Interview by Keri O'Shea
With more and more fine horror fests emerging here in the UK, how do you decide which ones to attend? Well, if you fancy something a bit different, then the Abertoir festival in Aberystwyth, mid-Wales might be for you: the festival offers music and theatre events, and classic horror cinema as well as new films - all in the congenial environment of a picturesque coastal town (which just happens to have a 24-hour bar and pizzeria where, ahem, your interviewer may have rolled up on certain occasions…) I grabbed festival organiser Gaz Bailey for some questions as he prepared for the fest's fifth outing…
Keri: First of all, Abertoir's now entering its fifth year and is a well-established fest - congratulations! What inspired you initially to start running your own festival, and how hard was it to get off the ground?
Gaz: Well, Wales was quite under-represented in the horror festival scene, meaning that for someone like me and anyone else who enjoyed the genre, it meant a long and expensive trip to visit the other excellent festivals outside of Wales. Abertoir came about all due to my love of horror, my job as a cinema programmer and Wicker Man director Robin Hardy. Robin was doing a book tour to promote his follow-up novel to the Wicker Man, Cowboys For Christ. We managed to get him to add Aberystwyth to his tour list and faced with a huge genre name such as Robin Hardy, I thought about maybe adding a couple of films to make it more of an event. I added a few more films, and a few more (getting carried away) and next thing I knew I'd created a mini-festival. So, with Robin as our main guest, and a few days of other horror films all booked in, the only thing left was to come up with a cheesy and fun sounding name......and as we're based in Aberystwyth, "Abertoir" was born!
Getting it off the ground wasn't as difficult as it may sound, due to the venue being where I also worked full time. It meant the cinema scheduling was at my disposal, the venue was already in place, the projectionist (sometimes also me!) was in place... and the team at the Arts Centre fully supported the event. It was all very hands on, in fact still now I like to occasionally introduce a film and then run back to the projection room to start it myself! I owe a lot of gratitude to filmmakers Frazer Lee and Joseph Alberti, who helped put us in touch with our guests at the beginning, and we also had some great financial support by the Film Agency for Wales as well, who really helped to make it possible to get as far as we have today.
Keri: One of the things that stands out about Abertoir is that you don't only show films - there are also music and theatre events. Tell us a little about what's involved in planning a festival like Abertoir: when do you start working on the following year's fest and what do you find yourself doing?
Gaz: The horror movie owes such a lot to its origins, and I think it's important to try to reflect that in the festival that we put on. This is evident in our line-up; we love to show classic horror films as well as the latest releases, and our annual silent film with live accompaniment is a fun way for audiences to truly appreciate the horror film from its earliest beginnings. Because of the facilities available to us, we decided to try and spread out... to offer something new that other festivals weren't doing so much. So when we planned to get Claudio Simonetti here for a talk about his music, we soon realised that we could get his whole band Daemonia to play on stage. This concert was the first time they had played in Wales, and was the birth of Abertoir as we know it today. In addition to a fabulous concert, actor Doug Bradley gave us the UK premiere of his one-man stage show An Evening with Death, which was a stunning performance of classic literary tales of terror. We all feel that including music and theatre in amongst the film line-up is a really fun and interesting twist to the regular horror film festival pattern.
I usually start planning the year's festival in April, as it usually takes me until then to recover from the last one! It's really a labour of love, and I've managed now to recruit three more staff members who share that passion to help with putting the fest together. As well as planning a great musical and theatre event, we dive head first into seeing as many films as possible at some of the other festivals. When we open submissions, then I frequently find myself faced with massive piles of screeners which I religiously watch all the way through. I never turn off a film if I don't like it, as I feel it's disrespectful to the filmmaker, but I usually end up wishing the festival was two weeks long to allow me show all of the excellent entries we get sent. Every year I'm amazed by the amount of new talent out there, it's really phenomenal to see so many talented filmmakers entering into the horror genre (and a real pleasure being able to get their work screened to large audiences!).
As for what I end up doing? Well..... pretty much everything! I've got some help now from the rest of the team (Rhys, Becky and Nia), but before it was mostly myself running around like a lunatic! We all chip in, help each other out, and generally make sure everything fits into place! We always strive for a friendly atmosphere, and we feel that if people take the time and trouble to come all the way to Aberystwyth, then they deserve to have a great experience at the festival! We look after the guests personally, treat everyone the same, and usually all end up in the local pub at the end of the fest having a drink with guests and festival-goers alike.
Keri: Tell us some of your favourite moments from the past four years...
Gaz: Favourite moments? The first would be creating a festival and realised people enjoyed coming! Even better moments are recognising faces when people come back the following year!
Other favourite moments include sitting in Aberystwyth watching Daemonia playing on stage, and thinking "It's Daemonia... playing live.... in Aber!?!?" - it really struck home with that amazed "how the hell did this happen?" feeling. There are of course loads of favourite moments, and they usually involve sitting in a pub with Doug Bradley. Another is learning that Marc Price's film Colin (which we screened and recommended to a sales agent) got shown at Cannes and became a hit! I think Marc still owes me a pint for that one! ;-) But generally what I enjoy most is spending time with our guests (all were lovely) and spending time with the festival-goers.
Keri: What's been your biggest gamble so far?
Gaz: Well, the first biggest gamble was getting Daemonia to play and seeing how it would fit into a young horror festival. But I would say both of the biggest gambles so far are connected to this year's festival. There's the concert by British punk group The Damned (some of their songs are heavily influenced by horror), which is quite a big event, and secondly there's the filming of The Zombie Diaries II, which involves a film crew coming to Aber during the festival and filming an epic scene on the beach with thousands of zombies coming onto the shore. I'm not aware of another festival that's integrated a feature film shoot into its schedule, and the response has been phenomenal. We'll have well over 1000 volunteers, if not more!
Keri: There are more and more horror festivals running in the UK now than at any other time: why do you think this is, and do you have any thoughts on the British horror scene at the moment?
Gaz: I warmly welcome the fact that there are more festivals, I think it's great that people living in all kinds of locations can find a festival near them. Scotland of course has two main festivals there, Wales has Abertoir, and England has loads of other exciting festivals that mean wherever you are you don't have to travel particularly far. I think the internet really helps too. With the internet, you can advertise around the world, reach people that otherwise you'd never reach, and really spread the word about your own fest as widely as possible.
The British horror movie scene at the moment is certainly moving in the right direction. This helps greatly by the change in attitude of the BBFC from the video nasty days, and really helps filmmakers to get their vision across. I do miss the good old days of Hammer, and I do get very bored watching the same old plotline rehashed a million times, but more and more frequently there are real gems coming out of the horror scene in the UK that can really tap into the various social worries that people are experiencing today (Eden Lake & Summer Scars for example). However, that said, I love gothic horror and would relish in the chance to see more period-set horror films.
Keri: If you were to give a piece of advice to an aspiring festival director, what would it be?
Gaz: Firstly, do it for love. If you really enjoy what you're doing, it will show, and that's what people respond to. It's largely about the atmosphere, of getting loads of like-minded individuals together to see a collection of films that you can chat about and enjoy all on the same level. The buzz of a fun festival can be fantastic. My advice is to always remember why your festival is there, and that's for the audience. Without the audience you'd be nothing, so always listen to advice, take constructive criticism and act on it, and keep yourself approachable and on the same level as everyone else. You owe your whole festival to the fans, and at the end of the day, the audience is the star guest.
Keri: Tell us a bit about the festival's relationship with Doug 'Pinhead' Bradley...
Gaz: Doug came to the festival in 2008 to present his one-man stage show and had a wonderful time here. He really enjoyed the atmosphere, the location was certainly different from the usual, and we were able to invite him back again the following year to present a talk on horror and masking. He's a wonderful person, extremely friendly, and shares my strong belief in promoting the literary angle of horror's origins, especially through his Spinechillers series of classic horror audio books. Doug represents the perfect festival guest: he is well known, iconic even, and manages to introduce people to a new side of horror that many don't even think about. He's always welcome here, and we all love to join him relaxing in one of Aber's pubs with a pint!
Keri: Finally, what do you have planned for this year's Abertoir? Can you give us any spoilers?
Gaz: A few spoilers... but all will be revealed soon. Our music concert is legendary group The Damned (with support by Zombina and the Skeletones). Our theatre is "A Warning to the Curious: Two Ghost Stories by M. R. James", a fantastic one-man show completely told in candlelight by Robert Lloyd Parry. There will be over 20 feature films, a silent horror (The Cat and the Canary) with live piano accompaniment and even the opportunity to act in The Zombie Diaries 2 in Aber. Finally... and because I'm a big fan of SGM, I will reveal one spoiler which we've not mentioned anywhere else, and that is that Robin Hardy will be coming back to close our fifth anniversary festival with a talk all about his new film The Wicker Tree. We've never forgotten that Mr Hardy was responsible for starting our festival, and it seems a perfect choice to welcome him back and show him what he started five year ago!
Keri: Do you have anything further to add?
Gaz: The passes will go on sale soon at just £47.50, so please keep an eye out on www.abertoir.co.uk. I'd also like to thank you personally for helping to spread the word about Abertoir. It's always been about creating a fun, affordable and accessible festival. We've had so much support over the five years, and I owe it all to everyone who's ever helped us by buying a ticket and enjoying themselves: thank you!
The Abertoir Horror Festival runs from Wednesday 10th November through to late night Sunday 14th November with films. live music and much more. For full details check out the official site here.
Special thanks to Gaz and the team at Abertoir