This weekend, the Utah Arts Festival will take over two blocks of downtown SLC, turning Washington & Library Square into a four day
artistic event. But if course you know that from reading our Arts Fest preview issue. One of the cooler aspects to this event is Fear No Film, the short-film festival that takes over the library's auditorium to showcase mini movies from around the globe, all focusing on a particular theme and divided up into sections for various audiences to come in and see what appeals to them the most or might spark their interest. Plus, it has the added benefit of being the only section of the festival that's air-conditioned. Today we chat with Topher Horman, head organizer of the film fest, about his time running it and what goes into making this particular section run every year. (All photos courtesy of the Utah Arts Festival.
Gavin: Hey Topher, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in Sugar House with my cool wife Aimee, who also helps produce events, and our three fun kids. I grew up in a Salt Lake City musical theater family, the only boy in between four sisters. I sat in the back-back of the station wagon a lot, facing backwards pretending I was the rear gunner in a WWII movie or the “Don’t get cocky” scene in Star Wars. I’m active in the Sugar House community, an advocate for parks, and open spaces. I watch very little TV, but am a firm believer that the Red Priestess is going to revive Jon Snow so what the hell is everyone freaking out about?
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in film and what were some early movies you enjoyed?
Almost every single Friday night, my family would watch two old movies at the Avalon Theater on State. We had our “own” seats, and became friends with all the elderly fans watching MGM musicals, Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddie, Carey Grant, Gene Kelly, Beau Geste, etc. My big crushes while hitting puberty were Jean Harlow, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse, & Grace Kelly. I very clearly remember seeing Young Frankenstein and The Little Prince (with Gene Wilder and Bob Fosse) in the movie theater at age three. Bugsy Malone, Star Wars, Grease, and the Electric Horseman were early favorites. I know MANY proficient cinephiles and don’t claim to be one. I don’t have any lines memorized from Billy Madison or Superbad or anything. I love watching movies with the sound all the way down, just watching the Director’s choices in every scene. Alfred Hitchcock blew my mind. Speilberg, Jarmusch, Kubrick, John Hughes, David Lynch, Spike Lee, the word economy of David Mamet, the characters of Pedro Almodovar, the pacing of Luc Besson—I know more about how Robert Rodriguez likes to work than I do lines from any of his movies.
Gavin: We’ve never sat down and talked about it, but my understanding is that you’re a freelance organizer of events throughout the year across the U.S. What specifically is your job and what do you do?
A mentor years ago said “Don’t try to explain it, just say you’re in show business.” Yeah, I’m very fortunate to work on the things I do, but they’re a lot of gritty work. I have a 20-year career in major events and stadium-scale pageantry. I’ve freelanced a lot, and do a lot less of it now, as I’ve settled into a good groove with a handful of my favorites. I’ll fill the role of anything from Event Producer, Creative Producer, Event Director, to giant U.S. flag coordinator, to volunteer wrangler, to guy willing to sit and scrape adhesive off the floor for four hours so the event doesn’t get hit with a union cleaning bill. I can also edit video, TV direct, do graphics, and be the show-caller as well. I’m a major event Swiss Army knife. In addition to building the film component of the Utah Arts Festival, I’m the Creative Director for EVE WinterFest, which is CRAZY cool, I work on a couple dozen pre-game shows for big sporting events around the country each year, and I’ve settled in as an “Illuminator” with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. For CMN Hospitals I help plan their signature events such as the ACE Shootout in Hawaii, which raised $1.6M this year, by having Hall of Fame athletes shoot golf balls through basketball hoops and “kicking” a 60 yard field goal through a real goal post with their 5 iron. Last week I helped plan a series of events for kid “Champion” Ambassadors and their families, nominated from all 50 states, who have survived major illnesses or injuries, as they met up in Atlanta, along with Miss America and Disney star Zendaya, then flew on a “party charter (with a Delta V.P.) to Washington D.C., and toured for several days, then met with their U.S. Senator, and held national media interviews. Next month I’m helping plan their national “Dance Marathon Leadership Conference” at LSU. It’s a major movement on over 300 college campuses. These 700+ college students, organize all night old school dance marathons (where you can’t sit down) to raise money for their local Children’s Hospital. Last year they raised over $16M. We’re helping them get to $100M annually in the next seven years. In between these I worked on the L.A. Angels Memorial Day pre-game show, finished the fun Sugar House Memorial Time Capsule project (to be opened in 2054, the Bicentennial of Sugar House), and will also work on the L.A. Dodgers July 4th giant flag, along with my wife. Oh yeah, and execute Fear No Film at the Utah Arts Festival.
Gavin: How did you first get involved with that line of work and how did you manage to turn it into a career?
I got a little lucky. I was studying Public Communications at the U, mostly semiotics, group dynamics and crowd theory. I took a job at a company called Bowl Games of America, and within a couple of years I became a Director of Special Events. I Directed half-time shows for major New Years Bowl Games, mostly the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Holiday Bowl, and worked on major parades, including the Indy 500 Parade and the Chicago Thanksgiving Parade. I worked there for 10 years, followed by freelancing, several major marathons, learned more about audience working three years with the Utah Film Center (my favorite achievement was the Pioneer Park Picture Show), and pieced together a good calendar of annual events. I turned it into a career with a few mantras: First, be early, outwork everyone, and thank anyone who goes out of their way. Second, if you champagne-toast with the Mayor and the starlet one minute, you better be the guy climbing into the dumpster looking for the lost radio the next. And third, in the chaotic stadium tunnels on gameday, the show WILL go on with or without you, so when things go really wrong, don’t be afraid to bark orders at your 150 active duty Marines carrying the 300’ prop, and smile when you bark “OK Marines! Follow MEEEEE!”
Gavin: When did you first get involved with the Utah Arts Festival?
This is my ninth year coordinating Fear No Film, and it came about in a nice way. After attending Sundance and Slamdance for years, I thought “Why not me?” I spent two years writing a script, read a bunch of books and magazines, applied everything I had learned about planning major events, logistics, anticipating fires, and performance, and I went out and made a feature-length movie, called “Thanksgiving, this year.” I had no filmmaking experience whatsoever, and recruited multiple friends to help me with their specific talents. We made a big film on pennies, and it didn’t suck. When I was soliciting advice for how to polish it, Lisa Sewell at the UAF offered me Fear No Film. I told her I know how to grow events, and I can develop her film program into something big.
Gavin: How did the idea for Fear No Film come about, and where does the name come from?
I didn’t start Fear No Film, actually. It existed for a couple of years before me, and was fledgling. They had a very solid foundation, and I could see several ways it could grow. Lisa empowered me to run with it. Fear No Film essentially means fear no filmmaker, nor filmmaker vision. Every filmmaker’s vision is different, every audience member is different, and I love taking a few hundred people at a time on an hour-long tour of an emotion, idea, or deconstructionist concept. I view each Fear No Film screening as a large-scale contemporary art piece, where audience REACTION becomes the art itself. I’m overly specific with each screening audience, describing the process behind this specific order of diverse, sometimes challenging films. I think this makes film as accessible as every other art form presented at the Utah Arts Festival. Thinking about this in the order of your questions, Gavin, makes me think it all makes sense when you look at my interest in audience response, from childhood into the middle part of my events career.
Gavin: What was it like for you coordinating the event and working with the downtown library to utilize their space to show the films?
I love the downtown library, the Nancy Tessman Auditorium specifically. From practically living there during Fear No Film annually, to showing hundreds of free movies there during my time at the Utah Film Center, I have a strong connection to the Library’s giant glass and steel Urban Room. The crazy light and shadows angling across library patrons, from people that look like my 2nd grade teacher, someones’ aunts and uncles, exchange students, those experiencing homelessness, dads running late, an occasional familiar face… It’s rare that an American city’s library is also its cultural centerpiece. We’re really lucky to have such a true gem here. People get that when they walk through those doors. I see it all the time, people looking up and saying “Wow. Look at this.” I freakin’ love Salt Lake City. Also of note is the Library’s projectionist Aleko. One of the most underrated specialists in our city. Never rattled, a true professional, very nice, a nice family. Our library can kick your library’s ass.
Gavin: How did the first year go for you, and did you know you’d be back right away or was there some hesitation?
Year one (for me) went very, very well. For whatever reason, I came up with giving each screening a theme. “Movies that make me feel________ (happy), (sad), (observed),” and the audiences grew all weekend long. The same people came back, and back, saying “You’ve made me think about being observed, or who I am as the observer, since Thursday.” I started the Utah Short Film of the Year Competition, and invited all of the top film organizations to send me their winners: The U of U, BYU animation, Spy Hop, SLFS Open Screen Night, the 48 Hour Film Competition winner, etc. I let the audience vote. That 2007 winner was “Mother Superior” from Spy Hop, made by teenagers, exploring SLC mother’s addiction to meth. I also started working the internet HARD to solicit nationwide short film submissions. The Fear No Film myspace page kind of rocked the late nineties, connecting with the New Mexico Film Commission, then every film group, then every filmmaker, then meeting filmmakers in West Texas, then the Amarillo Film Commission, then asking if there were any good short films shown recently in Abilene, “we’d love to here what’s happening in Shreveport, they have an indy house?”
Gavin: What’s the process that goes into choosing all the films you showcase?
Choosing the films. It started out as a very egalitarian process, with multiple film professionals passing around 10 packs of DVDs or VHS and rating every film in 8 categories, totaling 100 points. It took months, it never worked smoothly, and Lisa encouraged me to put more of a curatorial stamp on it. It’s easy to eliminate a bunch, I fall madly in love with a bunch, and everything in the large gray areas I solicit opinions from specific artists or professionals, such as musicians or painters, who are great critics of a films pacing, edit, or art direction and pastiche. Once I have about 85% of my “theme” mapped out, I’ll invite a few films that complete that a screening. I’ve invited Rory Kennedy’s “The Fence” before, something I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival, MTV’s Voltaire made a string of brilliant macabre shorts, and new works from a Fear No Film alumnus. A Grand Jury meets and selects some awards, and the audience decides the rest of the awards. Fun for all.
Gavin: How many hours of films do you watch in a year leading up to it, and what percentage of it would you say makes it in?
I watch several hundred hours of shorts on nights and weekends, all winter long. It’s relaxing for me. My wife will find me crying tears of joy because “I just watched the most amazing esoteric modern dance film that someone sent me from Australia.” Unfortunately, at this point, less than 10% of submissions get in. Sending out those “thanks but no thanks” emails is the worst day of my year. We’ve all received them, and I hate feeling judgmental of an artist who has obviously invested a thousand hours into their masterpiece, but at some point I cut lean and bark “OK, everyone left, follow MEEEEEE!”
Gavin: Have any of these films gone onto do anything big on a national or international scale?
Oh, man. Fear No Film alumni films have been picked up by HBO, animators hired by Pixar and Disney, last year’s “Transmormon” by Torben Bernhard is approaching two-million views, last year’s U.S. Premier of “A Perfect Day” by Oguzhan Kaya continues to win awards internationally. There are countless success stories. I’m lucky people send me such great stuff.
Gavin: What have been some of your personal favorite films that you’ve shown over the years?
This is tough. I want to take a pass on this one. One that stands out is Jimmy Martin’s “Klaus” which won Brian Higgins’ SLC 48 Hour Film Project in 2007. I remember being blown away by how polished a film could be after being conceived, written, shot, edited, and scored in only 47 hours and 59 minutes. I’m impressed year after year at how many brilliant filmmakers there are around the world that I would never, ever heard about if I wasn’t in this position.
Gavin: This year marks your ninth year and FNF's 13th year as a part of the festival. What are your thoughts on that achievement?
I’m just really proud to be part of the Utah Arts Festival family. It’s (I think) the UAF’s fourth largest program at this point, audiences tend to love it, even when that screening’s emotion is “taking you on a tour of grumpy,” and basically, my mom thinks I’m really cool. The UAF family is energetic, fun, hard working, and all problem solvers. The major event guy in me can’t help but admire this group of people and want to continue learning from this culture.
Gavin: Give us a rundown of this year’s theme and some of the highlights that people can expect to see.
Fear No Film 2015: The Impulses. Many aspects of impulse are explored, whether from the perspective of the filmmaker, to what I expect to be a moment shared by the general audience, to the difference between our impulses to connect or disconnect. Two screenings look at the difference between a gut impulse like the will to live, and a mental impulse that stems from your thoughts or memories. The films from the Middle East seem to be gaining the most buzz, especially the four from Iran. People are excited to see what works are emerging from an art scene that is mostly unavailable to Americans.
Gavin: For those interested in attending, what are the finer details and where can they find a schedule?
UAF.org, download the UAF app. Pick up the big pink guide with Sugar House band MiNX on the cover is in every coffee house, etc. Come to the Library auditorium starting Thursday, and there are slightly more detailed descriptions of each film. Fear No Film KIDS! runs constantly in the Art Yard.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Fear No Film after the festival?
Like I said, I’m really fortunate and happy with this chapter of life. Fear No Film is the way I’m able to give back to the arts, EVE WinterFest is a fun way to give back to my community, at each sporting event I get to work with veterans, active duty military, NYPD, West Point Cadets, breast cancer survivors, High School marching bands, or giddy groups of fans, so I get to meet all of America and make people cry with joy during the National Anthem, and I get to raise money for the top 170 Children’s Hospitals in North America. I’m actively planning how to close Times Square in the next few years and build a giant syrup luge to quadruple IHOP’s National Pancake Day donation to children in need. Hopefully that’s something you might hear about in the future. In the meantime, you’ll often see me around Sugar House with my wife and three kids. Thanks Gavin, this has been great fun for me.