Festival Spotlight Friday: A Conversation with Cucalorus’ Executive Director Dan Brawley

While AFI Fest glitters on in Hollywood as we speak, MovieMaker‘s spotlighting a festival with a totally opposite – but no less fabulous – sensibility: Cucalorus, taking place in downtown Wilmington, NC, November 13 to November 17, 2013.

Executive Director Dan Brawley takes a stab at putting into words what makes his festival so damn cool.

Having a memorable name will help. Cucalorus, now in its 19th year, is named after a Greek word meaning “the dance of the shadows,” which in a moviemaking context refers to “a film set apparatus placed in front of a light source to create a dappled lighting effect on a subject or background” (known in the UK as a “gobo”). It also sounds like some sort of undiscovered dinosaur species – hence the festival website‘s collection of illustrated monsters. (It also sounds like a rare strain of stomach bacteria, hence the festival’s traditional Midnite Brunch… we kid). Beyond its name, though, Cucalorus is a joyful amalgamation of interdisciplinary art, a top-quality selection of international and local films, and an intimate bonding experience fueled by bonfires and moonshine. Read on for details! We’re looking forward to being there next week – stay tuned for some intense live-tweeting.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You have been the executive director of Cucalorus for over a decade now. Can you name any notable moments in the festival’s history over that time period?

Dan Brawley (DB): Some of the best moments are when things go wrong. Not in a really bad way, but in an unexpected way. Instead of sending one of our staff members up to introduce films, we have artists, comedians, musicians, poets and other artists that introduce them, so you never quite know what you’re going to get. I recall one year an MC singing an acappella song about a man in a toothpaste tube, trying to stall the audience while we were getting a 35mm print up on the platter. Someone pulled the fire alarm at one of our venues one year—that was a pretty good moment. We had to clear three hundred people out of a theater on the fifth story of a building.

MM: Some festivals are very much focused on film and just film, but Cucalorus is known for its multidisciplinary programming in terms of combining dance and music and other media with film. What about that is so important to do at a festival like Cucalorus?

DB: That’s one of the many benefits of being non-competitive: We have more freedom in terms of how we put our festival together. I’m really interested in collaboration and cross-disciplinary investigations. Dance-a-lorus is probably the most well-rooted of our cross-disciplinary programs. It’s great when you get two artists together and throw them in a place where they might be a little bit uncomfortable. Like throwing a filmmaker into the dance world, and then a dancer into the film world, then finding out what happens when you have new capabilities. Because if you’re a choreographer working for a filmmaker for the first time it’s like, “I can do these things that I couldn’t do before.” It’s an important time in our cultural evolution where we’re creating new ways of thinking like this.

MM: Also it’s fun to do that at a festival too, because festivals put film into a larger context and a real-world setting, interacting with new elements instead of existing in a vacuum.

DB: Yeah, our festival is not so entirely industry specific. I think it stems from my view of filmmakers as artists. I don’t know when [society] decided we have to break [art] down into categories. We need to rebuild the mythology of the artist and I think filmmakers are going to be really important in doing that. The notion that artists are dysfunctional, marginal creatures is bullshit. We’ve got to rebuild the stereotype of the artist as someone who’s able to do all these different things at once, someone who can synthesize discord, a more and more important skill in our world.

Cucalorus4-Opening Night Dance-a-Lorus

MM: How much do you conceive of Cucalorus as an international festival in terms of programming and how much as a regional North Carolina festival?

DB: That’s a great question. We have a really strong North Carolina program for a festival in a smaller city that doesn’t have the stargazing nonsense of other festivals. We really have to build our base of support in our region. But we also have alumni from all over the world who send films every year. We had two filmmakers who came from Spain a few years ago, who had never been to the United States before, and they were really shocked to see downtown Wilmington, this historic little urban port city. They thought America was going to be all strip malls and parking lots.

MM: That’s just Los Angeles.

DB: (Chuckles) It’s an essential part to the Cucalorus mix to feature international filmmakers who broaden the conversation. And we have a fairly typical following in Brooklyn and Austin and LA and a growing connection with Canada.

MM: Can you tell us about the selection process this year?

DB: We had close to 1,400 entries this year, a record number of entries. I think people have the unfortunate perception that festival programmers are just taking the ‘good’ films. And that somehow if your film didn’t make the cut it means it isn’t very good, which is the farthest thing from the truth. The final decisions we make are entirely subjective. It’s kind of like putting a meal together, you know? Every course isn’t going to be blueberry cobbler. We have a very expansive curatorial philosophy, so we’re trying to put high-school filmmakers right next to veterans who won awards on big stages all over the world, and in a lot of ways that’s maybe more difficult because it’s less specific. It’s a bit of a grab bag of films. We like that mix. We take some chances and show some stuff that a lot of other regional festivals would shy away from. Like (Ektoras Lygizos’s) The Boy Eating the Bird’s Food; and we had the U.S. premiere of (Giorgos Lanthimos’s) Dogtooth. It takes a while for your audience to trust you in that way.

MM: What films are you especially looking forward to screening this year?

animalprojectposterDB: There are a handful of films that are a part of our Midnight Madness program that I’m excited to be showcasing: Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam); Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s film, he’s a southern filmmaker and that’ll be a really good one; and then there’s a Canadian film called The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger) we’re really excited to be hosting the U.S. premiere of that film. Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self (Eric Steele) is another film in our lineup having its Southern U.S. premiere. That’s a film that takes some chances and really pays off. Those are the films that get me up every morning and give me the energy to do my job. And of course we have a strong slate of film that have won awards on the festival circuit, and are a little bit more mainstream, like Short Term 12.

MM: I wanted to touch on your successful Kickstarter campaign. How many years have you been doing that?

DB: It’s the third year we’ve done it. It has really made it easier for us to reach our filmmakers overseas, the alumni who’ve been part of the festival. It activated a group of donors, who otherwise wouldn’t have ever thought of it, to give back a little bit. Even the filmmakers that are coming this year, a lot of them participated, and that’s the other great thing about Kickstarter: You can just put a dollar down.

MM: I liked the campaign. It specified exactly where the donations were going, and it was directly to supporting the filmmakers, which I think is something people care about. I also thought the rewards were great because they were personal, like the concierge service, and being cast as an extra on a TV show. I wasn’t surprised to see that it was successful. But was there a plan for if it wasn’t?

DB: I’ve never thought much about what would happen. We’re a grassroots organization running on fumes all the time, so it’s no big deal to have an all or nothing scenario in front of you. Filmmakers can relate to that: If you’re making an independent film, you’re putting it all on the line.

MM: Well, you’ve been successful for all three years so I guess that confidence is warranted.

DB: It’s either being confident or naïve, but we’ll take it.

MM: Cucalorus has a lot of traditions, like the wish coat [“to be donned by a different filmmaker, artist or staff member each day of the festival”]. Are there other traditions that readers should know about?       

DB: The last several years we’ve had a communion at the festival, for the First National Church of the Exquisite Panic.

MM: (Nervous) Okay…

DB: And every single night of the festival, everybody comes back to Jengo’s Playhouse and we have bonfires and there’s an open bar. I don’t know, it’s like Mad Max meets Cannes. That’s where all those moments happen that you sort of don’t want to tell anybody, but you’re glad that you were there.

MM: Can you talk about some things you’ve learned in your experience serving as the executive director?

DB: It’s been an incredible gift to learn my job while I did my job. I don’t think a lot of people get that opportunity. When a festival starts off as a well-funded event its first year, they hire somebody that’s experienced. Our festival grew organically, and we’ve learned tons over the years, being able to make mistakes. Much of our staff are, at the best, underpaid, and a lot of them are learning their jobs for the first time. I think again that’s where the filmmakers see some kinship: “Oh yeah, this isn’t totally unlike making a film, where you pull together all the people you can find who are passionate and see what happens.” I wouldn’t have wanted to know any more things 15 years ago. It’s so much more valuable to learn it if you do it.

MM: Last question: We get asked a lot how we define cool when we talk about cool festivals and because every festival is cool in a different way, we never have an answer. But what’s a cool festival to you?

DB: I guess every festival has to find its own little space. There’s the mega-festivals like Toronto or Sundance, where there’s 2,000 people at a party. A lot of times I go to these parties and there’s only 30 people that I want to hang out with. Then I go the smaller festivals and those same 30 people are there and so you get to hang out with people on a more personal level. At Cucalorus, there’s a core group of people who hang out with each other in a way that you can’t at the bigger festivals. Throw enough moonshine into the mix and something weird’s bound to happen. We’re clearing a space for people to experiment and take risks. Not just the artists, even our staff; we throw people into positions where they’re in above their head. To me that’s part of what translates into the vibe of the festival. There’s this safe place, where even if you mess up we’re here for you. MM

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