It’s been 10 years since the last Filmstock Festival and 50 since the original Woodstock festival that inspired the former’s birth. In that time, filmmakers Justin Doherty and Neil Fox have made a number of short films, followed-up by a feature called Wilderness, which we spoke to them about a couple of years ago, that has allowed the pair to tour the festival circuit, encountering numerous experiences that have caused them to reflect on their own history as festival organisers. DN caught up with Doherty and Fox for an extensive insight into the return of Filmstock, revealing what filmmakers and film-goers can expect from the festival in November.
So, 10 years since the last Filmstock and 50 years since the original Woodstock, aside from the numerical satisfaction, why bring it back now?
Neil Fox: The honest answer is because we miss each other and we miss working together. In the ten years that have past what I remember about doing it is the good stuff. The atmosphere of the event, the way that audiences, filmmakers and volunteers mucked in and hung out and had a good time. It felt very different from other festivals I’d been to and a lot of people said that which was validated by the filmmakers particularly.
Justin Doherty: There’s the personal answer and then there’s the local answer. Locally, in Luton, there’s a huge amount of change happening, the sort of change that we’ve been seeing very slowly, that was starting when we were doing Filmstock in the early 2000s. The transition of an industrial town into something else, like many towns around the UK are having to do with big industries in decline (ours was cars) and that does take decades really. Right now, in the area where my office is based and where my Jazz club is based, there’s a huge amount of redevelopment and the promise of a cultural district has been talked about for years. Luton has got great culture, it’s got great arts going on, it’s got lots of stuff going on in the underbelly. It’s a hugely diverse town, there’s a range of arts going on, lots of music and craft exhibits, but there’s not a focused centre. People make do with doing things the way they are and that’s often why artists who grew up in Luton often leave because there’s no base.
We’re now seeing that develop and the promise of that developing further with a load of new arts buildings. There’s Luton Culture which is the arts trust that runs the libraries and the local theatre, they made a promise to acquire lots of old buildings and renovate them. Within a year there’ll be three new arts buildings and then a fourth one being built on a site that’s always had an arts building. There’s this promise that there’s going to be infrastructure to support artists. In my Jazz club world we end up doing lots of different types of art events because we’re a venue, we attract exhibitions and comedy and classical. People swarm to it because it’s a space that they feel something about. So, I wanted to stress test this idea and, as far as Luton goes, do people want that? Do they want this kind of event?
FIlmstock always brought together lots of different things, it wasn’t just film. It’s saying let’s do one and see if people come out in this generation of people living vicariously through the internet and attending events in a Facebook fashion. With my Jazz club, it’s always been about getting people to physically go there. You’ve got to physically come to experience it. We don’t post much online, you’ve got to be there. That’s the local element. People can invest in this area but unless artists embrace it back it won’t continue.
It’s remained important that Luton had something that was world class.
NF: Luton is a particularly apathetic place historically. There’s a particular kind of idea about it that all the good stuff that had existed there and around there just stopped and was left to ruin. As Lutonians and as people who can travel for culture we just feel like Luton deserves something. There should be something here – it’s big enough, it’s one of the biggest towns in the country. It’s got a massive population of students and diverse communities which over the years, we realised doesn’t mean anything when trying to put on a film festival, but it kind of gives you the energy at the start to think okay, there could be a hunger for this. And there was, there really was. We built it, we had to find it, we had to scrap for it, but we were justified and that’s where a lot of it came from because most of the audience are Lutonians and they’ve never had anything like it. That’s the spirit that Justin carried into The Bear Club. A lot of the same people thank you for doing this because they feel the same as we do, we were just in a position to be able to do something about it.
JD: Neil and I over the last ten years have taken shorts around lots of festivals and then our feature Wilderness. We’ve seen lots of festivals and had lots of great festival experiences but nothing’s ever quite been the same as what we did. Not saying ours was better, just different. We have a lot of friendships that have lasted for twenty years, I still stay at people’s houses from our first Filmstock. It was hard to know where that came from but I think it came from the fact they found something different about us.
NF: It’s remained important that Luton had something that was world class, we always said that. Beyond the carnival, which is obviously a huge very successful and famous one day carnival in Europe, that there was something else for film lovers and people of film. That there was something world class where Jason Reitman can come and feel like it’s as good as any festival he’s ever been to. It’s really important to us. Alex Ross Perry can come with his first film and will be looked after as if he’s Michael Hodges who was there the year before. That goodwill comes back. 10 years later we’re still in touch with these people. They still remember those things and appreciate what it is, which is something that’s different.
I hadn’t realised until looking through the history of the festival that it used to be a 15 day event. With Neil in Cornwall it makes sense to switch it down, what else inspired that change to a four day event?
NF: Logistically, we can’t really do 15 days and also, I haven’t got the energy of a 20 year old. When we said let’s make a 15 day festival with no money that was a bonkers thing to do. We then thought okay, let’s go down to like 10/11 days, which is still huge considering how most film festivals are. A lot of the other stuff we did, like the outdoor screenings and the big stuff, was because we wanted to give the audience such a thrill and ourselves the challenge of doing it. But the things that people remember are short films and the community and social events so it makes sense to focus on those.
JD: Some of these venues we’re using now it’s a new thing for them. Everything is amplified when you’re trying to maintain that energy across the week. We attract nice numbers but we don’t get thousands upon thousands so you always want to keep that core audience from not running out of energy and keep coming back. We’d always see a bit of a dip midweek before it came back up. We thought it would be better to have four days with people desperately cramming into spaces to see the next thing rather than it being thinner on the ground across the week.
The things that people remember are short films and the community and social events.
I’m curious to know what will be returning from the previous editions of the festival and what you’ll be introducing?
NF: A focus on short films and short documentaries will be returning. Hopefully, the atmosphere is what’s going to return. The feeling of being at Filmstock which people said was unique. Hopefully, we can try and recapture some of that. Just a good time where everyone hangs out and watches movies and there’s no hierarchy, there’s no real elitism, it’s just everyone on the same page with it. The new stuff I think will be the stuff that Justin and I have done in the past 10 years.
What excites me about doing that is we’re filling in the gaps of the last 10 years for people who might not have been aware of what we did or who we were, either with Filmstock or outside of Filmstock. Justin’s got the jazz club which he built and he’s developed a whole audience from that who know him through The Bear Club. It’s a chance for him to show them what else he does. The Bear Club will be a venue and we’ll also screen stuff there. There’ll be live music too so it’s going be a real feature of the festival in a big way.
Similarly, I’ve become this podcast thing and there’s a chance for me to do that. So there’ll be a Cinematologists presence and an audio recording and on stage discussion presence, which wasn’t really part of Filmstock. Before we did Q&As but never as a strand. It’s a chance to start to show people what we’ve been doing in the meantime and bring our current interests back in again, rather than just retreading. There’s a music documentary strand as well which at the moment has four films based on the writing that I’ve done.
JD: We want to focus on what we enjoyed most which is screening films by people who may not have got their film screened yet because our programme is always eclectic. We always pair shorts that have played numerous festival with shorts that may be out for the first time. It was always the case that if we came back to it, it would be the indie stuff because that’s the stuff that we think about. We talk about that far more than Romeo and Juliet in a church. Those events take a whole day to run and that’s a whole day of shorts we’re taking away.
Also, it’s about who’s watching films these days. As you know, what’s at the cinema is so restrictive, people are looking at cinemas in different ways. Independent cinema is jazz all of a sudden. I see these real similarities between filmmakers and the musicians that play my jazz festival. Amazing musicians but essentially making jazz albums is like making features. They make their own albums themselves and then take it around jazz clubs much like we do film festivals. Festivals are more important in that sense.
We want to focus on what we enjoyed most which is screening films by people who may not have got their film screened yet because our programme is always eclectic.
It makes sense that you’re streamlining it then, taking out the screenings that people can get elsewhere but still offering those core events that made Filmstock what it was. Aside from film screenings, what else can people expect to see at the festival?
JD: We’ll have three screens on the go. The Bear Club, which will be more of an informal setting that can have live music and film screenings with a bar. We also have the Factory Arts Centre, a 115 seater which will be more formal like a standard cinema. There’s also going to be a small screen of about 35/40 next door. Then they’ll be some art exhibitions to tie some screenings together. There’s an interesting spoken word event that happens in Luton and they do a regular event at The Bear Club. I’ve asked them to do a spoken word night about film which will be some form of spoken word or poetry about a favourite film or a piece of cinema so they’re going to curate an interesting piece around that. We’re looking for the right comedy fit at the moment but only if it fits. We don’t want the stress of having to find a closing film or anything, we just want to make it fun and not worry about getting a Batman Begins type closing film. If something happens organically then that’s great but it’s all about having fun.
NF: With the right goodwill, some of it is super ambitious stuff. I pulled in favours to get people that I know to ask people that they know to come which is something we weren’t in a position to do before. We’ll see if that works, it might not, so again, there are things that might not happen. We know the way Justin will design the space so that it’s a festival and the way the programme will sit together with space for food and the space for milling around and hanging out in between things.
JD: We’re building a popup coffee shop for the whole thing. Italian coffee machine company LaCimbali will be sponsoring all the equipment and then Union Coffee is sponsoring the beans. So we’ll have this lovely place to hang out and there’ll be a mess hall for food so one of your ticket options gets you fed. Your eyes and ears are fed with film and music then when you’re hungry you don’t have to leave the compound. Our friendly chef will have made a meal for the day and you can go to the mess hall, show them your pass and get a gorgeous plate of food.
We want to keep the whole thing as something to be done together because that was always a big part of it. The infrastructure in Luton where you could take sixty filmmakers at the end of the night to a restaurant has been killed off by the last recession and there aren’t as many options so we thought we’d build the restaurant and keep it in house. You come in, get your breakfast session of short films along with your omelette and coffee, and off you go. We like that whole holistic thing.
Final question, and it’s a pretty horrible, broad one, but what kind of films are you hoping to screen and how can filmmakers submit?
JD: We’ve got one way to submit, we’re using FilmFreeway. We keep our entry fee really low. We don’t believe in £40 entry fees for short films, it’s much cheaper than that. Festivals survive on entry fees but it seems to have gotten a bit out of hand in the wider industry.
NF: It’s good films. That’s it. That’s my answer. I think one of the things I was proudest of with the programme was that Justin and I had seen everything that was on. We are the programmers. We know why every film has been picked and from that comes a mix of films which sometimes looks quite odd. It’s partly driven by taste but not really. It’s more thinking about what’s the widest variety of engaging films that we can present to our audience. I guess our idea of engaging is a little bit our taste, a little bit of what surprises us. There’s an entry we watched together which surprised me that I loved it as much as I did. I realised that was just my changing taste of the last 10 years. It’s not necessarily a film I would have picked before, but it has really stayed with me and I really loved it.
We’ve always prided ourselves on films that show promise, films where you can see the filmmakers striving to do something.
JD: You look for films that surprise you because you hope that they’ll surprise your audience. We’ve never been interested in saying let’s get ten comedy films to fill a comedy section. I think that’s when you see cracks because you feel like you’ve got to fill that section. We’ve always mixed films into a bit of jamboree, especially the short film sessions. They’re never themed. Neil and I love so many different types of movies that it’s open. When we see films nowadays, despite not having run the festival for a number of years, we still think “that’s a Filmstock film”. We’re bored by the convention, we’re bored by the plaintiff piano and the rent-a-comedy score. It’s amazing how much hasn’t changed in short filmmaking over the past few years since we last ran an event.
NF: I love going to festivals and seeing short programmes but it’s rare that you see a panel of short filmmakers who are at different stages. Too often what I find is that all the filmmakers on the panel will be around the same number in their filmography, the same amount of experience. You very rarely see someone who has shot a film on film and it’s their fifth short on a panel with someone who shot a film on their phone and it’s their first one. That stuff gets siloed but it doesn’t get siloed at Filmstock. It’s all thrown in. I think those conversations and connections are really important. You understand how you get from where you are to where you want to go next.
We’ve always prided ourselves on films that show promise, films where you can see the filmmakers striving to do something. Where you think a lot of festivals will reject it because it’s not a complete package but there’s something in it which is interesting, be it a performance or a handling of tone or a sequence where you’re just like, “okay, that’s exciting to see that kind of cinematic approach”. Where you know if that filmmaker gets the support they could go on.
JD: And we’ve rarely disagreed on a film because one of us will usually make a good point and that’ll be the reason to show it, that’s the conversation. For those out there who may think that’s a limited way to do it, it’s because it’s a curated event. It’s no different to an art gallery. The difference between us and some other festivals is that we can tell you exactly why every film is in there.
The danger of a lot of festivals is that the first line of defence in their thousands of submissions is interns. Nothing wrong with being an intern but by definition of age and experience, you have the least breadth of experience. You may be thinking about what’s good and what’s technically good but you’re actually putting the people with the least experience about curating in charge of the first few films coming in. That’s the most important stage.
I’m proud that we’ve always discussed everything. So, if you think something’s a bit rotten in our programme you can come and have a conversation with us and we can give you a reason. Most of the time that reason is why that person has come to see us and we get to have a conversation and people appreciate that curatorial nature of it.