Thursday, April 9, 2009

Interview with David Pruett, Festival Director of Dark Carnival Film Fest

Well, tomorrow's a holiday and Dead Harvey will be taking the day off. Chances are, as the weather's supposed to be shit here and my wife has to work, I'll just be sitting around watching lots of indie horror and drinking beer. But, hey... that's a good day in my books. Anyhow, as I usually talk about the film festivals on Friday and I usually post an interview on Thursday, how about an interview with a festival director?

We've only interviewed a handful of festival directors to date, but... man alive. Talk about a good perspective on the indie horror scene! David Pruett, festival director of Dark Carnival Film Fest, offers some great advice from a unique perspective and, with the way that the indie film scene is set up today, festivals really play an integral role. You need to know what they're about, how they work and how they can work for you and, because of that, this interview with David Pruett is one of those interviews that you're definitely going to want to read...

So, tell us a bit about yourself, how’d you get into the indie horror scene?

I’ve always been a big fan of horror in general. My family was big on Halloween. It was our favorite holiday, and my parents used to go all out on these huge Halloween parties. I watched a lot of horror movies as a kid, too. The two that really scared me were “Trilogy of Terror” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” I actually bought a bootleg of “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” awhile back, and it still gives me the creeps.

I was also a big fan of Sammy Terry, who was a local Indiana horror host on channel 4. He had a show, off and on, from the late 60s into the 80s and 90s, and he still makes public appearances to this day (including Dark Carnival last year, where he was greeted by some 500 fans!)

I got into indie horror seven or eight years ago, when I started to figure out that’s where the good stuff is! A friend of mine recommended the movie “Ginger Snaps,” and I remember thinking “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” That movie totally flew in the face of conventional Hollywood horror at the time. I’ve been hooked ever since…

Tell us about Dark Carnival Film Festival. When and why did it get started?

Several years ago I was part of this grassroots indie film co-op. Basically, it was a kind of social group for people who like to make movies. Anyway, I met this guy named Arthur Cullipher who was a make-up effects artist. We had a lot in common in that we were both big horror fans and we were into old-school carnival sideshows. We started talking about creating a “Carnival of the Weird” – some kind of live event with freaks and odd looking creatures in jars. We didn’t really know what to do with the idea and ended up shelving it while we worked on some film projects together.

Then about three years ago I decided to resurrect Carnival of the Weird as an indie horror film fest with a creepy carnival sideshow theme. We started planning it as a one-day event, but we got so much interest from filmmakers and fans, we just kept adding days – so the first year was five days of screenings!

I decided to call it Dark Carnival because I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury who wrote a collection of short stories called Dark Carnival, the most famous of which, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” was made into a movie – another one of my favorites!

Also, Bloomington, Indiana has a long history as a circus town going back more than 100 years. It has been home to several circus families and some still live here to this day.

There’s a lot more to the festival than just films, tell us a bit about what you have going on.

We always try to offer a wide variety of entertainment that fits in with the carnival theme, including live sideshows, fire breathers, belly dancers, live music, etc. – and we try to do something totally different every year.

This year we’re doing something called “Dark’s Grand Guignol Theater.” We’re producing an original play that is a hybrid of live theater and film, incorporating live gore effects on stage. That show runs three nights and kicks off the festivities.

We’re also doing “Cinema Schlockfest” at the Starlite Drive-In. We’ll be screening some grindhouse gems from the 70s & 80s, complete with old-school drive-in intermission commercials (dancing corndogs, etc). That event will include live horror hosts doing a “Host Off.”

We’re going to be doing a horror host tribute as well, including the only national tribute to Vampira (Maila Nurmi) who passed away last year. One of the guests for that event will be Michael Monahan, executive producer of “American Scary,” a documentary about TV horror hosts, and the last person to interview Vampira before her death. He’ll be bringing some never-before-seen footage, as well as one of her signature black dresses.

We’re also going to have several filmmaking workshops on everything from screenwriting to special effects – and, as in past years, there’ll be celebrity guests, live music, a horror-themed fashion show, an art exhibit, merchandise and more.

We'll also be debuting a short-screenplay competition in which the winner will have their script produced, with a premiere screening at the 2010 Dark Carnival Film Festival.

Talk about the process in getting a film festival up and off the ground. What kind of hurdles did you have and what were some of the lessons learned?

Before I started Dark Carnival I actually had some experience helping organize a local indie film fest. Still, that was a relatively small event in comparison, and I really wasn’t prepared for how much work was involved putting together a fest that spanned several days at multiple venues.

Nevertheless, the hardest part was, and still is, fundraising. Even with an all volunteer staff, it takes a lot of cash to get a film festival up and going, and a horror fest doesn’t necessarily attract a ton of sponsors.

I would say the biggest lesson learned was to apply things I picked up from making low budget movies – like being creative with limited resources and not extending ourselves beyond our budget. And that’s an approach that has served us well, especially now when a lot of other horror fests have been struggling.

So, from the perspective of a film, why should an indie horror filmmaker try to get their film into festivals?

A lot of filmmakers utilize the festival circuit as a means to get some kind of distribution for their work, which is something we recognize and we always have representatives from film production and distribution companies in attendance at the fest.

Still, from my perspective, I feel like most people don’t make a movie with the idea that it’s only going to be experienced on a living room TV. I think a lot of filmmakers fantasize about seeing their work up on a big screen in front of an audience, and that is the experience that a film festival (hopefully) provides.

Still, a lot of festivals – particularly horror fests - are geared more toward merchandise tables and the film part is almost an afterthought. The organizers rent out these big convention centers for the vendors and they show movies in a hotel conference room on a tiny screen with a rental projector.

At Dark Carnival we show films in a real theater, on a full-size movie screen. And that’s something we tend to get the most compliments on, from filmmakers and fans alike.

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

We pride ourselves on really taking care of filmmakers whose movies get selected.
We take care to make sure that the exhibition of each film is optimum, working with filmmakers to get the best possible sound and picture quality, sometimes swapping out a copy of a film right up into the day of a screening. Again, we offer an excellent exhibition venue - a 100 year old movie house, completely restored with a full size 30' by 20' screen and digital projection system.

As a result, we have filmmakers who have traveled literally from all over the country and all over the world, (often bypassing much larger festivals) to see their film presented at Dark Carnival.

When visiting filmmakers arrive, they’re greeted by a staff member and given a packet which includes a map, a guide to local events and businesses, a "backstage pass" which gives them access to a private Green Room - complete with free meals for the weekend, and an invitation to our private awards banquet with an open bar.

Filmmakers are also invited to present Q&A sessions, and they’re invited to free workshops. Past workshops have included seminars on low-budget filmmaking, and working with actors. In 2009 we'll also be offering a screenwriting workshop, and a special effects workshop by an Oscar nomiated effects artist.

We also try to promote short films by picking the best from each festival and publishing a compilation DVD that we promote throughout the following year. Even after the festival is over we keep on going, traveling to horror conventions all over the midwest. In addition to selling our own compilation DVD, we also partner with our festival filmmakers, offering to sell their DVDs at our booth in exchange for a $5 to $10 contribution toward booth rental costs.

As far as I know, these things make us pretty unique among horror film fests.

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

You can expect a ton of entertainment for the money. Our fest is a weeklong event and we charge roughly half of what most horror fests charge for a festival pass. We also try to offer something for everyone, from the casual horror fan to the hardcore gore hound.

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

Every film fest is basically looking for the same thing – unique stories that are told well. Unfortunately that’s not as easy as it sounds, but I‘m always amazed at the quality of the films we receive each year. It just reinforces the fact that the best stuff in horror comes from indie filmmakers.

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

Budget has less of an impact on our decisions than you might think. Really, we don’t pay much attention to it because we don’t even ask about budget on our submission form, and budget isn’t always an accurate indicator of the quality of a film. In fact, it’s often very impressive to see what some filmmakers can accomplish on a shoestring.

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

Yeah, absolutely – that’s a great question. Festivals tend to show a mix of shorts and features. At Dark Carnival we divide films into multiple screening series, with each series consisting of three to four short films followed by a feature film. Shorts tend to be faster paced, since they have to get more accomplished within a limited amount of time. That creates problems when the shorts are humming along and then you get to the feature and the pacing is much slower – it’s like zipping down the highway and then veering off into the ditch.

That’s why many festivals reserve the right to request a “festival cut” of a film. Some filmmakers think this means “director’s cut” and they throw everything in, even though the exact opposite is true. A festival cut should be the most tightly edited version of your film that you can accomplish.

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

I would say that if doing the film festival circuit is important to you, then thinking about it at the screenwriting stage is not too early. Festival programmers are looking for stuff that is pretty much the opposite of what Hollywood is doing. That means, if you’re going to make a movie about a bunch of teenagers on a roadtrip who get murdered out in the woods – then you had damn well better have something new and earth-shattering to offer, otherwise you’re just wasting your time. Better yet, avoid the horror clich├ęs and come up with something no one’s ever done before.

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

Personally, I think it’s really easy to get wrapped up in the fun stuff, like playing with the new HD camera or coming up with cool gore effects. But the “less fun stuff” needs equal attention. I think the most important skill for a filmmaker to develop is editing, and I don’t mean just learning how to use Final Cut Pro.

I can’t tell you how often our selection committee has screened a submission and said, “has this person ever actually watched a movie?!?” So that would be my best advice – watch movies, and I mean really watch them. Pay attention to the pacing. Pay attention to how long the camera lingers at the end of a shot. Pay attention to the ratio of dialog vs. action. For better or worse, American audiences have developed certain subconscious expectations regarding the way movies are edited, and you ignore those expectations at your peril.

I would say that for eighty percent of the movies we reject, editing is the biggest problem. A lot of filmmakers feel like they can’t get distribution unless they have a feature length film, so they take a good thirty minute script and pad it out to ninety minutes.

The best thing a filmmaker can do is schedule a screening in front of strangers and then ask them for input. Your friends and family will blow smoke up your ass and tell you how great your movie is, but total strangers aren’t going to sugar coat it – so get their feedback and pay attention.

That means you may have to suck it up and cut that scene that you poured your soul into and took four days to shoot, because cutting it makes your film better. Any mainstream filmmaker, from Jim Cameron to Steven Spielberg, will tell you they’ve had to do that very thing.

Where do you think the indie horror scene is now and where do you see it going?

It seems like horror in general is stronger than ever right now. We just got back from HorrorHound Weekend, where we had a booth. The crowds were the biggest I’ve seen in three years. The economy really hasn’t put much of a damper on things – at least not yet.

In terms of films, most of the original ideas are coming out of indie horror right now. Hollywood is stuck on remakes: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Last House on the Left - Sam Raimi is even working on a remake of Evil Dead. And when they do put out something “original,” half the time it's a remake of a foreign film. Some of the best horror that I've seen lately is coming from France, Korea, Sweden, etc.

Horror is a genre in which Hollywood and mainstream filmmakers are no longer dominant, and foreign filmmakers are stepping in to fill the void. This is even reflected in the submissions we've been getting for Dark Carnival '09. I'd say 75 percent of what we've received so far this year came from outside the US, which is a total reversal from the previous two years.

Another trend that has been building steam for awhile now in indie horror is the evolving role of women. Women are now much less often portrayed as victims and more often are the protagonists - or better yet, the antagonists. A few great examples are the French movies "Inside" and “Martyrs” which are some of the scariest movies I've seen in years.

And more women are stepping behind the camera. Last year Dark Carnival hosted a panel discussion called Women in Horror. There were seven women on the panel and more than half of them were producing, writing and directing their own films. Particularly notable were Susan Adriensen and Jennifer Friend, both of whom act, write, produce and direct - and make amazing movies. (Check out “Under the Raven's Wing” and “Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula”).

What’s next for you and Dark Carnival Film Fest?

So far, I've approached every Dark Carnival like it's going to be the last. I've learned not to assume anything - you just never know what kind of an effect things like Netflix, competing horror festivals, or the economy are going to have on audience turnout. But we'll keep putting on a show as long as people keep showing up.
The challenge for us is to give the audience what they want and to give them something they can't see anywhere else. We kind of chide other horror fests for being big rooms full of merchandise, be we recognize the fact that people love horror memorabilia (I love it too) so we're looking for ways to expand our merch area without compromising what makes us unique.

Beyond that, we’re just taking things one year at a time and having as much fun as possible.

Where can people find out more about the festival and how can they go about entering their film?

They can visit our website at For info on submissions, just click on the Submissions button at the top of the main page.

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