Women in Horror ’13: Q+A with Adele Hartley of Scotland’s Dead by Dawn Festival
Dead by Dawn celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, making it one of the UK’s longest-running genre events. We talk to the one-woman force behind Dead by Dawn, Adele Hartley, about the festival’s history, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and what we can expect as part of this year’s anniversary festivities.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a big fan of Scotland, and that I would move there in a heartbeat if we didn’t have these dumb things called international borders. Edinburgh in particular is a breathtaking city that still has architectural remnants of the middle ages, with windy little cobbled streets, claustrophobic closes and even a castle atop the hill right in city centre.
It’s also a city proud of its morbid history – bodysnatchers Burke and Hare have a bar and a strip club named after them (not to mention a booklet made out of Burke’s skin on display at the Royal College of Surgeons), a sprawling, noticably lumpy city park sits atop masses of graves left over from plague times, and the ghost-walk business is booming.
But as if this weren’t enough to lure me to Auld Reekie every year, it’s also home to the Dead By Dawn Horror Film Festival, an annual four-day whirlwind of premieres, retrospectives and discoveries curated by Adele Hartley, who founded the festival in 1993 with the UK premieres of BRAIN DEAD, MEET THE FEEBLES and INNOCENT BLOOD, among others (and – an important discovery – the World Premiere of Mariano Baino’s DARK WATERS the second year). Basically the routine is: arrive, grab a pint in the Filmhouse Bar, go see a film, repeat. For four days of intensive, horrific bliss. Adele is our tour-guide, and she’s a good one. Here she talks to FANGORIA about the festival’s history, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and what we can expect as part of this year’s anniversary festivities.
FANGORIA: You started Dead by Dawn 20 Years ago! – what was the climate in the UK at the time in terms of genre festivals, and specifically women involved with running/programming for genre festivals?
Adele Hartley: The way I remember it is that horror wasn’t omnipresent the way it is now so if you wanted a serious fix, you went to a festival. I was quite used to the women being seriously outnumbered by the men, but at the time that didn’t seem so odd. There was definitely idiotic prejudice about the kinds of people who went to festivals, though, particularly if you were a woman. It was fine to want to watch one scary movie on date night, but it was too weird to want to shut yourself away in the dark for days on end watching nothing but. Other fans have never cared, just those charming people who consider themselves normal. Whatever that is! With Dead by Dawn, then as now, the audience couldn’t care less which gender was at the helm, so long as someone provides the films. I only ever had one guy at Dead by Dawn who had a real problem with a woman being in charge but happily he handed me a great opportunity to clarify things for him. His apology was fairly sincere, considering!
FANG: How did Dead by Dawn get started, and get situated at Filmhouse? Was film programming something you had done professionally already by that point?
HARTLEY: Filmhouse has always felt like my home from home – it really was love at first sight. It’s not just how beautiful the theatre is, and how great the bar area is, it’s also the vibe of the place it’s a welcoming and accommodating space. When a festival that I used to attend finally ground to a halt, I really missed it. I had enjoyed schlepping round the country, watching wild films in a demented, sleep-deprived state and making some great friends along the way. A guy I knew in Edinburgh, sick of hearing me moan about it, dared me to do something about it. So I did. And it was meant to be a one-off, but someone on the way out asked me what I’d be showing the next year, and it was a bit of an epiphany. I remember thinking ‘You mean I can get away with this more than once?’
The Filmhouse, Edinburgh
I hadn’t professionally programmed at that point but I always figured I knew what everyone should be watching…not much has changed, I guess! I wasn’t really aware back then of the idea of being a programmer it sounds naïve, but I saw myself as the organiser and choosing the films was just part of that I really didn’t think of it as a separate, legitimate job. Now that I know what it takes to be a great programmer, I think it’s an underrated skill, obviously!
FANG: What is your favourite part of the programming and preparation process?
HARTLEY: The good days are when a unique, exquisite film turns up and it’s hard to describe the rush I get when I know I’ll be sharing that film with our audience. That’s by far the best bit. It’s addictive. I’m sure it’s what keeps programmers coming back for more on the days when you could see this job far enough. To be in that position of facilitator to be the link between a talented film-maker and a receptive audience – what could be better?
FANG: Do you have a methodology for programming, in terms of creating a tone for the festival each year?
HARTLEY: No, never have done. Themes sometimes present themselves, but for me it’s all about story. If it’s a good film, it deserves to be on the big screen. Programming a coherent, successful event, however, is where tone does matter, as does pace and mood. Each day, you want the screenings to flow, and a vibe to build over the run of the festival. You have to do everything possible to help your audience go into each film fresh and open-minded, not carrying any baggage from the previous screening.
FANG: What are some of the most memorable moments of your two decades of existence? Any crazy guests, or unexpected discoveries?
HARTLEY: Robert Englund scaring the stuffing out me by accident, that was kinda fun. It turns out I really do scream like a girl! Doug Bradley whispering things in my ear, well that was a joy. Getting volunteers drunk on tequila so they’d get up on stage and do their best Ash impression was pretty fun. Realising just how much I want to live inside Rob Morgan’s or Pedro Pires’ head became slightly worrying. Sitting in the back of a cab on a gorgeous Spring day while Herschell Gordon Lewis recited A E Housman for me, that was pretty sweet. Treating Signe Olynyk and Bob Schulz to their first ever ceilidh dance lesson was fun. Thing is, every year there’s a different mix of audience and guests and it’s always a blast.
FANG: For its duration, this festival has been a one-woman show, has it not?
HARTLEY: Yes. And no. This festival is mine, I organise it, I program it, I run it. But there are some amazing people who help out in all kinds of ways – cliché aside, the festival just wouldn’t happen without them and on a daily basis I rely on their expertise and opinions. Then, during the event itself, I’m lucky to have a team who are always one step ahead of me soon as I ask for something to be done, turns out it was done five minutes ago. They’re the best! But at the end of the day it’s me on stage saying I think this movie deserves to be here and I’m willing to take the praise or the blame for that, depending how it goes!
FANG: What do you think of the concept of a “Women in Horror Recognition Month”? Do you feel that women who work in the genre are at a disadvantage at all, compared to their male colleagues? Why don’t you think there are more female horror directors? Is it because they are at a disadvantage or because there are less women who want to direct horror films?
Sadly, I think women in too many industries are at a disadvantage compared to their male colleagues. The good thing about the Women in Horror programmes are that they creates an environment where women can share their experiences and ambitions and grow stronger and more determined, feeling supported, understood and recognised. That’s a fantastic situation. Although I’m not a film-maker and have no direct experience to draw on, I think I would feel buoyed and nurtured by a programme like that.
Having said that, I don’t know how helpful it is that the films those women produce should then be allocated their own events. I worry it only compounds marginalisation and I don’t see how that can be productive. And yet I guess something is better than nothing. Like you, I feel that because film-makers today can go ahead and try to get a production underway independently, the gender of the director need not be an issue (you’re not waiting for anyone’s approval) and I certainly don’t think there’s any shortage of women who love horror and would make great genre movies.
No-one is in the least surprised if a woman wants to make a rom-com but the idea that she might not only enjoy horror, understand horror, but want to actively contribute to the genre is still taken as weird. It’s expected that women are more inclined to make atmospheric horror, psychological horror rather than anything with a strong gore element. Although I’m always slightly phased by women who are squeamish, perhaps the tendency to move away from buckets of the red stuff has more to do with a desire to create a broader representation of women on screen less the half-naked, half mad scrabbling victim to one more likely to survive. There are already plenty of smart female characters in independent horror films but all too often in mainstream cinema, stereotype regurgitation is the order of the day – let’s get five clichés in a van, send them somewhere remote for the weekend and pick them off one at a time, but lets make sure the girls get undressed, first. Even the films that claim to redefine the genre are deluding themselves. Unfortunately, all too often in dialogue about the genre, mainstream horror gets conflated with slashers, which is just one sub-genre but so dominant. If a woman is anticipating a career as a director, and hoping for any kind of commercial success then I understand why the model laid out for them is depressing and off-putting.
FANG: Do you have any favourite female filmmakers?
HARTLEY: Not particularly. When I watch a film it doesn’t matter to me which gender directed it and I certainly never think that gender should have any influence on how good I think the film is. As much as I sympathise, I wouldn’t make concessions for women film-makers because it’s harder for them, nor programme a percentage of films just because they’re made by women, even if those films might not get selected for any other reason. For me, that would be deeply condescending and counter-productive. To look at it the other way, I would not expect my skill as a programmer to be judged in terms of my gender either, that would be ridiculous.
I have, though, noticed a huge increase in the number of female producers I get to deal with and that’s encouraging, particularly as they seem to be horror fans first which, when teamed with a male director, makes for an interesting dynamic and set of influences. There’s also the glorious emergence of some amazing 12 year-old girls who are making their own horror movies those are the women I want to see dominating the genre in decades to come! Hopefully in their creative lifetime they will never be asked if it’s odd that they do what they do.
FANG: What can people look forward to at this year’s anniversary event?
HARTLEY: The films booked so far are wonderful, with some really unusual stories and perspectives, genuinely fresh takes on the genre which I guarantee are going to give people some bizarre nightmares! The shorts programme is full of beautiful, twisted, dark, unsettling films, each and every one jaw-dropping in its own way you may never look at fish or fences in quite the same way ever again.
We’ll also be unveiling Dead by Dawn: The Board Game, which celebrates some of our favourite films from the last 20 years. We’ll have one super-sized board in the bar during the festival so everyone can have a go, and there will be regular boards on sale so you can take a bit of the fest home with you!
I’m super-excited about our special guests and we’ll be announcing in a couple weeks who’ll be joining us this year. They have already helped set up some really fun stuff that’ll be a surprise on the day! Samhain Publishing are showcasing four of their UK authors,including festival fave Frazer Lee and we’ll be turning (most of) the lights down low so they can read us creepy stories in the dark.
And there will be cake! You can hardly have a celebration without cake…but this is horror cake, and it’s going to blow your mind!
It’s also JUST been announced that FRANK HENENLOTTER will be the guest of honour at this year’s Dead by Dawn, and he’s even initiating a contest with the local fans, to accompany his ongoing “dead pictures” project (Frank likes to take “dead” pictures of himself in all the places he travels). More info on the contest on Dead by Dawn’s Facebook page HERE: http://www.facebook.com/DeadByDawnHorrorFestival