Interview: Kier-La Janisse Takes On Monster Fest
If you're a film festival programmer or follower, you know the name Kier-La Janisse. For the past twenty years, she's had a hand in programming some incredible film festivals, namely Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, and her own CineMuerte. She's also a film journalist, writer and editor at publisher Spectacular Optical (House of Psychotic Women, Kid Power!, Satanic Panic) and founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies.
Janisse's truly encyclopedic knowledge of world, horror, and cult film makes her a fantastic choice for her newest role as Festival Director of Australia's heavy horror hitter, Monster Fest. I spoke with Janisse about what her plans are for the festival, as well as on the most exciting genre films she's seen recently, and more.
ScreenAnarchy: Tell me about how you came to be the new festival director for Monster Fest.
Kier-La Janisse: I'd been to Monster Fest before when the Stranger With My Face festival was doing a Women In Horror sidebar there and they flew me in to participate in a panel. At that point I already knew Neil Foley -- the co-owner of Monster Pictures and my predecessor in the Festival Director position -- because we'd met at another film event in London and we got on well. This year I was at Monster Fest again, in no official capacity, and Neil approached me about the idea of running the festival so that he could focus more on distribution and production through Monster Pictures. He felt the festival had sufficiently grown into its own entity that it needed a devoted director who wasn't being pulled in all the different directions that he was. Of course, I have many other projects that involve writing and publishing, so it's not like I'll be doing nothing but Monster Fest, but I do like to get stuck into my work, and I can be pretty obsessive.
Does this mean you'll be living in Australia full time?
No; I'm going back there for a couple months to continue working on a book project in Tasmania, unconnected to the Monster Fest gig. And I'll be there to help Briony Kidd with the Stranger with My Face Festival, which happens April 14-17. I'll only be based in Melbourne for three months in the fall -- unless I can get a work visa that will allow me to stay longer. I wouldn't mind being based down there for a few years to work on the festival, but it all depends on a work visa being approved; otherwise I'll have to work around it by traveling back and forth a lot.
What does this mean in terms of programming and expanding the festival's vision?
Well, there will be a strong curatorial shape to the festival, but I still have to keep it true to the existing Monster Fest brand and the vision of its executive producers, Neil Foley and Grant Hardie of Monster Pictures. (Although I can assure you that the babes-in-bikinis type artwork the fest has favoured in some past years will be on hiatus this year. ;))
I want to step up the Australian premieres but also have a cohesive structure for the repertory section -- rather than have a few unconnected repertory titles, I'd like to see things connected a bit more. Since my brain tends to make weird connections where other people might not see them, I don't think this will be too hard. It's too early to say what the repertory focus will be for this year, but it should be announced in the next couple months.
All this said, it's not like I am the sole programmer of Monster Fest -- Neil Foley will still have a large hand in programming, especially when it comes to the premieres. We are the ones that probably travel the most to festivals, but last year, the great horror scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas was on board as a programmer. I hope to have her back to participate this year as well -- I'd love to give her run over a section, to be honest. And we'll continue to collaborate with Cinemaniacs, which is the film collective headed up by film writer/historian Lee Gambin. That will lead to some fun stuff, I'm sure. I want to have an exhibit of some sort, and to to open submissions up to expanded cinema projects. But all this will be solidified in the coming months!
You've programmed for the Alamo/Fantastic Fest, CineMuerte, Blue Sunshine, Fantasia, and Blue Sunshine, among other outlets. How is Monster Fest unique?
Well, every festival and its community are unique. CineMuerte was my first festival, and also my first time ever doing any type of exhibition. The only reason I jumped headfirst into running a nine-day festival with no experience was because I was an idiot and didn't know better. Now I have almost 20 years more experience -- working at the Alamo Drafthouse for four years was an incredible training ground. From an operations and financial standpoint, every independent project I do gets better and more sustainable because of this experience.
Fantasia is a festival I've had a number of jobs at, and it was the first festival I ever really went to outside of the Vancouver International Festival, where I was never accepted and actually treated with hostility because I was an upstart. So to go to Fantasia and feel so welcomed was an incredible experience. And in all their years, they haven't moved away from that -- for a festival of their size, they are the least stratified and the most friendly.
After a few years away, I went back to the Alamo to do the shorts for Fantastic Fest for a couple years, and that was great. I watched every film personally, which they thought was kind of crazy -- I think I watched 1300 shorts in 4 months. I've also done programming for SF Indie and several animation festivals, because hand-crafted animation is another of my great loves.
But back to what makes Monster Fest unique. It's still a growing festival, so it just oozes potential, which is very appealing to me. It's very punk rock and irreverent, and because it's not a huge festival in the same way that its Western counterparts are (yet), it's very feasible for a festival director to put their stamp on it in a tangible, artistically satisfying way. Of course, Monster Fest has a brand that is established and set by the executive producers (Neil Foley and Grant Hardie of Monster Pictures), so I still have to work within the overall long-term vision they set down for the festival, but there is definitely room to maneuver creatively.
What are the most exciting films you've seen in the last year, and why?
Well, this is a bias that'll be pretty obvious, but all the female-centric horror films that have been coming out -- everything from The Witch to Sun Choke -- Darling, Excess Flesh, Ava's Possessions, Evolution, and February. I actually think February and The Witch are my favourite films of the last year. I also absolutely loved The Invitation, because even though it pretty much tells you where it's going from the outset, it managed to sustain that discomfort and suspense through the film and had a kicker of an ending. Although Too Late starring John Hawkes -- which is not a horror film -- had my favourite scene out of any film I saw last year. I think it was the fourth reel (the film was shot on 35mm and each reel was one continuous shot, or at least it appeared to be). The scene is set at a drive-in theatre, so you'll know it when you see it.
When do calls for entry open?
They open Friday February 26th! I am just in the process of updating the rules and guidelines etc because I want to open it up to expanded cinema shows too.
Where can people find out more about the festival as well as yourself?
The Monster Fest pre-2016 website is up now, which is kind of a placeholder site for news and any info people need (leading up to the fest) like submission info, sponsorship info, job and volunteer postings, etc. In the fall, our 2016 website will be launched.
As for me personally, my website is here, which is the base for my publishing company. It's also the place where I post event listings for any events I am involved with and articles and interviews throughout the year, as I have time to write. I have an old personal website, but it's clunky to update so I rarely use it. But it does have probably my most complete biography on it, as well as links to a lot of past events I've put on.