Don’t Look Away: An Interview with Landon Zakheim & Michael Lehrman of The 2019 Overlook Film Festival

Somehow, horror and New Orleans go hand in hand. Maybe it’s the gothic ghost tales that haunt the corners and crevices of our French Quarter. Maybe it’s our inability to finally (and properly) reconcile the South’s biggest sin: slavery. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been living under constant threat of being washed away by the Gulf, given a good storm or two for as long as the city has been around.

These elements lend themselves to high drama which, in turn, lend themselves most visually to the cinematic aesthetic. The humid sunny day rain drizzle on Plum St, the music bouncing off the outside walls of nearby buildings, and the misfits sitting on curbs and stoops as beaded people walk by. New Orleans is a city of atmospheric horror and motion picture living if you look in the right places.

Last year, The Overlook Film Festival came to New Orleans, showcasing some of the best and brightest of genre filmmaking to ecstatic crowds at the Le Petit Theatre and Cinebarre Canal Place. This year, they extend their stay, with a slew of premieres, creeps, and spooks (including the U.S. debut of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie flick). I chatted with programmers Landon Zakheim and Michael Lehrman (who provided collective responses) about choosing our city, the horror genre, immersive/engaging storytelling, and more.

For information on the official lineup and/or to purchase passes to The Overlook Film Festival, visit now. Enjoy:

Bill Arceneaux: The Overlook Film Fest didn’t begin in New Orleans, but it’s now home to the event for the second year. What about this city makes for a good cinematic atmosphere of spooks and thrills?

The city lends itself really well to the Overlook’s mission, which is to showcase the very best in horror in intimate and inspirational environments in the form of a summer camp for genre fans. The sheer history and energy of the city make it a great place to host all of our screenings and increasingly bizarre and macabre live events and it fits the vibe of the festival so well. Not to mention, the generosity of all the local art and film organizations in the area has been incredibly welcoming. That kind of support mixed with the iconic settings and the excitement that our fanbase feels about coming makes New Orleans really feel like a perfect home for the fest.

BA: Last year, I had the great experience of not just watching Hereditary but being able to meet filmmaker Ari Aster briefly, and congratulate him on his movie. Speaking on that film specifically, about Aster’s writing and expression of awkward humor with horrific discomfort, is it a goal of the event to make moviegoers uneasy in their seats, or is that a plus? Beyond the watching, what do you hope festers will get out of your programmed selections?

The goal is to show the most interesting, innovative, artistic and scary films and events possible. Programming is often about looking for tonal variety, so even with something as specific horror, you’re hoping that you’ll still take people to different worlds and emotional places while showing all the different ways that filmmakers can approach the genre with their storytelling. Something like Hereditary hits a real sweet spot of emotional vulnerability and exceptional craft and we were so happy to have that as our Closing Night Film last year because something that permeates into the mainstream like that really reminds people what great horror can do to you. We always hope festival attendees will try something that challenges them – whether it’s a smaller movie from a daring filmmaker, or curated immersive program of spooky experiences, or making connections within the festival long alternate-reality game. The fest is designed to be a dark carnival where you can make choices as to what you want to get out of it.

BA: Regarding The Shining: Simply a grand horror or ripe for Room 237 conspiracies?

We’ll put it this way…. We want to believe.

BA: Are virtual reality and “immersive”/interactive movies the future of cinema? How can they benefit horror storytelling? Is it still film if it acts like a haunted house experience or roller coaster?

Cinema, especially genre film, is very much alive and well – in many cases thriving. Obviously, we at Overlook are huge boosters of interactivity and the evolving immersive art form, but we see these as their own set of tools, crafts, and experiences. Video games aren’t the future of cinema, just as movies weren’t the future of plays. What we love about bringing immersive to the festival is that it allows us the opportunity to showcase all of the exciting artistic, creative, and sometimes boundary-pushing choices that emerging creators are making, and make a statement that these projects are well worth giving as much value as festival goers have come to take when it comes to a curated film program. Horror storytelling lends itself especially well to immersive theater, virtual reality, escape rooms, themed entertainment and other aspects that fall under the immersive banner precisely because of that feeling of living a story that genre films often create when they worm their way into you. A haunt or a dark ride may not be a film, but it can certainly be a richly rewarding, emotionally visceral experience you may never forget.

BA: Is horror better when it’s more personal to an individual or more universally understood by an audience? Do you have a favorite horror moviegoing theater memory?

Definitely the first industry screening of Antichrist in Cannes Film Festival. When a movie provokes like that, both positive and negative, being in a theater surrounded by people having strong reactions is kind of the only real way to see it. As communicative art, film doesn’t exist without the viewer having the other side of that conversation and, with that film, arguably the most provocative, the conversation is so much part of the experience. That’s pretty much true of any movie that hits you on a visceral level and horror is great for that, so brainy horror that makes you physically react and also think and discuss just adds an extra level to that. Those are always the films were most drawn to programming – the ones that do

BA: If you could give an award to any contemporary horror or thriller filmmaker, who would you pick, what would be the award, and why?

We’re very lucky in that we get to award contemporary filmmakers regularly, both at Overlook and at the other festivals that our team is involved with. Just last year we gave Leigh Whannell a Visionary Award and the year before we tributed Roger Corman. This year we’ll have Robert Rodriguez giving a master class. Honestly, our program is so tightly curated because we keep our lineup small and pack as many events as we can, that just about any of the films we play are from filmmakers worth honoring. There’s an embarrassment of riches right now if you’re a horror fan and lots of filmmakers to be excited about. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get to every one of them in the fest lineup for years to come.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.

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