For 15 years, the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal has hosted the most outrageous and sublime selections of genre filmmaking from all over the world. With his long black hair and penchant for tossing up devil horns, Mitch Davis, the fest's co-director, is a rock star who's helped create a passionate network of fans and filmmakers that makes Fantasia feel like a party for a bunch of friends you didn't know you had. Complex managed to get a few minutes of his time before the end of the fest tomorrow to ask Davis about the festival's unique vibe and how he selects films that will blow fans' minds.
Interview by Jonathan Lees (@jonNothin)
Complex: Tell us briefly how you got started programming for Fantasia.
Mitch Davis: It was a perfect storm of friendship, luck, and timing. I joined the fest several months after its inaugural edition in 1996 and was hired to come on board as a co-director of programming for the 1997 fest, alongside my then-roomate and best friend filmmaker Karim Hussain. Fantasia was founded by Pierre Corbeil, who remains president to this day. During its first year, I hung around every day as an audience member and it was only a little after the fest wrapped that Pierre invited me to join his team.
He knew me as a friend and also as a writer for various zines. I've always been a fanatical film buff with an interest in obscure, under-appreciated works, and that must have been a good qualifier. At the time, I was also in production on Karim's first feature, the years-in-the-making Subconscious Cruelty, on which I served as producer.
Creating a three week show for your audience is a daunting task but you know them best. Give us a little insight on the Fantasia audience.
The Fantasia audience is extraordinary. It's this enormous, passionate mass of open-minded film fans from all over the world who come together each summer in Montreal to form a family. It's a very intense audience, but what I find really makes our audience special is the level of engagement that you feel at screenings here. It will sound like a rock concert when a moment in a film warrants it, but at the same time, with 700 people in a room, you'll almost never hear anyone talk over dialogue, or a cell phone going off. There's a real respect for cinema and filmmaking. It's downright palpable.
You can immediately sense that people are genuinely happy to be here and to share these incredible experiences and discoveries with each other. Many filmmakers have told me that their Fantasia screening was the best screening their film ever had, and I believe them. It's like a magical alternate reality to me sometimes, because I'll go out and scout films at other festivals and find something unknown, unconventional, and brilliant and it will be screening to an audience of less than 50 people. If it's the right film, I can almost always bring it to Montreal and count on a huge audience to read the programme notes, do some online research into the film and then, usually, come out in masses to roll the dice and check it out. It's almost surreal and its indescribably wonderful.
Even crazier, we've launched many totally unknown titles that we found through Without A Box or random submissions, first-time work from a new and unknown filmmaker that hasn't been screened anywhere or, until the point of our announcing it, been written about in any language, has no pre-existing awareness or buzz, and we've sold out the 750-seat room with them. Not always, of course, but it happens. That's an incredible audience.
Nothing—absolutely nothing—feels better than seeing an unknown and terrific film come to life in front of a huge audience that falls in love with it. That rush of collective discovery and adoration that rockets a theatre fifty feet into the air in giant pulses of mass euphoria. It's orgasmic, and it reaffirms my faith in there being some sense of good in the universe.
Part of the reason we can do this with the lesser-known titles, I think, is that the audience trusts us as programmers. They know that if we're showing a film, it's because someone on the programming team truly cares about it. And our programming team is amazing; aside from me, there are phenomenal people like Todd Brown, Tony Timpone, Nicolas Archambault, Stephanie Trepanier, Simon Lapérierre, King-Wei Chu, Pierre Corbeil, Anna Mijeong Lee, and author/curator extraordinaire Kier-la Janisse.
We all expect the allure of big shocks and epic action at a genre fest but my favorite moments are when an audience discovers the more quiet, understated entries. Can you give a little advice on what you're looking for as a programmer and what excites YOU when the room goes dark and that first image flickers on the screen?
As a programmer, I program as if I'm the audience because really, most of the time, I am. If I love a film, even if it doesn't fit perfectly within genre definitions, or some cases, doesn't fit at all, I can always count on a large sector of our audience to respond to it the way I responded to it and I just go after it with confidence. That's why Fantasia is probably the only genre festival in the world that screened Your Mommy Kills Animals, for example, or Geoffrey Wright's Metal Skin, or did spotlights on the films of Buddy Giovinazzo and Ken Russell.
What I look for is something that either surprises me, moves me, challenges me, entertains me or freaks me the hell out. I'm always excited by ambitious and unique filmmaking, and I'm a bit predisposed to loving dark or confrontational fare. At the same time, I also love unusual comedies, docs, dramas, arthouse, experimental films, etc., so the net's cast pretty wide, and I'm not above loving atypical mainstream films as well. We're all very open-minded here. When you go through our lineup, you can just as soon get The King And The Clown or Attack The Block as Urban Explorer or The Life And Death Of A Porno Gang.
After the world or national premiere, films normally travel the fest circuit before distribution interest. Some, as we both know, never make it into a release. As a fellow programmer, I know it is very distressing when a film you champion and promote and is cherished by audiences doesn't make it to the public eye. In your 15 years with Fantasia, what are your favorite undistributed films that had their time to shine at Fantasia (whether this year or prior).
Survive Style 5+, Must Love Death, Love Exposure, Airbag, A Journey Into Bliss, A Gun For Jennifer, Gods Of Times Square, The Love God, Ricky 6, The Arcane Enchanter, and, in the barely-got-released-and-desperately-deserves-a-stronger-rerelease-so-people-can-discover-it department, Scott Reynolds' Heaven and Michael Almereyda's Trance/The Eternal.
Interview by Jonathan Lees (@jonNothin)