Interview: Chris Cooke And Steven Sheil Founders Of Nottingham’s MAYHEM FILM FESTIVAL


Broadway Cinema is Nottingham’s shining cinematic beacon, a wonderful establishment which plays host every year to the Mayhem Film Festival. Mayhem shows an eclectic selection of horror and sci-fi movies over the Halloween period, while also throwing in interesting events such as filmmakers with Q&A sessions. Over the years the festival has played host to directors such as Ben Wheatley, Gareth Edwards and Nicholas Roeg (to name but a few), while also premiering some unique and visionary genre films. The festival was started by Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil, two filmmakers and horror fans dedicated to giving film audiences a memorable cinematic experience. Movies In Focus quizzed Chris and Steven on the origins of the festival, the horror genre and much more. Enjoy…

How did the Mayhem Festival first come about? Tell me about its origins…

Chris Cooke – Ten years ago Mayhem started out as a short film festival – adding a feature, moving to the Halloween weekend and slowly, after 3 years, becoming what it is now – a 4 day long celebration of genre. It keeps evolving. We’ve added science fiction to the mix. It started because we love horror cinema. And we knew there was a good possibility that we weren’t alone in Nottingham thinking that.

Steven Sheil – We – myself, Chris and our friend Gareth Howell – we’re all horror film fans and had been having horror all-nighters round each other’s houses. Chris had been one of the founders of the Bang! Short Film Festival at Broadway, so we’d seen how it was possible to put on screenings, and had an idea that Broadway might be open to it. So we set up the first short film screening, had a great response and it grew from there. Then in 2005 we made the decision to go for a full weekend, and we’ve never looked back. Although that is partially due to our neck muscles seizing up due to all the stress of organising it each year…

How has it changed over the years?

Chris Cooke – Moving to Halloween itself, growing bigger and including more films was the major change. There are something like 17 screenings, guests and a brilliant live band – but at its heart the short films are still providing fresh shocks and scares as well as introducing the future talent the industry really craves. We’ve spent the year collaborating with brilliant film groups like Kneel Before Zod and Kino Klubb and now we’re ready for the main event in our calendar. We’ve added a day dedicated to younger genre fans (Teen Mayhem) the weekend before Mayhem proper… It’s all about new blood!

Steven Sheil – We’re always looking to what we can do to expand the festival and bring in new audiences, without losing our core audience. But we’ve found that we can introduce new elements – we now screen sci-fi and cult films, we’ve added live soundtrack events, plus we collaborate regularly with the other great Nottingham film clubs like Kneel Before Zod, Kino Klubb and Watergate Cinetmatek – and still keep people coming. It’s about listening to the audience and being responsive to them.

You always have a good balance of films and events throughout the festival – tell me about the selection process.

Chris Cooke – We spend a lot of time selecting films – we watch well over a hundred features and more to get down to the final selection. We really try and think about an audience who are with us from Day One through to the climax of things, on Day Four. They need variety, light and dark, scares, surprises and comedy as well as cult classics and brand new releases. Essentially our job is to deliver variety. We went to Cannes – where we discovered the new Astron 6 film, THE EDITOR. We’d screened Manborg before, and the audience loved it. We had to have the new film. It means starting with something fun and then taking the audience on a journey through horror, science fiction and heading on until we hit Monsters: Dark Continent, closing the festival… we have so much inbetween – great new sci-fi (Coherence, Predestination), British brooding horror (Let Us Prey, The Canal) and hilarious stuff (Dead Snow 2, What We Do In The Shadows)… so hopefully people are in for a fun ride.
Getting guests here to meet the audience is a key part of our programming – Astron 6 are great fun, and The Editor is like an Airplane film with gore! The Canal is truly disturbing, the director and producer are with us. ABCs Of Death 2 is remarkable and one of the 26plus directors of it will be here too – the amazing animator Robert Morgan. And we close with Monsters: Dark Continent and we have amazing guests for that!

Steven Sheil – We watch a lot of films and try and get a good balance for the weekend. I guess in the end it comes down to our personal taste and our understanding of what our audience likes. I don’t think we’d ever put something on that neither of us was into, even if we though we’d get a crowd for it – I think it’s important that the festival feels curated.

Are there any classic films or people that you’d love to have at the festival but haven’t had the chance to yet?

Chris Cooke – I’d love to do something around Hammer Films, their legacy and the direction they’re taking today. I love their Gothic brand of horror, but also the forgotten films, those often overlooked – like Satanic Rites Of Dracula which seemed so forward thinking. So Hammer for me…

Steven Sheil – There are people, but we still have plans that involve getting them for future years, so I don’t want to jinx it…

Setting up a festival like this must have certain challenges – what sort of difficulties do you face?

Chris Cooke – We have a limited budget – but we do what we can to secure ‘must-see’ films, premieres (a UK festival first with Predestination, Ethan Hawke’s new film, for example) and great guests. We have a great team across the whole of Broadway Cinema supporting us and managing miracles every day.

It’s important to get the word out that we’re here.

It’s exhausting going through so many films, from features to shorts – but the rewards are discovering something rare or precious: those films that won’t leave your memory, startling new visions. We fit the work in around our jobs and lives – we start in late March, the planning takes a long time.

Steven Sheil – Yes, fitting the festival around other work is hard, especially during the months when we’re selecting films – it’s a lot of viewing. Working within a tight budget it always a difficulty, although we’re used to it now, so we have an idea of what we can afford to do, and with audiences growing year on year, we get a bit more leeway. It’s always tough when, for one reason or another, we can’t get a film – it’s happened with a couple of great films this year – but that’s just an occupational hazard.

What are your favourite festival memories over the years?

Chris Cooke – Gareth Edwards came with is first feature, MONSTERS. Not only was he great to interview on stage – but he stuck around and delivered an hour long masterclass in making the film. Brilliant. This year we screen it’s sequel and are joined by the cast: Johnny Harris (This is England), Joe Dempsie (Skins) and more…

I got to interview Mike Hodges (Flash Gordon), he’s a filmmaker I really admire.

Steven Sheil – I got the chance to interview Nic Roeg last year, when we screened ‘Don’t Look Now’ in a Gothic church near the cinema. That was a great moment, because he’s a filmmaker that I really admire and he was fascinating to talk to. Also from last year, 8mm Orchestra’s soundtrack to ‘The Unknown’ really was a special event – one of the best things we’ve ever done at Mayhem, I think. Really looking forward to having them back this year with ‘Daughter of Horror’.

Fans of the horror genre are a dedicated bunch – what do you think drives this dedication?

Chris Cooke – The horror genre is really as deep as it is wide. But horror, as a genre, is fascinating. It really speaks to people when they’re together in the dark. And horror has something to say: it is about something – maybe death itself. Or madness. But also about survival, overcoming and succeeding. There’s nothing like sitting with an audience of like-minded horror fans. We all scream and laugh at the same moments in a film. There’s a sense of community. And horror is also about the outsider. And that makes people really connect to characters and situations that are outside of the norm. There’s something subversive and challenging about the best horror and horror fans really get that.

Steven Sheil – Horror asks big questions – What happens when you die? Why do people hurt each other? How mutable is the human body and the human mind – and puts them in a framework that is one step away from reality – they allow us to process fears and anxieties and dark fantasies in a psychologically safe space. They can be incredibly cathartic as well as incredibly challenging – they exist on the fringes. I think the best horror films can be genuinely mind-expanding.

What are your favourite horror films – and what makes these special to you?

Chris Cooke – I like Dario Argento enormously. He’s the person who really got me connect emotionally to cinema itself. I saw his film ‘Opera’ on the big screen and it was like a whirlpool, sucking you into the screen. His career is in a difficult place right now – but I’m a nerd who will forgive him everything. I like the way, in his best films, that the detective really shouldn’t be investigating – he or she is an outsider and the search for answers comes with a great risk. Often what the person is looking for, might just kill them. Or, in the case of Inferno, might be Death itself.

Steven Sheil – For me, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But I also love films like The Haunting and The Innocents, as well as more sleazy 70s stuff like the films of Pete Walker.

What are your thoughts on the recent proliferation of ‘found footage’ movies in the genre? I’m not a fan.

Chris Cooke – It’s a tough one. Every time a found footage film is submitted (very, very often), I sigh. Oh no, another… really? But though they share the same difficult job of setting up their stories, explaining why someone would be filming this stuff at all, every now and then one comes along and shakes you, stops the cynicism and reminds you that it’s all about a great story. Most recently I would say The Borderlands does that – very well indeed.

Steven Sheil – I think it’s too often seen as a cheap short-cut to getting a feature made, but as a form I think its still possible to do great things. The Borderlands and Delivery, both of which we screened last year – are two examples of how to get it right, because they have really thought about how to use the format and because they have great stories. If I have to watch another sub-Blair Witch story about a group of people lost in the woods and filming everything ‘just because’ though….

We’re seeing more and more horror movies move away from practical effects towards CGI – do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing? I like my horror movies cheap – and I don’t think CGI works well when it’s cheap.

Chris Cooke – Poor special effects, whether expensive or cheap – always betray a lack of care. But good effects are good effects: CG or practical. I have to say that I am an old fart who prefers the reality of practical effects – skin tearing, eye popping stuff – much more than CG. But, when handled well and mixed together with practical effects, CG can work well – the recent incarnation of Maniac worked well to blend them.

I hated the ‘premake’ of The Thing though. That looked bad.

Steven Sheil – I’ve worked with both and though I prefer practical effects I can appreciate that they’re not always the easiest option. On my first feature, ‘Mum & Dad’ we had purely practical effects, which I wrote the script around – I made sure that we had the budget and time to do the things that we wanted to do. The thing with practical FX is that to do them well takes time – if you have to redo a spurting wound, it can take time to clean up and reset, so that doing 3 or 4 takes of something could easily take an afternoon to get right. And on a very low budget film, with a tight schedule that’s a big chunk to spend on something that might only be on screen for 3 seconds. On my next film ‘Dead Mine’, I worked with a great practical FX designer, but also with a CG team and the idea was to incorporate both – to use the practical FX wherever possible, but be able to augment and tidy up with CGI. If you have a wound that is suppose to react in one way – blood spurts out for example – and the blood doesn’t behave the way you want it to – instead of having to spend half a day out of a tight schedule redoing it, it’s good to know that the effect can be helped out in post. I’m not a big fan of fully CG blood spurts, but augmenting a practical effect with CG makes sense. It’s all about creating a convincing illusion and I think as a director you’ve got to use all the tools at your disposal to do that.

Nottingham has a large film culture – how does this feed into the festival?

Chris Cooke – We have a short film culture in Nottingham that has supplied some amazing short and feature film talent. That should be reflected well in the short film programme at the heart of the festival (Saturday 1st November)… plus we have great talent with actors like Joe Dempsie (Monsters: Dark Continent), the editor of Monsters: Dark Continent is coming to Mayhem – he’s from Nottingham too: Richard Graham! We’ve always wanted Nottingham to be part of the event and it is.

Steven Sheil and I are both filmmakers. Steven is much more connected to the genre – making the controversial British horror film Mum & Dad and HBO Asia’s first horror film, Dead Mine.

Broadway is like a film Mecca for Nottingham film lovers – what do you think the charm of the cinema is?

Chris Cooke – The cinema is very inclusive. It’s a place to talk about films as well as watch them. But there are classes, two great bars and food – people can really relax here. It’s more than film. But it’s also a great venue for our festival. The staff are so involved! Broadway is at the heart of a thriving creative community and it really cares about film.

Steven Sheil – Broadway has always been fantastically open to having people come in and suggest screenings and events and that openness really helps to foster a very diverse audience, which is what you need, I think, to survive as an independent cinema today.

How do you see Mayhem in another ten years?

Chris Cooke – I’ll be 60! Bloody Hell!! I suppose I will be on a walking frame on the stage introducing a totally mad splatter film! I hope so. Hopefully it will still be here – in one form or another – but maybe with hover boots and jet packs?

I hope it’s still evolving, growing, become more left-field, eclectic and involving the audience even more.

Steven Sheil – In ten years time, Chris will be mostly cyborg – his lower torso most likely replaced by a set of wheels – and I will have mutated into my final form, a terrifying winged Elder God. Should make the Q and As a bit more interesting….

Mayhem Film Festival runs from 30 October  to 2 November 2014