Freak Me Out is the Horror and extreme Arthouse portion of the Sydney Film Festival program. We caught up with its curator, Richard Kuipers, to discuss the selection process, the place of Horror in the cinematic landscape, Sharni Vinson, and extreme Japanese gore flicks.
First off, I’m interested in hearing about how you go about selecting films for the program – is there a set of criteria you stick to every year or is it a more fluid process?
It’s pretty fluid really because what you want are six really good films from strange places in the cinematic landscape. If I have a general feeling about Freak Me Out it’s that I have to include a good spread of material. It’d be really easy to just to put six gore shockers in there but that’s not what I want to do – I think it’s a reflection of my own tastes; I love gore shockers, and really hardcore horror films but I also love experimental films that go into really strange, weird and demented cinematic territory. If I’ve got six films, generally I’m looking for two really fun gore movies – stuff like Dead Snow, nazis-on-the-run, that sort of thing – but I also like to have one, if not two (as long as they justify their position), odd films like last year’s The Rambler, or End of Animal from a few years ago, which was a really fantastic extreme Arthouse film from South Korea where everything happens but nothing happens.
That’s what I want to present because the aim for me with Freak Me Out is number one: freak people out and number two: encourage people to see films that they might not normally check out. What I love seeing is the hardcore Horror audience turning up at some of the more arty films.
It’s really interesting that you bring that up because I remember going to a Freak Me Out film a few years back on your recommendation called OK, Good (which I haven’t been able to locate a copy of since) and absolutely loving it despite the fact that it’s not the sort of film I would normally go to see.
I’m so thrilled that you said that because choosing a film like OK, Good is quite a risk; it’s got no stars, it’s not a Horror film, it doesn’t have anything that leaps out at you, and the audience has to take a leap of faith – they have to trust you as a curator that you’re going to deliver something that is a strange, unsettling or interesting experience. A film like OK, Good is one of my little films; I love all of my films but the little underdog films that no ones heard about and have only played a couple of festivals are my favourites. I had so many people come up after the screening to tell me how much they enjoyed it which really thrilled me in a huge way. Giving a film that doesn’t have a clearly defined cinematic space somewhere to play and having people enjoy it is a really huge thrill.
I think that might happen again this year with Love Eternal, which is a beautiful film about a guy who has dead bodies in his house. He has relationships with these dead girls but it’s beautifully done – it’s artistic, it says a lot about the way we live today, themes of communication and isolation – and it’s still within the body of a really weird film about a guy who can only relate to dead girls. They’re the sorts of films I really like to include as well.
Fantastic, that sounds like it’s definitely worth checking out. How hands on are the festival during the selection process – do they guide you towards certain films or do they give you (more or less) free reign over your selections?
They’re pretty relaxed – one on the things I really love about Freak Me Out is that I have a free hand and there’s no editorial interference. If Nashen Moodley or Jenny Neighbour happen to see something on the road they’ll point it my way and say you might be interested in seeing this – which is fantastic because it means I’m getting some help along the way – but I’ve never been told I can’t have something and I’ve never been told I have to include something. For a curator it’s brilliant; you couldn’t ask for a better arrangement.
I guess something that doesn’t often get discussed is the relationship between festivals and distributors. Are there times when you have approached distributors trying to secure a film for the program and have been denied content, or is it usually pretty easy to lock in a film?
It varies but yes there are times that you simply can’t get the film. For example, the film may have just had its world premiere at SXSW and there’s a huge buzz on it; the distributor wants to be very careful about the marketing and positioning of the film as far as film festivals and releases are concerned. I’ve had the situation where I’ve had a film virtually locked in then its had its world premiere, which was a fabulous success, and we’ve subsequently lost the film because the strategy for release has changed. It’s not a sign of disrespect towards Sydney Film Festival or Freak Me Out; simply, new people come into the story of the film – new marketing people, new distributors – and that can affect things. Generally though everything goes fine; there are very few instances of that happening, but from time to time it does happen.
Moving away from the behind the scenes stuff, what has the audience feedback been like since the programs inception in 2009?
That’s a good question because Freak Me Out as a program has been around for longer than I’ve been curator of it. Claire Stewart started the program and ran it for a couple of years. To her eternal credit she publicly fessed up that she didn’t really have the stomach for these sorts of films, and she very kindly asked me if I would be interested in taking over the program because she knew I was the kind of person that would really embrace this material. This was after a successful Vampire retrospective I had curated for her in 2010. I’ve been doing it since 2011 which makes this my fourth program.
I love presenting the films because I think it’s really important to put them into context. As far as the audience is concerned I think we’re a bit of a family down there in Cinemas 8 & 9, which I like to call Grindhouse Central at Sydney Film Festival. I do have regulars who turn up for every film – you sort of get to know them and talk to them. The feedback I have is very positive; no one’s come up to me so far and said “what the hell was that? That was awful. I hated that film”.
What’s been especially great is seeing a lot of people that you might classify as mainstream audiences who wouldn’t normally going and see Frankenstein’s Army or something like that, taking a chance and having a punt. I often get very nice comments from traditional movie-goers who’ve stepped out of their comfort zone and gone to see something really wild and crazy, and had a really great time with it. That’s what I love; keeping the core audience happy and delivering for them, and encouraging other people who wouldn’t normally go and see this kind of thing to come in, check it out, and hopefully have a good time. For me that’s the thrill of Freak Me Out – not just preaching to the converted but bringing new people into this unholy church of cinematic delights.
I know I see you at a lot of the screenings, you’ve been at most I’ve attended – I’ve heard some pretty amusing stories of walkouts during horror films playing the festival circuit, have you witnessed any walkouts during the Freak Me Out program from people who couldn’t stomach the content?
I always stay up the back for at least 15 minutes, if not half an hour, or even the whole film. I’m finding it hard to think of many but I think there were one or two from Hobo with a Shotgun. One of the staff let me know about a couple of people that had to leave because it was too violent and gross. Obviously you don’t want people to walk out of your film, but some filmmakers think of it as a badge of honour – it’s the weird film equivalent of getting a standing ovation.
But honestly, apart from a couple of people who couldn’t take Hobo with a Shotgun very few if any walk-outs at all which is very pleasing. It really keeps me on my toes because when I’m programming films I’m really thinking: I am in the audience, I am not a traditional fan of this sort of stuff, I’ve come in taking a bit of a chance, and what’s all this about. I try to put myself in that position to see if the film will work – not just for me, but for all the different types of audience members who I think might be buying tickets and coming in to see it. You live and die by how much you satisfy your audience. It’s like making a film; who are you making it for? You’re making it for an audience – that’s the thing that counts more than anything else. There have been times when I’ve absolutely loved a film and I’ve rejected it. Knowing my audience and what does and doesn’t work for them means I sometimes have to make the hard decision and say “nup, I’m not going to pick that one because even though it’s working for me, I just don’t think it’s going to work as well for my audience”. That’s just part of the process of curating stuff; trying to keep your audience happy and give them the absolute best experience you possibly can.
Do you feel there’s always been a place for the weird and wonderful in the Sydney Film Festival program or was the line-up had been lacking that Horror element until the Freak Me Out program was introduced?
Oh yes, and I think that’s true of film festivals around the world. If you look at the era before 2000 very few festivals anywhere had sidebars dedicated to strange, weird, Horror cinema. There were specialized events and other dedicated festivals but since Toronto got up and running with Midnight Madness in the mid-late nineties film festivals around the world began putting these sidebars in, as they began to acknowledge that there is a huge audience for this kind of material. This sort of material belongs in film festivals – genre cinema is as legitimate as any kind of cinema, and what we’re doing with things like Freak Me Out is picking the cream of the crop. We all know that there are more dreadful horror films and bad genre films than any other kind of film – sometimes it feels like you’re looking for diamonds in the trash can, but then you find them and they are just as legitimate and deserving of their place in film festivals as any other film. I think it’s just great that Sydney Film Festival and other festivals globally have embraced this material, recognized their legitimacy and said “this does actually belong here” because it’s part of the cinematic landscape and it has a massive audience. I always get tickled pink when I’m presenting something like Hobo With a Shotgun in a very respectable, great international film festival – it’s a huge buzz, and that’s what it’s all about, it’s about variety.
I think you can draw a parallel with Heavy Metal music; a lot of people may not like Heavy Metal, but it has a massive following – it’s absolutely huge – and I think that Horror film fans are kind of like the Heavy Metal fans of cinema. You’ve got a really hardcore, dedicated audience who embrace this stuff so passionately; I think you’ve got to recognize that and do your best to cater to that audience within the film festival because it’s legitimate and it belongs there.
What are some of your favourite Freak Me Out films from previous programs?
I would have to say OK, Good and End Of Animal are great favourites. I love Asian Horror and Asian Fantasy, particularly of the Japanese variety, and a few years ago I screened a film called the Warped Forest – it was another one of those tiny little films that I only knew existed because it played at Hawaii Film Festival where I reviewed it. It didn’t get invited anywhere else and I just thought “this is great”; I thought Sydney people would like it, and they did – that was a real buzz. Those three, off the top of my head, are particular favourites.
I think for me it would probably be OK, Good, Excision, and You’re Next – I just love what Adam Wingard and his crew are coming up with.
Oh Excision, that was a good one. You’re Next was great – and how about Sharni Vinson? She’s got something really, really special. Did you see Patrick?
Unfortunately I missed it.
Sharni Vinson plays the lead in it. It’s not a great film by any means, but there’s something when she’s on screen – you just go with it. You just love her and just want her to succeed. She’s got this real amazing connection with the audience – it was like that in You’re Next. You can just feel the audience; they’re all just rooting for her – it was great.
I’d probably have to add Mutant Girls Squad. That was my first year doing Freak Me Out and I think it might have been the first film I programmed. I saw it and just went “yep, that’s a no brainer”. What more can you ask for? Mutants and crazy jumping girls in fabulous outfits.
That’s a weird offshoot of cinema, those Japanese sort-of super gore flicks.
Yeah, Typhoon Sushi is the collective that makes a lot of these things, and there’s dozens of them. If you start with Mutant Girl Squad and just check the CVs of the writer, director etc. There’s Tokyo Gore Police, Machine Girl, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, the list goes on. I just love them because they’re the modern day equivalent of drive-in films.
I’ve got to say, it’s a huge thrill this year to be doing the Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the drive-in – it’ll be great, it’s a beautiful print too. I’m just trying to find someone to dress-up as Leatherface and run around with a chainsaw. That’d be fun; we can have Leatherface greeting the cars as they come through the gates.
Definitely going to try to make it off to that one. Now I understand you host a film on opening night over at Event in the same timeslot as the opening night film at the State.
Yes, we have a sort of parallel opening night – my Freak Me Out opening night is always the sort of alternative weirdo opening night. This year I’ve got Stage Fright for our Grindhouse opening night. I always choose something that’s absolutely miles away from what Nashen is showing so, hopefully, our audiences aren’t torn between the two, although most times they wouldn’t be.
Last question, it’s a bit of an easy one, if you could only recommend one film of the six this year which one would it be?
K: Because I’m a soccer fanatic, and because it’s World Cup year, and because this is a fabulous film from a country not known for producing fabulous Horror films, my pick would be Goal of the Dead
Thanks for the chat, I look forward to checking out all the films.
My pleasure, thanks so much for taking interest in the program.
Freak Me Out films will be screening every night of the festival, and you can also catch Richard Kuipers’s DJ spot at the Town Hall Hub on the 14th – a girl rock riot, which he describes as “nothing but fantastic female rock and roll”.