Interview: Dion Conflict

Mac and Me

It’s a labour of love for local film programmer and B-movie enthusiast Dion Conflict to pull together a line-up for his rabidly beloved all night movie marathon Shock and Awe, but it’s also an incredible amount of work trying to recreate the dusk till dawn experience of watching cult and long since forgotten films in an old school grindhouse styled setting.

After taking a year off from the schlocky showcase, Shock and Awe returns to the Revue Cinema in Toronto this Saturday night – starting at 11:30pm and running almost until the following afternoon – running films in their original 35 or 16mm formats instead of merely playing DVDs. The owner of a large archive of film prints, Conflict is occasionally able to run selections from his collection that wouldn’t get a lot of play otherwise – especially with the decline in theatres actually playing prints off of film stock anymore.

Conflict, a self professed maven of “flea market cinema,” expands on the experience by offering shorts and classic trailers between the films, deliveries of burritos and breakfast items to help people through the long haul, sales of classic, hard to find DVDs on site, and the always beloved – and astoundingly always kept secret – mystery film of the night that attendees must take an oath not to reveal.

Conflict met up with us at a Coffee Time in Toronto’s Junction – just blocks away from the mini-festival’s home base and in no better place to chat about sometimes sketchy, boundary pushing cinema – to talk about this year’s selections, the work that goes into the festival, his love for Shock and Awe crowds, spaghetti westerns, sex flicks being on the cutting edge of technology, being duped into seeing Mac and Me a second time in theatres, programming shorts between the features, how the mystery feature stays under wraps (with a slight tease for this year), and finding the right times to run certain movies that might not have gone over as well a year or two prior.

Tickets for Shock and Awe can be purchased in advance from the Revue Box Office, Suspect Video, Eyesore Cinema, or Film Buff West for $20, but hurry as supplies are going fast. Tickets will also be available at the door for $25. For a chance to win tickets to this year’s line up from Dork Shelf, click here.

Dork Shelf: It’s been a little while since the last time you did this. It’s the second one that you have done at The Revue in the West End instead of The Fox in the East End. Does it feel good to come back after a bit of a layoff?

Dion Conflict: Yeah, but I mean, a lot of the break was just because the timing couldn’t really be synchronized right between everyone involved to really get it together any sooner.

DS: It’s a hard event to organize even beyond regular scheduling, though.

Dion ConflictDC: It’s really hard. I mean, sometimes it’s more along the line of securing the headlining film, but I know on my end to do the sourcing of the prints and to do the rights clearances it’s rough enough. On the end of the part of the venue it’s hard because they are constantly having to unload food and staff every hour, overnight, on a weekend, and they have to have an actual projectionist on site to run the films. It takes a lot of man power to pull this together. It runs all hours.

You would think now with the whole digital revolution that’s been going on, something this unique would be a bit easier to pull off, but if anything it’s even harder, and it seems like more of a hassle at times. It’s interesting doing it this time as compared to last time we did it, because back then there was still film being played in a lot of the city’s theatres. This year, there’s almost no film. It’s super rare.

DS: Was there ever a consideration at any point to cut your potential losses and just go digital with this?

DC: Never. Never. I think a lot of times the things I will have in my archive we just couldn’t convert to digital even if we wanted to. Certain films we could perhaps find a digital source, but I’m happy some of the prints look shitty. It just adds to a real cinema feel.

It’s funny because I actually haven’t been to a cinema since digital projection has kind of taken over. I haven’t seen a digitally projected film.

DS: Really?

DC: I know, right? It’s kind of odd.

DS: Do you just not go to the movies a lot anymore?

DC: No. I watch a lot of stuff at home, but don’t get me wrong, one of the things that I love about digital cinema is that it makes things a lot more affordable to have decent looking stuff at a great price. It looks great most of the time, too. But I haven’t seen a lot of things that are making me want to pull myself out and pay money to see something projected the same way pornography has been projected since the late 1980s. (laughs) A lot of porn that was projected back then was video, so when a lot of the whole video projection thing came about, that kind of pre-dated digital projection, even though that was technically video.

DS: It kind of harkens back to films like Boogie Nights and Tropic Thunder where characters discuss the impact that new video formats had on consumers. Both bring up how the industry tends to follow along in whatever direction pornography seems to be going in.

DC: Absolutely! I remember the first time I ever even saw people playing DVDs or renting or selling them it was in the Adults Only sections. I think the first I ever saw on DVD was the classic Andrew Blake film Tropic of Desire or something like that.

DS: I remember one of the first big marketing pushes for DVD technology was when Playboy was touting their new discs where you could change the angle of the camera at any time you wanted to. It was a big thing all over the entertainment reports on the news.

DC: I remember that! They would have these giant advertising display cabinets with everything they had or were coming out with. It was nuts, but very cool.

But getting back to the point, it’s an interesting market that we’re in now. With Shock and Awe, we’ve been busy with staffing and making sure it was the right time to make sure we were in sync and all on the right page and ready to go.

Shock and Awe Poster

DS: And I’m sure that finding the right line-up of films would be key, too. I would assume there are probably dozens of films you would love to run that wouldn’t necessarily fit the line-up.

DC: For sure. I mean, I have sat on Mac and Me for years and years. And this year we are doing Johnny Yuma, which is our first western at Shock and Awe, which took a little bit of hand twisting to expand the scope of the genre films we were looking at. But I think that’s something vital to the growth of Shock and Awe as an event because it’s really representative of grindhouse cinema.

DS: It really is hard to ignore the hundreds of spaghetti westerns that came out during the time of Johnny Yuma.

DC: Absolutely. And the funny thing about Johnny Yuma, is that when people think about spaghetti westerns, they tend to think of the Clint Eastwood stuff, and maybe if you’re lucky someone will pick something like Cut-Throats Nine. Now, I’m not a huge western fan, but when I was watching Johnny Yuma, I knew there was something different about this. It’s a lot more atmospheric, and really dicey in some parts. It also has a nice and huge body count that I think people will appreciate. (laughs) It also has a really catchy song, and the score was done by Nora Orlandi, who was one of the few and possibly only women who was scoring spaghetti westerns during that time. It’s fascinating all around.

The other thing is that the print has vinegar syndrome, so this will be the last time it will ever play. It’s the last time it will ever run and it can’t be salvaged. This really is Johnny Yuma’s last ride.

DS: How bittersweet is it when something gets to that point where you will finally have to let go of it? Have there been prints that you’ve had that have just deteriorated before it could get a final shot to be run like Johnny Yuma?

DC: For the most part, no, not with the features. But a lot of the shorts I have, particularly the educational ones, that have suffered. I remember I sent one to get transferred and it was a reel of Ford car promos from the 1930s and it had shrunk almost entirely. There was no saving it. There was nothing that could have been done for it. That sucks, but (knocks on wooden table) I haven’t had too many films with vinegar syndrome or have disintegrated or were struck on nitrate or anything along those lines. I have been lucky. If a print turns red, or scratchy, or splice-y, I don’t give a shit. But I have been really lucky, but I know I won’t be able to play everything forever, you know? It just gets harder and harder.

DS: You touched on something that’s really interesting and a fun part of the Shock and Awe experience, which are the shorts that play between the features. Is that something that you put a lot of thought into programming and making a part of the line-up or is that a bit more of a chance for you to be kind of random?

DC: Actually, sometimes I wonder if anyone’s paying attention to them. I never really know, though because I’m often manning the merch table at those points. I have seen people sitting there and kind of absorbing it all, but I wonder if they are just doing that because it’s something that’s just on screen. I never really actually get tons of feedback about it. I can tell you that they are usually harder to get. There really aren’t a lot of 35mm shorts left out there. Almost anything that’s a short and on 35mm that I can come across, I’ll take. It’s a lot harder to find them.

Programming them isn’t as hard as obtaining them is. I am starting to re-run a couple of them now because of how hard they are to find.

DS: They seem to be the first things to get junked.

DC: Yeah, and a lot of places didn’t really play short films in 35mm in a theatre because of the focus on single features.

DS: Especially those educational shorts, which you would probably have to get from a TV station salvage or sell off.

DC: Exactly. But even on that format, it’s hard to find. You can always find shorts on 16mm or 8mm, but on 35mm, it’s extremely difficult. There are some that I have where I wonder where they hell it ever would have shown before it came into my hands.

There was one, I think it was something called “Like a Grain of Sand” and it was about glass making or something like that. I have no idea where something like that would have ever screened. Who would play that? I have no idea. But things like that are harder to come by, but because I’m not sure who is paying attention, I am a bit more comfortable with re-running those kinds of things. I know we have run a lot of great snippets and trailers, though.  I remember one that was for a kids’ festival from the NFB that was actually really unintentionally terrifying, but awesome. And I remember one for the 1986 Gemini Awards, hosted by Brian Linehan, and that was just jaw droppingly funny and I wondered if there are any other copies of it out there. I wish I had the resources to transfer something like that to YouTube.

DS: Let’s talk about the rest of this year’s line-up, starting with The Swinging Cheerleaders, which is strange because it’s this kind of flick that should have come out in the 60s or 80s, but came out in this strange dead zone of the early 70s when America wasn’t really making this kind of film for a bit.

DC: Yeah! But I think the one thing that I love about a lot of 70s cinema is that it’s always trying to experiment with sexual freedom, and while you would get people who would criticize these kinds of movies as depicting women as victims, there are things like this where women are able to make healthy – or potentially unhealthy – sexual choices is something that I don’t think is unhealthy. It just seems so funny that this kind of genre is gone. I think anything that has cheerleader in the title or is about cheerleaders is something I would want to play. (laughs)

DS: I have always had a morbid fascination with Mac and Me. Even the trailer for that movie is a bizarre misfire of product placement run amok. You can say a lot of things about Mac and Me, but you can’t say it’s being anything less than overt in its desire to sell you merchandise.

DC: (laughs) Well, I love the fact that last year I programmed a film just for Douglas Tilley, who I love to call Mr. Shock and Awe because he’s been such a die hard fan and supporter of it. This one here I programmed pretty much just for Peter Kuplowsky. (laughs) But he was saying that there should be audience participation every time there is blatant product placement or commercialism.

But… shit… Mac and Me I actually saw theatrically TWICE.

DS: How the fuck do you end up seeing something like that in theatres TWICE?

DC: I remember the first time I went was when it was first out. It was a Saturday afternoon and I don’t think anyone was in the theatre, and I just thought that it was so fucking awful. It was so… even as a young person I knew it was one giant commercial. This alien lives off of Skittles and Coca-Cola.

DS: Everyone I think remembers it as really only being a commercial for McDonalds, but there’s more than that. There’s even the mother that works at Sears and they have a whole “shopping at Sears” montage.

DC: UGH. It’s so shameless, and really until Josie and the Pussycats, which takes the piss out of something like Mac and Me, thankfully no one ever really did anything like this again.

The second TIME I saw it was in Oshawa, and it was advertised on a Saturday morning just as “Free Movie!” on the marquee. No advertising or anything anywhere. It was at 9am, and this was about a month later. It wasn’t really free. The kids were free, the parents had to pay $2, but the theatre was pretty full, and then on screen comes Mac and Me, and I’m just like “Ohhhhhh fuck. AGAIN?!?” But the funny thing was that kids were still bawling their eyes out at this. It’s kind of unbelievable that this kind of crap could get that reaction.

DS: Well the people who know how to exploit the emotions of children better than anyone are advertisers.

DC: Exactly! But, I mean, I really remember the ending of that movie was what really bothered me. I mean, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. They are trying to pull this over on me? I remember being so mad.

I actually remember there used to be a fair number of prints of the film around, but I waited until fairly late. I got this one from a collector in Upstate New York, and I had to trade him a Space: 1999 episode and in exchange I got Mac and Me and another film that I now have what I think is the only remaining print of called Countdown: Canada, which is about Canada becoming the 51st state of the USA and all the militants run to Quebec because they had already separated. (laughs) It’s something I eventually need to run because that’s it. No other prints, no video, no nothing.

But Mac and Me is just… yeah.

DS: It’s kind of lived on in infamy and gained infamy and curiosity over time. Even Paul Rudd has turned it into one of his favourite punchlines when he goes on Conan O’Brien. I know Bloodsport is kind of the headliner, but it’s almost like Mac and Me holds the same sort of B-movie star power at this point.

DC: I had no idea about the Paul Rudd thing or anything else until I really started looking back on Mac and Me, but I knew that it needed a time in the Shock and Awe line-up, and this seemed pretty apropos. The audience seems to be there for this one. Sometimes the audience just isn’t ready for it and I sit on things for a long time.

I remember when we showed Red Scorpion at Shock and Awe and people loved it there, but when I ran it before people lambasted me for showing anything with Dolph Lundgren, saying the guy was a hack and asking why I liked that guy. I remember in my old paper, Konflict in the Kino, I got a really nasty, nasty letter about how dare I review a Dolph Lundgren film. The first time I ran it, it was a really small audience, but that’s such a bloody entertaining film. Then I run it at Shock and Awe and the name Dolph Lundgren comes on screen and the crowd goes wild, and I am just thinking “What. The. Hell?”

Which is kind of the same thing with Bloodsport this year, really.

DS: It’s funny what a couple of years can do to reclaim a movie star’s status.

DC: Especially with someone like JCVD, who has arguably at one point screwed up his career worse than Lundgren had, would be back in popularity. But that’s part of what’s great about it. I remember, too, when Bloodsport first came out on home video it was a big deal, but I don’t remember anyone who had actually gone to see it in the theatre. I think at that point Cannon was really teeter-tottering on their last legs at that point, though. I remember it did very well on home video and people really, really liked it.

But when I think of how both those films are kinds of things I would have rented to people in my youth on home video, it’s kind of funny.

DS: Even Mac and Me was sort of towards the tail end of Orion functioning as a studio, too. Both movies sort of have signifiers of a studio beginning its death rattle.

DC: Yeah! They didn’t kill the studios, but the great thing I can say about Mac and Me was that it had such a bigger audience when they didn’t mention it by name and they just called it “Free Movie.” That would have been a great marketing gimmick that they should have run with from the start. (laughs)

DS: (laughs) You shouldn’t have even put Mac and Me on the poster. You should have just put “Free Movie” next to the secret movie.

DC: There you go! (laughs) But I seriously know so many people that are just ramped up for Mac and Me. Oooooookay. Whatever. (laughs) It seems like that one, Bloodsport, and the mystery movie people are excited about. People are always excited for the mystery movie.

DS: I’m not going to try to pry any hints from you about the mystery movie this year, but I did want to talk to you about how people are always so good about keeping the title of the film secret for years after it screens. It’s something that never leaks. It’s so rare to see in this day and age. You like to give the audience what they want, clearly, but do you ever fear booking a secret title that might be giving the audience a bit too MUCH of what they want to a point where they wouldn’t want to keep it a secret?

DC: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. (laughs)

DS: I mean, I have seen these secret titles, and they are all recognizable films to me, but not the ones that would most readily spring to mind, which might help to mask their identities. Is there a fear that you might play something that could never be kept under wraps?

DC: I guess I will have to cross that bridge when I came across it, because the one thing that I can say about the audience that I love is that they take it really seriously. I don’t see tweets or people talking about the secret film ever. It did happen once, and it happened in a zine, and it was for the first one we did. I just told him to never do it again, but he didn’t really know at the time. And that was the first one, and he was really apologetic, and now you raise your hand and take the oath of secrecy, and people take it seriously. I know lots of people who will go up to someone else and beg to know the identity of the mystery movie and no one will say anything.

DS: Well because those people are thinking that they might be missing something if they don’t know what it is and they don’t go because they insist they have seen everything else.

DC: True, and in a way, I think they have, because all of the mystery titles we have shown so far always have something special about them. And they’ve always been entertaining. I don’t think there’s ever been a mystery title yet that was super dry to watch. Even when I will be with other people who are there that night, though, no one ever mentions the title. I mean, right now, you and I aren’t even mentioning the titles even in an off the record matter. We know what they are, but we won’t say. I think that is so awesome that no one has ever spilled the beans. We don’t have a Shock and Awe version of Deep Throat or anything like that. People might mention a little bit cryptically what the plot was, but that’s really the worst that comes up. The title never gets revealed. I think that’s amazing.

DS: There are two other things about the mystery title that’s interesting, and that’s how the mystery film gets put in a different slot every year…

DC: This year I think it’s going to be the third or fourth one…

DS: …and also I think it brings a sense of added value to the one or two things that viewers might be most excited about in the first place.

DC: Oh, yeah! The first time that I did it, I remember that there were people there from other festivals coming out and film reviewers who came as paying customers, and I remember a certain person will remain nameless said that I was going to run some obscure cut of Evil Dead that no one else has seen, and I was just giggling because that was so NOT what it was going to be. It’s interesting to see on the Facebook page what people are guessing it will be because it could not possibly be a bigger shot in the dark.

DS: And it’s not like you give any hints at all as to what the mystery film could be. In the lead-up you will give hints to the other films, but never the mystery film.

DC: The only thing that I can tell you know, and I kind of gave this one on the Facebook page, is that we will be pretty much the only audience in the world that has seen this flick in decades, and there’s some definite star power in it where people will just sit back and say “WOW.” Just… wow. That’s all I can say. There is a definite wow factor to this one.

DS: We also haven’t talked about the Jess Franco film that you have this year with Klaus Kinski, Jack the Ripper. Did you book this one because Franco passed away recently, or was this one that you had been circling for a while?

DC: Well it definitely has the maximum crazy factor. (laughs) But it’s really primarily because I wanted a horror title in there and I thought this one takes what some people might think are pretty obnoxious liberties with the story in a lot of ways, but that’s why I like it. It’s great fun. I was never a big fan of the story of Jack the Ripper itself, but I am a big fan of Jess Franco. Primarily, I just thought it would be fun to play a bit more of a period horror movie. Plus, it’s Jess Franco. He has such a massive body of work and almost none of it gets projected anymore. There should be full retrospectives on his work. And someone like Fred Olen Ray, too.

DS: Well, Fred’s still kicking, though.

DC: Funny thing is that I still talk to Fred every once in a while and I will clamour on about the greatness of Scalps, and he’s just, like, “Can you please talk about any other title? Scalps is such a piece of shit.” (laughs) But it’s not! He just really, really hates the movie.

But it’s funny to see someone like him showing up on Indie-a-Go-Go now and watching him try to raise money for a short. People have been funding that dude’s movies for decades, and it’s funny because I am about to try and make my own film and doing this festival and it’s just funny to see what kind of climate we’re in now with movies.

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