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Ten Years Of Chaos: A Fantastic Fest Oral History
September 18, 2014 | Meredith Borders

Ten Years Of Chaos: A Fantastic Fest Oral History

Fantastic Fest founders, staff and regulars fondly reminisce on ten years of fun.

Disclaimer: many of the memories supplied here were by Fantastic Fest participants struggling to recall events they experienced through various stages of impairment. Blame beer for any inaccuracies.

We’ve reached our tenth year of Fantastic Fest, a festival that feels like it’s existed in perpetuity since the beginning of time and yet still has the energy and rebellious spirit of a much younger institution.

Fantastic Fest was conceived in its infancy by Alamo Drafthouse founders Tim and Karrie League, Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, producer Paul Alvarado-Dykstra and writer/director Tim McCanlies. The first Fantastic Fest was in 2005, a four-day festival from October 6th through 9th at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. The festival included a sneak screening of John Gulager’s PROJECT GREENLIGHT film FEAST, a work-in-progress preview of Eli Roth’s HOSTEL, a special screening of Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY and more. Tim League on its inception:

“The origin of Fantastic Fest dates back to 2002. Karrie and I were on vacation at the Sitges film festival with [producer] Ant Timpson and [programmer] Kier-la Janisse. We all conspired to meet at Sitges to devour their comprehensive retrospective of Spaghetti Westerns that year. It so happened that Harry Knowles was on the jury that year, also. I had been to a couple of film festivals before then, but nothing had really prepared me for Sitges. It is as if this festival were curated specifically for me: horror, science fiction, fantasy, loads of Asian films and of course about 100 Spaghetti Westerns (which sadly turned out to be mostly unsubtitled...). 

Anyway, at breakfast one morning Harry and I caught up and both expressed our wonder at what this beast of a festival meant. We made a pledge to one day bring something like Sitges to Austin, Texas.  Flash forward to the summer of 2005. Paul Alvarado and Tim McCanlies (IRON GIANT, DANCER, TEXAS) called a meeting on the back porch of the Alamo South Lamar. They too were familiar with Sitges and similar ‘genre’ film festivals. They had caught wind of the informal pledge that Harry and I had made three years prior and were there to push us to action and make it happen that year.

Tim McCanlies was even so bold to say that if the festival lost money, he would personally write a check to cover the losses. He wanted access to crazy international genre film and was willing to bankroll it if necessary.

That was enough to push me into action and get it done. The task was frankly a bit insane. We had about four months and were starting from scratch. I was also simultaneously executing the first Rolling Roadshow that summer. Nonetheless, we leapt quickly and somewhat ignorantly into action. We started taking submissions, developing the website and branding (initially done by the awesome team at Milkshake Media) and sending out press releases. I remember driving all over the country in August and early September while on the Rolling Roadshow Tour. I didn't do any of the driving, but instead was watching screeners on my laptop, working on the festival details and checking email/sending files at every truckstop (we didn't have mobile hotspot devices back then). Ten days before Fantastic Fest 1, we returned home from Claude, Texas, where we hosted a screening of HUD on location.  

Miraculously, the first edition of Fantastic Fest came together - 25 films over 4 days. My highlights were getting to know Eugenio Mira who came with his first feature THE BIRTHDAY and the post-apocalyptic cinema retrospective curated by Kier-la Janisse.”

Alvarado-Dykstra added, “For months, a bunch of us -- particularly Harry Knowles, Tim League, Tim McCanlies, [producer] Matt Dentler and I -- had all been casually chatting with increasing frequency and fervor about how much we wished Austin had a genre film festival like Sitges or Fantasia, especially since there wasn’t really one at all in the U.S. at the time, and Austin seemed like such an ideal place for it. I recall the idea was also significantly informed by a desire to build upon what Harry and Tim had already so wonderfully done with Butt-Numb-A-Thon [the 24-hour movie marathon held at South Lamar every December], by having a larger scale event that could accommodate many more people and films, while also honoring the legacy of the old Austin Fantasy Film Festival (which Harry’s dad Jay had run many years earlier), and sharing some of the spirit of QT-Fest (the Quentin Tarantino Film Festival).

But what really finally catalyzed things in my mind was the opening of the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in March of 2005, which presented a unique and revelatory opportunity to host a film festival all in one place, where you’d never have to leave (except, one hoped/presumed, to shower and sleep; actually, we originally joked that our slogan would be ‘It’s like Butt-Numb-A-Thon, but without the smell.’) That was really the lightbulb moment.

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe how incredibly the festival has blossomed. It is, without question, my favorite week of the year, and a dream come wonderfully true. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe for all that Tim, Kristen, the programming team, staff and volunteers have done to turn our idea into what I think is the greatest film festival in the world.”

That first festival didn’t have much in common with the eight-day tribute to havoc we all celebrate today. There were no debates, no karaoke parties, no Fantastic Feud or award show. It was an amorphous thing, the first Fantastic Fest, sort of an untapped frontier. Fantastic Fest director Kristen Bell on how she became involved:

I started at the Drafthouse way back in its adolescence, in 2004. I was part of the South Lamar opening team in 2005, which also happened to be the inaugural year of Fantastic Fest. I became the general manager of Lamar later that year... it's all a bit of a blur... but for the next three years, Fantastic Fest didn't really have a director. It was a group effort by myself, Tim and the Alamo programming team (Lars Nilsen, Zack Carlson, Kier-la Janisse, Rodney Perkins and Todd Brown). They booked movies and we handled the logistics. After about 2011, both the Alamo and Fantastic Fest were growing at an alarming rate and needed individual attention, and I just couldn't run both the Alamo and Fantastic Fest anymore, so I was given the director title and my focus shifted to Fantastic Fest only. 

There were many times along the way that they tried to pry Fantastic Fest and Butt-Numb-A-Thon from me, but I love these events and refused to not be a part of them.”

In 2006, the Festival expanded to eight days and moved to the third and fourth weeks of September, where it remains today. It included the world premiere of Angela Bettis’ ROMAN and US premieres of Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST, William Friedkin’s BUG with star Michael Shannon in attendance and Simon Rumley’s THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, as well as special screenings of Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, Darren Aronofsky’s THE FOUNTAIN and Terry Gilliam’s TIDELAND. 2006 was also the first year of the Fantastic Fest Awards, for which THE LIVING AND THE DEAD won best picture. The closing night party that year was Undead Till Dawn, a vampire-themed dance party.

2007 was host to world premieres of Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with Anderson in attendance, and Nacho Vigalondo’s feature debut TIMECRIMES, which won the inaugural Next Wave award for first time directors (see sidebar). Vigalondo said:

This is a story I´ve told many times before, but I´ll tell it again: Fantastic Fest saved my life as a director. Those days I was broken, facing the fact that I would never release TIMECRIMES, since nobody wanted to show or distribute it. It was kind of a doomed movie, and I had already accepted I wasn´t able to make a decent movie. FF came, released the movie, and that night I knew I was born as a feature filmmaker. 

There are festivals where you meet friends; at FF you make friends. There are festivals where there´s a VIP area. FF feels like a whole VIP area where no one is rejected and no one sits on a throne. It´s the opposite of classism.

It´s the only festival in the world I attend even if I don´t have a movie selected. It´s the same reason you are a Christian and go to church, even if it´s not your wedding.”

2007 was the first year of the now-annual filmmaker shotgun event, and Vigalondo is also responsible for bringing the very first karaoke party to Fantastic Fest that year.

“I remember that morning, during the shooting course for the Next Wave kids, I was there; it was my first year. We asked Tim to set a karaoke party, and that very night we had the first Karaoke Mayhem at Fantastic Fest, against one of the South Lamar screens. We had an amazing time and Tim proved to all of us that he was the quickest devil in town.”

2007 was also the introductory year for another Fantastic Fest tradition: the beer-soaked FAMILY FEUD-style trivia game Fantastic Feud, hosted by film critic Scott Weinberg and FF mainstay Devin Steuerwald and produced by Maxim Pozderac. Weinberg said of The Feud’s origin:

“I showed up in year two of Fantastic Fest and, of course, fell madly in love with the whole thing. Between the films, the people, the food, and the overall vibe of friendly film geek community, I was hooked, and I knew I wanted to contribute something FUN to Fantastic Fest 3.

Early in 2007 I threw a few ideas to Tim League. Tim said I could run with my game show idea, and I think we expected a ‘low-key, nerd-friendly, late-festival’ alternative for attendees who needed a brief respite from all the films about demonic possession and severed limbs. Ha.

It turned out to be a smash hit! We even won the Audience Award! Thanks mainly to the old-school Drafthouse employees who turned my simple idea (and a shitload of trivia questions) into a bona-fide game show ‘event,’ Fantastic Feud was more or less cemented as a Fantastic Fest tradition. We've done The Feud every year since 2007, and I'm grateful for every contestant we've had, for every attendee we've entertained, and for being allowed to contribute something FUN to an event that's already overloaded with the stuff.”

2008 brought the world premieres of Gulager’s FEAST 2 and Nicolas Lopez’s SANTOS, the US premiere of Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento’S DEADGIRL and special screenings of Rian Johnson’s THE BROTHERS BLOOM and Kevin Smith’s ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO.

Action Pack founder Henri Mazza recalled:

“The opening night film was ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO, so of course we hosted the premiere at the Paramount Theater and followed that up with the world Air Sex championships.

That was the first time I got to host an event on the Paramount stage, and it was pretty awesome standing there in front of 1200 people explaining that for the next 90 minutes they would be watching contestants pretend to have sex with imaginary partners on stage. But the thing about the Paramount is that, not only is it a grand, historic theater with a proud tradition of decades of legendary performers, but many of the ushers are sweet older ladies and gentlemen who are presumably volunteering their time in exchange for tickets to events with cultural significance.

I'll never forget the look on some of their faces when I was standing off stage while performers air raped a baby and a Sarah Palin impersonator got nasty with a polar bear. I felt like we may have broken some hearts that night.

It's also worth noting that while we've done other events with the Paramount over the years, they still haven't called me up and asked to be considered as a venue for the next Air Sex competition.”

2008 also delivered the very first Fantastic Debates, now a time-honored custom that has resulted in many hours of bloodthirsty entertainment. Fantastic Debates host Owen Egerton said:

“The first time I did the debates, I was a debater. I was defending George Lucas and the making of Episodes 1, 2 and 3. It was an interesting thing to defend. But I had a blast, and actually years later I was super surprised to see clips from that same debate, from my speech, in a George Lucas documentary.

From there, I started hosting every year since, and that has always been a blast. It remains my favorite night of the year. Just getting all these people from different places, all feeling passionate about some of the same ridiculous subjects. It is AMAZING when you get a whole group of people who care whether zombies run or not. It’s incredible! Or they’re debating the afterlife of Michael Bay; does he deserve heaven or burning hell; this is a crucial question in this community.

They’re not holding back; they’re also not doing it in spite or heat. They’re doing it in the joyful celebration of community.”

On the best debates he’s ever witnessed:

“There have been some fabulous moments, without a doubt. [LORD OF THE RINGS co-stars] Elijah [Wood]and Dominic [Monaghan, debating the merits of WORLD OF WARCRAFT] was an amazing moment. Watching Tim League land the first punch on Michelle Rodriguez [arguing whether AVATAR should have won the Best Picture Oscar] -- the surprised look of fury that flashed into her eyes is something I bring back when I need moments of arousal.

You know what it really might have been? The combination of both fight and debate -- of all the years, there have been so many good ones, and seeing Tim searching, BEGGING, for someone to kick his ass. And perhaps more than ever last year he found it when he debated Keanu Reeves and then fought Tiger Chen [resolving the worthiness of Tai Chi as a martial art]. Having Tiger Chen there,Tim was just basically going up to a grizzly and throwing salt in his face. And of course having Bill and Ted, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, as the corner coaches, is one of the moments where I paused in my mind and said, ‘This, THIS is what life is all about.’

I gotta say, being part of the Fantastic Fest Debates is something I’m just really proud of. I LOVE it.”

Two-time debater and Badass Digest Editor-in-Chief Devin Faraci added:

“The Fantastic Debates changed so much over the years. I've been in them twice, once very early in their life and once a couple of years ago. The first time [2008], it was a sideshow -- I prepped by drinking two 40s and when I got in the ring I discovered it was all a set-up and my opponent was not the president of the Michael Bay fan club (Resolved: Michael Bay Deserves A Lifetime Achievement Oscar) but local comic John Erler. I boxed again in 2012, and this time it was serious business. I did a couple of days of fight training with the Soska Twins, but that didn't stop mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg from cleaning my clock. My personal consolation: while Swanberg was in better shape, better trained, was bigger and also hit me in the back of the head I showed heart and refused to stay on the mat. I kept going through all (well, both) rounds. Just like Rocky vs Apollo Creed!

It's weird being in that ring. The debate portion is fun and funny, but once the boxing begins the crowd wants BLOOD. Even in my funny year (ie the year I didn't need to be checked for a concussion), the crowd roared in anger when it was clear we weren't hitting each other hard enough. You start to understand just how the gladiators felt, except without all the dying and stuff. Which I guess was really a big part of the gladiator experience.”

Other highlights in 2008 include the closing night party inside the caves of Longhorn Caverns with Bill Murray in attendance for CITY OF EMBER. Though I had a raging case of bronchitis, I attended and only survived through copious amounts of free Red Bull. That party laid me up for weeks, and I’ve never regretted a second of it.

2009 featured the world premieres of Ruben Fleischer’s ZOMBIELAND and Ben Wheatley’s DOWN TERRACE and U.S. premieres of George Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, Tom Six’s HUMAN CENTIPEDE and Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, which unwittingly gave birth to the now immutable Fantastic Fest mantra: CHAOS REIGNS!

It also brought about, weirdly, a walk-in freezer party with METROPIA star Alexander Skarsgård. Mazza:

“In 2009, Alexander Skarsgård came to the festival in support of METROPIA. After the screening he came by the Highball to check out the karaoke at a Chaos Reigns party, and then somehow it was decided that a bunch of us would keep hanging out, but we wanted to be able to get silly without having a lot of fans taking photos of him. Somehow that meant we should step into the walk-in freezer, where of course we got even sillier, and ultimately Tim League took off his shirt to show how comfortable he was in that temperature.

This, of course, resulted in the ultimate fan photo [of a shirtless Tim and impassive Skarsgård], which ended up running on DListed and a number of other sites after it popped up online.”

2010 brought a ton of guests like Roger Corman and Julie Corman for SHARKTOPUS, Karl Urban for RED and Bill Pullman, back after his first visit in 2008.

Mazza recalled: 

“Bill Pullman had such a great time in 2008 that he came back again in 2010 and hosted two repertory screenings at the Ritz. First we had him live in person for a Quote-Along of SPACEBALLS where, before the movie, he was game enough to let anyone from the audience who wanted to come up on stage with us, grab a lightsaber, cry out, "I see your Schwartz is as big as mine!" and then take a couple of swings at him. After that he stuck around for Master Pancake Theater's mocking of INDEPENDENCE DAY and participated in the skit by reading a parody version of his famous speech from that film where it was all about St. Patrick's Day.

Later that night he came to the Highball karaoke party and danced around on the back of the stage while a bunch of us sang the Black Eyed Peas ‘I've Gotta Feeling’ with the RZA and Elijah Wood. It's hard not to feel like life's reached its peak in a moment like that.”

Having been onstage for that moment, I can back this up.

That year also included a stage performance of Stuart Gordon’s NEVERMORE, starring Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe, and the commencement of the now-annual Nerd Rap Throwdown. Fantastic Fest Assistant Director Damon Jones was our reigning champion for the first two years of Nerd Rap, while Badass Digest Gaming Editor Andrew Todd took the title away for years 2012 and 2013.

2011 is notable, to me, as the year I came onboard as Fantastic Fest’s Social Media Director, a job I hope to never relinquish. It’s also notable for the world premiere of Tom Six’s THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2: FULL SEQUENCE and U.S. premieres of Vigalondo’s EXTRATERRESTRIAL and Michaël R. Roskam’s BULLHEAD, which won that year’s Next Wave award (see sidebar) and was picked up by Drafthouse Films and later nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The closing night party that year was a Superhero Carnival in honor of producer Harry Knowles’ closing night film COMIC-CON EPISODE FOUR: A FAN’S HOPE.

In 2012, we saw the world premieres of producers Tim League and Ant Timpson’s THE ABCs OF DEATH, Michael Paul Stephenson’s THE AMERICAN SCREAM and Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE, with Burton, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau in attendance.

One of the secret screenings that year brought the Wachowskis to Fantastic Fest for the debut of their film CLOUD ATLAS. Ain’t It Cool News’ Alan Cerny:

“2012 was the year of CLOUD ATLAS, and while it didn't do well at the box office that year, I'll cherish seeing it at Fantastic Fest, and meeting the Wachowskis was one of those bucket list moments that I'll carry with me everywhere.  I remember how nervous they seemed when they first arrived, and when the audience embraced the film, and the work they've done, how they visibly relaxed and became one with the crowd.  Fantastic Fest is very warm towards filmmakers, and I love that directors, actors and actresses can come to Fantastic Fest and not be mobbed by adoring fans, but made to feel welcome and a part of the family.  That they can enjoy the movies with a real movie-loving audience.  I wouldn't trade that for anything.”

2012’s closing night party was a North Korean prison-themed event at the American Legion Hall, with electro-shock karaoke and free head-shavings and tattoos.

And that brings us to last year, 2013. With South Lamar under construction, the festival was held at the brand new Lakeline location, and featured world premieres of Eugenio Mira’s GRAND PIANO, Robert Rodriguez’s MACHETE KILLS and James Ward Byrkit’s COHERENCE, as well as a secret screening of Eli Roth’s GREEN INFERNO and a special Mondo retrospective of Vigalondo’s TIMECRIMES, including a screenprint and vinyl soundtrack release. Keanu Reeves attended for MAN OF TAI CHI and Alex Winter attended for GRAND PIANO, so yes, we had both Bill and Ted in attendance.

At the closing night party in Lakeline’s parking lot, we had death-defying stunts by some of the best stuntmen in the business, a dunking booth and another free tattoo station, where, along with Kristen Bell, Tim League, Devin Faraci and Elijah Wood, I got a tiny firecracker tattoo behind my ear. The closing night party also included the Fantastic Fest birth of certain future tradition Slapshots, a game that involves taking a shot and getting slapped. And that’s all there is to it.

So that’s it: ten years of Fantastic Fest, ten years of chaos and joy and barbecue and friends and karaoke and guns and movies, so many movies. But surely, even with all of these stories, we’re missing some of the most scandalous and compelling recollections from over the years. Nacho probably said it best when he said: “I´m so happy to tell that most of my best FF memories can´t be written in a legal magazine!!”

That goes for all of us, buddy.


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