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Stanley Film Festival ’15: An Exclusive Q&A with SFF Programmer Landon Zakheim, Part One

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As horror fans from around the globe know, there’s no horror-centric festival that has risen to prominence as quickly and loudly as the Stanley Film Festival. Taking place at the notoriously haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the festival became one of the most buzzed about experiences for horror fans in recent times, adding a level of interactivity and immersion on top of a diverse and terrifying film slate. And since FANGORIA will be taking Stanley by storm this upcoming April, we recently chatted with Director of Programming Landon Zakheim in a massive, three-part dialogue about the one-of-a-kind haunted hotel and the only film festival that takes the horror beyond the big screen…

FANGORIA: How did you first get involved with the Denver Film Society?

LANDON ZAKHEIM: The Denver Film Society came aboard to produce the Stanley Film Festival in our second year. I’ve been around the Stanley Film Festival since the beginning: I helped start the festival and have been programming for them since the outset. But, basically, a lot of people who helped start the festival were either a part of the Denver Film Society. Actually, the reason I was even involved from the beginning was because members of the Denver Film Society recommended that the hotel get in touch with me.

The first Stanley Film Festival came together really quickly; I think we were approved for everything maybe 4 or 5 months before the festival actually started, so we had a very small window of time that we had to work with. So when we were trying to figure out how to keep the festival going, the Denver Film Society very generously stepped in and agreed to produce the festival. So now Denver Film Society handles all the operations and basically handles the production of the festival each year, which is great since now we have all of the resources of the Denver Film Society and the structure of it with mostly the same staff, since many of them were already involved in an official (or unofficial) capacity in year one. So that all worked out pretty nicely, and we’re all one big happy family.

FANGORIA: What inspired the film festival in the first place? Was it the Stephen King/SHINING connection?

ZAKHEIM: Well, I’ve worked with a number of festivals; I work with Sundance and AFI Fest as well. I also work with the short film programs in Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I also do Halloween-centric events in Los Angeles on my own. I’ve always been interested in immersive events and site-specific programming, so the Stanley Film Festival seemed like a good opportunity to help make a festival that was geared towards that.

I think a lot of the people who worked on the Stanley Film Festival have worked on other festivals, if not all of them, and we didn’t necessarily think the world needed another film festival unless what we were doing offered something unique. So we saw an outlet for our views that we could try at the Stanley Hotel, and create a community event, since we have a famously haunted destination and we knew there was a horror fanbase that would be into horror programming. It’s a community that we can rally together for great films, and then wrap them up into something deeper, interactive, and immersive to celebrate the artistic contributions in horror outside of film. If we could do that, then we’d really have something worth doing.

So the push for Stanley has been to use the site to go into these really immersive experience events, so as the festival grows, we’ll go further and further to play around with the concept. We’ll also bring in other artists to show a number of horror events outside of just the films.

FANGORIA: At what point in the Stanley Film Festival’s development did you decide on incorporating those immersive “alternate reality” events?

ZAKHEIM: Well, we always had it in mind from when we started, but we didn’t do it in year one because of how little time we had to put it together. The first two festivals were more so about “survival,” I guess, and creating a name for the festival itself, so the immersive game was a luxury that the first year couldn’t afford so we had to put it on the back burner. In our second year, we had the future of the festival secured when the Denver Film Society came on, and we immediately went to work on the immersive stuff.

I think transmedia is a very new type of storytelling that needs a festival outlet as a showcase. It’s also something we can do that very clearly appeals to the fanbase we’re trying to cultivate, but it still needs a certain legitimacy that a festival can give it. So we have the platform and the resources, and we can give these artists the opportunity to show how transmedia can be done. So the people who come to the festival get the chance to enjoy a unique thing and our artists get an environment to play with in order to grow and add to their work.

It’s something that plays really well, and that’s also something that I liked last year with the radio play as well. We like having live theatrical performances at Stanley, so last year, Larry Fessenden, Glenn McQuaid and Clay McLeod Chapman wrote a radio play that was performed with a live score and live sound effects, and was performed by actors who had other films in the festival. So when we come up with these events, we try really hard to make sure they’re all something that will bring the community and audience together. We really want people to play together.

Doc-of-the-Dead

FANGORIA: Was there anything about the Denver area or The Stanley Hotel that you specifically wanted to incorporate into the culture of the festival?

ZAKHEIM: Yeah! The Stanley Hotel has a haunted history that goes back to its creation in 1909, and that’s what attracted Stephen King to go there in the first place. It’s still a hotbed of supposedly haunted activity, and it’s still a part of rural legends and folktales. It’s sort of like the Queen Mary in Long Beach in that it is one of those famously haunted sites in the U.S., and there is a certain appeal to these old, creaky “haunted mansion”-type areas.

So we get to play with that attraction in our festival; In fact, the biggest screening area on our property is supposedly built over the most haunted area of the hotel and has had the most spirits attached to it according to legend, so that adds into the myth. When you’re screening ghost stories and scary movies, we want it to be on the most haunted part of the premises. We encourage ghost hunting, we encourage filmmakers to creep around at night and get some secret footage of that, and that’s all a part of making this setting that much greater.

This particular festival can’t be done without The Stanley Hotel because it’s based around everybody being on this campus, scuttling around this supposedly haunted establishment. If we took that away, we’d lose the basis for everything else.

FANGORIA: Is there anything you’d like to program in future installments of the festival that would apply to that “outside the box” mentality?

ZAKHEIM: Oh, totally. We could talk for hours about the things we’d like to do. I think every year we’ll be able to add a new element. But, yeah, the creative team and I have about ten years worth of ideas that we’d love to bring into the mix. I mean, we essentially want the Stanley Film Festival to be a dark carnival, like something they’d talk about in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. We want to have a series of attractions that appeal to all aspects of horror, like live performers and radio plays, and we also want to delve into the history of horror.

Last year, we had a robust retro program and I want to continue that this year. We keep hitting new cylinders each year, so we grow each year and can add a number of live elements. It’s always interesting to find the arc within them and making sure they’re horror related, but in any case, there’s a huge community of people working in a variety of mediums who are united by a love of horror. So we hang out together, play together, see each other’s work and then potentially collaborate in the future. That’s probably the overall goal of adding these new elements, since we add new things as the audience grows each year.

FANGORIA: Last year, Spectrevision was heavily involved with the festival when they earned the “Visionary” award, and they’ve built a reputation as of late as one of the champions of the film festival experience, including SXSW, Fantastic Fest and even their own Spectrefest…

ZAKHEIM: We actually sponsored a few screenings at Spectrefest as well. There were two silent films that played as a part of “Live Score Screening” that we were glad to sponsor. But we love those guys and since they were involved in the festival last year, they’ve been huge supporters and they’ve had some great ideas for us going forward. I love working with them and I’m hoping they do something with the festival as long as they want to.

Granted, we can’t give them the same award every year, but we have a great relationship with them and they’ve been very, very helpful. We gave the same award to Eli Roth in our first year, but Spectrevision’s level of participation just showed how immersive the award could be. We wanted to show that getting an award is something that could permeate the entire festival, so they hosted a few screenings, did a panel, hosted DJ sets, and if you want to talk about the immersion game, they were hardcore down that rabbit hole.

FANGORIA: Will there be any other entities coming aboard this year whose presence will be familiar to genre fans?

ZAKHEIM: That’s something I can probably talk about in a couple of weeks because we’re still tinkering around with some of the line-ups. With our line-ups in the past few years, we’ve been lucky to get some of the bigger and more exciting genre films from around the festival circuit, and the nature of that requires us to lock our selections late, so our schedule is very rushed. It’s something that we realized in the first year, and that’s unfortunately something that will happen every year. But what that does mean is that we’re still looking around and will still be looking around until the last minute for some stuff.

So everything is constantly changing, but one exciting thing about this year that I do want to talk about is that 2015 was the first year we were open for submissions. The first two years was entirely curated by us from other festivals, so this year, we would be really excited if we could screen some films that hadn’t popped up already.

Passes are now on sale for the 2015 Stanley Film Festival here. Check back here at FANGORIA.com for the next two parts of our chat with Stanley Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Landon Zakheim, in the coming weeks.

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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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