Exclusive: Head of Programming Tim League Talks Fantastic Fest


One of our favorite film festivals of the year, Fantastic Fest, is upon us. Running from September 20th-27th, Fantastic Fest brings together the scariest, goriest, funniest, and weirdest films from around the world to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. We spoke with Tim League, one of the founders of the Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest, and current head of programming of the festival. He told us what to look forward to, and the “tough” part of watching thousands of movies.

Fantastic Fest starts at the end of the week. Is it still exciting after all these years?

It’s always exciting. It remains my favorite week of the year. I’m a little bit scared because it is three days away, but I think everything is in place.

What has you scared?

It’s an incredibly complex operation with many moving parts and films shipping in from 50 different countries, hundreds of guests. But we’ve been doing it for awhile now, and thankfully I’m not responsible for most of those details. I still oversee the programming, but I put in my final programming several weeks ago. There are several people who are more scared than me.

What films are you most excited about this year?

Hm... well there are a small number of films I haven’t seen yet. Todd Brown from Twitch film is our head of international programming, and there are about five or six films from his slate that I have not seen, but am looking forward to. I have a strange fascination with sitting in on either an awesome movie that I have programmed, to see people reacting in a positive way, or sitting in on a really challenging film and watching people squirm. I’ve got a short list of a few films I am going to sit in on.

What do you expect people to squirm at?

Well, nothing like last year, with The Human Centipede 2, which was a pretty brutal movie. I don’t think there is anything quite that extreme. There is an Eastern European movie called Vegetarian Cannibal, which is a pretty strong movie. It’s not that it is overly intense; it’s more like Bad Lieutenant meets E.R. It’s about a surgeon of questionable moral fiber who has a descent in this movie, much like Harvey Keitel.

What do you look for when programming? How do you decide what makes the cut?

Generally I am looking to see something new. I love great storytelling and I love fresh ideas. If something is technically excellent, but is the same type of slasher film that I have seen a million times, then it will have a hard time finding a spot in the festival. If there is something truly bizarre, which is why we always have a strong contingent of Japanese films and Scandinavian films, then it strikes home with me. Weird movies are my favorite.

How many films are submitted each year?

With the shorts and the features, we probably get a couple thousand through the submission process. Then there are probably another 700 or 800 films that we see at other festivals, markets, or come to [our team] directly.

Has there ever been films that you turned down from screening that you later regretted?

Not really. There are often times movies that we did turn down that ended up doing really well and found an audience. Usually we turn stuff down because we have so many great films that we have to make some hard decisions, or it just wasn’t right for the sensibilities we are trying to foster.

Have you ever experienced any controversy or backlash for any film you screened?

Yes. Through our Fantastic Fest sidebar at SXSW, we did the world premiere of A Serbian Film. That was a film that... I didn’t even know if it was necessarily legal, so when the screening was over, I shipped [the print] back out to Europe and got out of the building! I really do love that movie, and I think it is more than just extreme content, but it has a bit of a rep. We’re not afraid to tackle controversial subject matter, obviously, but we have let that be known from the beginning, so it is rare that there is someone who will see a screening at Fantastic Fest and not know what they are getting in to. We will still occasionally get letters from people who are not happy with what they saw, usually individual ticket holders who don’t know the whole identity behind the festival.

Do you have any films this year that will hit that controversial chord?

Not really. One film that we actually bought for distribution that we are having a screening for is Wake in Fright. It does have some controversial kangaroo-hunt footage. Actual footage. The film was made in 1971 and [the hunt footage] was filmed during actual, controlled culling of [kangaroo] overpopulation. So it is something that does happen, but given the sensibilities of special interest groups, there is always going to be controversy with a film that has that kind of material.

How do you decide what films get a repertory screening?

Each year we try to do one spotlight. This year, our repertory spotlight is in support of a new book by Kier-La Janisse called House of Psychotic Women. The book is essays on psychotic women in film history, infused with her own anecdotal experiences. She is a great writer and we asked her to curate films that are represented in her book, and introduce them. In addition, we tend to choose two or three films that are either being restored or that have come to our awareness as of late. We usually limit it to five or six slots. The rest of the 75 features are all new features.

Wow, you have 75 films screening?

Seventy-five features and about 50 shorts.

Holy cow. Do you ever get tired of sitting around, watching movies and decide you need to get out and go for a jog or something?

[Laughs.] What I do miss, a little bit, is sitting down and watching an old film, just for the sake of watching it. On my desk there is always a stack of screeners to watch. I do love it, and I don’t want to complain about it, but there is always the pressure to watch something from the screener stack.

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