Little devils: the men behind Manchester's GRIMM UP NORTH UK horror festival

Think Manchester and what springs to mind? Forget football - the Grimm Up North film festival crew are trying to put the city on the map with an annual lineup of the most terrifying cinema from around the globe. From classic screenings to cutting edge titles from the wider European, American or Asian circuits, from gore to arthouse, from fantasy to SF to kitchen-sink drama there's probably something in there for you.

This year's event takes place at Manchester's AMC Cinema from 6th-9th October 2011 - Twitch readers around the Midlands can find all the details on the festival website, or see our earlier post on their 2011 lineup - and we'll bring you as much coverage as we possibly can. First, though, in the run-up to opening night here's an email interview with the men who make it happen.


TWITCH: Hi guys - could you introduce yourselves first and let us know what you do behind the scenes for Grimm Up North?

STEVE BALSHAW: I'm officially Grimm's film programmer, and so do a lot of the research about what's out there, what films are coming up, etc - although we actually have a programming team, and decisions about what to screen and at what time are made between us. I am responsible also for the bulk of festival copywriting, so all of that alliterative EC / Skywald comics type stuff is my fault, I'm afraid.

SIMEON HALLIGAN: I'm the festival director. Don't know how it happened, it just did! I'm somewhat of an obsessive and so if I decide to do something, by hook or by crook, I tend to do it! I guess you need that kind of insane determination if you want to get a film festival off the ground and keep it going!! As I'm mad busy, Steve is answering most of the questions here. He's a far better writer anyway!

TWITCH: What led you to start up the festival? Did you see a niche in Manchester/the North West you thought needed filling? Was there something that happened to make you think 'Right, now we've got enough contacts to draw on to have a chance of making this work'?

STEVE BALSHAW: The simple answer is it started because we had a few too many drinks and decided to do it! The spur to it happening though was that Grimm's Directors Simeon Halligan and Rachel Richardson-Jones had just finished their first feature film, Splintered, which Simeon directed and Rachel produced. Frustrated by the lack of platforms for screening new films, both in the region and generally, they contacted me, because I am the one with a background in programming and co-ordinating film festivals.  At the time, I was Programme Manager of the Salford Film Festival and the initial conversation was about the possibility of doing a one-off Halloween screening to promote the film's imminent release.

To begin with the plan was that between the three of us we could source two or three other independently produced UK horror feature films, maybe a few shorts, and make a day long event of it. And it just grew from there. The name of the festival was my suggestion, though the extra "m" in Grimm was added by Simeon, to indicate that the festival was also open to fantasy and other material apart from horror. And as soon as the word got out that Grimm was happening, people started getting in touch and it snowballed into a four day, 20-odd film festival.

TWITCH: Obviously there are countless smaller events on the UK festival circuit, but many of them are pretty niche and/or low profile, with usually only the big names like Leeds, Edinburgh or the London Film Festival drawing extensive national coverage. Is that the way things ought to be (i.e. everyone has to start somewhere), or could people be doing more to promote less mainstream cinema in the UK?

STEVE BALSHAW: Difficult question, this. The bigger the festival, the more compromises will often get made in terms of what films get programmed, the kinds of promotion you do, the kinds of organisations you end up working with. Because the more money a festival has, the more it is able to achieve in terms of guests, events, premieres, publicity. There's no reason why a festival dealing with non-mainstream film has to be niche or low profile or small-scale. Nor does it have to compromise its vision. Particularly when it comes to genre based cinema.

Frightfest and London Sci-Fi Festival are big, well-established festivals. Frightfest for example has backing from Channel 4 and benefits enormously from that in terms of press and publicity, I'm sure. But what makes it a success is the strength of the programming. They know their movies and they know their audience. Grimm Up North is currently a growing, developing brand. We think we've managed to get ourselves quite well noticed quite quickly; we have credibility with the fans, and thus far the people who wish to get involved and invest in the festival are those who wish to buy into the existing Grimm brand, rather than change it. The higher profile we can achieve, the better in terms of securing movies from distributors, attracting sponsorship, having the money to make this a better festival than ever.

As for what more can be done generally in terms of promoting less mainstream films in the UK, ah, well there you open a particularly big and ugly can of worms. I could write long, impassioned and angry essays about distribution and exhibition in the UK, how it works, how various organisations collude in the domination of the marketplace, how venues that receive funding to provide an alternative are themselves driven increasingly to compete in an increasingly aggressive market, and so find themselves showing the same films as everywhere else. What I will say is that with fewer and fewer options available to see films on the big screen, festivals, whatever their size and niche, have a more important role to play than ever. And those of us who love cinema, in all its forms have to continue to fight for it, to write about it, blog about it, use all of the traditional and new media outlets to promote the kinds of films that people might not otherwise have heard about.

TWITCH: On that note, you've moved up to the AMC Cinema for 2011 - is that because you've managed to draw more attention for this year's festival, or a gamble to try and get more attention, or a little of both?

STEVE BALSHAW: I guess a bit of both? We approached AMC Cinemas, and they were really interested to be this year's venue partner. So I guess this indicates that the Grimm Up North brand is now attracting some attention. But it also works well for us in that it means we have a cinema that is actively promoting the festival to all of its regular punters and through all of its own publicity outlets. Hopefully, this will mean that, in addition to our core audience of gore hungry Grimmlins, we'll get a lot of curious passing trade.

I discovered a few years back that a lot of people go to the cinema with no real idea about what they are going to see - they make their decision at the box office. And there are a lot more of such "floating punters" at the big multiplexes. We intend to grab their attention and give them a suitably Grimm experience.

TWITCH: You've also managed to land some fairly big names - definitely among fans of genre movies or UK TV. How hard was it to put your guest lineup together? Was it simply a case of them having the space on their schedule and your having the money, were you calling in favours at any point or did any of them simply agree to it for the love?

STEVE BALSHAW: Six of one, half a dozen of the other, is the only real answer. We have very limited funding for guests, so generally it's because they are available, or they want publicity for their new film, TV Show, book, whatever, and are willing to come along and help launch it. And yes, some do it for the love, and we have all of us called in favours from our various friends, colleagues and contacts.

TWITCH: Simeon, apparently you're also busy with your followup to Splintered? (Care to tell us a little about that?) Has work on it stopped while Grimm Up North gets ready or have you had to balance both?

SIMEON HALLIGAN: Well the festival sucks up an enormous amount of time, particularly in the run-up month or so. I was also unfortunately involved in a road accident back in July. A cement truck pushed me off my push bike and ran over my back. If only we'd filmed it it could have been our own little Grimm opening movie! So that's another reason film projects have gone on the back burner somewhat. But, yes, I have a couple of movie projects in development. A scifi action/horror piece and a contemporary vampire flick, to name but two. Hopefully soon as Grimm is out of the way and I'm back on two feet properly, I'll be back on them!

TWITCH: Speaking of hard work - we've heard any number of horror stories about the general futility of running a film festival - not enough money (or no money) coming in, films not turning up, guests cancelling and the like. What's happened in your first three years to make you think 'Why are we doing this again?'.

STEVE BALSHAW: We say this to ourselves all the damn time, and for a myriad of reasons. Usually, at such moments, Simeon just blames me, and claims I talked him into this in the first place. He maintains that running a festival is much more stressful than making a feature film and I'm sure he's right. Then again, my memory of the first Grimm Up North was Simeon at the wrap party at around 2am swearing blind we were never doing this again, then sending out an email about 4 hours later that began with the words: "Right, I've been thinking about it, and this is what we need to do for next year's festival..." I fear it's a kind of addictive madness. I've worked in festivals for a number of years, and the motto of film festival people the world over is "Nothing is ever straightforward. For every solution, there's a problem."

If you want to curse anything at a film festival, you say the words "No Problem." That's like saying "MacBeth!" to an actor. The main problem that a lot of festivals now face, apart from the constant uphill struggle to be even remotely financially viable, is the increasingly varied number of screening formats available, each of which will have its own special kind of associated ballache, further complicated when a film's available format suddenly changes at the last minute. This is the one that usually has me wishing I was elsewhere, doing an entirely different kind of job. But when things are going well...

TWITCH: On the flipside, what's made you the happiest? Has there been anything you've seen - audience reactions to a film, meeting an actor or director, anything - to make you really grateful you've been able to spread the word, so to speak?

STEVE BALSHAW: So many different things: The premiere of Splintered to a packed house with cast and crew galore - the reason the whole Grimm project got underway and vindication for us all. The riotous Q&A Simeon and Steve had with Hellraiser's original Cenobites, Doug Bradley, Nick Vance and Simon Bamford, at the first Grimm, which was so much fun it could've gone on hours; the standing ovation received by the extraordinary Thai film Slice at the second Grimm - it was one of the more arthouse films we showed, and it proved that our audience was willing to take that cinematic journey with us.

A seminar on adapting books into films and vice versa with Christopher Priest, Ramsey Campbell, David Moody and Conrad Williams yielded some hilarious and indiscreet stories about the idiocies of modern Hollywood. Generally, just the people we have met through doing this, filmmakers, writers, bloggers, actors, the Grimmlins themselves, which sounds a bit Hollywood-acceptance-speechy, but we mean it, man. One of the nicest things that happened after the first Grimm was being stopped on the way to the office by a guy driving past who had recognised us, and just wanted to thank us for the festival.

TWITCH: And lastly, what would be the one thing on Grimm Up North's programme for 2011 each of you are most excited about people in Manchester and the North West getting the chance to see on a big screen?

STEVE BALSHAW: That's like asking me to say which of my children I love the most. Hell, it's all good. People should just buy a festival pass and come to everything. Personally, I'm excited about the screening of The Wicker Tree with Robin Hardy, which closes the festival. I'll be fascinated to hear what he has to say about revisting the themes of The Wicker Man after so long. Also, as a big Lovecraft nerd from way back I'm really delighted that we are showing the HP Lovecraft Historical Society's extraordinary film version of The Whisperer in Darkness, which, in it's retro-RKO style, appeals to my film geek instincts as well.

SIMEON HALLIGAN: Im a big fan of Asian horror movies and I caught a screening of Revenge: A Love Story back in Cannes in May. A Beautifully crafted and really involving movie that manages to bridge the gap between outright gore and real heartfelt emotions. So I was really gunning for it. Little known here, I hope the festival screening helps build an audience for it. I also like Urban Explorer, a German movie set in the tunnels under Berlin. Conventional horror in many ways but really well made; being an ex production designer, I'm also a sucker for abandoned and disused environments.

TWITCH: Thanks very much for talking to us, guys, and I hope the festival goes down a storm.

Grimm Up North 2011 takes place at Manchester's AMC Cinema from 6th-9th October. For tickets plus further details on the entire programme, the special guests, extra attractions and the discounts on accomodation and eating out offered to festival-goers, check out their website. For the latest updates in the runup to opening night you can follow Grimm Up North on Twitter at @grimmfest - plus Twitch's account at @twitchfilm (if you don't follow us already) or mine at @eightrooks.

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