AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH HEAVY HITTING HORRORFEST’S FUNNY AND UNPREDICTABLE FESTIVAL DIRECTOR: FEET BANKS
Written by Johnny Papan
Whistler’s Heavy Hitting HorrorFest describes itself as a “one night, balls to the wall orgy of horrific, hilarious, and very independent short films.” Their website cautions attendees to “tell your brain to stock up on diapers.”
This now 13-year-old festival has grown into one of the largest and longest running horror festivals in Western Canada. This years festival aims for a more “intimate vibe,” screening at a 300 person theatre, as opposed to multiple theatres hosting 1200 attendees as seen in the past. Event organizer Feet Banks says this will not stop the festival from being “bigger, bloodier, and even more badass than ever before.” The even will feature a Red Carpet pre-party and costumes are encouraged.
The festival accepts film from around the world, and the deadline is September 15. Feet spoke with InFocus Film School about the festival, its origins, and some wild tidbits. Read the EXCLUSIVE Q&A below.
InFocus: The tagline for Heavy Hitting Horrorfest is “new venue, new party, same carnage (only worse.)” Can you talk about this carnage and how it is worse than previous years?
Feet: Well, since this year our theme is Apocalypse, we are sort of riding that end of the world, ultimate carnage vibe. My hopes is that some of this will translate into the submissions-we don’t get a lot of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic submissions, probably due to budgets, so part of that tagline was to inspire people to go all out on the content of their films. The other part is around the event itself. Our new venue at The Hangar is basically a big warehouse so that gives us more leeway with things like decor, stage design and what is possible. We can literally drive a car into the theatre this year so that opens things up a bit. Similarly, this is a big event, a 3 hour film festival with a massive costume afterparty in the same space, and the Whistler audience is not known to be tame. So there will likely be more personal carnage than ever before. I want people, when they get on the busses to get their ride back into town, to feel like they’ve been to battle–smeared makeup, sweaty clothes, blown minds, and huge satisfied smile on their faces.
Your website describes the event as a “one night, balls to the wall orgy of horrific, hilarious, and very independent short films.” What exactly separates Heavy Hitting HorrorFest from these other, now seemingly vanilla, horror festivals? Why do our brains need to stock up on diapers?
Part of that comes from the films submitted, we are a filmmakers festival. For a decade we would show every film submitted so long as it was less than ten minutes. That “anything goes” attitude leaned itself to some pretty interesting creative leaps, especially as local filmmakers kept returning year after year with even crazier ideas and catering to what they knew the crowd would like. Free reign is an amazing thing and there is always a chance your brain is gonna see something totally unexpected, shocking, awesome or horrifying and shit itself; hence the diapers.
The other key factor, really key I think, is my buddy Chili and I started this festival with a very participatory vibe in mind. We want people to create, not spectate, so we always ensure that the cast and crew of each film submitted gets access to tickets before the general public. This can piss people off but when you have an audience and the majority of them are totally invested in what is on the screen–because they’ve put their own time and energy into it and know how much effort the process takes–it’s a lot more fun. There’s more heckling, cheering, laughing, screaming and all around fist pumping good times because so many people are emotionally invested in the films. That vibe is contagious.
Why did you decide to start this horror festival? What kind of works goes into putting a festival together? What was it like for you when you setting up the festival for the first time 13 years ago?
The festival started in 2002 with my best friend Chili Thom and I sitting around making pom-poms for a Dr. Seuss party he was throwing in a local club. I don’t know if you’ve ever made pom-poms but it’s pretty monotonous. You just wind yarn around a piece of cardboard again and again and again. It’s a task ideally suited to smoking a joint, so that is what we did. Over the hours we dreamed up this weed smoking superhero named Green Jesus who could save the world from evil pom-poms. The idea being that nothing is less dangerous than a fluffy pom-pom so it would all play as a sort of horror farce but with a twist, or something. We spent two nights in the forest, called in a bunch of favours, spent 400 bucks or so (we already had the pom-poms) and made a 17 minute horror comedy that we edited on the first generation of iMovie. It wasn’t that bad. Chili said there’s no sense making a movie if you can’t show it to people, and this was pre-YouTube, so we booked our favourite bar for Halloween night, called all our buddies who also had cameras and told them “this is what we are doing, you should too.” The response was pretty good and that was the start of what was originally called Heavy Hitting B-Grade HorrorFest. It was an excuse to get out and make something with your friends, to have some fun. And that is really the foundation of it today. The films are better of course, but it’s about having fun and creating stuff.
Any tips for anyone who wants to start their own horror festival? How did you grow it to the point it’s at?
Putting a festival together is definitely a lot of work but its also one of those things where, if you’re not a perfectionist, you can pull it off pretty easily. Make some posters, spread the word as best you can, and have someone at the door of your favourite bar/theatre collecting admission money. The hardest part is getting film submissions, we still battle that even now. There are online tools that cost money but the best way starting out is to make your own films, talk your friends into making their own films, and then reach out to schools, blogs, etc and see if anyone has any films or has seen any they recommend. It’s pretty easy to send a filmmaker a message on social media nowadays. We did all those things. We also put ads in newspapers and I cold called filmmakers who. People make movies in hopes that people will see them. We have a pretty good success rate of filmmakers being stoked to be in the festival.
As the fest grew, Chili and I brought on producers to help. This was huge because it freed up time to be out making movies instead of answering emails with the venue or your caterer or whatever. I’d like to think we are a finely oiled machine now but the truth is we try to make the fest better every year so there are always new challenges. And when you have a problem, you can either throw money at it or get creative. And when you have no money that makes it even easier, you just figure it out because you have to.
What is your personal “checklist” for choosing films for this festival. After 13 years of doing this, are there specific traits of a film that attract you?
Like I mentioned, for a long time we proudly accepted and screened any film under ten minutes (and a few longer ones that ruled.) We just wanted to encourage people to make stuff and get better each year, but then sometime around 2011 I had to pull the plug on that because the whole “torture porn” thing was happening in mainstream horror and we started getting films that just weren’t too our tastes. It was just a bunch of violence against women and then it ended. No start-middle-end, no character arc, no nothing. It was weird, like one year suddenly there was a bunch of these kinds of things. Maybe its because we had also grown up a bit, and I had a kid, but I remember Chili and I being like, “what is this shit?” So after that year I started vetting films that I felt weren’t telling a story, or seemed overly torture porny. For sure I bummed some filmmakers out, but I am ok with that. I like story.
Having said that, we have always been super into films that think outside the slasher genre. I get it because everything costs money and it’s cheap to grab a knife and some fake blood and chase a dude or (almost always) a chick around the forest, but the movies that always stand out to me are the ones with monsters, or aliens, or mosquito-human hybrid creatures, zombies, anything that takes a bit more effort. In the old days, before crowdfunding, no one had much money so the only way to pull off these kinds of movies was through hard work and brilliant creativity… and those are both great things.
From the looks of it, this festival showcases both the funny and the terrifying. Can you talk about this?
Our fest has a lot of comedy, I think it’s because comedy is easier to do than pure horror, but there are always those movies, or moments in movies that just creep you out and give you that shuddery spine feeling. These are the films that get the loudest cheers, and usually the ones that win.
Outside of the festival, what is your background in film, if any?
I played around with filmmaking in high school. Action sports stuff mostly, and tape to VCR editing that always had crappy glitches. I took writing at the University of Victoria with a minor in film. It was the tail end of the 90s so the digital revolution was just beginning. The school had one camera and one editing computer so it wasn’t really that hands on. But all the film theory was amazing. After four years of watching 5-9 movies a week and intensive studying of guys like Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Kubrick, the Coens, Hitchcock, etc I came out of that school with a wealth of internal knowledge. I’ve found that really helpful with writing and editing flicks.
What is the most terrifying film experience you’ve ever had? In addition, what is the most terrifying real-life experience you’ve ever had?
As far as watching films go, my most terrifying experience was in 2000 when they re-released The Exorcist. I got to see it in a giant theatre in Montreal. That movie is so much freakier on a big screen. It was the only time I’ve ever watched a movie and kind of huddled in fetal mode. Man, that was the best.
In real life, the most terrifying is also one of my first memories. I fell down a well. Not all the way down, though. I shot my arms out and my elbows caught on the edges. I remember looking down ad my feet dangling in the darkness as rocks and dirt tumbled out of sight. My buddy was with me, he screamed so loud my dad heard and came running. He pulled me out before my arms gave way. I guess I was probably 4 or 5 years old, I still remember it pretty vividly. I got a Cornetto ice cream after that.
If you had the choice to be murdered by any horror-movie villain, who would it be? How would you go?
This is a tough one. I look at it two ways: am I in real life or in a movie? In real life I think I want something quick like being eaten by Godzilla or torn apart by Jaws. It would be kind of quick and less painful. If someone is filming my death, I’d want to give it my all and go out with a fight. I think I would choose Chucky from Child’s Play. I feel like I could get a few good hits in on that little fucker. Maybe even rip off one of his arms or something before he got me. He’s wily but I feel like I could anticipate some of his strategies and put up a good fight. Bonus if Jennifer Tilly is there.
Do you have any other thoughts?
It’s never been easier to make a film. A smartphone and basic editing software is 1000 times better than what we had to make Green Jesus. People should just get out there and make movies with their friends. It’s so fun, and the best way to learn. So get out there and exorcise your demons, or exercise them. Either way, make sure the camera’s rolling.