Tim McCanlies on Fantastic Fest and the Future of Movies

Fantastic Fest2

Tim McCanlies, ’73, and a senior lecturer at UT,  is a founding member of the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy extravaganza Fantastic Fest, in its 10th and largest incarnation this year, from September 18-25. Also a filmmaker in his own right, having written the animated cult classic The Iron Giant, and written and directed Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, and Secondhand Lions, McCanlies recently spoke to the Alcalde about Fantastic Fest’s history and upcoming 10th season, his famous friend from his early days in Hollywood, and an odd connection to the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.

How did you get involved with Fantastic Fest?

I was in a line at SXSW with Matt [Dentler, then-head programmer at SXSW], bitching that we don’t have a Sitges—that’s a fest of fantasy and horror in Spain—that there was nothing like that in the U.S., so I said we should talk to him and obviously Harry [Knowles, of Ain’t it Cool News] and Tim [League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse]. We also needed a venue, Tim League helped there too. Tim and Harry and Matt brought some films the first year, [but eventually] Harry and I took a step back as Tim was doing such a great job running things. The first one was just a weekend. Harry got a few, I got a few, and the second year it became a much bigger deal. Year three was huge. Tim sort of took it over, and I gave them fantasticfest.com. So it’s great for me, I don’t have to do much of the work, but I get to enjoy all these great films.

Are you still programming any of the event?

I am sometimes. There are a few films I’ll run across from people I’m working with, they’ll get in sometimes, and now I know a lot people in Japan through anime. They love me from The Iron Giant and Secondhand Lions. I love to get more animation into Fantastic Fest. It’s a danger sometimes, there’s so much horror out there. It can be just a horror fest. I wanted to see more animation, Asian stuff … Asian films are sometimes too expensive to bring over here, to bring the print over. The fest depends on people getting a print to us. There’s not a lot of money in it.

So you skew more toward the “fantasy” part of Fantastic Fest.

I’m not a huge horror fan. A lot of that stuff is not my area of expertise. I love all other stuff that they all bring. It’s a pretty broad mandate—the film’s gotta be fantastic.

It’s right there in the name.

And that domain name was available! I did a search of different “fantasy fests.” They were all skewing on “fantasy,” but none of them used the word “fantastic.” It just seemed like a good name.

What does the Fest offer that differs from other fests?

Part of it is what Austin brings. I’ve been to other fests. I was in Montreal for Fantasia [International Film Festival]. They are more quiet. Fantastic Fest is a part of Austin. With the Drafthouse and Harry’s involvement, there is such a hunger for these kind of films, plus a lot from Latin America, stuff we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. There’s rabid enthusiasm [here]. Some of these other fests are very nice and quiet and fill up about halfway. Fantastic Fest after season three was selling out tickets, so it has been hugely successful. At the time, there weren’t a lot of fests like this in the U.S., though there are probably others since. I’m sure there are some—there’s such a need for that type of festival. I guess I was right.

Underground or seemingly nerdy things—comic books, sci-fi films—are now part of the mainstream. What do you think that does for both genre films and fests like Fantastic Fest?

It’s true. The San Diego Comic Con 15 years ago that Harry and I were at was just a comic book convention. Hollywood co-opted that. Look at the big movies Hollywood is making now: they’re comic book movies. It’s startling. It’s surprising, but it’s a great source of escapist entertainment. That they’ve become so popular is often a blessing and sometimes a curse.

Does Fantastic Fest skew even more underground?

Fantastic Fest appeals more to the rarefied tastes of these folks. That’s part of their passion too. Especially if you don’t live in Austin, it’s a pain in the butt to get here, but people come from all over the world.

Films that eventually received wide releases have premiered at Fantastic Fest, like There Will Be Blood and Zombieland. Do you see that happening this year?

Some of them would have been hits without Fantastic Fest. I don’t know about Zombieland, if that would have been a huge hit. They want to get [their film] in front of tastemakers. The most passionate folks have blogs and friends who are into the same things. I think a lot of studios these days, especially with smaller films, it’s “How do you get the word out?” They used to buy airtime, but you can’t do that with smaller films. The festival approach is the accepted way to do that. Indie films hit the festivals to get the word out about the movies. Genre films are ignored by [mainstream] critics. They are beneath or outside the critics’ radar. But there are bloggers and critics who have a radar off to the side. I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg: So many people are now attending Fantastic Fest, which is helping get great films there, or it’s the other way around. It’s been great to see it all come together.

Any surprises this year at Fantastic Fest?

There are surprises I can’t talk about! [Laughs.] Some of the best films I see are the ones I go in cold. There’s such discovery, and that’s another great thing about Fantastic Fest. There’s five to six films playing each day, so if there’s something you really want to see at 5, what are you gonna do for the 2:30 slot? You just go in, you don’t what it is, but maybe you really like it and maybe you stay for the fest. Plus, there’s really little or nothing to go on for a lot of these films, especially if they are foreign, or if you don’t know the actors.

Were you involved in the musical adaptation of your film Secondhand Lions?

Not a lot other than being a fan of it and such, and to give notes occasionally. They brought in wonderful people to write songs, which I know nothing about. I know little of theater. I’ve been to readings that they just did almost a year ago. I left during the latter part of Fantastic Fest. They did six weeks in Seattle, and sold out a huge theater every night pretty much.

Will there be another run?

The good news is they want to go forward, the bad news is Broadway is really hot right now and there are many worthy projects all stacked up. They’re trying to find a venue. It’s a boom time on Broadway. I love all of the songs in the musical, but then that’s something I could never do. And they basically had to truncate a lot of the story. In the movie I had a backstory, it got maybe 10 minutes of screen time, and it’s probably half the show in the musical. [There was some] “I would have done this instead of that,” but it’s a great success in Seattle and I hope that translates to Broadway. I just step back and let the pros do it.

Is it true that Ted Hughes himself had to approve The Iron Giant screenplay [which was based in part on his story The Iron Man]?

I’m not sure how much approval he really had. It was more of a political thing. Brad [Bird, director of The Iron Giant] went over and met with Ted but he was not well. It was toward the end of his life, he was fine and he loved it. It was very different than the book. They may have shown Ted the movie or a version of the movie. I was involved as a writer for the first year or so, then they go off to do animation and I’m done. I was directing Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, so I checked in once in a while.

What was the genesis of the project? Was it from Hughes’ book?

Brad was touring Warner Brothers one day and saw some posters—Pete Townshend had written a rock opera about The Iron Man. Brad pretty much worked off the poster, off the drawings. It’s so completely different than the book.

Are you working on a film project now?

I’m working on a couple things now—whether they end up as films or not, who knows. It’s a different world now. Either they are made or nothing will happen … that’s OK too. I got tired of the screenwriter-for-hire business, and those jobs started going away anyway. Indie films are tough these days also. A lot of films that studios are making I’m not interested in. Look at this past weekend, it was Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They tend to be big things—one of those being great and the other … perhaps not so great. I don’t want to do that sort of thing all the time, especially as a director, so television is more interesting to me. I should have gone back to television 20 years ago. My first year in Hollywood, I had a buddy, and we both had deals at Disney. I was doing well and he wasn’t doing quite as well, so he left to go do TV. He created The X-Files. Chris Carter was his name. I got a couple jobs he wanted. He wanted TV and I wanted movies. You never know. TV worked out really well for Chris.

Marquee photo of Fantastic Fest 2013 via user Kitsuney on Flickr.


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