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The Blockbuster Breeding Ground: Nacho Vigalondo, Gareth Edwards, And Fantastic Fest

How Austin's genre film festival has become a farm-system incubator for big-budget genre-movie hits.

The Blockbuster Breeding Ground: Nacho Vigalondo, Gareth Edwards, And Fantastic Fest

Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo and Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League ham it up at Fantastic Fest.

The night that changed Nacho Vigalondo’s life is on YouTube.

It’s a karaoke party in Austin, Texas, in the middle of the night at Fantastic Fest, and he appears to be very drunk as he has the time of his life. His second feature, Extraterrestrial, just had its U.S. premiere at the 2010 edition of the festival, and he’s part of a group karaoke jam along with fellow filmmakers Eugenio Mira and Michael Lerman; Fantastic Fest founder (and Alamo Drafthouse CEO) Tim League; Wu-Tang Clan honcho the RZA, and Frodo himself, Elijah Wood. The six of them are having such a good time that Wood can’t believe it—halfway through the video, he pulls out his cell phone to document the performance—and Vigalondo is front and center, belting out "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas like he was born to the role.

It had been a good night. The film premiered to a loving reception from the crowd at the genre film festival, and Vigalondo—whose first feature, Timecrimes, had also debuted at the festival three years earlier—had come to expect good things from Fantastic Fest. He’d found a distributor for Timecrimes there—making it the first film to ever sell at the festival—and that had put the film on the track to find its audience. Wood had praised it in an interview after it came out, and before the karaoke jam, he’d sought out Vigalondo, just to meet the director.

"It was something that my brain had to convince itself was happening," Vigalondo recalls of the encounter. "He introduced himself to me: ‘Oh, you’re Nacho Vigalondo, director of the film!’ I was like, ‘What the fuck, Elijah Wood is introducing himself to me?’ That was amazing. That’s something you only experience at this festival."

Vigalondo’s first experience with Fantastic Fest came in 2007, but he’s been a fixture at the festival ever since. Unless he’s in the midst of filming, he’s in Austin every September, even when he hasn’t got a movie of his own to screen. Wood is a regular presence too, hanging out at the nine-screen theater in South Austin and taking in horror movie after sci-fi adventure after fucked-up thriller after gross-out comedy for as many days as he can. Nobody screams "Frodo!" at him, or hassles him for selfies—as one Fantastic Fest regular described it to me, Wood is a regular enough presence at the film festival that the shock of seeing a famous dude among the tight-knit audience (only 1,600 badges are released for the entire festival) wears off quickly. "It’s more like being at high school, and he’s the star quarterback," she told me. "We all know him, and we like him, but he’s just one of us."

Vigalondo’s encounter with Wood paid off big. Two years later, the pair would collaborate on Vigalondo’s third film, the internet-based thriller Open Windows, which takes entirely on Wood’s character’s computer screen. It was Vigalondo’s first English-language movie, and his first one with American stars (in addition to Wood, actress Sasha Grey co-starred). The film was largely shot in Spain, but it takes place at Fantastic Fest, and when Vigalondo returned to the festival to screen the film, he met the person who would become his agent.

That agent helped usher Vigalondo into the next phase of his career—the phase where a bizarre, deeply personal script about addiction, gendered violence, and giant monsters destroying Seoul would land in the hands of Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, who would eagerly sign up to star in the project.

Colossal Change

Vigalondo’s agent got the script to Hathaway, and she quickly responded to the material. "We got a call from her agent asking me for permission to show the script to Anne Hathaway, which was like, ‘Ok-ay . . . Should I pretend that I’m making a hard decision, or what?’" Vigalondo recalls. That script, Colossal—which had its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in September—wasn’t something that he anticipated would land movie stars. He had expected that he was going to be making another low-budget indie, shot with contained resources and built around a small handful of locations. But then Anne Hathaway called to ask for a meeting. Vigalondo and his producer, Nahikari Ipiña, flew from Madrid to New York to meet her, and she delivered lines from the script in-character at a cafe in Brooklyn. Vigalondo was stunned.

"The media tend to portray filmmakers, especially male filmmakers, as these demi-gods who are able to pull the strings," he says. "When it was announced that she was the star of the film, I remember some Spanish media mentioned her as my ‘muse,’ as if I directed her to be in the film. Like it’s my decision—‘Come here, Anne Hathaway, you are chosen for my next film!’ It’s the opposite—if you like the film, you have to thank her. Because she’s the engine that made the movie become real."

Colossal is real now. The film debuted at Cannes, and played the Toronto Film Festival before coming to the U.S. for Fantastic Fest. Its rights in China were acquired for seven figures by a "mysterious buyer", and its U.S. rights are in demand, with interest from buyers including A24 and other distributors. The film is a fascinating approach to the genre of monster movie, focusing on disasters and survival half a world away from where the attack takes place, and pulling depth out of the performances of Hathaway and Sudeikis that you’re unlikely to see again in a movie about a giant lizard stomping a city.

But finding filmmakers with perspectives as unique as Nacho Vigalondo, or the other writers and directors whose work tends to premiere at Fantastic Fest, is something that people with money in Hollywood are very interested in right now. Fantastic Fest alumni—and independent directors who share their sensibilities—are a hot property these days, and Nacho Vigalondo is just the latest to see his unique viewpoint and facility with monsters, weird sci-fi, and other genre elements that in years past relegated a filmmaker to a career of making low-budget B-movies suddenly land him in high demand.

Going Rogue

"This is new," Tim League says of the fact that the filmmakers whose early films played Fantastic Fest are sought after by Hollywood. Colossal may technically be an independent film—although the presence of Hathaway and Sudeikis, as well as the fact that it was financed by Voltage Pictures (whose previous projects include Oscar winners The Hurt Locker and Dallas Buyer’s Club) make clear that it isn’t exactly an outsider picture—but other Fantastic Fest alumni are working on projects that couldn’t be any bigger. Rian Johnson, whose Brothers Bloom played the festival in 2008, and whose Looper opened the fest in 2012, is now helming Star Wars: Episode 8. James Gunn, who moderated a panel on the sci-fi thriller The Hive in 2014 (and whose indie projects Slither and Super have a decidedly Fantastic Fest-esque sensibility) is hard at work on the sequel to his Guardians of the Galaxy. Gareth Edwards, whose Monsters premiered at the Fantastic Fest-programmed SXFantastic at SXSW 2010, is readying the release of Star Wars: Rogue One for December. "There’s always been something of a farm team. In the ‘70s, Roger Corman’s stable of directors went on to transcend the super low-budget genre thing to become the stars of the ’80s, ‘90s, and today," League says of Corman apprentices like Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron. "But the farm team, if you will, is now so diversified."

League cites Edwards as an example of how the system has changed to find opportunities for filmmakers that come out of Fantastic Fest. "He’s a really interesting case, because he made Monsters for just a couple hundred thousand dollars with a crew of himself, a sound guy, and the two main actors, just going into Mexico, and then him handling all the CGI himself. And that wasn’t possible before, really."

What that means for Hollywood remains to be seen, but what it means for young filmmakers is readily apparent—it means that they have opportunities to put their stamp on the culture at a much earlier point in their careers than they might have 10, or even five, years ago. And probably no one embodies that better than Edwards. After Monsters had its SXFantastic premiere to strong reviews—a midnight screening that was attended by William Morris agent Mike Simpson, who also reps Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, no less—he started taking meetings in Hollywood, which led to him being offered Godzilla. And after the success of Godzilla, he was suddenly offered Star Wars as his third feature.

"I was very surprised when it first happened to me," Edwards recalls during a brief break from post-production on Rogue One. "Growing up, reading about my heroes like Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, I felt very envious that they worked in an era where the studios seemed to hand over massive creative control to very young filmmakers. As things moved on, it seemed like music videos and commercials were the new way into film directing, with directors like David Fincher, Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazier. Now, at least for a while, it seems low-budget genre films are the new path in."

League and Fantastic Fest took a chance on Edwards back in 2010. The film was submitted to festivals before the visual effects had been completed—instead of those sequences, the early version programmers saw had text on the screen saying things like "creatures attack." Monsters had been rejected by two other major festivals before League decided he had faith that Edwards would finish it in time. ("He met me off the plane and asked, ‘you replaced all that crappy text, right?’ and I joked, ‘Yeah, it’s a much better font now, you’ll love it.’")

At that point, Edwards recalls "snobbery" about genre films not being considered as "important" or "worthy" as straightforward dramas, but his career dovetails with changing commercial tastes, with genre films leading the pack among big-budget movies. But ascending to the big-budget world isn’t necessarily where these filmmakers will end up spending their entire careers.

Edwards has an interesting perspective about what you learn going from personal, low-budget projects like Monsters and how it translates to the tentpole features he’s made since. The similarities are fairly basic—how to sustain a story for two hours, how to work with actors, how to design shots—and then a lot that’s different.

"Having 200 times the budget doesn’t mean you can have 200 times as many things," he says. "It sometimes can limit you. You can’t be as spontaneous or experimental, because you have 300 crew following you around everywhere.

"I made my first film for very little money, and if there was a positive comment it would be, ‘I can’t believe you did something good with so little money.’ To be honest, the surprise should be the opposite: ‘I can’t believe you did something good with so much money,’" he says. "The more money you have, the bigger the investment, and the less risk people want to take. I think that’s the real challenge: How to play with millions of dollars in the same way you would if it was a fraction of the amount. Trying not to think about the consequences is actually part of the job. The audience doesn’t care how much you spent or how you made it, they just want to see a great film, and you have to try and block out all that stuff each day or it will paralyze you."

Filmmakers who are used to working on a smaller scale can sometimes end up burnt out by those pressures—when Joss Whedon left Avengers: Age of Ultron, it seemed pretty clear he wouldn’t be working on that scale anytime soon—but League is optimistic that Edwards will find a happier balance when he’s done with Rogue One.

"With Gareth, it wouldn’t surprise me if he went back and did something small and personal that’s totally different," he says of Edwards’ post-Rogue One move. "When you’re up at that height, there’s a lot of voices. You don’t have absolute creative freedom. You can’t risk a billion-dollar franchise. The expectations for that movie are so high that you’re not going to have the same level of control that you did in Monsters, for example. I would assume that a lot of these guys will probably go back and forth."

It's The Fans That Make Fantastic Fest

Just before the premiere of Colossal at Fantastic Fest, League—joined by Elijah Wood, and other guests—announced the winners of the competition for the festival, and awkward though it was to announce it before anyone in attendance had actually seen the movie, Vigalondo’s film took "Best Picture" in the "Fantastic Features" category from the jury. To celebrate, League presented him with an ornately decorated cake, baked into the shape of a monster stomping on a devastated city—but instead of a lizard’s head, it had Vigalondo’s own face. He seemed as happy as he cut into his simulacrum as he had been six years earlier, belting out the Black Eyed Peas’ smash with his newfound famous friends.

Fantastic Fest ate up the film as well as the cake, which is something that Vigalondo had been stressed about. It’s one thing to screen a movie for buyers at Cannes or Toronto, but the pressure was extremely high on him to satisfy the crowd that had launched him to his current success.

"We’re tied to this festival from the beginning of our careers as feature filmmakers," he said when I met with him and Ipiña before the screening. "So we care about people reacting here. I describe it as showing the movie to your family, but that’s not actually the case—you never want to show your movies to your family. But in this case . . ." he starts, looking for the right words in English. "Sometimes, in other festivals, you’re greedy. You want the movie to work well, so it will give you some kind of sales. When we’re in Toronto, I just want people to like the film, because of what that will mean for it. But here, I’m being totally honest—I really want people to enjoy the film in the most pure sense."

Fantastic Fest is unique, and it means something special to Vigalondo. He’s not alone, either. Rian Johnson, writing on his blog after the premiere of The Brothers Bloom, gushed that "Fantastic Fest is kinda what I think a festival should be" because "the whole festival isn’t built to sell movies or to line them up on a wall for critics to rate and whine about, it’s built for film fans to have a really great time." It’s something that filmmakers talk about among themselves. A few days before the screening of Colossal, Vigalondo recalls being at the world premiere of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which screened unannounced with the filmmaker in attendance. "One of the most beautiful things happened," Vigalondo recalls of the post-screening Q&A. "This movie has a big thing that happens in the last few shots. It kept people clapping, standing up—and during the Q&A, someone asked, ‘Do you want us to talk about this on social media? Do you want us to comment on this big surprise, or do you want people to keep being surprised the way that we are?’ And he was like, ‘Of course I want people to be surprised, but I understand that once we show this, it’s already there.’ So Tim League said, ‘Please, use the hashtag and talk about the film, but please don’t talk about the ending on social media.’ And it worked! No one from the screening is talking about that. That is impossible at any other film festival. At any other film festival, people have this urgency to show everyone that they know what happened in this film. But in this case, people respected it. You get the sense of love toward film that we tend to associate with France or Europe, where we respect filmmaking to a different level. I can feel that here, that level of respect is 100%."

That sort of thing is extremely important, because that respect is a two-way street—and it matters a lot as Hollywood looks to Fantastic Fest and its filmmakers for the talent that’s going to drive the next crop of blockbusters and tentpoles. And League, who does sound a little disappointed when he talks about the filmmakers who come out of his festival pursuing fewer personal projects in favor of franchises, is also a theater owner, so it’s in his best interest for blockbusters to be good. The fact that people like Edwards and Vigalondo are making larger movies is something that he sounds extremely proud of when he talks about the Fantastic Fest effect on Hollywood.

"Our intent is to use this network of programmers that we have—we have folks all over the globe who are looking in North Africa, looking India, looking all over Asia, for new, emerging talent, and we bring them to Fantastic Fest, and so I think it’s really interesting pipeline of potential new talent for the folks that are looking for the next generation of directors," he says. "James Gunn is one of them, Gareth is one of them, Rian Johnson is one of them—they’ve made a spectacular leap going from really low-budget to really high-budget, and it works because of what makes those filmmakers special. They have an understanding of storytelling, and storytelling first. A lot of these movies that fail on the big Hollywood blockbuster circuit have all the resources in the world available to them, but they fall on their face because they overlook the most important thing, which is having a real, dedicated, and strong storyteller at the helm."

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