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Tim League Interview: Alamo Drafthouse Founder Previews Fantastic Fest 2013

Tim League Alamo Drafthouse
Annie Ray

Fantastic Fest 2013 kicks off this week in Austin, Texas — every year, Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League and his selection committee choose a variety of genre films to present to movie fans and Drafthouse devotees at the festival, which takes place this year at the recently opened Lakeline location in North Austin. Fantastic Fest is the kind of festival where you’ll see everything from Keanu Reeves‘ new martial arts film, ‘Man of Tai Chi,’ to independent gems like ‘Detective Downs’ (a movie about a private investigator with Downs Syndrome), and festival favorites like ‘Escape from Tomorrow,’ which was filmed guerrilla-style at Disneyland.

We had a chance to chat with Mr. League about what we can expect at this year’s festival, the movie he’s most excited to share with attendees, and the big events he has in store.

How are you?

Not bad, not bad.

I’m sure you’re pretty exhausted.

I’m okay, actually. I’m in a transition period between TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival], which was pretty grueling, and my wife and I are actually doing a pre-Fantastic Fest five-day juice cleanse. It’s supposed to make you feel energized. I figure I’m going to put a lot of toxins into my body at Fantastic Fest so I might as well be as healthy as possible right before.

Fantastic Fest is not the healthiest festival.

[Laughs] No, it’s not.

Tell us what you’re most excited about this year.

Gosh, a lot of things. We just had a meeting this afternoon about the Danger Gods show, which is a lifetime achievement award that we’re giving to Gary Kent, who lives here in town, who’s an old stuntman, so a lot of his peers are coming in. We’ll start with a panel and talk about some of the greatest stunts of their lives, and then everybody’s gonna roll outside and there’s gonna be a live stunt show with death-defying falls and car crashes and flaming people. It’s gonna kick off the closing night party at Fantastic Fest.

Every year seems increasingly dangerous. 

We wanna add a new element of danger every year.

Fantastic Fest 2012 Debates
Fantastic Fest

Last year, programmer Zack Carlson had a watermelon placed on his stomach and sliced in half by a sword-wielding martial arts master.

Yup.

And Martin Landau stumbled and fell, and I think we were all pretty terrified that Fantastic Fest was going to kill him.

Yes, that would have been not the best way to start the festival. To kill Martin Landau with that slow motion fall, from my perspective, off the stage. [Laughs]

So who are you going to try and kill this year?

Who are we going to kill … ? Nobody! That’s a trick question. We’re gonna kill nobody at Fantastic Fest this year.

Surprise!

Dangerously close. Hopefully, I’m trying to not kill myself because I was disappointed last year with the Fantastic Debates [a debate between two opponents followed by three rounds of boxing]. We didn’t really get it choreographed well, and Y.K. Kim definitely needed to try to hurt me, and so we’re making it absolutely clear that my opponent this year needs to not mess around and actually fight. So I guess the person that might actually die this year is me.

These big events are always such a blast, but is there a particular film that you’re really proud of landing this year?

Well the most recent film that we booked, the last film that we booked, is a movie by a director — his name is Hitoshi Matsumoto — and the film is ‘R100,’ and it just had its world premiere last night at Toronto. This is a guy who I’ve been such an incredible fan of for 15 years, and he’s a television in icon in Japan. He’s the most famous comedian in Japan. If you can imagine Seinfeld, like, way bigger than Seinfeld, for the Japanese population. His film was ‘Big Man Japan,’ which we begged and pleaded to play at the festival in 2007, I believe. Now this is his fourth feature and I’m head over heels in love with it. I think our particular festival is just perfect for it. I mean it’s really absurd, it’s really crazy. It’s really complicated and weird in all the right ways. It’s obviously a very niche type of cult film, but to me it speaks like, this is Fantastic Fest to me.

Every year we get to see some of the best genre films, and a lot of stuff we might never get to see again. Was there a theme of sorts this year, or a particular motif that emerged?

I don’t think we necessarily ever have a theme because I think if you start booking themes or if you have quotas, like, “I need 10 horror movies this year,” then you’re ultimately going to come up with eight good ones and then make compromises on the last two. For me, the one thing I’m always looking for is great, original storytelling — somebody that understands the narrative form of feature film and does really cool and unexpected and interesting things, and probably has a few things weird or disturbing about it. Some of those are dramas, some of those are sci-fi, some of those are horror movies. Some of them are romance films. That’s really the driving force behind everything that we program. We don’t have quotas, per se, on how many have to be sci-fi, how many have to be horror.

You’ve talked about the movie you’re most excited to present, but was there anything that disappointed you this year — perhaps a movie you really wanted and couldn’t secure for the fest?

So there’s a movie that is not going to be playing, which was more or less built for Fantastic Fest in a lot of ways. It’s the new Nacho Vigalando movie.

I just watched the trailer for that!

It’s not done, is the problem. It actually takes place at Fantastic Fest. It starts off at Fantastic Fest, and it was meant to premiere here this year and the production just got absurd. It’s not done, and they don’t want to show the unfinished cut, and I don’t blame them. Everybody — the filmmaker is disappointed, the stars are disappointed, I’m disappointed. That’s the big one that got away for me because it would have been spectacular to show it. And I’ve seen the rough cut, and it’s great and I really love it, but it’s just got a lot of unfinished CGI.

Fantastic Fest has traditionally been held at the Drafthouse’s South Lamar location, but this year it’s moving to the new Lakeline location. How excited are you about the new venue?

I like it a lot! I know the people who live in far south Austin, from the local audience this year are a little bit bummed about having to drive to the other side of town, but the people who live in north Austin who have been driving down to South Lamar are super excited! So it’s pretty much a wash.

Exactly! There are people who have been living up north and driving down south for years.

Quietly, and without a single complaint! In a way, I like it that there’s less distractions around. I think a lot of people come into Austin, they’re guests of the festival and there are so many things to do in Austin and so many places to go, and it’s a lot more convenient to do that from South Lamar, so my hope is that — well, extending on what one of Fantastic Fest’s greatest strengths is that it’s got this great community of people who want to hang out together, go to parties together, watch movies together, they talk about movies together. That just gets even stronger because there are fewer distractions.

We’re all limited to one location this year, and I think that’s for the best.

Yeah, and the hotels are actually really close, like people who are staying in hotels … our official hotels for Fantastic Fest at South Lamar are all downtown, and getting in and out of downtown on Friday and Saturday nights is always a little challenging. It’s actually more convenient for the guests who are coming, too.

Are there any big surprises in store this year?

Well, if there were surprises and I told you about them, they wouldn’t necessarily be surprises.

Yeah, but you can be vague. You can give me hints!

We always a few tricks up our sleeve that aren’t yet announced, so yes, to answer your question, yes. There are a couple of big surprises. [Laughs]

So I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails asking me to pay large sums of money to go shoot guns with you from Jeeps and hunt feral pigs from helicopters. What’s that all about?

Four people have taken up that offer! So we do have a hunting party that’s going to be there on Wednesday to go about three hours away, and we’re gonna go to a ranch land that has a feral hog infestation problem.

Why so violent this year?

It’s funny because I know that by doing that sort of stuff it really makes a fuss with a certain audience, and I do it because — I don’t know, we’re a Texas festival, and I think it’s funny to live up to Texas stereotypes by having lots of meat and beer and guns. People are going to come to Texas, they’re going to remember they came to Texas all right. I’m also on the side of the argument that I have no issue with hunting hogs from helicopters. Some people do. I can understand when people are annoyed with us for seemingly celebrating such a strange and violent action, but anyway … I’m getting all serious now.

Well yeah, but those people are going to Salt Lick BBQ the night before to eat a bunch of pigs anyway!

I’m not a hunter, but I have gone hunting and I have cleaned my own animals. I have taken an animal from alive to dead and then eaten it. All respect to anybody that has a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but that’s not my lifestyle. In such, I understand that meat comes from living animals and I kill them and then eat them. I’m comfortable with that.

You should have your own show about this. And then we can play it at Fantastic Fest.

I do raise chickens at my house, and last week I had to kill a rooster, and we ate that rooster that evening. I’m gonna YouTube it. I figure that’s probably not right. People don’t want to see me doing that.

As you mentioned, one of the biggest elements of Fantastic Fest is the social experience. What are some of the movies you’re hoping people are going to be talking about a lot this year?

I’m excited on the first weekend that we’re bringing in a lot more industry people and producers and financiers for this Fantastic Market, which is the first year we’ve done it. We’ve got 16 filmmakers, most of whom are Fantastic Fest veterans and they’ve got projects that are underway. We’re pressing those two groups together and we’re having them pitch these projects to meet bridge financing in the hope that deals get made here, and that more great films get made from the filmmakers we love. I think having more filmmakers and more financiers and producers getting to socialize with the filmmakers we celebrate — it will lead to great things. I hope those groups clink glasses and fall in love with each other.

You mentioned press and industry — this isn’t turning into the Toronto International Film Festival, is it?

No! … I said that dismissively. I really like Toronto. We made a willful decision to keep our growth at one venue, so the most interesting thing to me about Fantastic Fest is the sense of community among a relatively small group. It’s only the amount of people who can fit into one of our Alamo Drafthouse locations, so it’s kind of that. We can never become a Toronto. We’re never gonna have 2,000 seat venue, and we’re not gonna have the army of industry and all that other stuff that goes on. I think Toronto is phenomenal and serves an incredible purpose. I go — and just got back — and it’s very beneficial to me, but that’s not our aspiration. Our aspiration is a community-based film festival and what can we do with that significant restriction upon us.

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