Down to the Bare Bones: An interview with Mayhem Film Festival

Interview: Beth Green
Thursday 12 October 2023
reading time: min, words

October is in full swing, so that can only mean one thing for Nottingham’s film fanatics: Mayhem! Founded in 2005, Mayhem Film Festival commences on 12 October, and brings you four days of some of the best contemporary horror in the game. LeftLion HQ caught up with the organisers: Steven Shiel, Chris Cooke, and Film Programmer Melissa Gueneau ahead of the festival...

Mayhem Curtain Min

Could you tell me about how and when Mayhem started?
SS: Myself and Chris, along with another friend, Gareth Howell started it in 2005. We are all big horror film fans and had been moaning about the fact that there wasn’t a local horror film festival. Chris was part of a short film festival called Bang! which was based at Broadway Cinema, so the idea came up to do a horror short film night at Broadway. The first event was in May 2005 (hence the name ‘Mayhem’). We did a couple of editions of just shorts, then started adding features too. Three years later, in 2008, we had our first weekend festival, with special guests, preview screenings, a few classics, and a short film programme. It was a hit, so that’s pretty much the template we’ve continued to follow. In 2013 Meli joined, and our audience numbers have just gone from strength to strength.

CC: Gareth and I were both firm favourites of Black Sunday - a horror film all-nighter (about eighteen hours long, kicking off at midnight). It was held in Manchester ‘back in the day.’ We had the idea of doing something similar in Nottingham, we wanted to recreate the community of horror fans. In the end, we started things smaller, and soon realised the horror community was already there! Over time, we decided to drop the “horror,” which allowed us to add in preview screenings of sci-fi and cult cinema. We recognised that our audience wanted more, they are into a wider variety of genres. We still focus on horror, but what is most important to us, is to show mostly previews and premieres. We want to give our audience something new.

What were your backgrounds before starting this? 
SS: I’m a filmmaker - a writer and director, mostly focusing on genre. I’ve made a couple of horror features, Mum & Dad (2008) and Dead Mine (2012), both of which screened at editions of Mayhem. Prior to Mayhem I’d been part of the Nottingham filmmaking scene, working on my own shorts, as well as working on other peoples. I helped shoot Chris’s first feature film One For The Road. I also worked as a cinematographer for my wife, the documentary-maker Jeanie Finlay. Both Chris and I did our training at a place called Intermedia, which was a facilities, production and training centre, formerly based in the same building as Broadway. That’s where our friendship first developed.

CC: Steven, myself and a group of filmmakers in the city were creating their own industry and making short films over weekends and learning the craft. 

What’s your curating process like? How do you pick your final programme?
SS: The programme obviously reflects our tastes, but also those of our audience.. We love to hear what works and doesn’t work for them. When it comes to curation, we try to see as many films from as many filmmakers as possible. We go to the Cannes Film Festival each year to see what else is on the radar. Then we watch the films and talk to each other about them - it’s pretty democratic really. The final programme is made up of films that we love, and feel excited about presenting to our audience.

CC: Cannes market is where things really kick off in terms of timing and getting things underway. We keep on top of the titles that everyone is talking about, that have generated a real buzz in the community. The festival needs to work for people just dropping in, as well as people there for the whole four days. We also have the shorts, which are curated by programmer and co-director Meli, and remain central to the programme.

MG: We try to keep our ears to the ground as much as possible so we know what might be coming up any given year. Every year, we watch a lot of films - probably more than people think. We’ve been lucky to be able to bring on people to help us the last couple of years, to pre-screen shorts, and some of the features too. We worked with Emily Malone from The Nottingham Horror Collective this year. However, as Steven said, it is pretty democratic and everyone’s feedback about a film goes into the final decision on the programme.

What makes Mayhem different from other horror festivals?
SS: That’s a difficult question - there are quite a few horror festivals around the UK, each with their own unique vibe. I think the fact that we’ve positioned ourselves as ‘horror, sci-fi and cult cinema’ gives us a wider pool of films to choose from. We’re always interested in presenting stuff that may be just on the fringes of what people might perceive to be genre, as well as stuff that is right bang in the middle. One thing that is great for us, is our fantastic host cinema: Broadway. It’s a massive positive for us, it really creates a great atmosphere for the festival. Lastly,  and I’m sure every other festival would say this - we have the best audience. The vibe at Mayhem is always open, friendly, welcoming and accessible. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen a thousand horror films, or if this is your first time, there’s a place for you here.

CC: It’s true, the audience is really welcoming and cool. We have a core who come every year and they don’t act like a clique - they’re inviting. We take the audience off the beaten track, showing  everything from mainstream to the arthouse, from the gory to the thrilling, from action to horror, from fantasy to scary shorts - it is really international too.

We’re always interested in presenting stuff that may be just on the fringes of what people might perceive to be genre, as well as stuff that is right bang in the middle

Is there a degree of audience participation, eg. voting?
SS: We don’t award prizes for films, though it is something we have discussed before. In terms of audience participation, we have spot prizes each day with grab-bags full of goodies which are usually awarded to whoever can answer whatever daft question I come up with on the day.

What are you most excited about this year?
SS: It’s always exciting to have filmmaker guests at the festival and this year we have UK filmmaker Sean Hogan, who has previously attended Mayhem with a number of his films. Plus, The Adams Family, the American family filmmaking collective, whose film Hellbender was a big hit a couple of years back. I’m really looking forward to the audience getting to meet and speak to them.

CC: Sean Hogan is our most regular attendee. His success includes documentary films like 2000AD film and anthologies like Little Deaths. This year he’s coming with a curious short feature that looks back to the days of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas. It's a haunting piece and well worth anyone’s time. He’s also an expert in British horror films and folk horror and is quite subversive. 

MG: There’s tons of stuff in the programme. I'm so excited we were able to bring in, and we’re so happy to have fantastic guests coming too. I’m honestly most excited about the event and seeing everyone again. It’s an incredibly friendly and welcoming community, which I missed last year because I had Covid, so I’m doubly excited to be there in person this year!

What are your goals for Mayhem in the future?
SS: To keep putting on the best selection of world genre films that we can, and to maintain and grow our audience. We’re also looking at ways we can expand and grow elements of the festival itself. Next year is our 20th edition so we’d love to do something special for that, but plans will only really start being made once this year’s fest is out of the way.

CC: The 20th edition is a real milestone. I like the things that happen around the festival - like the exhibition in the gallery; I’d like to see more growth there.

Finally, if you had to pick one film each, which from this year is a must-see?
SS: I’m really looking forward to showing Hundreds Of Beavers, I think it’s a real crowd-pleaser of a film. Part Loony Toons cartoon, part silent slapstick comedy, part video game, it’s really unique, creative and funny.

CC: There are a lot of films that defy categorisation, but I will say, Suitable Flesh and The Animal Kingdom (I know you only wanted one). The Animal Kingdom is a beautiful fantasy-drama film about identity and family. Suitable Flesh is made in a way as a tribute to the late, great Stuart Gordon, who made Re-Animator and From Beyond. This one riffs on Harry Potter, Lovecraft and 80s and 90s sex thrillers - so yes, it’s a LOT of fun.

MG: It’s really hard to just pick one but I’m gonna go with Loop Track, which really took me by surprise. I think it is a great one to end Mayhem on, I can guarantee you’ll be going home thinking about it. 

The Mayhem Film Festival runs between 12-15 October 2023 at Broadway Cinema. 

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