Friday, October 31, 2008

An Interview With Slamdance Executive Director, Drea Clark

You're an indie filmmaker or an indie film fan, right? If you're reading this, I'd have to assume so. Then, when you think of Utah in January, what comes to mind? Drawing a blank? Okay, I'm not talking about snowboarding or anything like that. Let me narrow it down... think Park City. Think festival. Think indie film. Yeah, you got it... SLAMDANCE. The TRUE representation of independent film, not like that other festival thing that goes on at the same time in the area. I can't remember what it's called... I'm drawing an f'ing blank.

I'm not sure that there's much I can say about Slamdance that hasn't already been said. Slamdance is the festival that's by filmmakers, for filmmakers, and has the balls to do it in the industry's favorite wintery stomping grounds. Although they're not specifically horror, the festival gets a lot of horror submissions. Long and short, this is a festival that you don't want to miss and you need to know about. So, to help you along on your quest for knowledge, we had the distinct pleasure of talking with Slamdance Executive Director, Drea Clark, and she's going to tell you about all the goodness that is Slamdance...

Please tell us a bit about yourself… how’d you get into the indie horror scence?

I guess I got into the indie horror scene as a direct result of working at Slamdance and programming films for so many years, although I’m a huge fan of the genre anyway. A lot of my favorite films growing up were horror films, and they also happened to be my introduction to indie films: Evil Dead, Re-Animator, Last House on the Left, Dead Alive.

Tell us a bit about Slamdance. When was it founded and why?

Slamdance was founded in 1995 by a bunch of losers. Actually, just four losers – four guys whose films were rejected from Sundance, anyway. (Um, sorry, Co-Founders That I Just Called Losers.) They made films on their own: their money and their talent and their friends. So when they got turned down, they decided the next step in an indie revolution would be to show the films anyway – they made them on their own, so why not show them on their own? We’ve grown a lot from that, this will be our 15th anniversary year, actually, but at the heart that’s still our focus. Our feature competition films are ONLY open to first time directors working with less than $1 million, that don’t have distribution. Other would-be losers; those are our people.

From the perspective of the film, why should indie horror filmmakers try to get their films into the festival?

We’ve had great success with their films getting stellar reviews, great audience reaction (and subsequent word-of-mouth) and solid film sales with our indie horror selections. Last year alone we had Paranormal Activity, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer and Trailer Park of Terror. Those films were some of my favorites overall – we even had to add an additional midnight screening for Trailer Park, which was batshit fun. Plus, I got to meet Robert Englund (who stars in Jack Brooks), and that’s about the only kind of celeb encounter worth blogging about, in my estimation. People that check out Slamdance films are looking for raw talent and a good ride, and I think filmmakers taking on horror independently bring both to the table.

From the perspective of the filmmaker, what can I expect to get out of having my film screen at the festival?

I might’ve answered some of this in the first question, but the other thing that comes into play is that often Slamdance will be the first stop in a whole season of touring festivals with your film. Once you’re in the circuit, interacting with other filmmakers is a great way to gain insight to other fests and Slamdance is big on camaraderie. We really encourage our filmmakers to be all BFF with each other, to check out each other’s films and take part in all our activities. Plus, you’re in Park City! With a film! That town is swarmed with industry people and other filmmakers and parties and seminars, it’s like the most fun film boot camp you’ll ever attend.

As a horror fan, what can expect to get out of attending the festival?

Programming some great horror films is just a natural part of our slate (we call it our Twilight Series, and I don’t mean teen vampires in love with mortal girls... Unless someone submits something like that; I dig vamps). Along with the films I mentioned above, we’ve also had some foreign horror pics that you might not be able to catch elsewhere, like Cold Prey. So there are a lot of options at our fest, and Sundance has had some great flicks, as well. A couple years ago I was crushed because one of the films that we offered a position in our line-up also got into Sundance and played there instead – but it’s so good I’m totally fine pimping them out here: The Signal. You broke my heart, The Signal!

When you’re accepting films, what are you looking for?

Something that keeps my attention, that makes me think that the person (or the team) behind it all is someone who is doing something great AND has it in them to make more and more great movies. I like a consistent tone, I like a recognizable voice (and I mean directorial, not stars – we don’t care much about stars). I like being taken by surprise; if you knew how many films start with a white dude in bed as his alarm goes off and then he gets up and brushes his teeth... Kill me. (Or kill him! That keeps my eyes open.)

Does budget come into play when you’re considering films?

Budgets come into play for us because they have to be under $1 million to be eligible for competition. Other than that, not so much, although I do like having at least a couple REALLY low budget bad boys in there. Two years ago we had a feature in narrative competition with a budget of $547 (tape stock). People that craft solid stories with no money are all right in my book... Biggest problem there often ends up being craptastic performances.

As a filmmaker, what can I do to make my film more festival friendly? Should I even be thinking of that?

I don’t know if that’s really anything you can do, because when you’re making a film you should primarily be thinking about the film itself. Think of how many big budget films suck ass, largely because you can just hear the executives’ notes while you’re watching it. I think what you CAN do is concentrate on making sure it’s as solid as it can be – there isn’t money for re-shoots when you’re shooting independently. Get smart people that you trust and that are blunt with you to a) read your script and tell you what doesn’t work and b) watch your edit and be brutal. I want to trim about 20 minutes out of 78% of our submissions.

At what point in the filmmaking process should I be thinking about the festivals?

I’d say when you’re in post, but I’m a purist (and down with artists) so I’m sure others would say differently.

I’d like to also mention that you have a screenplay competition. A lot of new screenwriters are weary of sending off their scripts, what can you tell them to put their mind at ease?

We actually have four writing competitions: feature screenplay, short screenplay, teleplay (comedy, drama and unscripted) and horror screenplay. We effing love writing competitions. I totally get being freaked about sending your script out, in some ways it’s kind of like a diary – like it’s more personal than sending out your film. You send the film and there’s other people to blame, but a screenplay is just all raw and you. What I can say is that we take our submissions seriously; most of the people who work at Slamdance (staff, programmers, readers, festival bitches) are filmmaker alumni – we’ve been there, many of us are still there in the off season. And we WANT your scripts to be good, we want you to have careers, we want you to win or to get good notes back and build a name for yourself and then someday thank us from some imposing podium. So we’re not reading things hoping to cut them down, we’re hoping for them to excite us – and they often do. (In a non-pervy way.)

As a screenwriter, what can I expect to get out of submitting my screenplay?

If you’re just submitting for the competition, then you’ll be in the running for a variety of prizes (money and the various option deals that we’re always developing and building on for the writing competitions). However, you can also check “Coverage” when you submit, which means you’ll get back comprehensive notes on what is working, what isn’t working, how you can improve it – we offer year round coverage outside of the competitions, as well. Either way, your script is read all the way through (I know this; I read a lot of our submissions) and given full consideration.

Are there any particular success stories from films that screened or the screenplays that were submitted to Slamdance?

We’ve had great films picked up at Slamdance, like Mad Hot Ballroom or King of Kong or Wassup Rockers. However, I think our biggest legacy has been in the directors who showed their first film at Slamdance and developed a career as a result: Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), and Greg Mottola (Superbad) all started at Slamdance, which is kind of a mindfuck. That’s really been our niche, launching talent. Our screenplay competition’s biggest breakouts have probably been Maria Full of Grace and The Woodsman.

What advice can you give to an up and coming filmmaker or screenwriter in the indie horror genre?

Just do it! Craft a good story, flesh it out on the page (or de-flesh it if that’s part of your narrative), make it interesting and tight, where every minute is worth watching. That’s the free part, when you’re writing, so really get in there. Then find some money, drag in your most talented friends, bring it to life. Indie horror is great because it can be irreverent or scary or allegorical or hilarious, there are so many options.

Tell us about the future of indie horror, where do you see it going?

I think people always want to be scared, it’s such a pure form of escapism. Indie horror films are fun, there’s opportunities to shock and provoke thought and be a little sexy or creepy or both. Some of the best original horror films had great metaphor to them, and I think that’s easily interwoven – I would love to see more of that. I always love to see more blood, either way.

What’s next for you and Slamdance?

We are just starting our programming process now, submissions are closed and I’m watching about 15 movies a week, gearing up for the festival. We’ll be in Park City from January 15-23, 2009. We’re at the top of Main Street, if you’re going to be in town – check us out. I’ll probably be in the office, yelling at someone, but pop in and say hi.

Where can people find out more about Slamdance and how can they go about entering their film? is the way to keep up with all our happenings, activities, clam bakes, screening series, blah dee blah. And they can enter their films there next year (closed for this year) and find out more about the writing competitions and those dates, as well!


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