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Stanley Film Festival ’15: An Exclusive Q&A with SFF Programmer Landon Zakheim, Part Three

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As horror fans from around the globe know, there’s no horror-centric festival that has risen to prominence as quickly and loudly as the Stanley Film Festival. Taking place at the notoriously haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the festival became one of the most buzzed about experiences for horror fans in recent times, adding a level of interactivity and immersion on top of a diverse and terrifying film slate. And since FANGORIA will be taking Stanley by storm this upcoming April, we recently chatted with Director of Programming Landon Zakheim in a massive, three-part dialogue about the one-of-a-kind haunted hotel and the only film festival that takes the horror beyond the big screen…

FANGORIA: Are there any returning events from the 2014 edition of Stanley that you’re excited for in the 2015 edition?

LANDON ZAKHEIM: Well, I was particularly excited to announce the return of the radio play, TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE, as well as the Immersion Game. Last year’s Immersion Game was a beta test for this year, which will be bigger, grander and involve a lot more interactivity than last year. The most exciting thing about the Immersion Game is that it’s going to be an all-new game every year with all new puzzles that will remain in the same universe as the last game, so each game will be like a spin-off rather than a sequel to each game. The idea is if you’ve never played, or if you came to the festival late, or if you were not here the year before, you’ll still be able to play the game, and the tie-ins won’t affect your ability to play the games in another year. But regular players will have a chance to be more well read, but that’s all I can say since the point of the Immersion Game is to know as little as possible.

FANGORIA: Is it difficult in setting up the immersion game by figuring out 100% what you can pull off and what you can do?

ZAKHEIM: The Immersion Game is strange because, obviously, when we program films, we don’t make edits to the films. We take the films as they are, and for live performances, we don’t censor the people who are writing for them. With the game, it’s a little different. Even though it’s a piece of programming and a piece of art that requires performance, it involves more access and involvement with our staff, so there’s more ways in which they’re treated like a staff member and therefore, there’s a lot more parameters that the Stanley Hotel can put on this project in a way that no one could for a film.

I know this particular game designer’s aesthetic is that he really likes to incorporate reality as much as possible, which I think is really great. A part of the game itself is questioning what is part of the game and what is not, and since it takes place at the festival, there’s always the factor of what you’re experiencing as a player yourself and what information is being relayed from another player. It’s a hard aesthetic to establish since we always have to be ready to change, so we’re always looking to push things as far as we can go with the Immersion Game.

I have to be really careful about what I say regarding the Immersion Game. The designer is being really careful this year as to not give away the plot of the game. In fact, figuring out the premise of the game is essentially the first chapter in the game. But I could tell you any detail about last year’s game, if that might help potential attendees.

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FANGORIA: In terms of the design of the game, what is your mentality towards red herrings and misdirection in the Immersion Game? Obviously, newcomers might find those elements frustrating whereas hardcore participants might be more drawn to the challenge.

ZAKHEIM: I am actually not a fan of red herrings, especially as we’ve been developing the game over the last few years. As participation has grown, I don’t like it when someone is running in the wrong direction for too long. We also have to keep in mind that we expect our guests to go to screenings and the last thing we want is for them to miss the films because they’ve been sent on a wild goose chase that doesn’t pay off.

S0 it’s less like a scavenger hunt, in that regards, but because the campus is so small, there will be a lot of communication across the players. We don’t expect everyone to solve every puzzle; people are definitely going to ask each other for help. It’s almost like those team games where half of your group should work on one puzzle while the other half of the group should work on another, and then at the end, you can compare your information. But there’s a story to it as well, so it’s interesting and changes every year, including at this year’s festival. The game essentially will react to how your group will be playing it.

It’s also interesting to see from last year how our community is reacting to these games. It’s not like we’re focus grouping the game, per se, but we definitely are paying attention to what people liked and did not like. We want to accommodate newcomers, but we also want to make the game better for returning players. That’s essentially the mission statement for the festival itself, and you’ll see when you’re there that we’re always asking people what they are liking. The festival is for the FANGORIA audience, so whenever we see something that audience likes, we explore it and try to add it to the festival. And we also have ideas of our own, so we try to make everything happen within our limited time and limited resources.

FANGORIA: Is there anything from the 2014 event schedule that won’t be returning for 2015?

ZAKHEIM: We had an event last year, and this attests to us always trying to change and adapt, that I was really excited about its prospects, although the execution didn’t go as planned, and I don’t think the event worked. So rather than trying to do something more interesting with it, we’re going to move on from it this year. Maybe we’ll bring it back in a few years; it was a private event as opposed to a public event, and it was a late night filmmaker event we wanted to try.

We like to do late night events and activities sometimes to keep guests on their toes; normally, it’s nothing too big because we don’t want anyone to feel like they have to do something that starts at 2 a.m., but if you want to, you can go to it. We try to make those the stranger experiences, and try to incorporate multiple aspects of the festival into it.

Luckily, we had a group of people who had fun with the aforementioned event, but knowing what the event was supposed to be and seeing what ultimately became of it was a horrifying experience. It was like watching things not work out and become not enjoyable, and I’m sure returning guests will be talking about what the event was and notice that it is not here this year. To say it flat out, it was supposed to be a Seance, and it just went wrong.

We also have a nice Friday night party, and after that, we like to do a late late Friday night thing, and the past couple years, we haven’t been able to crack it. But with those, we also don’t want it to be something that can happen every year. We haven’t quite found our tradition for that yet. Last year, it was a secret filmmaker ghost hunt that took place in the hotel, and since we were essentially doing our own ghost tour, 2 a.m. wasn’t the best time for that. That kind of event always works a bit better when they’re earlier in the night as well as smaller and more intimate, and also when everyone knows what it is and is not drunk.

Passes are now on sale for the 2015 Stanley Film Festival here. You can check out part one of our chat with Stanley Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Landon Zakheim, here, and you can find part two of that interview here. Check back here at FANGORIA.com for more Stanley Film Festival Content next week!

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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