We’re a mid-size community of, what, a few hundred-thousand or so? Screenings of cult classics like The Room and Troll 2 are the kinds of things you find in Chicago, not Champaign. Short films are the product of growing up in places like Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York, right? Wrong. The Freeky Creek Film Festival is upon us! This is one of those local events that sounds too cool to be real. Held at Sleepy Creek Vineyards, the festival features short films from all over, and there’s even bona fide comic relief to keep you laughing through the night. Costumes, friends, and irreverent humor… not to mention wine! What more could you ask for?
I talked to Sleepy Creek’s owner, Joe Taylor, and film enthusiast Bill Kephart for some behind-the-scenes information on this popular local tradition.
Smile Politely: Tell me a little about this project. How did it come to life?
Bill Kephart: The fest was Joe Taylor’s idea. He and I had worked together on previous projects at [Sleepy Creek Vineyard], so we naturally partnered on this one. Literally the night before the fest, we talked about whether we wanted a host to introduce the movies, or just play them. Somehow having the host be a character was suggested, and I mentioned that I did a bawdy version of the Easter Bunny, with a raspy voice and a cigar. I ran through some bits for him, and we decided that was our host. The audience loved it, so the bunny has been our host every year.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but that decision to tie together a film festival with a character hosting, rather than a person, transformed an event that is typically film after film after film, into a cohesive show. Let’s face it, most fests just show a bunch of films broken up by comments from the directors; it’s kind of clinical. By having an imaginary character as the host, we can do anything we want to create a cohesive experience for what is typically a fragmented event. And by anything, I mean ANYTHING…
Joe Taylor: My original idea for the fest came about because I had dabbled in film making a little and really loved short form films. Halloween is one of our favorite times of year at [Sleepy Creek Vineyard] and I thought a film fest would be a perfect fit that time of year. I also figured hosting my own fest might be the only way I’d ever get one of my projects into a film festival.
We wanted the festival to be fun and interactive. We decided that we would focus on films that are creepy and funny and under 15 minutes in length (most are much shorter). This really helped to keep pace of the show moving. If you didn’t like a film, you just had to wait a few minutes for the next one. We also wanted it to be different from most film fest. Some fest take themselves WAY too seriously.
Bill Kephart and I had been working together on some video projects for commercials and we realized we both had a similar sense of humor. The live hosting as a character (Bill Kephart as a foul mouth, partying Easter Bunny) really gave it a different vibe. It became a hybrid between interactive theater and a film fest.
We were also not afraid to show some things that a lot of other venues would be [afraid of showing]. Since we are a winery and the customers are over 21, and it’s Halloween, we can push the limits a little bit.
SP: I’m sorry to stray off topic but…where, exactly, did the bunny come from!
Kephart: No special story for that one. Despite the lack of personality in the actual animal (sorry, rabbit lovers!), people love to personify rabbits – Bugs Bunny says it all. He’s comic perfection, and seeing a person in a rabbit suit is classically funny. By adding a cigar, a gravelly voice, and a penchant for inappropriate behavior and comments, you mix the lovable with the naughty. And that appeals to just about everyone! Plus I like wearing animal costumes -I think they are punchlines just waiting to happen.
Taylor: Even though the Easter Bunny host is a little “rough around the edges”, he is still lovable. He’s a train wreck, but in a funny-drunk-uncle kind of way. We try to avoid humor that mean spirited and, if you look really really hard, there just might be a positive message under all that debris.
Kephart: The show is definitely adult and irrelevant – after all he is the Easter Bunny, but the key to making the character work is making sure there is warmth in his humor. The bunny often pokes funny at the films and filmmakers and others in attendance, but I try to never be too cynical or mean spirited -he’s not an insult comic. Cleverness, too, is important. When I’m poking fun at something, there has to be a bit of thoughtfulness in the lampoon; we avoid crude humor. In fact our show is pretty tame compared to any adult comedy show.
In addition to the rabbit we’ve introduced “guest” characters that are part of whatever story is used to tie the evening together, and I play all of those characters. In fact we often have me playing a character on the stage, talking to me, playing a character on the projection screen. When the timing is right it’s pretty funny, and what actor could resist playing off his own setups? That’s one thing we try never to change -one actor throughout the show.
SP: That sounds great!
Has anyone ever gotten in a huff over something you screened…or about the crude bunny guy?
Kephart: Not really; it’s all pretty good natured. Although…last year I played both Jesus and the Devil and kind of pushed things. Jesus had a preoccupation with his iPhone, and Satan was portrayed as a mentally average person with physical disabilities (rather than the usual all-powerful, conniving mastermind). I made sure they both came off as likable people who basically got along, like a couple of guys working in different departments in the same business. For me, Freeky Creek Short Film Festival is about celebrating artistic choices that go beyond the norm with both thoughtfulness and edge. It can be hit or miss, and not all films or routines will appeal to all, but the variety definitely entertains.
Taylor: Probably the biggest reaction we ever got was from a film called Side Effect. It was about a babysitter that was taking some new type of drug to help her study for a big test. In her confusion (spoiler alert), she mistakes the baby for the Thanksgiving turkey she was supposed to put in the oven. We got a lot of comments from the mothers in the audience, even though it won the “Freekin’ Creepy” award that year.
Last year we showed a film called Bobby Yeah from Robert Morgan. It was a free form stop motion animation that, truly, was probably one of the most bizarre things you’ll ever see. Most people didn’t know how to feel after watching that one.
We have this warning on the ticket page:
Warning: The show may contain adult situations, foul language, things that may scare the bejesus out of you, and/or babies being baked in ovens. There is also a high probability that you may wet yourself laughing. If you are senaitive to these things, the show might not be for you.
SP: That is a GREAT warning! Funny and accurate.
So are these films all in the horror genre, or does the festival show other fare?
Taylor: Some horror but not all -it just has to be “freeky, creepy or darkly funny” which covers a lot of material. I’d say it leans toward dark comedy more than anything.
Check out the video that we showed the first year. It’s a good example of the stuff we love. I think they mad it just for you, Katie.
SP: That was creepy alright… I’ll be sure to forget that one when I’m trying to sleep!
Anything else fun we should know? Special surprises or traditions… your favorite costumes over the years?
Kephart: My whackiest costume was Cerberus (the 3-headed dog that guards the gates of hell). I wore huge furry costume with a demon mask on my face and a mask on each hand, holding them up in my shoulders, and all three heads had glowing eyes (the arms of my costume just dangled free). In performance, the center head talked and the other two whispered ideas into each of his ears. It was impossible to operate or see out of, and it was so expensive to build that it cost me most of my profits from the show. It was a disaster. But I’m sure I’ll get an idea for another extreme costume at some point and, in the quest for entertainment, completely forget the lessons I should have learned from that costume.
Taylor: We always have a “Freeky Cake” that is made by Eric and Patty Woller of Meme’s Treat Boutique in St. Joseph. They were on Food Network’s Challenge and TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off. This year the cake will be on Halloween night (Thursday). Everyone that is there will get a piece.
We’ve got several “World Premier” films this year from local filmmakers, we’ve got a film from an Oscar winning animator and we have a short that played at The Sundance Film Festival this year.
Taylor: We don’t want to give away too much but we can promise that this years hosting will be pretty messed up (in a fun way).
Kephart: People who have been to one Freeky Creek usually come back. For people who like seeing unexpected films but want something more engaging than the typical film festival, our fest is a fun night out -and most definitely memorable!
SP: I would love to check out the festival this year. I’ve never been, and I’m a big movie person. There are a lot of Halloween events this week, but this festival stretches over three nights, so it’d be pretty hard to miss.
Kephart: We’d love to have you!
The Freeky Creek Film Festival is happening this weekend at Sleepy Creek Vineyards east of Urbana. You can check out all the ticketing information here.