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Dominic Corry: Ant Timpson on The ABCs of Death

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry talks to DIY film king Ant Timpson about his gruesome new film The ABCs of Death.

A scene from The ABCs of Death. Photo/supplied
A scene from The ABCs of Death. Photo/supplied

Local hero Ant Timpson is the man behind the such iconic events as the The Rialto Channel 48 Hours Film Competition; The 24 Hour Movie Marathon and The Incredibly Strange Film Festival (now a sub-section of the main film festival after running independently from 1994 to 2004).

In addition to being the biggest driver of communal film culture New Zealand's ever seen, he's also a film producer who helped oversee local efforts such as The Devil Dared Me To (2007) and last year's How To Meet Girls From a Distance.

But his latest movie is his biggest production yet - the instant global cult hit The ABCs of Death, for which 26 emerging genre filmmakers from around the world each contributed a short film about death connected to a letter of the alphabet.

Timpson conceived the project himself and oversaw the whole production from start to finish.

He sat down with me earlier this week to have a chat about The ABCs of Death, which is having its New Zealand premiere at the Civic Theatre on Saturday April 20th as part of the New Zealand International Film Festivals' Autumn Events.

Dom: So The ABCs of Death is doing well in America right?

Ant: It's a VOD [Video On Demand] hit. It's a hit in terms of the expectations weren't anything, so it's done pretty well. The studio's really happy with it because it was an unknown project and no one really knew what it was gonna do. Everyone that's involved with the film is gonna do okay.

Including the directors?

Yeah the directors - that was the whole idea with the back-end structure that we organised. We said [that the directors would make money], but we didn't believe it was gonna happen, because everyone says that! Everyone talks about "points" on a film and that generally means you're never gonna get paid. But actually everyone will be paid! Everyone's gonna get a cheque.

So we're really really stoked. Home video is going to be big, but it all depends on how big your VOD splash was. And we had Comcast, which is one of the biggest cable providers, back the film. They gave it premiere positioning [on their interface]. So when people were looking up what new movies were on their On Demand service, we were right there in a really prime slot for quite a while.

It's a title that you'd imagine would jump out at people.

They changed the imagery for VOD. They couldn't use the baby on Death's lap. So we had to just have Death there, the baby had mysteriously disappeared.

What kind of theatrical run did it get?

Well what they do is, it gets a theatrical run to justify the 'Ultra VOD' window. 'Ultra VOD' means you're a month out from being released in cinemas. It's quite a cool slot that they don't give to just any title. It was $9.99. Americans think that's a lot. The theatrical run is just to justify to the cable operators that they're getting something before its theatrical release.

It was on maybe 45 theatrical screens, and it was just midnight shows really. It's getting decent sessions of course in all the Alamo Theatres [which are run by ABCs co-producer Tim League] and some of the Landmark cinemas, which are owned by Magnolia, the company that funded ABCs.

It's also rolling out to a lot of the independent theatres where they can do fun nights with the directors. It's a hard sell for a film just playing at a multiplex next to Adam Sandler movies. It needs a theatre where there's a programmer who knows what the thing is about and how to position it and sell it.

There's clearly an audience out there for the film, the film just needs to find them.

Absolutely. You can be On Demand, but its no use if nobody can find it. So we dropped the 'The' from the The ABCs of Death so we were under 'A' at the top. I just learnt so much about the whole process of On Demand and how it all works. Because we did so well on On Demand in means the Netflix offer is really big. If we didn't have that exposure and platform we wouldn't have gotten such a big offer.

The online marketing for this has worked well. We spent twenty grand on Facebook advertising. Our whole idea was that we were not spending much, but we were spending it smartly. We had this big buy-in from the horror community through the competition [amateur filmmakers competed to make the 'T' segment of the film] which had a lot of goodwill involved.

Did you worry that the panic over violence that emerged in the post-Newtown environment would impact your film?

The studio did. Phil Brough made an animated teaser for me that was supposed to be used on the VOD launch and I showed it to the studio and they pulled it. It had a brother and sister killing their father. It's done like an old educational film. That'll be on the Bluray.

The culture over there is constantly bombarded with those stories, so if you waited for a gap where you thought Charlton Heston's finger wasn't wagging or something, you'd never get there. There's just an atmosphere of that fear all the time. Hopefully, the way we approached it was as out-there lunacy. I don't think we were really hard-selling the morbidity of death, it was more kind of like the roller coaster approach. And that's pissed off some horror fans aswell because its not as depressing and nihilistic as they want. Our imagery was of Death reading a book to a baby. It's pretty black humour.

The idea came from your kid right?

Yes. It was literally a 'Eureka' moment - sleep deprived, just finishing reading an ABC book to my son and I thought 'Wouldn't it be weird to do an anthology film based on an alphabet book?'. I immediately thought 'Ridiculous!' because there's 26 letters and the running time's gonna be horrifying. But then I thought 'Hold on!' and I was trying to add things up in my head. 'What if there wasn't a really bad linking sequence which added twenty minutes? And what if you cut it down? And I know some directors and Tim knows heaps of directors...'

From there I went out and wrote a one-page outline and I sent it that night to [Co-producer] Tim [League] in Austin. It was called The ABCs of Murder at this stage. And he said 'I got it. Yes. Sounds like fun' and 20,000 emails later...it wasn't that much fun putting it together, but the end result was fun.

So you guys pitched it together?

We approached a few companies. At that stage I'd already gotten maybe two or three of the directors onboard, and we used that to leverage attracting other directors. We had three companies that were interested and we ended up going with Magnolia. We wanted to fund it all ourselves and have the studio just distribute with a killer deal for ourselves. But then we ended up just getting fully financed from Magnolia - we went into partnership with them.

Had you and Tim been talking about making a film together?

No. We've known each other for a long time now. I went on all the early roadshow tours that they did in the US. I was sort of like the connnecting guy between various festivals before they were all in touch with each other, before Fantastic Fest. Then Tim went crazy on the festival side of things and Fantastic Fest was a hit and he started up Drafthouse Films which has grown exponentially.

Your contacts obviously helped bring the talent together for The ABCs of Death.

Contacts were a huge part of it. Because the budget is so pathetic, if you were doing this through the normal route of agencies and so forth it would never have happened. Everyone would be laughing at us.

We used people like Todd Brown from Twitchfilm to get certain directors that we had no relationship with. Because of that site he's got heaps of connections. And there was another guy Marc Walkow who is a good friend of ours - he organised the Japanese guys because he can speak Japanese and travels there all the time and knows those guys. He went to Japan and oversaw those segments.

So it wasn't that difficult to recruit the directors?

No. It sorta snowballed once people started hearing about it. We got apporached by quite a few directors. Xavier Gens (Hitman) found out about it at Cannes and said 'I want in' so I called him and he said he'd do it for free. When we knew that people actually loved the concept and got it, it was a simple sell. And that was a huge part of it - it's really a fun exercise for [the directors]: no artistic restrictions; short running-time; guerilla-style crews; not being tied down to four years in development.

Did you approach any directors who turned you down?

Oh yeah. We approached some big directors - people like Kathryn Bigelow. Because we wanted women involved! I knew we'd get accused of being a boys club so I went out of my way to try and get women involved but they just weren't into it. There were a couple, but we didn't really want them.

But yeah, it was very hard to snag certain talent. We tried people we had relationships with like Tarantino and Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. We know those guys quite well. But there's certain directors who are very aware of their filmography as being part of history and its very important to them. Tarantino's probably the most extreme example of that, but all his heroes made a few stinkers.

We had a DGA [Director's Guild of America] issue as well which changed everything. We couldn't make a film that was a mix of DGA and non-DGA directors. We could either make it all DGA and the price would go up and everything would become more expensive and we could get those names - because we had DGA guys who we had drop, which sucked.

So we went the other way - total guerilla independent. That's why we couldn't have any recognisable actors!

Did each director get the same amount of money?

Pretty much. There were hiccups that we had to correct. But everyone started off with the same amount of money. There might've been a couple of blow-outs here and there. When you see Xavier Gens' one (X is for XXL) or Kaare Andrews' one (V is for Vagitus) - there's just no way on Earth they could've conceivably made them with the money we gave them. People would spend $100,000 on what they did.

Was the idea to showcase emerging genre filmmakers or is that just how it worked out?

Once we started getting directors on board, we just sort of positioned it that way because it would've seem very strange if we had someone really leftfield mixed in with that. If we ever do it again we'll make a decision from the start if we want a more varied mix, it won't necessarily be the new faces of horror. Because no one likes to be pigeon-holed as a horror director, and they really feel that they aren't. So we didn't get horror segments per se back from heaps of them. It's about death, but it's not necessarily horror. It's more disturbing than anything.

Kind of like the Final Destination movies?

Well Final D is a really good template. I love those films. They're very self-aware, they're not mean-spirited. I don't think our film is mean-spirited. Well, maybe a bit. But yeah, love the Final D. We tried to get [Final Destination 2 and 4 director] David R. Ellis, but he died. He was right up on our list - his set-piece stuff is phenomenal.

Horror anthologies are enjoying something of a resurgence - did you perceive that when you planned the film?

No because when I had the idea, V/H/S hadn't been announced. I knew it was happening because some of the directors I approached had worked on it. The Theatre Bizarre was I guess the one that came out, the first one after Trick 'R' Treat that popped up. That was a wildly varied anthology. I've watched every single anthology.

Do you have a favourite horror anthology?

I think Dead of Night probably, except for that horrible golfing segment. Trick 'r Treat I was really surprised by. I thought that was a really great and really new anthology take and I was really bummed that it didn't become a perennial movie. The studio ballsed it up, but fans love it. I love them all really though.

Do you see VOD as the future of sustainable genre filmmaking?

Yes. Absolutely. After this experience of ours, why would you ever put anything in a cinema? The expense of marketing and getting people along - just in New Zealand though. In the US, the market is so big you can be a fart in the ocean and still do okay out of it because the audience base is so huge. Here, it's just a crazy business to be in. I honestly don't wanna make films for a New Zealand audience. You should just make good films period, and they should travel. But if you're setting out to make a film that's designed to appeal to a Kiwi audience, you're killing yourself.

What's next for you on the producing front?

I'm doing a project with Jason Eisener, who made Hobo With a Shotgun. We're mentoring a team from Montreal called RKSS - Road Kill Super Star. They're a team who've done amazing shorts. They entered the ABCs comp which is where I saw them and I approached them about making a feature and we got hooked-up with a producer in Montreal who subsequently went on to receive an Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Film this year for a film called War Witch. So we're applying for funding. It's a post-apocalyptic BMX gore-soaked love story.

The ABCs of Death screens at 10.00pm at the Civic Theatre on Saturday April 20th. Buy tickets here.

What's your favourite horror anthology? Are you amped for The ABCs of Death? Look for my Q&A with several of the directors next week!

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