AUTUMN OF INDIE: Interview with Abertoir’s Gareth Bailey and Nia Edwards-Behi

As part of our Abertoir season, I’ve managed to snag a quick interview with Festival Director Gareth Bailey and Assistant Director, Nia Edwards-Behi.  Here we’ll discover some of what it takes to set up a film festival, the highs and lows of the past six years, and some of what we have to look forward to in 2012.

 

Geek Syndicate (GS):  Thank you both for joining us here.  Welcome to the Geek Syndicate.

Gareth Bailey (GB):  Thank you Dion! It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk about the festival with you (my brain isn’t geared up to talk about anything else at the moment!)

Nia Edwards-Behi (NEB): Thanks a ton for letting us chat, Dion!

 

GS:  A lot of people will see the word ‘Horror’ and just say “That’s not for me.”   They don’t see the vast spectrum of tastes that it can cover.  How do you get them to pause long enough to give it a go?

GB:  There’s always a lot of baggage that comes with a “horror festival.”  I see it occasionally referred to as “Abertoir Film Festival” which is fine by me, but perhaps indicative of people’s feelings about it as a genre.  Horror is such a wide encompassing word as you say, and while so many classic tales of horror are embraced by everyone (Frankenstein being a good example) there’s still a stigma attached that people have trouble seeing past.  One excuse (which hurt us greatly) was that we weren’t allowed a certain film because the distributor wanted “a more upmarket audience.”  It’s attitudes like that which we sometimes come up against and shows a level of ignorance that is sadly all too common.

We aim to show people the depth and importance of the genre, and as such manage to get talks, panel discussions, articles, theatre performances of classic literary tales and even silent film with live accompaniment.  Horror is one of the most interesting (and much more academically studied) genres; it’s not just about chasing people around in the woods.  We’re quite selective as a result of this (maybe too selective) but we manage to put on a schedule which appeals to all kinds of tastes in the hope that the average person might find something interesting along with the fans.

NEB: I think the variety of events we stage each year helps to draw people who might be a little nervous about the genre.  I think particularly with our theatre and music shows, people who attend them individually might take pause and think, ‘hang on, this is showing as part of a horror festival?’ Film-wise, I think that we’re careful to screen classics, as well as new films.  It’s important, and as Gaz says, we’re quite selective about those new films.  That’s not to say we wouldn’t show a film that wasn’t wholly original or inventive, but it would have to be a damn fine film of people running around the woods for us to select it!

 

GS:  You began the festival originally to coincide with (Wicker Man director) Robin Hardy’s publicity visit to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.  Did you have any previous experience in events organisation or did you learn on the fly?  Looking back now, did you have a clear idea as to what you were getting yourself into?

GB:  Well, it was never intended to be as big as it is now, and I certainly had no previous experience in running a film festival.  It’s something that’s very much grown as a result of listening to the fans, but I’ve never lost sight of why it was originally set up: as an answer to the lack of genre film festivals in Wales.  I never imagined that seven years later it would have grown into a six-day international festival, and the calibre of guests (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Victoria Price, Lloyd Kaufman, Doug Bradley, etc) that have made their way to Aber as a result is quite amazing.  I’m still a fan boy, and I think that what most people experience from the festival is a welcoming, friendly event put on, not for commercial gain, but just for the sense of having a great time.

NEB: My Abertoir journey started purely as an attendee! The first couple of years I came as a punter and absolutely loved it. The fact that I got to know Gaz just by attending the festival (okay, and frequenting the cinema the rest of the year too), emphasises Abertoir’s greatest strength, which is that sense of Welcome.  I’m really proud to have been able to come on board and help organise the festival as it’s gone from strength to strength, but likewise I have very little ‘events’ experience.  I guess with some things, pure fan enthusiasm lets you hit the ground running!

 

GS:  This is your seventh year running the Abertoir Horror Festival, so I suppose you’re both old hands at it now.  When does the planning begin?  Take us through the basic steps of pulling something like this together.  How do you get the right mixture of movies and events?

GB/NEB:  The planning begins as soon as possible, usually we start thinking about things in March/April (although I’ve already planned a few events for next year!)  The basic steps are to get the dates sorted first of all, then start scouting for films.  Once submissions open we have films coming in from all over the world (we’ve had films sent from as far away as Bahrain, Australia, the Philippines etc.) and of course we keep an eye on the festival circuit to see which films are the hot titles, currently being talked about.  We’re determined to bring the best of the current crop to Wales, and we usually succeed quite well in getting some high-profile films!

We love the classics, and they’re usually the ones we get sorted first.  As a result, our poster usually features all the older films in our line-up, which is important to us as we don’t distinguish the importance of new films over the classics.

As you say, getting the right mixture of events and films is achieved by looking at the programme as a set menu.  We plan it with the audience in mind: they’re following our schedule from the first day to the last day and we try to make it as varied as possible during the time so that nothing gets repetitive.

 

GS:  What were the biggest hurdles you have had to leap, and what have been your greatest disappointments?

GB:  One of the biggest hurdles is also what makes us so special: our location!  We love being on the west coast of Wales in Aberystwyth.  While most other festivals are in big cities with big populations, our location makes Abertoir much more unique.  It also helps us get guests (as they’ve usually never been to Wales!)  While it helps in making the atmosphere even more friendly, it’s also our biggest hurdle.  So many people come to Abertoir from all over the UK and we’re fully aware that if we uprooted our entire program and set it in a major city, we’d get even more people (and more funding!)  However, it’s obviously working as we welcome familiar faces back every year from all over the place (we even have a regular who takes a flight from Guernsey every year!).

Disappointments always occur.  One of the biggest was the sad death of Ingrid Pitt, who was scheduled to be our guest a few years back, but we always get over certain hurdles one way or the other.

NEB: I completely agree that our location is a big issue, but at the same time it’s also the whole point of the festival.  As much as it’s difficult to get to Aberystwyth from… well, anywhere, it’s also difficult to travel from Aber to other places.  To me, it’s really important that we offer some of the best horror films around to an audience that might otherwise not be able to make the long trip to a more central location.  For me the disappointments are often just down to timing – so there’ll be certain films or certain guests who we can’t get at the festival because they’re committed elsewhere, or the film’s not quite ready, or the film’s on DVD just before us…  As Gaz says though, we always get by any disappointments like that.

 

GS:  This year will be my third visit.  Each time I’ve been impressed by the fun-loving atmosphere and just how inclusive it all feels.  What is the heart of the Abertoir festival?  What drives you to put in so much hard work?

GB: Thanks!  Yes, it’s all done out of passion for the genre, and for the fans who come and spend their time with us.  We’ve never forgotten we exist to put on an event for folk that’s affordable and fun, and the fact that we’re still here seven years later is a testimony to that.  Obviously we have to thank The Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth University and the Film Agency for Wales for giving us the venue and support to continue as we are doing, but just to hear that people take time off work to come and attend means quite a lot to us.  At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of horror fans putting on an event for other horror fans and looking forward to having a good time…..

NEB: We’re so lucky that so many organisations and individuals put their trust in us to put on a festival the way we do, and we’re forever grateful for that trust.  Likewise, it’s so humbling that people keep coming back, from near and some quite far, and happily buy a ticket before they even know what we’ve programmed.  Ultimately, I just want to spend a week with friends watching horror films, so my drive very much comes from wanting to make sure that the films on offer are the best and most interesting.

 

GS:  For the last six years, Abertoir has showcased a huge number of major releases, indie films and cinematic classics.  What were the most difficult films to secure, which events have garnered the biggest audience reaction, and what have you personally been the happiest to see up on your big screen?

GB:  Every year there’s always one or two films that have a special meaning to us.  Either it’s something we’ve discovered ourselves that no-one else has spotted, or it’s a film that we love so much we just want to share it with you.  It’s the new titles that are the biggest ones to secure and we frequently have problems trying to get them.  In fact they’re usually the reason we don’t announce our schedule too early as we hang on as long as possible!

This year, one of the things I’m particularly looking forward to is introducing Danger 5 (a hilarious Australian TV series) to audiences at Abertoir.  It’s something I discovered purely by accident, showed it to Nia (who laughed as much as I did) and then sought permission to share it with our friends (aka audience) at Abertoir.  There are always personal touches to the festival that reflect our own personalities and loves; my love for Vincent Price movies for example, culminated in his daughter being our guest last year – which gained us a huge amount of publicity around Wales (not many people knew Vincent’s wife Mary was Welsh!)  Welcoming her to the stage will always remain one of the fondest memories of Abertoir!

NEB: Gaz is always the one who manages to secure the really difficult big titles, because he’s so experienced at doing so as a cinema manager anyway!  I think my proudest moment was being able to screen Dead Hooker in a Trunk in 2010. I’d been the first person to screen the film previously in the year, so it was really satisfying to be able to screen it for a bigger and more anticipatory audience, as the film had garnered such attention in the mean time!  One of my favourite audience reactions actually comes from when I just attended the festival.  The screening of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs ranks as my favourite cinema experience, because when the credits rolled there was just such stunned silence in the cinema.  It was truly eerie knowing that this room full of hardened horror fans were so stunned by a film (myself very much included!).

 

GS:  Along with the features you also host a short-film competition, with winners going forward to participate in the prestigious Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival.  Is your competition open to absolutely anybody?  Where can people find your submission guidelines?  Have any of your entrants gone on to greater success?

GB:  A few years ago we made a successful bid to join the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation which means that we get to award the Melies D’Or award for best European Short Film.  While this restricts entrants to short European films, nonetheless we have our own Abertoir award for best overall film (a nice handmade ceramic statue) which means that anyone can enter from any country.  While submissions are open, there is a highly visible link on our main webpage and thanks to our colleague Rhys, who’s far cleverer than I am, it can all be done online now.  We’ve had a number of feature films that have been picked up by film distributors after being shown here, but by far the biggest success story would be Marc Price, whose film Colin picked up a sales agent from our screening and then went on to be a big sensation in low-budget filmmaking.  Even Martin Scorsese apparently watched it in a hotel room…we can’t help but to smile at the thought that we’ve had a tiny, tiny impact on Martin Scorsese’s life…

NEB: I think the short film competition is one of the most exciting aspects of the festival because you get to see nascent talent starting out on what might become a long and illustrious film career!  A short film can be incredibly powerful, and sometimes it’s a short film that can end up a favourite of the festival over all for me!  It’s also satisfying to see the range of places our short films come from, some having relatively high budgets, others no budgets, as well as the different sort of filmmakers and backgrounds that we get to see.

 

GS:  Abertoir is not just a film festival.  Amongst other events, we’ve seen theatrical performances, art installations, debates and live music.  What does this cross-media programming give you as organisers and how do your audience respond to it?

GB:  It’s all about variety, and links back to our determination to show people there’s a lot more to horror than they think.  It’s not all about blood and gore; horror exists as an art form in so many ways and, by including it all in the price of a pass, we open people up to experience things that perhaps they may not have gone to otherwise.

NEB: I think people appreciate a break from watching a screen, too…

 

GS:  Folks generally think it’s all about fear, but you always host light-hearted events too – like the mystery grindhouse, the pub quiz and the fancy dress party.  For the uninitiated reader, tell us what part laughter has to play in a horror festival?

GB:  It’s all about having a good time!  I think we’d all go a bit nuts (or bored) if we sat through six days of seeing people ripped apart by chainsaws, so we try our best to make the whole event work as a big communal experience.  People laughing and having a good time is a way of making the best of having an audience, and sharing these fun moments with the same people over the course of the six days is important to get that sense of community that you mentioned earlier.  Plus, what’s the point of going through the stress of putting together the festival if we can’t enjoy ourselves!

NEB: Laughter is so important to a horror festival, in my opinion.  In one way, it’s the welcome break from the horror itself – I think it’s easy to assume that horror fans want bleakness and gore all the time, but that’s not true.  The mystery grindhouse screening is a wonderful way to celebrate the fact that much of our beloved genre is just a bit crap, and the pub quiz is likewise a celebration of the fact that we’re all a bunch of nerds who just really love what we love.  I think also humour, much like horror itself, is a really powerful way of telling a story.  I think that’s why so often some of our most popular films combine elements of comedy with horror – and it’s a very difficult task to make that combination work.

 

GS:  So, Abertoir 2012 is just around the corner, running from the 6-11th November.  Tickets are still available.  To help convince our readers to grab that credit card and pick up the phone, tell us about the films, guests and events that you are most excited about this year.

GB:  Well, among our guests this year, lovers of Italian horror can look forward to Catriona MacColl (star of the Fulci classics) who’s going to be making her way to Aberystwyth for screenings of two of her films on the big screen (The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond).  Our opening film, The Shining, is particularly special as it’s the extended USA version which has never been released in the UK before 2012 (and also a film we’ve been dying to show for years!)  But basically, if you’ve been reading about the new and exciting horror films, the chances are high that we’ll be showing you what you want.  If you’re a fan of the classics, there’re some real gems for you (such as Vincent Price in the brand new digital 3D restoration of The Mad Magician) and if you want to share a beer with some of the talent behind the movies, then you’re all invited!   At £58 for six days, you can’t really go wrong: it’s a fabulous line-up, a lovely, friendly place and most importantly, there’s a very special beer on offer that will be revealed all too soon…

NEB: I think one of the nicest things someone’s said to me about the festival is that the great films we show are really just a bonus to the great time that’s always had by our attendees.  So, before even thinking on favourite events and films, the atmosphere is reason enough for some to come along!  Personally, I’m really looking to welcoming Catriona to the festival, and to seeing The House By The Cemetery on the big screen.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the new films we’ve selected go down with the audience, and I’m especially excited to be screening a film directed by a certain set of twins…  More than anything, though?  I’m looking forward to welcoming back our regulars, and hopefully getting to know a whole new bunch of future regulars to the festival.

 

GS:  Thank you very much for your time.  I hope we can grab another interview after the event to discuss how it all went.  In the mean time, I wish the very best of luck to you both.  I’m really looking forward to it.

 

For more details about Abertoir go to  http://www.abertoir.co.uk/

Up to the minute news can be followed @AbertoirFest on Twitter.

Nia Edwards-Behi will be joining some of the Geek Syndicate creative team shortly in a one-off podcast called Screams From The Syndicate, where we’ll all be discussing fluffy bunnies and our favourite childhood memories.  Or possibly horror movies.

 

Reporter: Dion Winton-Polak

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