With silky brown hair that trails past his shoulders and a penchant for wearing black, Mitch Davis looks every bit the ‘mad movie missionary’ he describes himself as. Since 1997, he has helmed the DVD division of Canadian indie label Atopia and co-programmed Montreal’s last-standing repertory cinema (Cinema du Parc). He has also produced a DVD collection of international film shorts called Small Gauge Trauma. But through it all, he says, helping to run Fantasia Fest has always been his top priority. Here Davis tells LWLies exactly what draws him to North America’s largest genre festival year after year.
LWLies: You hold the esteemed title of General Director and Director of International Programming at Fantasia. You get to watch horror movies, keep weird hours, wine and dine with great directors and nobody’s telling you to cut your hair and get a real job. How did you get to where you are today?
Davis: It always killed me that films like Inferno, Combat Shock, Hard Boiled, Dust Devil or Tetsuo were neglected and unknown by the general movie-going public – who were instead exposed to un-ambitious genre films that gave the genre a bad name. The truly unique films were almost always either undistributed, or released in a radically altered cut. The sense of injustice I felt from my favourite films languishing in obscurity has stayed with me at an almost genetic level. It’s nurtured a drive to keep incredible films from falling between the cracks, like some kind of mad movie missionary. When I was a kid, I remember bringing a Super 8 projector to school and freaking my classmates out with a 200ft projection of [James] Whale's Frankenstein against a wall during lunch break!
How does the festival fit in with your life? LWLies hears you don't get to sleep until 6am?
It's true, I barely sleep during the festival, but that's because I'm a bit of a fruitcake and a take on all kinds of tasks that I probably should be delegating. This kind of work is a pleasure, so it's not like I'm slaving away until dawn – I'm having a great time. Having said that, I'm not sure that I'd continue doing this if it weren't for the Fantasia audience. I've had some pretty good offers to leave and programme elsewhere, and I didn't consider any of them for a second. I've been programming at Fantasia for 14 years now and every year, when I scout at other festivals, I'm reminded of how incredible our audience is. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing largely unrecognised talent get the shrieking larger-than-life reception [here] that his or her work has always deserved but has rarely, if ever, been granted.
How would you describe the festival’s programming?
Fantasia has always been a bit of a UFO in the international film festival world. It was enormously successful straight from its first year and sharp but ultra-niche titles became blockbusters. That [success has] allowed us to follow our most eccentric whims and bring in everything we love, regardless of how unclassifiable it might be, from experimental auteur visions to crowd-pleasing foreign action films; from horror to documentary and from animation to erotica.
How has Fantasia 2010 been compared to previous years?
This year we sold over 100 000 tickets, up several thousand from last summer's numbers. It’s totally surreal. This is the first year we've had significant government support, which has allowed us to go a bit crazy with several expanded cinema and multimedia events, for example the incredible Stuart Gordon stage play Nevermore: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe, Steven Severin’s live re-scoring of Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet and the closing event: the eastern Canadian premiere of the new restoration print of Metropolis in a sold-out 3000-theatre with live orchestral accompaniment.
Can you explain how and where Fantasia sits in the festival world? Most festivals like to scoop others with the premieres – how important are these to you?
We co-founded NAFFA (North American Fantastic Festival Alliance) with Fantastic Fest. [Austin’s] Tim League is a Fantasia regular. We're also good friends with Sitges, Screamfest, Fantasporto, New York Asian Film Festival, PiFan, Brussels Fantastic Film Festival, Etrange Festival and the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival. The way we operate is the polar opposite of what you'd see at, say, Berlin, Venice, Tribeca or Cannes. We support each other's events and go out of our way to tell each other about any new discoveries that we come across. I've actively given away major premieres by recommending certain titles to festivals that come before Fantasia's dates, and almost all the other genre festivals do this too. Premieres are great to have, but we see them as bonuses, not absolute kill-or-be-killed priorities.
What’s your advice to people who’d like to start their own niche festival?
My approach is equal parts film historian and carnival barker. I think it’s important that things be both educational and fun – as close a balance between the two as possible. Also, work with a programming team that's comprised of people with strong personalities and unusual tastes, and the will to bend over backwards to get the word out on the films that they love. None of that relying on outside publicists from the side of the filmmaker, distributor or sales agent crap. If your programmer takes on a blisteringly brilliant unknown film, they should be ready to scream from the rooftops until everyone in town – press and public alike – know that it's playing, and that missing it would be a sin. Otherwise, why even bother? You need to sustain an electric event atmosphere for the full duration. And that’s another thing –people regularly ask us why on earth we would want to make the event last as long as it does [three weeks].
And why do you?
Hell, for the first three years, Fantasia ran a full month! It's true, if we wanted to make the festival more industry-friendly, it would be wise to compact everything into a 10-day event, so that everyone could be here at the same time, or if we were to do the festival across six screens instead of two, which is the route most festivals choose to take. The problem with that model is that we would be dividing our audiences up in brutal ways, and the smaller indie films would get lost in the shuffle. By doing everything across just two screens, with most titles showing twice during the festival, we can almost guarantee that every film, no matter how eclectic, will be able to find its audience. We're also very careful not to programme type against type – like a horror film screening opposite another horror film in the same time slot. That would be impossible to keep under control if we did the fest across five or six screens. It would be a massacre!
Describe the typical Fantasia film, and fan if possible.
The typical Fantasia film could range from an action blitzkrieg like Centurion or a horror film like Dream Home to a mind-blowing documentary like Marwencol. Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time won an audience award here many years ago. So did Ghost World, Love Exposure, In My Skin, Survive Style 5+ and [Rec].
What were your favourite films from this year’s festival?
My personal favourites would be Simon Rumley's astoundingly powerful Red White & Blue, Christopher Smith's Black Death, Han Yeo Joon's Sell Out! and Mladen Djordjevic's The Life and Death of a Porno Gang – really, our entire 'Subversive Serbia' film series. And of course, the Nevermore play and the Metropolis event, which was pure thundering bliss – 3000 people coming out to see a silent film in 2010! But the biggest rush for me was giving Ken Russell his lifetime achievement award and turning on a mostly new audience to the masterpiece that is The Devils. Seeing him get three standing ovations by a crowd of 700 who were shrieking for him as if he were Mick Jagger was easily one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had in my entire curatorial career. Just amazing. It's moments like that that make me love programming as much as I do.