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Q&A: Telluride Horror Show Festival Director Ted Wilson

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As those within the horror industry can tell you, Colorado has become an unlikely genre hub in recent years. Among the fright fests and eerie events that draw thousands of horrorheads to the state each year is the Telluride Horror Show, a film festival that mixes its unique small town setting with some of the most highly anticipated horror titles out there. FANGORIA recently spoke to Telluride Horror Show’s festival director Ted Wilson about the evolution of the festival, where it may go next, and what scary surprises await this year…

FANGORIA: How did you become a part of the Telluride Horror Show?

TED WILSON: Telluride, Colorado is known as the “Festival Capital of the Rockies” and we have plenty of them:  Music, film, and everything in between.  I worked in the festival world in town for years before striking out on my own with the Telluride Horror Show. We have two renowned film festivals here that have been around for over forty years, Mountainfilm and, of course, the big daddy Telluride Film Festival. 

As a horror fan, I thought it was time that genre film was represented as well in our film-famous town to round it all out.  So the Telluride Horror Show was born in 2010 and has been growing steady ever since, carving out its place in the “festival capital.”  And, to give credit where credit’s due, I did come up with the idea while walking the dog through Telluride’s creepy, old Lone Tree Cemetery.  Glancing at worn, crooked tombstones when “horror film festival” popped into my head…

FANG: What would you say best defines the overall voice of Telluride Horror Show?

WILSON: We have an eclectic mix of features & shorts each year that delve into all the cracks and crevices of “horror.”  It’s such a far-reaching, creative, and broad genre that just begs discovery.  As a film festival, we can only hope that we can help inspire that sense of discovery- and work to convert horror fans into even more committed horror fans, encourage them to seek out more films that they might not automatically gravitate towards and, when we’re lucky, turn a nonbeliever into a fan.  We’re here to support, celebrate, and sometimes defend, “horror,” in all its forms.

FANG: How would you say Telluride Horror Show has evolved over the years as a festival?

WILSON: Well, I think any film festival is only as good as its films.  Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to build strong relationships with directors, distributors, producers, and so on. In the first few years when I would beg for that particular “festival hit” that was on the circuit, I was usually ignored; after all, I was just some guy living in Telluride who decided to start a horror film fest without any connections or friends in the industry. So needless to say, I didn’t hear back from people very often… But we got enough good films in the early years to keep up steam.

You could really credit TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL, which we got straight from director Eli Craig our first year, just because he’d been to Telluride before and loved the town, with giving us the enthusiasm to do year two. We had a lot of screenings that first year with 10, 20 people in the theater so it was a bit quiet to say the least but when we ended the weekend with TUCKER & DALE and over 100 people came out, filling the theater with laughter and screams- well, it was as simple as “so this is what a film festival should feel like!” and we kept at it.

I think in 2014, we really turned the corner with films like CREEP, SPRING, ABCS OF DEATH 2, THE BABADOOK, and continued that last year with talked-about films like BONE TOMAHAWK, THE DEVIL’S CANDY, BASKIN, HE NEVER DIED, THE INVITATION, THE HALLOW, and tons more, of course. Having that caliber of programming has brought the big boosts in attendance, of course, so now we have countless sold-out screenings, which I have to admit is a bit more fun than 10 people in a movie theater.

There’s a tangible energy now and it’s incredible to experience that, feeling like a real film festival.  That, and we’ve grown our selections each year, now with over 20 features films and over 50 short films, packing the weekend with as much film as possible.

FANG: In the age where festivals are finding new angles in the form of alternative programming, immersion games, rowdy live events, etc., how does Telluride Horror Show stand among the rest and remain relevant to current horror audiences?

WILSON: Personally, I think it’s a great time for film lovers, where people can catch a lot of great indie films on the big screen, the way God intended, if they venture out to a film festival.  Our “niche” or “hook,” like most festivals in Telluride, is that we’re a destination event: the trip to Telluride alone is worth it.  It’s one the most beautiful mountain towns in the world, with the historic Old West main street that looks like something off a movie set, surrounded by towering mountain peaks, a town that only has one road in and one road out. A weekend here without anything going on is good enough- add three full days and nights of horror films?  The combination is unbeatable.

That’s why most of Telluride’s festivals have been going strong for over forty years: the town itself, the absurdly cool location, plays a huge part.  As far as the Telluride Horror Show goes, we are using our later date in mid-October to grab the “best of the best” from the festival circuit each year; our timing allows us to grab the festival hits that have already played the bigger circuit out there and put them together in a great program for our attendees.  If the films can move from Montreal to London to Austin to LA then to Telluride…that’s what we’re shooting for and it’s happening.  Our number one mission is to give these films an audience, to fill the venues, especially when the filmmakers are in attendance so they can experience a packed house for their film and Q&As.  That takes precedent, for us, over special events.  People are here to watch movies, first and foremost. 

That being said, we have our own special events, for bringing our attendees, filmmakers, press, sponsors, and guests together in a social gathering:  The annual Pig Roast, Ice Scream Social, Closing Party, and some new events planned for 2016, that will help shine a brighter spotlight on our unique locale.  But, man, trust me- films start first thing in the morning and run past midnight – there’s barely a minute to catch your breath!

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FANG: What is it about Telluride that specifically appeals to the horror crowd?

WILSON: Mid-October, when the Telluride Horror Show takes place each year, at 9,000 feet above sea level, deep in the Rocky Mountains, with the occasional mountain storm brewing over the peaks, “dark and stormy”- it’s creepy in its own right when you’re in the mood to be creeped out.  We don’t have any traffic lights here, and the small number of historic street lamps don’t cast much light…if you’ve just walked out of a scary ass horror flick, it’s not the best place to want to walk home alone at night. 

Our festival weekend is at the very end of the summer tourist season and after we wrap up our event, the town literally shuts down until ski season – hotels, restaurants, shops all closing up.  So it’s a quiet weekend in town, with the majority of people in town here just for the Horror Show.  It lends to the feeling of being in a town straight out of a horror movie – so much so that most of our visiting film directors walk around, drooling as they imagine the prospect of filming a horror film here (and I can’t wait until someone does!).  One of our venues is a historic Opera House; if it’s not haunted, it should be.  The other a creeky old movie house on main street. 

[Telluride] is rough around the edges; no chain theaters here (or chain anything for that matter).  Old Victorian houses all over town, a clock tower on the courthouse, a free gondola ride that takes you up into the night sky and over the mountain, larger-than-life gargoyles decorating our venues, everything you need…perhaps the best story is the year we screened BACKCOUNTRY at the fest (a great “killer bear” movie if you haven’t caught it yet).  That night, after watching BACKCOUNTRY, some of our attendees were walking back to their hotel when they ran into a black bear in the alley. Could you ask for anything more perfect?  It’s like seeing a shark in your pool right after watching JAWS.  Of course, we have black bears in town every night, knocking over trash cans and dumpster-diving, and they never bother anyone – but try telling that to some folks from out of town who just watched a movie about a bear tearing people to shreds. “Only in Telluride,” as our local saying goes.

Beyond the atmosphere, Telluride is incredibly intimate. Our venues, including a third theater we are adding this year, are steps from each other.  Everything in town is within walking distance – and I mean short walking distance.  After screenings people pour out onto Main Street’s sidewalk and stand there, discussing the films they just saw, planning the next one, or heading to the bar right next door for a quick beer.  Everyone: the attendees, the visiting filmmakers & guests, are all essentially in the same place all weekend, so it’s just the perfect “festival family” feel, like a summer camp feel really.  Relaxed, low-key vibe with no unnecessary VIP this and VIP that.  People are very tight by the end of the weekend.  The bars, restaurants, hotels, everything, are all right there.  It doesn’t get any more intimate than Telluride  and all that also makes everything extremely convenient. 

Is Telluride easy to get to?  Not really; we’re six hours from any major city.  But once you’re here, you’re good to go and happy. The majority of our attendees are from out of town, coming in from at least six hours away or flying in to the Montrose airport an hour and a half away. So far, no complaints.  The very thing that defines Telluride is its remoteness.

FANG: What would you say you’re most proud of as a festival director? Has there been any film you’ve been particularly proud to screen at THS?

WILSON: I mentioned how we’ve been lucky enough to screen more of the anticipated horror films each year, and it’s awesome to catch these films at a festival with a crowd before they’re released- but I’m still all about the truly indie horror films and including them in our line-up each year. we will always champion the “unknowns” so to speak (partly because we’ve been “unknown” ourselves!) That’s the true joy of running a film festival.  That discovery I was talking about…. films like PHASMA EX MACHINA, SOMEONE’S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR, THE TUNNEL, INBRED, JUNKIE, ACROSS THE RIVER, DELIVERY, BAG BOY LOVER BOY, CLOSER TO GOD, THE INTERIOR, and the list goes on and on. 

Sure, most of these films gain distribution, though not always very wide-spread, but as a festival, doing anything we can to help shine a light on these incredible indie films, many times by first-time directors- that’s what it’s all about. Celebrating independent filmmakers and giving them a live audience to engage with in a bad ass town.  I’ll never forget getting that submission in the mail in 2012 where inside the package was a DVD with the title written in sloppy black Sharpie: THE BATTERY.  Sitting down and watching that incredible zombie film shot for $6,000 then being lucky enough to host the World Premiere at our festival, the crowd reacting so positively to it that we barely had control of the Q&A. People were shouting out questions at the cast & crew on the stage, unable to contain their excitement… yeah, that was a proud moment for us.  And watching it go on to play countless film festivals all over the world after that.  So cool to be even a small part of their story. 

Then there’s the short films- we would argue that our shorts programs could rival any of those at the major festivals out there.  We spend countless hours putting together our shorts programs, blocking them together according to themes so they reach their full potential: the scary/creepy shorts in one block, the horror comedy shorts in another, and so on. Getting the order of the shorts within these blocks just right takes a lot of time and stress so these shorts blow up the screen and deliver.  We’re very proud of that, and as a result, the shorts programs at the Telluride Horror Show are always major events, sold out shows; the amount of energy, creativity, and time that people are putting into these short films deserves our full attention – and they deserve more than just the standard “SHORTS BLOCK A”, “SHORTS BLOCK B” approach.

FANG: Is there anything you’d specifically like to bring to this year’s THS, whether it be in terms of live element, films, etc?

WILSON: This year, we’re adding a third venue to feature more films that are on the cuff of horror: sci-fi, fantastical, fantasy, off-the-wall;  films where it would be a stretch to classify them as “horror” but films that would still be appreciated by horror fans (like DER BUNKER).  We’re paying more attention to these films so we can expand our programming.  Since we’re all about the films, that’s an exciting area of growth for us and we’re expanding on the special events as well; we’re looking at things like a Lamplight Tour of Lone Tree Cemetery so people can experience more of Telluride itself, especially its rich mining and Old West history, as well as possibly a Haunted Hike so we can get people out into the mountain wilderness at night and scare the hell out of them (at 9,000 feet above sea level, it’s hard to scream)

We’re always brainstorming and we add something new every year, and will continue to do so.  My ultimate dream is to some day convert Telluride’s Public Parking lot into an actual drive-in movie theater for the weekend; how cool would that be, especially with our mountain back-drop and genre?  We’re dreaming big.  Just need some more sponsors to help with stuff like that, but we’re getting there!

FANG:Is there anything you can tell us about this year’s festival?

WILSON: We’re deep into the screening process and slowly but surely we’re putting together a great program so far; we typically announce our first batch of films in August.  To all the filmmakers out there, keep us in mind when submitting your films to festivals, especially if you’ve got that sci-fi, fantasy, fantastical, or an off-the-wall film for our new third venue. We want to see what you’ve got.  And one new event that we are doing this year:  A bonfire in our town park, featuring a renowned guest genre author reading several of his or her short horror stories to the huddled crowd, call it “Creepy Campfire Tales with…” I’m very excited to be adding that element to our festival, adding a nod to the literary side of horror. I can’t announce who the author is yet but I’ll give you a hint: he’s from Texas and one of his stories has been made into a movie by a guy named Don…with Bruce.

You can get tickets and find out more information on the Telluride Horror Show at their website HERE.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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