Ant Timpson isn’t a household name; he should be, but that’s a consequence of working in underground cinema. Timpson is known in the film industry as Mr Filmhead for his extensive producing, writing, and sometimes directing work in NZ cinema, as well as his efforts to bring underrepresented filmmakers’ art to the people. He started the famous film making festival 48Hours, which now involves 10,000 filmmakers, as well as the Incredibly Strange film festival, which is a major chunk of the NZ International Film Festival. This year, the selection couldn’t be any more diverse; visit the Incredibly Strange section on the film festival’s website and you’re guaranteed to find a film you’ll want to see.
H: Incredibly Strange is 21 now, a similar age to most students. What was the process like, realising that there was an opportunity for a festival like this, and what did you have to do to get the festival off the ground right in the early days?
A: Well thanks, firstly, for making me feel really old—that’s awesome. It does seem crazy that the target audience is as old as the festival. But nothing has really changed since the early days; it was always about getting a group of like-minded people together into a cinema to watch films that were underrepresented in terms of the theatrical experience. Back in the day, when the festival first launched in 1994, we really didn’t have an eclectic film culture in NZ and there was no travelling circus where people could just jump on board.
We only planned to do it in one city, but it really took off. The first year, it kept expanding from Wellington, to Auckland, to cities all around the place. It eventually went through a few manifestations depending on where my tolerance was for certain films. We started off playing all the big cult titles and then moved into more obscure theatre that I’m not even sure the most die-hard film buffs would know about. But we just keep up to date with what is happening on the world scene and we have a focus on the contemporary.
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H: Where do you want to take the festival? Are you looking always to push boundaries?
A: Not really. It’s really easy to provoke and shock people these days, so it’s not really a driving force. That kind of person is who I left 30 years ago as a kid, when I used to sneak into theatres to watch Faces of Death, or whatever. And now, with people watching ISIS beheading videos on their Facebook news feeds, I wouldn’t want anything that is just shamelessly provocative for the sake of it. I’ve always been a populist at heart, and have always wanted to show something supremely entertaining so people feel like they’ve spent their money well and have had a great time. There will always be flashpoint films that are causing waves around the circuit, but it’s the jobs of sales agents and distributors to highlight these—there’s always a film at Cannes that gets everyone shocked; it happens every year. But a good film is going to go a lot further than a mediocre one with a shocking scene in it.
H: I’d say the festival is an absolute success story, but you’ve talked before about the struggle to get NZers to go see homegrown horror flicks. Your film, Housebound, had great reviews and was covered widely by media, yet only a small fraction of the NZ public was aware of the film. Why do you think audiences are so small?
A: Audiences are really conditioned into event films—you can’t blame them. You can’t say the average movie-goer is a complete moron and that’s why they didn’t see our complete masterpiece. People will always want to go see movies with their favourite stars or directors. It’s not that shocking that great little films slip through the gaps sometimes, given how tight the market is at the moment. It’s just a shame we don’t have a platform as strong as America does, which is video on demand.
We’re in a really weird transition phase, where physical media is dying, but we haven’t filled the gap with a really strong video on demand service, so it’s a really tough place for directors to reach audiences here. But the good news is that our films are reaching audiences internationally. That kind of sweetens the deal, and it will always be great to play films at home, but if you’re getting millions viewers overseas, it’s okay, because the ultimate goal is more people watching what you have made.
H: For those unadjusted to cult films, but wouldn’t mind stepping toes outside of the mainstream, where should they start? What are some good foundational films to ignite a fetish for the incredibly strange?
A: It’s a tough question to answer, because, originally, the festival was about Russ Meyer, John Waters and Ed Wood, which make the pantheon of strong, foundation-building cult films. Examples being Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Pink Flamingos, Plan 9 from Outer Space. If you’ve seen 2001: Space Odyssey then you should see these films as well because they are part of the lexicon of cinema language. What we do now in the Incredibly Strange festival is looking for the best in the genre circuit. We’re always trying to find great new voices, and sometimes it’s first-time filmmakers, or filmmakers we have been following. Students are more sophisticated than they used to be, because they are hyper-aware of the content out there. It’s not friends around the campfire asking if you’ve seen this and that, it’s now more like going online and talking to guys in New York, or London. These days, you can go on YouTube or illegally download something.
H: Something students specialise in…
A: Yeah, I fight with it. One part of me hates the access and how easy it is, because I’m a bit of an elitist-populist, if that makes any sense at all? The other part of thinks that, as much as it’s awesome to be in a position to virtually find anything you want and create your own ultimate playlist of films, it’s a struggle for me. Students and people of your age, I just don’t think you know how good you’ve got it at the moment. You didn’t go through the Dark Ages.
H: You co-produced two of the eight titles in the section, Deathgasm and Turbo Kid, and while they’re both strange and have an influx of gore, they appear as a very different spectacle. How do you decide what films you want to be a part of? What does it take to get you on board?
A: Both films overlap, but, in terms of how I got involved, they’re very different scenarios. For one, it was the people involved and, for the other one, I didn’t really know the director at all, but it was part of a local competition we ran called “Make My Horror Movie” and it came out of that as a winner. It was a really unusual process. Both of them came out of competitions actually, so it wasn’t the traditional flow development phase in which most films come to life. So the end result is that they both worked out.
In terms of the actual content, anyone who goes and sees Turbo Kid will probably love Deathgasm as well. You don’t have to be a post-apocalyptic fan to enjoy Turbo Kid, and you don’t need to be a metalhead to love Deathgasm. They both have this goofy sweet innocence that will appeal to people who love the John Hughes “coming of age” films just as much as the crazy splatter films of Peter Jackson or whoever. When you say “horror movies”, sometimes people just switch and think “mean-spirited horror”, but these are more joyous celebrations of young life.
H: You’re a Tommy Wiseau fan and you helped distribute The Room in our part of the globe, so I guess you could say you have business ties. If he were willing to remake any film of your choosing, what film would you assign him, and why?
A: You’d have to go with Citizen Kane, wouldn’t you? The canvas and scope of that film and the breadth of Tommy’s acting ability; I think it would be a perfect harmony. Yeah, I’d love to see Tommy Wiseau’s Citizen Kane—I’d sign up for that. The problem with Tommy, though, is that he’s so self-aware now, which is the biggest issue. Nothing like The Room will ever exist again, because everything he has been involved with post-The Room is absolutely terrifying, plus he has been in on the joke which is not why The Room is so spectacular in all its train wreck glory. I truly feel it will be the last pure cult film that is not being manufactured. Cult films always grew through fan appreciation that developed over time by repeat watching from loyal fans, and The Room is pretty much the last one of those, and the midnight circuit has really died in terms of exhibitions.