Interview: Aaron Vanek

Filmmaker Aaron Vanek (The Yellow Sign, Return to Innsmouth), who runs the Los Angeles Lovecraft Film Festival (September 16-17, 2011 at the Warner Grand) is in Innsmouth to talk about movies and Lovecraft.

IFP: How did you first get involved with the Lovecraft Film Festival?

AV: Long story is…

Back when I was attending graduate film school at Columbia College Chicago, I found Andrew Migliore’s now-defunct Beyond Books website on the burgeoning Internet. I’ve been a fan of Lovecraft since I started playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG in high school, which led me to Lovecraft’s fiction. Reading the story of “The Outsider” struck me with vivid images of how that could be a movie, shot in first-person hand-held style. This was when I was only barely considering film school, back when I thought I’d be a writer in my undergrad days at UCLA.

So, I’m a Lovecraft fan and a film buff, and I’m at film school in Chicago. One section of Beyond Books had a listing of all the Lovecraft movie adaptations out there (at the time, at least), plus short reviews of them by Andrew. I went down the list and checked off all of them I’d seen…all but one. The lone holdout was The Music of Erich Zann, made in the early 80s by John Strysik when he was attending…wait for it…Columbia College Chicago. So, I immediately emailed the webmaster, Andrew, asking if I could get a copy of Zann, and, by the way, I just finished, or was about to finish, my first-year short film, the adaptation of “The Outsider” that has been rattling around my head for years. I really just wanted Andrew to review my movie and include it in his list on the Beyond Books website, but in the process of asking Strysik for a copy of Zann to send to me, and after I sent Andrew The Outsider, John said to him something like: “If you took my film and Aaron’s film, and get a feature, you could run a film festival.”

And that’s what happened. The first HPLFF was in 1996, in a dingy, Portland, two-screen theater. Andrew gets mad when I say it used to be a porn theater, so I’ll say that it was LIKE a porn theater…or so I’ve heard. Of course, I’ve never been inside one.

That first year had a simple program: my film, John’s and the anthology flick Necronomicon, which had Jeffrey Combs playing Lovecraft in the wraparound clips. Andrew managed to get Combs to come up for the fest, and it was the same program Friday and Saturday night.

It went so well, and Andrew had so much fun, that he continued doing it for 15 years.

Of those 15 years, I attended all but two of the festivals. I missed year #2 and year #13. I’ve contributed a few of the “bumper” clips for the fest, plus, screened four other Lovecraft films in various years.

For the last few years, I’ve been considering franchising and bringing the HPLFF to Los Angeles, mainly because I think it would be fun and because a lot of the celebrities are already here; it’s easier to send a limo to pick them up from their house instead of flying them first class, paying for a hotel, per diem, etc.

Finally, after a few cocktails with Frank H. Woodward, director of the documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, I decided to do it. This was in late summer 2009. I ran a one-day test-fest September 11, 2010. It did fairly well; I only lost two hundred dollars. So, I decided to go forward this year.

IFP: Will the festival make it back to Portland next year?

AV: Yes, most likely, there will be a fest in Portland in 2012. There will be a small one this year, as well, but without any guests, writers, or maybe not even vendors. Very low-key. That will be in October. It’s like they’re doing the “taster” fest, like I did last year. I think they’ll only do it for two nights, but I’m not sure.

The idea that Andrew and I talked about was this:

Andrew runs the 2010 HPLFF, the main one. I do my test fest less than a month earlier.

I run the main Festival in September 2011, in Los Angeles.

The Portland festival returns and moves to May of 2012, where the Zompire! festival used to be.

So from 2012 on out, it should be a May Portland fest, and a September one in Los Angeles. We’ll be taking year-round submissions into a “pool” of movies and each festival director can add into it if they see something they like. And then we can skew our programming based on regional or premiere biases; I mean, if a local Portland filmmaker or L.A. filmmaker submits, we can pick it up, whereas the other city isn’t required to.

It’s a tentacular explosion of even more festivals. Andrew, in the meantime, can step back and look at this monster from a strategic standpoint, and doesn’t have to go insane dealing with the nitty gritty of running a festival: booking guests, reserving venue, obtaining insurance, marketing, accounting, legal, and all the other extremely taxing duties required of an independent venture.

IFP: You have some great posters every year. Who worked on this year’s artwork? Did you give the artist a lot of direction or let the artist go with the flow?

AV: The 2011 poster for the L.A. fest was made by my friend David Milano, whom I introduced to Lovecraft by running the Call of Cthulhu RPG with him (and others). David was the man who read portions of Lovecraft stories to children and had them draw the monsters, a minor net meme (See here: http://davidmilano.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/cthulhu-mythos-as-imagined-by-kids/). David also drew the cover and some interior art for my CoC RPG adventure monograph, Farewell, My Sanity (available here: http://catalog.chaosium.com/product_info.php?cPath=55&products_id=1268).

For this poster, I really wanted to see Cthulhu smashing some Los Angeles landmark. Partly because that amuses me, mostly because I think a lot of people like to see cosmic destruction rain down upon the City of Angels. I think I suggested the actual location of the L.A. fest – the Warner Grand Theater – to David, or he did to me. He was inspired by the old King Kong posters, which was perfect. I had a few more artists in mind, so I had them do some sketches, but I thought David’s was the most appropriate for this year. We had a little back-and-forth as he’d send me sketches and images, I’d make a few comments, he’d fume at my flip-flopping but still revise, until we got the final. It wasn’t that bad, really; I think we only had one disagreement about the level of violence on the poster. He had a sketch with some CoC investigators fighting cultists on the roof and marquee, but I had him take them out, mainly because I was paranoid that San Diego Comic Con would reject the image, which would be used on our postcard. I’m leaving a bunch of these postcards on the freebie table at Comic-Con this year (where I’ll be moderating a panel on “Lovecraft in Comics and Film” with Andrew Leman, Frank H. Woodward, Adam Byrne, and Michael Alan Nelson), and they have to be vetted ahead of time to be “family friendly”. I guess someone left some freebies, with links to porn on them or something, one year, and now everything on the freebie table has to be cleared by THE MAN. So, I didn’t want David exposing them to an investigator blasting a cultist point blank in the face with a .45. I’m a wimp, I know.

For last year’s test-fest artist Paul Carrick, I just let him go. The only requirement I asked is that he add something related to movies, somehow, and he came up with the idea of a crane arm with a camera filming the planetary horror. Brilliant, of course. I called that poster “The Orifice of Doom”.

IFP: You talk about the nitty gritty of running a festival. How do you handle that? What’s your system?

AV: My system? I think about what needs to be done and then do it. If I have a system for running it, I’m not aware of it. I have a folder with a bunch of documents on my computer desktop, and just check that frequently for the stuff that’s needed: theater, films, art show, vendors, guests, press/art, programming, invites, sponsors, VIP list, insurance, whatever. I have a day runner, where I write down things I need to do, and cross them out when I do them. If they aren’t done, I write it on the next week. Plus, I keep emails in my inbox, until they have been answered, and then I file them away in a folder.

I take lots of paper notes, for things I think of that I need to do, and then recycle those notes once I’ve done them.

There are three tools I use to run the festival: a telephone, an email program, and Microsoft Word. The things I can’t do myself (draw a poster, for example), I delegate out to someone who can.

IFP: What do you like to see in Lovecraftian movies? What do you dislike?

AV: What I like to see in Lovecraft movies isn’t necessarily what other fans want to see. But under that qualifier, what I love to see most are passion and talent and a respectful approach to the material.

I don’t necessarily need to see a period piece for Lovecraft, even though I really enjoy the culture/art of the 1920s and 30s. But I want to see in the film what fired up the filmmaker when they read Lovecraft. What did they see or envision when they read H.P.’s prose that so inspired them to sweat blood to make their picture?

What I dislike is far more specific, but that’s mainly because I have seen it so often: a college-aged fan reading Lovecraft’s text as voiceover for a cheaply shot-and-edited black-and-white video, shot in their apartment with disregard for, or ignorance of, the long history of visual storytelling techniques. My advice to budding filmmakers is: If you are going for voice over, get a good VO actor or actress. This may be blasphemous, but don’t consider Lovecraft’s text as sacred. Respect the theme, the message, the tone, the emotion, the affect, the spirit of the stories, but don’t feel like every word has to be represented on screen. Of course, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society made the shining exception to this rule with The Call of Cthulhu.

IFP: What’s the best Lovecraftian movie you’ve watched?

AV: Honestly, I can’t just pick one, so I’ll give you a few. I think The Call of Cthulhu is the most faithful adaptation of Lovecraft that I’ve seen, and that’s high up on my favourite list. I really enjoyed David Prior’s AM 1200, even though it really had nothing to do with Lovecraft, but it had the spirit of HPL. I wrote an essay a few years ago claiming that The Blair Witch Project is the the best Lovecraftian movie, but even though it’s still way up there, I’m not sure if it’s THE BEST. A friend of mine loaned me a few movies that aren’t adaptations of Lovecraft, but to me really capture the essence of cosmic horror Lovecraft sought to expose. One of these movies I’m playing at the festival this year: Whistle and I’ll Come to You, based on an M.R. James tale. I’ve become a huge fan of the late British screenwriter Nigel Kneale. since I saw The Woman in Black. I already loved The Stone Tape and, of course, the Quatermass pictures, but The Woman in Black evoked a genuine physical reaction of fear when I watched it alone late one night. That’s rare. I think Kneale most often came closest to bringing Lovecraftian horror to the screen, even if he never read H.P.; I’m not sure if he did or not; bigger fans than I can – and probably will answer that.

IFP: Why is Lovecraft still relevant today?

AV: I think it’s interesting that you said “relevant” instead of “popular”, for they aren’t the same things. I think Lovecraft is relevant because of his influence on the horror and weird tale genre, which continues to grow each day. I also think that many of his themes are even more apparent in the world today: humans’ inability to put all the pieces together, like global climate change deniers; our cosmic insignificance (supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies); and the terrors we have to face due to the sins of our ancestors.

It’s a cold, uncaring universe and one of the few ways I think we can deal with it is through the words of someone who looked into the void and didn’t lie or decorate the view with bromides.

IFP: Do you think Lovecraftian fandom has changed in the last decade due to the Internet? I have to admit there are films I would have never found if it hadn’t been for Netflix or IMDB, but then again, there seemed to be a hard-core geekiness to hunting obscure flicks in the days when you could only catch them at some out-of-the-way cinema.

AV: Yes, certainly. But I honestly think the film festival, the games, the authors and artists, and everyone else creating new Lovecraftian material galvanized the fans into seeking out more Lovecraft. The Internet was the freeway between us, but someone had to create the destinations.

IFP: What scares you?

AV: My approaching death into oblivion.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraftian character or creature who would you be and why?

AV: King Kuranes, because even a homeless drug addict in this world can explore the cosmos and live eternally in dreams.

IFP: Any last words for our readers?

AV: I’d love to see them at the festival this year!

Tickets:  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/169287

Bio: Aaron Vanek received the 2005 Howie Award for his contributions to Lovecraftian cinema from the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival®, where he has been a regular guest and contributor since its inception in 1996. He opened and runs the Los Angeles franchise of The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival®.

He is also a Lovecraft-inspired filmmaker. His movies can be purchased from Arkham Bazaar on the H.P. Lovecraft Collection Vol. 3, featuring Out of Mind, and the Weird Tales Collection, featuring The Yellow Sign, based on R.W. Chamber’s story of the same name.

Two of his CoC RPG scenarios comprise the Chaosium monograph, Farewell, My Sanity. Another, “They Sleep by Twilight”, was published in issue #5 of World of Cthulhu magazine. Besides the festival, Aaron is working on two other supplements for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.

He lives in Los Angeles with his wife.

Left to right: John Strysik, Linda D'ONofrio, Stuart Gordon, Andrew Migliore and Mr.Vanek. All photos used in this interview courtesy of Mr.Vanek. Do not use without permission.

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IFPInterview: Aaron Vanek