes and signifiers of the genre boundaries to talk about the world at large.” Case in point, French-language drama Abou Leila, which makes its North American premiere at the festival. “It’s 100% genre language,” he said, “from shots to setups to set-pieces. But when what it’s talking about are the aftereffects of violence in the Algerian civil war, I sit up and take notice.”
What has defined Fantastic Fest is its position as a festival that won’t let filmmakers be pigeonholed, that exposes audiences to fresh talents like splatterpunk king Joe Begos. Having hosted the U.S. premieres of his first two features, Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye, at FF, this year he pulls off a rare double-whammy with both the Texas premiere of his psychotronic vampire art meltdown Bliss and the world premiere of his goretastic Eighties throwback VFW. He called the fest “a pretty small festival that has left a pretty big imprint.” While he blanches at using the word “tastemaker” about attendees, the sheer concentration of hardened genre fans, filmmakers, and critics has created a remarkable launching pad. “If you can play a movie at Fantastic Fest that people start talking about, that lends it a certain credibility. Before I even got into the festival, when I would hear about movies that were coming out of it with buzz, I would go, ‘OK, I’m going to put that on my list,’ and that’s just escalated over time.”
Yet nothing can replace being there. “It’s the energy that happens when you have a lot of people in a very small space. That’s when the magic happens,” said New Zealand-based producer Ant Timpson. Three of his earlier films – both ABCs of Death (plus the bonus ABCs of Death 2.5) and The Field Guide to Evil</i> – have been described as Fantastic Fest all-stars: anthology titles with dozens of veterans behind the camera. This year, he’s back as a director in his own right with the Texas premiere of Come to Daddy, starring another FF regular – Elijah Wood. Most importantly, he said, “A lot of directors credit Fantastic Fest for imprinting them onto the North American market for their first film, and that’s what the Fantastic team is most proud of – launching those new voices.”
The roster of alumni is a who’s who of genre directors who made the leap from indie premiere to A-list casts, like Nacho Vigalondo (whose Timecrimes led to working with Anne Hathaway on Colossal) and Ben Wheatley (jumping from micro-indie Kill List to directing Brie Larson in Free Fire, and Tom Hiddleston in High Rise). The festival has hosted a slate of firsts, like the first Israeli horror film (2011’s Rabies), the United Arab Emirates’ first film noir (2015’s Zinzana), and the first horror film from Laos and that nation’s first film by a woman director (Chanthaly by Mattie Do, who returns this year with The Long Walk). Every year seems to produce a breakout director: From 2017, Ersoy said, it was Issa López, creator of Mexican modern fairytale Tigers Are Not Afraid. She’d tried and failed to get her film into other festivals, but the FF booking team loved it. “By the time the festival ended, it had blown up big. Within a week, Stephen King was tweeting about it, Guillermo del Toro was tweeting about it, and Issa is now working with Guillermo.”
Sometimes the festival gives new life to those overlooked by the cinematic mainstream, like director Richard Stanley. A cyberpunk icon for Hardware and an African folk horror pioneer with Dust Devil, he retreated into somewhat self-imposed exile in Southern France after being removed from 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, emerging occasionally to make documentaries about voodoo and the Holy Grail. Yet in 2014, he became the subject of a documentary himself as Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau set the record straight on that damned shoot. Now he returns to the festival with the U.S. premiere of Color Out of Space, his first narrative feature credit in 27 years. Screening Lost Soul at Fantastic Fest wasn’t just a way to set the record straight about how studio interference ruined Moreau (“It wasn’t a matter that myself and the cast members had gone completely insane,” Stanley said), but it also meant meeting the teams from Wood’s production company SpectreVision, and sales and distribution house XYZ Films, both of which are part of Color Out of Space. “It just pulled so many of the right people together,” said Stanley.
Just being at the festival can inspire new films, like Belarussian short “Mommy’s Pickles,” which will premiere at this year’s fest. Ersoy recalled meeting director Vadim Dozmorov at the Minsk International Film Festival Listapad: “He came to Fantastic Fest and volunteered, just to get a feel for the festival. Then he went back and spent a year trying to get the film off the ground. He did, and he submitted it. We loved it, now it’s on the program, and it’s the first genre film from a country whose output is maybe six films a year.”
For Ersoy, it’s not just about what’s showing this year. It’s the seeds Fantastic Fest sows that will bloom in years to come. “In that week, people come together in one space. They interact, and they take away things, and they go back, and those things start growing, and they become projects and collaborations and ideas. There’s nothing more exciting than that.”
Fantastic Fest 2019
Fantastic Fest runs Sept. 19-26 at the Alamo South Lamar. Badges and midnighter passes are still available. Individual tickets will be available, space permitting. Info and details at www.fantasticfest.com.
Want more Fantastic Fest interviews? Head over to austinchronicle.com/screens for more thrills:
Scream! As Richard Stanley unearths the real meaning of Lovecraftian with Nicolas Cage in Color Out of Space.
Gasp! As Ant Timpson turns the true tale of how holding vigil over his father became Come to Daddy.
Shudder! With Tim Robbins and the home movie from hell, VHYES.
Get gooey! As Joe Begos hurls blood for VFW.
Follow all our festival coverage, including reviews, interviews, and breaking news at austinchronicle.com/fantasticfest.