Fantastic Fest 2012: The Many Faces of Zack Carlson

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Zack CarlsonOf all the film experiences Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas has to offer, the most consistent and long-running are the weekly series Music Monday, Terror Tuesday, and Weird Wednesday. Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen are the Alamo Drafthouse's "Cult and Culture" programmers behind the latter two, scouring the earth -- sometimes literally -- for unique and seldom seen 35mm prints to screen. These films could never be described as highbrow art, but have an appeal to film enthusiasts who want to see films that challenge the norm and are outside the comfort zone for mass appeal. I'll never forget the first time I saw Carnival Magic, nor the story about how Carlson secured a copy of a print. Watching that surreal movie with a Weird Wednesday audience is a memorable adventure worth experiencing.

Zack Carlson is more than just a film programmer, with many creative collaborative projects not just in movies but across multiple mediums including books and cartoons. He's written, acted in and produced film projects. This year at Fantastic Fest, attendees can see the premiere of the documentary he produced, The American Scream. Directed by Michael Stephenson (Best Worst Movie), this film follows three households in sleepy Fairhaven, Massachusetts as they dedicate thousands of hours along with a seemingly infinite amount of creative energy to capture the Halloween spirit in their haunts.

I recently spoke with Carlson at his Halloween-themed home about The American Scream, as well as about other projects he's involved with including the American Genre Film Archive and Fantastic Fest.

Slackerwood: How long have you been involved with the Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest?

Zack Carlson: I've been with the Drafthouse full-time for six-and-a-half years, and with Fantastic Fest since its second year. What I'm really excited about Fantastic Fest is that there was a point a few years ago where there started to be more events at the Paramount. It was growing in this more tangible way and changing. There was sort of this company-wide acknowledgment that it was better when it was all at Lamar, and there was this group of people all in one space sharing this experience together and it wasn't spread out.

You get to a festival like SXSW or the Seattle Film Festival where you are hopping all over the place to experience different events, and Fantastic Fest's heart is in this one spot. I really like that it's settled into just being at South Lamar and being this ongoing pulsating community of people that are all centrally located for that 8 days. I think that it makes it more of a human creature. Fantastic Fest is where the original heart of the Alamo Drafthouse is still the strongest.

As the company expands, I don't think that the values of Fantastic Fest can change that much. At the very base of it, its purpose is to do something that is not marketable, to show you movies from filmmakers and countries that you've never heard of. That's never going to be something that can be packaged to be sold in every city in America. That's why I have a real appreciation of Fantastic Fest over pretty much everything else at the Alamo Drafthouse.

What is your personal highlight for Fantastic Fest this year?

Carlson: I produced a documentary called The American Scream that is premiering at Fantastic Fest. It is a little funny for us to debut at Fantastic Fest because I work there and I'm friends with Tim [League] and my fellow programmers. We all discussed how they would have to watch the film objectively, and I encouraged them to dislike it. They ended up programming the film for the festival.

The director Michael Stephenson and producer Lindsay Stephenson are coming to Austin, as well as a bunch of other people who were involved in the crew and post-production, including the composer. We are also bringing out some of the haunters, the subjects of the movies. We are going to celebrate the premiere by having Manny Souza from the movie build a haunted house right next to the theater so that everyone who watches the premiere can actually enter into a haunted house made by one of the guys from the documentary. We are going to have live monsters and everything.

So you're involving the Austin community?

Carlson: Anyone who wants to is welcome to come to the haunted house Sunday, September 23, at 11:30 pm, next to the theater [Alamo South Lamar]. We spoke with the folks from SCARE for a CURE, a local nonprofit that has a fundraising interactive haunt. They were kind enough to loan Manny props to complete his haunt. Lizzy of local store Toy Joy is a friend, so she's going to find us some stuff as well.

American Scream Still Photo

What inspired you to become involved in the documentary film The American Scream?

Carlson: When I was a little kid, I was aware of haunted houses and even would see in old cartoons made in the Forties how people would make a big deal out of Halloween and really celebrate and have fun. In the mid-80s when I was a kid, there was this scare about people putting needles in candy bars. That was largely unfounded, but for whatever reason that reduced the amount of Halloween celebration. As a kid I was really hungry for more monster stuff and more real fun Halloween old-timey craziness. What we found out in making this documentary was that there are a lot of people who either enjoyed the celebration of Halloween when they were young or also were kept from it.

One of the main people in our documentary is Victor Bariteau, and he was raised in a religious order -- his family was Branch Davidian -- so they were completely prohibited from celebrating Halloween in any way. He was always starving for it. As an adult now, he is completely year-round obsessed with Halloween and makes it this tremendous focus of his family's life in this great and creative way. I really appreciate that about him, that he managed to make up for all his lost Halloween fun as an adult. It's always been my favorite holiday -- I think it's a lot of people's favorite, but there's probably some religious people who try to make their favorite holiday Christmas, but deep in their heart they know the truth.

Victor is one of the people that is leading this charge of making Halloween a completely all-encompassing totally interactive, pure fun experience. That's what the documentary is partly about, and that's what Victor is completely about. He's coming out to the festival along with Manny Souza who is building the haunt here.

Zack Carlson Pinball Wizard

You seem to have a lot of ongoing projects, what are you focused on now?

Carlson: I was a line producer on the film Zero Charisma which was shot in Austin, production coordinator on The ABCs of Death, acted in Deadly Prey 2. I am producing and co-directing a movie with Bryan Connolly that we hope to start later this year. I also co-wrote a script for Destroy with Bryan that hopefully Michael Stephenson will direct next spring if we can get the money together. I'm working on a couple of books. I'm also still programming full-time at the Alamo Drafthouse and working on Fantastic Fest. I'm also working on three animated cartoon series that may or may not ever get made with one of the guys from Everything is Terrible.

Are there any modern filmmakers that you enjoy?

Carlson: I have to admit that there's not a lot of modern filmmakers that I follow and I'm excited about. Unfortunately it seems that when someone reaches a certain level of "success," they start to model their work in such a way where they can maintain and continue that success rather than focus on just doing work that they like and that they believe in.

There's a local filmmaker, Andrew Bujalski, who I'm really impressed with because he's making a new feature that is the least marketable project that he's ever worked on, about a computer chess tournament taking place in the late 70s [Computer Chess]. That's not something that most people ever care about. I really applaud people that try to keep their work interesting to themselves and the audience rather than keeping it marketable for an audience.

I often get discouraged when you see a really incredible amount of potential become reduced to a marketable and safe product -- that seems to happen a lot in filmmaking. I think it's people's duty that no matter what you are doing, or what you are creating, or what your dreams are, it's your duty to keep things as true to what you know is best as possible, rather that what you know is the most marketable. Anyone who does things specifically to make money, is a piece of shit in my opinion. Money doesn't mean anything, but the legacy that you leave behind and the work that you do means everything. It's unbelievable to me how many people are blind to that.

Any more words of advice to filmmakers?

Carlson: I'm now in this position where I've been a film programmer for 14 years for a living. But now that I'm helping other people make movies, I am on the other side of it -- making things that hopefully a programmer would like versus programming things that an audience would like -- now I'm doing both at once. I feel that it has become more apparent to me by working on both sides of this, is that the last thing the world needs is more recycled ideas or more remakes and sequels. There's so much product coming out now, and a huge majority of it is unoriginal. It's kind of this Golden Era where you can rise to the top of the sewer and float and shine and be great. Even though there are more movies coming out than ever, there's less initiative and less originality. I feel like now is the time for people to step forward. You are not going to get Hollywood's attention because Hollywood hates originality right now, but you can just carve your own way and you will stand out if you do something that's not garbage.

I've been really inspired by some of my friends who had no money and no means and very little experience, and they've succeeded in doing what they wanted to do. They didn't get rich, but they made the movie that they wanted to make. People liked it because it wasn't just another recycled idea. Speaking from a festival programmer side, you wouldn't believe how many thousands of movies you see where you can instantly say, "This person loves David Lynch and The Dark Knight." There's just nothing there, there's no life and no initiative or ambition in the work. There's technical prowess or there's their parents' money but there's no drive in it.

From having done both creative and programming stuff, it has become quite clear to me from both sides that there are tons of people doing it, but there's very few people doing it for the right reasons. If somebody has a real drive to make movies, don't be intimidated by your lack of money or the number of people that are also making movies. Just do it, and if it is good then you have a good chance that people are going to see it.

The American Scream premieres at Fantastic Fest on Sunday, September 23, 8:45 pm, with a second screening on Thursday, September 27, 11:45 am, at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. Check out the Homemade Haunted House Hellbash on Sunday, September 23, at 11:30 pm.

[Photo credits: "Zack and the Monster Ball Pit" by Debbie Cerda, "Souza Home" courtesy of Magic Stone Productions, "Punk Pinball Wizard Zack Carlson" by Debbie Cerda]