What made you start a film festival in Epsom?
This is my home, and Epsom has so much untapped potential. As a writer and director I’ve spent a lot of time on the festival circuit, going to maybe 20 festivals a year, and call me crazy but I didn’t like spending so much time away from my family. Meanwhile there’s a mass of talent locally – we have A list actors, Hollywood directors, an Oscar winning producer, a world-renowned photographer. I thought, the town’s perfectly placed to bring all this together; a 30 minute train ride from the film and gaming capitals of the country – there’s so much going on, but it’s all disconnected. It needs a nudge. And after a rainy weekend in Epsom – having returned from a disappointing film festival in London – I just thought ‘let’s do this’.
What happens at a film festival?
What most people think of as a film festival – like Cannes – isn’t really a film festival at all. They’re film markets (like a farmer’s market, except with films), closed to the general public, and it’s all business with movers and shakers buying and selling films. It’s actually not that glamorous. Unless you’re George Clooney. In which case putting on socks is glamorous. Or you have festivals that are for upcoming filmmakers, ones for local filmmakers and others for cinema goers. We’re largely unique in that we’re a bit of all of those.
So anyone can come?
Absolutely. The whole point of the festival is to be something for everyone. It’s great for Epsom and it’s great for the industry. For our second season we had filmmakers travelling in from the USA, Canada, Finland, Belgium, Germany, France and even Estonia. They just wanted to chat to local audiences about their films and get to know the area.
And what kind of films are they?
Last year our judges went through hundreds of submissions from 58 countries. I’ll be honest, some of those judges died. Some are in therapy. We see horrors you can’t imagine. But the sacrifice was worth it because we ended up with a three-day programme of 50 or so of the best films you’re likely to see anywhere. Undiscovered gems, feature films, short films, documentaries, animation, Oscar winners, BAFTA winners, world premieres, sci-fi, horror, action, romance, comedy, foreign films. We had films with Pierce Brosnan, Brian Cox, Amanda Seyfried, Jarvis Cocker. So when I say there’s something for everyone, I really mean it.
Who does the judging?
It’s divided between a panel of industry professionals and an absolutely brutal panel of typical local cinemagoers of all ages. And that balance means that the quality of the films is incredibly high, but so is the entertainment value. We even have a panel of children judging the animation and they are mean. They gave one of our films a ‘Poo x 1000’ rating last year.
“For our second season we had filmmakers travelling in from the USA, Canada, Finland, Belgium, Germany, France, even Estonia”.
What is there aside from films?
We have parties, workshops, Q&As, but what makes our festival so special is the family atmosphere with filmmakers and audiences coming together. At SEIFF everyone can come. To everything. You can even join us at our red carpet awards ceremony at Epsom Racecourse. It’s our mini Oscars, except it doesn’t go on so long and Ricky Gervais isn’t there to offend anyone. It’s glamorous and relaxed. You can celebrate with the filmmakers. There’s food and entertainment. You can wear a tux or jeans and a t-shirt! You can dress in a Borat thong if you like. In fact, I positively encourage it. There’s a sweet bar and free cake. We have children there. You don’t get that at the Oscars. But the focus is always the films and some of them you may never get the chance to see again.
Why aren’t they in the cinema if they’re that good?
A minuscule amount of films end up in cinemas and, by and large, unless you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence, or Brad Pitt or Meryl Streep in your movie then it’s not making it into the Odeon. These filmmakers can’t afford those actors. But that doesn’t mean their films aren’t better directed, better written or even better acted than the films in cinemas right now. That’s not hyperbole. Come and see for yourself. And while there are recognisable stars in some of our films, they are the few that embrace independent cinema and are willing to work with upcoming filmmakers.
What have been your favourite festival experiences so far?
I love to see people cry. That sounded better in my head. I don’t mean that in a sociopathic way! But last year we had comedies that literally had people crying tears; there was a brilliant documentary and as the audience came out everyone was blowing into tissues and rubbing red eyes telling me how moving the film had been. So yes, the more people cry, the more I give a little inner dance, but I probably shouldn’t admit to that. And then there are things like the closing ceremony where everything the festival represents just comes together – it’s incredible seeing filmmakers enjoy the unique excitement of having local audiences, who’ve seen their film at the festival, cheer them onto the stage as they get an award, or a little child weaving between a table as my wife presents a trophy. Most ceremonies I’m spending time checking my bow tie and watch. At SEIFF I’m checking that I’ve got enough strawberry laces in my pocket from the sweet bar!
And what about the future?
It’s all about Epsom. The best film festivals have events and attractions throughout the year and they bring a vibe, create community and keep the cafes and restaurants buzzing. We want more people to visit Epsom and we want there to be more for people to do here. All ages. All demographics. Nothing happens overnight, but the success of Epsom and the success of the festival go hand in hand. This is Epsom’s festival, not mine. If that means me going out and personally filling in potholes, I’ll do it! We reach 500,000 filmmakers in every country in the world so we want to really put Epsom on the map. As a festival our reputation is already growing. Now it’s time to get Epsom buzzing and turn civic pride up to 11. We have a new cinema opening next year. We’ve got monthly events, screenings and film projects we’re producing as part of the festival, all of which will get their world premier here, before being sent onto the global festival circuit – including a documentary, a feature film and an absolutely bonkers science fiction web series (called “Epsom”) where we’re one of the few places in the world staving off an invasion – nothing brings people together like film. And these are all made locally with a combination of experienced industry professionals and local people who want to develop new skills. It’s only just the beginning.
To get involved as a festival judge, if you have a child (5-11) who might like to join our animation judging panel (with specially created emoji scoring), want to volunteer or to find out how you can get involved in any of SEIFF’s projects, email Chris Hastings at firstname.lastname@example.org