THE PROGRAMMERS: Grady Hendrix (New York Asian Film Festival)

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Today Twitch launches a new, ongoing interview series. Titled The Programmers we'll be spending the next several weeks putting a series of questions to the people who decide what films make it - and what films don't - into the film festival world. From regional, highly specialized festivals up to the biggest of the big, we're putting the same batch of questions to everyone in the hopes that it'll give you something of a picture of how the festival world works as well as a portrait of the people who drive it. Over the coming weeks programmers from Fantastic Fest, The Toronto International Film Festival, The Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance, The New York Asian Film Festival, Fantasia, and Cannes will all be chiming in. Today it's time for Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian.

First, can you tell us your name and what festival(s) you work for.

Grady Hendrix, New York Asian Film Festival (June 25 - July 8). To avoid confusion, Subway Cinema is the group that does the festival. We have two names in order to avoid lawsuits.

What was the moment when you realized that film was something that you wanted to do - and actually could do - for a living?

I didn't. This is something that happened to me, much against my will.

How long have you been involved programming for festivals? How did you get involved?

The Music Palace was one of the last Chinese movie theaters in North America and when it closed down back in 1999, a bunch of us realized that the only Chinese films that would be coming to New York after that would be horrible art films, like what the Film Society of Lincoln Center shows. We first wanted to get some cultural organization to preserve the Music Palace but most groups we approached treated us, rightly, like idiots. So finally we decided to do it ourselves. Paul Kazee, Brian Naas, Nat Olson, Goran Topalovic and myself each threw $1000 in and did a Johnnie To retrospective in 2000 at the Anthology Film Archives. The only one of us who demonstrated any brains was Nat who moved to Hong Kong before we even did our first screening, thus avoiding all the horrors that were to come.

Ironically, we're doing the New York Asian Film Festival with the Film Society of Lincoln Center this year, so we have become that which we hated. It's like when Luke Skywalker kills Darth Vader while hanging out with Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and Darth's mask cracks open...AND IT'S HIS OWN FACE!!!

On average how many films do you see per year? How many festival slots do you have to fill? How long does the selection process take?

This year we looked at 431 movies to fill around 48 slots. The selection process lasts as long as our ability to fight with each other does. Eventually our stamina gives out and we fall by the wayside, one by one. When the last one of us lies motionless on the ground, that's when the selection process ends.

Do you make a living on your festival work or do you have to supplement your income in other ways?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You have got to be kidding. In the past 10 years of working with Subway Cinema and the NYAFF I have made $10,000 from the festival. Before taxes.

What do you see the role of a film festival within the overall film industry? How has it changed in the past five years?

In America, film festivals are the only place to see Asian movies anymore. No one releases them these days, except the occasional boring art film about lonely Chinese people eating mud and being exploited by the State.

Unfortunately, some film festivals seem to think that showing these kind of boring movies will gain them a kind of credibility that they'll then parlay into a low paying job with a non-profit organization or a university. Fortunately, more and more film festivals are springing up that are showing more and more fun, interesting, good movies from across Asia and, much in the same way the Greek Titans overthrew their forefathers, these younger, newer festivals are hacking off the genitals of the old, boring festivals with scythes and casting them into the sea where they will create a white foam from which Aphrodite will emerge.

What are the most common mistakes people make when sending you a film to consider? What are your pet peeves about the process?

No one sends us films to consider because we suck. Usually we have to beg for films. Interestingly enough, when begging for films, the fact that we suck actually becomes an asset.

Hypothetically speaking - because people ask this question all the time - You've seen film X, you love film X, but you're not showing film X in your festival. Why not?

Because the distributor stabbed us in the face and laughed when we asked for it. Or because the other guys in Subway have no taste and out-voted me on the movie. Every movie we program has to have a majority vote to get in - this means that the idiots I work with keep me from bringing many amazing movies to our audience. We all keep score, however, and I know that more people came to see "my" movies last year than anyone else's. One day they will acknowledge that I am their master. But only their master in a "superior being" way. Not their master in a weird S&M way.

What guidelines do you follow when selecting films? I don't just mean the rules laid down by the festival you work for, but what are your personal criteria?

We have to love the film. Sometimes, however, it's not true love. It's more like beer goggle love.

Also, I have Movie Programming Sixth Sense. Since the first Johnnie To retro in 2000, Subway Cinema and the NYAFF have shown several hundred movies. We've shown them in packed houses and we've shown them in almost empty houses. And usually, I'm standing in the back of the theater watching the audience watch the movie. Often, I'm masturbating. In all that time I have developed Movie Programming Sixth Sense. I know what the audience wants. I sense what they need. I understand what they're looking for, even if they don't. I'm like the audience whisperer.

There's a funny story here. Once they were screening a movie, whose name I won't reveal, up at the ImaginAsian back when it was still open. So they had a screening where the audience just went nuts and a little girl got hurt really badly. In fact, they had to amputate one of her legs! So the head of ImaginAsian at the time, Michael Hong, he wanted to have the audience destroyed but the theater manager, Dylan Marchetti, he knew me and he called me and said, "Look, they want to destroy this audience. Can you come help?" And I said sure, but only if he was part of the process. So Dylan brings this little one-legged girl and this crazy, berserk audience to my ranch in Montana, and we start working together. And it took a long time, and during that work, Dylan and I developed feelings for one another but I was hesitant to act on them because I'd been hurt before when I worked with another theater manager who belonged to the city, not the ranch, and they left me. Well, the healing took a long, long time, and that little girl lost her other leg in the process, but eventually that audience and that little girl sat and enjoyed a screening of E J-Yong's DASEPO NAUGHTY GIRLS together, and as I stood in the back of the theater watching them and masturbating I felt something rise up in me that was more powerful than I have words to describe. It was love.

If people are to remember your programming work for only one film, what would you want that film to be? What is your proudest discovery as a programmer?

When Leslie Cheung killed himself in April, 2003, it was really, really painful for a lot of fans. And at that year's festival we had a surprise screening of THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and ASHES OF TIME. To hell with the distributors, we just found prints and programmed them.
When BRIDE began, at the first close-up of Leslie, the entire audience burst into applause and cheering that went on for a couple of minutes because that's what you do when a great actor makes his first entrance. While that movie was playing you could hear a pin drop, and when it ended, Leslie spoke his last few lines, the screen faded to black and the theater just erupted. The only way we could have made it better was if we'd burned down the cinema, Viking funeral style. It was the right way to send him off and to pay him back, in some small way, for all the joy he had given us over the years. I think Leslie would have appreciated it. From what I understand, he loved attention.

Fuck pretending to have ownership of some director I "discovered." Giving Leslie Cheung the send-off all of us in that room gave him? That's what I'm proud of.

[This might be the best interview I have ever done. -Todd]
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