One of the pleasures of being a media journalist can be the sheer variety of movies you get to see. This is especially true of film festivals, which allows critics to glimpse movies that others might not normally hear about. Most movie fans know Sundance, and may have a passing familiarity with two festivals that run in Austin, South by Southwest and Fantastic Fest. Usually I have to miss those events; life, for whatever reason, seems to intrude each time I think I might be able to collect my notebook, sharpen my critical eye, and give my impressions of newer, unknown fare.
However, this December I have the honor of attending Other Worlds Austin, a film festival devoted to science fiction movies. It’s the first venue of its kind to run in the Austin area, and an overdue one, given the tightly knit science fiction community here. I got the chance to talk about the upcoming festival with Bears Fonte, its organizer, over Chicago-style hot dogs at Lucky Dogs just north of the Austin area. Bears is a writer and director, and a great science fiction enthusiast whose passion for cinema, especially science fiction cinema, spilled over during our discussion. His enthusiasm was contagious; I’m looking forward to the lineup, which you can see at http://www.otherworldsaustin.com/2014-film-line-up.
Derek Austin Johnson: We’re meeting after a somewhat auspicious event, because the entire Internet seems to be nerding out about this follow-up to a very obscure 1970s science fiction movie, the trailer of which has just been released. (The interview took place the day Disney the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) Have you seen it yet, or have you seen the Internet slow to a crawl?
Bears Fonte: I haven’t seen it yet because I want to see it in front of a movie on the screen. I want to first experience it like that, so we’re going to a film specifically this weekend so that we can see it. But it is interesting to see how crazy people get about it. Fortunately, Jurassic World had the audacity to get theirs out two days earlier, so they could still get a little buzz.
DAJ: Tell me a little bit about Other Worlds Austin.
BF: We’re starting our first year small, so we have all of the screenings at the same theater, the Galaxy Highland. I really like the idea of hosting a science fiction film festival at a theater called the Galaxy. It’s 10 screenings, so it’s Thursday and Friday nights, and then all day and all night Saturday, and it will be features and shorts: three programs of shorts, and seven feature screenings, although there’s a total of 11 features, so you’ll have a choice of two different features. It’s definitely intended to cover all the varieties of science fiction. We’ve got some pretty ridiculous lowbrow comedy sci-fi, and then we’ve got some heady dramatic stuff, and we’ve got some that are a little more frightening and tend towards horror. We just wanted to kind of embrace all of the different possibilities that science fiction can offer and put them together into one festival, becauseright now in Austin there isn’t much of a chance for that. Fantastic Fest is great at what they do, but they have so many different genres that they’re taking care of, and they’re also so successful that they get the biggest Hollywood films, so there are a lot of smaller independent films that aren’t, right now, getting a chance to play Austin. So that was one of the goals of the festival: to present the best in science fiction that hasn’t played Austin yet.
DAJ: Were you a science fiction fan as a kid?
BF: Always. I mean, my allowances were added up in terms of how many Star Wars action figures I could buy each week. And we’d watch Star Trek: The Next Generation at the family dinner table, my dad and I would watch the Planet of the Apes marathons. So yeah, it’s always been my top genre. And I’m a writer, too; I write screenplays, and tend to write a lot of science fiction, or at least science fiction–inspired stories.
DAJ: What is the most challenging thing about trying to get Other Worlds Austin up and running?
BF: Part of it is the logistics, like getting the files—we’re playing everything digitally, so we have to get all of the files from the filmmakers, then process them and make sure they work right, and then put them together in programs and play trailers, and get the sponsorship information that plays in front of it, have a quality check, put together everything on a hard drive. There’s a lot of technology that goes into it, and a lot of it you can’t do all yourself, which is challenging because I’m one of these people who will jump in and go, “Well, I’ll just do it. That way I’ll know it’s right.” So the things that are out of my hands are the things that I worry about, because I don’t know how it’s going. And then you’ve got such a fine dance for getting the program, because you have to write the descriptions, and then you have to have somebody do the design, and they need the descriptions in order to do the design, and you want to see how much room everything takes so you know how long the descriptions should be, and then you have to put in the stills. The hard stuff is the stuff that requires four or five people working on it simultaneously, all at the same time. The easy stuff was finding the films and picking them. We did have a lot of people doing that; we did that months ago, when there wasn’t as much tension to get everything done.
DAJ: We’re talking about the number of features you have, the number of shorts you have, and that it’s relatively easy to find material. What were some of the things that surprised you when you were collecting material?
BF: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s easy, and part of it is that you have to know where to look. And, having done work before with the Austin Film Festival, I was familiar with all of the different festivals that were out there, and I had a short film that was a science fiction film that I took around the festival circuit, so I met a lot of other filmmakers at festivals that way. And I knew how many science fiction films we got at the Austin Film Festival every year, so I had a number in my mind of the entries that we would get. We ended up getting two-and-a-half times that, which was great, because we did a lot of groundwork of inviting filmmakers to submit their films to us, places like London Sci Fi and Boston Sci Fi, and Sydney has a festival called Fantastic Planet, so we would just hunt down those films that played those festivals and say, “Hey, we’d like to take a look at it.” So the hardest part was that we got way more films than I thought we were going to, and then we had to winnow it down to the best ones, and not just the best, but to have a variety of the different kinds of films we wanted to play. We wanted to make sure we had something that was sort of campy, we wanted to have something that was pretty scary, and just make sure that we’re covering all the bases. So it wasn’t just the best films, but what made a complete program.
DAJ: When you made your selections and locked them in, was there ever a moment when you said to yourself, “You know, I really wish we had included this one,” or anything like that?
BF: Yeah, there were actually a couple, and we had the great benefit of the fact that we sold out about a month-and-a-half ago, and in doing so we had to have a serious discussion of what we were going to do. There was no reason to keep promoting if we sold out, so what we decided to do was to take on another theater so we could make it more available to people. It allowed us to play more films. So a couple of the films that were programmers’ favorites that we just didn’t have room for originally we had to have discussions of what to include. Even one of my favorites, even though I was the head of the festival, I put on the back burner, until we got that extra theater. Then we were able to go back and get some of those and bring them in. So I think, really, how it ended up playing out, we are playing everything that we wanted to play. There might be one or two shorts, but in terms of features, this really is the best of independent science fiction that has come out this year.
DAJ: This has been a really fascinating year if you’re a genre fan. You look at some of the bigger presentations—Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Godzilla, the new Planet of the Apes movie—all are pretty amazing features, as well as some unique smaller features like The Signal. Can you talk about some of the differences you see between the larger movies, and more independent fare like you’d find in the festival?
BF: I think one of the main differences is better use of your money. You see a lot of these big Hollywood science fiction films that I enjoy, but so much of the energy and money and time is spent on the visual effects and the things blowing up and paying for Tom Cruise. When you are doing independent film, and you’re doing a science fiction film, you have already made yourself a very difficult task, because science fiction has a much smaller audience niche than most other films. On top of that, you’re working in a genre where fans often expect robots and crazy CG and aliens, so you have to figure out how to do that, or how to do your story in such a way that people don’t expect that so that they’re not disappointed. So I think you see a lot more attention focused on the script, and on casting, and on characters, and on developing slower tension and deep interaction between the characters, rather than building up to some big shootout that’s going to be fascinating on screen. So a lot of the films that we have are thinker films, or are slower-burn films, but I think in the end they wind up being films that you take away a little stronger feeling from and you will be thinking about tomorrow. That’s not to say that they don’t look great; a big part of making any independent film is getting the best picture you can, and, if you’re going to have technology in the film, you really figure out how you’re going to do that so that it looks the best that it can. You just have to be aware of what your budget is and design with that in mind. In many ways, they’re grittier and feel more real because there’s less CG. For example, our opening night film, The Well, is this post-apocalyptic film that was made with a budget along the lines of the first Mad Max film, so it’s gritty, and it’s dirty, and it’s filmed out in this desert community, and there’s all this great combat in it. Most of it is shot in such a way that it is not edited so tightly, like the Bourne films, which are cut every tenth of a second. It’s a more natural fight, and it ends up feeling much more real and brutal and exciting because of that.