Ant Timpson: Cult connoisseur

ANT TIMPSON: "I think I'm incredibly straight and boring in my real life, and this is just an outlet for my weirder side."
ANT TIMPSON: "I think I'm incredibly straight and boring in my real life, and this is just an outlet for my weirder side."

On a chilly spring night, sex, violence and alcohol converge in a darkened room in Auckland. On a giant screen on the far wall, lurid images flicker.

A man I've not met before hands me a tumbler of whisky just as a former all-American cheerleader is dragged into a cheap motel room in the Mojave Desert, pneumatic breasts spilling from her torn nightie. A few minutes later, she's murdered in a bathtub by a sadistic cop.

"You don't know this movie?" says Ant Timpson - fringe film nut, pop culture maven, champion of the underground arts.

The film rolling in the background on mute is Russ Meyer's infamous 1975 sexploitation flick, Supervixens. He's amazed I've never seen it before.

"If you want to get into underground cinema, movies like this are the foundation stones. You can't just take a helicopter to the top of the mountain. You've got to treat it like a bit of an apprenticeship, you know? Start on the bottom rungs then work your way upwards."

Mixed metaphors and a well-mixed drink with the nation's foremost cult movie connoisseur. I'm here to grill Timpson, founder of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival, about his bold adventures in the world of fringe cinema.

And what better venue for such a conversation than The Vault - his office/man-cave/private cinema. 

From the outside, it's just another anonymous concrete warehouse on Auckland's Khyber Pass Rd. On the inside, it's a cinematic heaven, home to the biggest private collection of 35mm films in the Southern Hemisphere.

In the foyer looms a giant fibreglass moa. On the walls there are posters for films both enduringly classic (Midnight Cowboy) and heroically trashy (Confessions of a Peanut Butter Freak).

Jammed into row upon row of floor-to-ceiling shelves are thousands of DVDs, VHS tapes and film canisters. And scattered about wherever they will fit, a veritable retirement village of elderly projectors.

"This freezing cold hangout is where all the films are archived," says Timpson, sweeping the hand that's not holding his beer around the room.

"They go out from here to film festivals overseas. You have to keep warm by drinking a lot. Whisky works best. If we put a decent heater in here, you might just go to sleep."

For decades, Timpson has made it his mission to explore the outer reaches of the celluloid universe and bring it all closer to everyday Kiwis. Very little is taboo.

He appreciates provocative imagery. He enjoys gore so gratuitous it becomes hilarious. 

He is an avowed enemy of what more conservative souls might call 'good taste'. In his view, sex and violence are a good cult movie's salt and pepper - sprinkled liberally, they greatly increase the flavour. 

Timpson has always had his fingers in countless pies. Now 48, he's been showing selections of weird and wondrous flicks to stunned audiences in darkened rooms since the mid-80s.

In 2003, he set up the annual 48 Hours film challenge, a nationwide 'cinematic bootcamp' in which teams of frantic filmmakers must create a short flick in a randomly assigned genre within just two days.

In 2012, he conceived and co-produced The ABCs of Death, a feature-length compilation of 26 short horror films from around the world. He's also involved with numerous local film development initiatives, and was an executive producer on recent gothic horror/comedy feature Housebound, the best-reviewed New Zealand movie in years.

And he's just finished curating an upcoming six-month season of cult movies in collaboration with Sky TV's Rialto Channel.

Tonight, we have convened to watch one of those films. It is called The Comedy, and is about as funny as a car crash, with an assortment of obnoxious middle-aged men indulging in acts of recreational emotional cruelty in the New York hipster enclave of Williamsburg.

"It's very awkward, isn't it?" says Timpson during one particularly alarming scene. "I figured it might be the perfect movie for us to watch together, since we've never met before. At the very least, we'd be stunned into silence and have nothing to talk about afterwards."

But it didn't work out that way. In the company of Timpson's close mate Cookie ("he's like my second wife; we call him The Projectionist"), we talked and watched and drank and talked some more.

I want to know how an innocent young boy from a happy New Zealand home grow up to develop a taste for movies with such excellent titles as Blood Diner, Surf Nazis Must Die, Hobo With A Shotgun and - my personal favourite - Violent S***.

And why he has devoted so much time, energy and money trying to turn the rest of us onto such dodgy movies, too.

"I grew up in Auckland, and I'd go and see films at the Crystal Palace in Mt Eden Road every weekend," says Timpson.

"I'd watch absolutely everything, but I was definitely drawn to the fantastic - films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the early Hammer horrors. Those [films] made me see the power of cinema over your emotions, and that's stuck with me ever since."

In 1978, an extended family trip to America when Timpson was 11 deepened his obsession.

"It changed my life. I went and saw movies in Hollywood and the kids of various TV and movie stars were at my school. I got a peep behind the showbiz curtain early on, and that really focused my love of cinema."

Although he was "most definitely under-age", Timpson's parents took him along to cinematic game-changers such as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now.

"I remember watching horror movies with my mum when I was, like, 15. I'm sure it fried my brain, but in a good way. I started to make terrible home horror movies with my friends. I used to mix up cochineal to make fake blood and we'd use Eno to make zombie froth."

Eventually, he put down the camera and headed south to the University of Otago. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I can reveal that Anthony Timpson once trained to be a lawyer, before dropping out in the mid-80s to set up movie marathon keg parties in student dorms.

These events gradually evolved into a gruesome, scrofulous, limping beast named the Bad Taste Film Festival, which morphed into the Incredibly Strange Film Festival in 1994, and is now a dedicated section within the annual NZ International Film Festival.

Over the years, some of the featured movies have been highly controversial, running afoul of censors, customs officers and conservative watchdog groups. This almost-lawyer stands accused of leading vulnerable viewers astray with his depraved and filthy flicks. How does he plead?

"Really, I reject people's attempts to portray me as some sort of unprincipled smut peddler. To be honest, I think I'm doing a public service. There's some kind of release that happens when we see material that's somehow on the edge.

"You get rewarded with adrenaline. At the end of the day, we're cave creatures. We have all these primordial instincts, and no matter how many millennia of evolution are layered on, they're still there.

"We spend all our time keeping this more primal side of ourselves safely under lock and key, but there's a vicarious thrill in seeing these aspects of ourselves exposed via things like cinema, music and the visual arts. The more you repress these things, the more likely they are to pop out in disturbing new ways, and cinema can be a great release valve for some of that stuff."

Timpson has only ever shot one 35mm movie himself, a 2000 horror short called Crab Boy (Tagline: "Like father, like son, like hell..."). It was, he says, "pretty bad".

He realised he was a better organiser than director, so in 2003, he launched the 48 Hours competition, which now attracts more than 10,000 fledgling filmmakers annually.

Among those who've won 48 Hours awards over the years are Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do In The Shadows) and Auckland creative collective thedownlowconcept (Hounds, 7 Days, Coverband).

What's this cult cinema connoisseur's view on mainstream movies? Does he turn up his nose at big-budget popcorn flicks beloved of the masses?

"No. That'd be like loving a bunch of obscure bands and never listening to The Beatles. I'm a film lover first and foremost, and any genre can spin my wheels. It just has to resonate emotionally. Really, I'm a populist rather than an elitist.

"Some people are extremely disdainful of mainstream movies and will only watch crazy fringe cinema, but in my view, it's like the food pyramid; for a balanced diet, you need nourishment from all levels."

One reason for setting up the Incredibly Strange Film Festival, he implies, was that the hotter, spicier, more exotic areas of the global cinematic menu were under-represented in New Zealand.

"We've never had a culture of late-night horror and sci-fi flicks here like they do in the States, for example. The festival is like one person's ultimate mix-tape of eclectic counter-culture filmmaking. It's also a form of symbiotic voyeurism, because it allows me to watch other people get off on stuff that I usually get off on. Does that sound too pervy? But yeah - in a way, it's like taking people's virginity."

We need deflowering, Timpson reckons, because exposure to this sort of transgressive cinema is good for us. Many of these films offer insights into the darker areas of the human subconscious. One key role of cinema is to explore ideas polite society might baulk at.

The resulting artworks might spark outrage, bewilderment or revulsion in some, but that's art's job.

"By definition, mainstream movies have to work for the largest number of people, so risks are carefully minimised, with a bland McDonald's palate applied to everything. But that often means all the interesting, rough stuff is polished away, and those rough edges are where you find most of the raw excitement and innovation."

Perhaps he's right. Even so, there's no escaping the fact Timpson likes some seriously weird stuff. What does his affection for such twisted films say about his personality? 

Is it possible that he was insufficiently cuddled as a child?

"I think I'm incredibly straight and boring in my real life, and this is just an outlet for my weirder side," he says. "I used to like a lot of really dark splatter movies, but I think that phases out as you get older, not because you can no longer handle it but because you become a lot harder to shock.

"I've gone through phases of watching some pretty depraved and nihilistic films, but that all pales after a while and you want a little more depth and complexity and fun."

And besides, other things start demanding more of your attention. Family, for instance. Timpson is married to fashion editor and founder of The Centre (yoga, pilates and meditation) Rebecca Wadey, and they have two sons, aged five and six. 

"Some people said I'd give up watching such challenging films once I became a parent, but it's not a matter of mellowing out; you just have less time. When there's kids to look after and meals to prepare, you're no longer just lying around stoned on the couch, watching films for days.

"But I'll always get a huge kick out of turning other people onto these kinds of movies. I guess it's an anti-authority thing, providing an opportunity to see things other people reckon you shouldn't be seeing."

The Rialto Channel's Incredibly Strange cult movie season, curated by Ant Timpson, starts on Friday, October 17.

Sunday Magazine