Interview With Stephen Stull, Director of the Sick ‘n’ Wrong Film Festival’s 72-Hour Film Debacle

Sick and Wrong sound like terms best defined in notorious court decisions. For six years now, the Sick ‘n’ Wrong Film Festival has celebrated genre cinema of all codes, creeds, and countries that belongs in such beautiful ambiguity. In a word, Sick ‘n’ Wrong means different, and in these unprecedented times, festival director Stephen Stull is making good on that definition with the first-and-probably-last-ever 72-Hour Film Debacle. Given the name of his fest, Stull is used to questions and was more than happy to answer a few for PopHorror.

PopHorror: To give us a baseline—as if you were testifying in court—define what is “sick” and “wrong.”

Stephen Stull: It’s a tough thing for me to nail down. Sick ‘n’ Wrong is a film festival for what I generally refer to as aggressively bizarre movies. If anybody has ever seen movies referred to as midnight movies, they’re going to understand right away what I’m talking about. If I were ever to program a lineup of features that had already played and were never submitted, just a dream lineup, I would love to have Eraserhead and The Holy Mountain and The Greasy Strangler at the festival. If somebody hasn’t seen movies like these, it’s really hard to define because they end up assuming I’m talking about gore porn, and that’s definitely not the case.

Sick ‘n’ Wrong is not a horror festival, although we certainly accept horror movies. We’re looking for weird movies, movies that are almost indefinable in their genre. Unsettling and disturbing movies. We got a lot of black comedy. Yeah, this is the meandering answer that I have instead of a ten word soundbite.

PopHorror: When you started the fest, did you have a ten word soundbite? Has the definition adapted?

Stephen Stull: No. I’ve successively had five festivals so far. The first one was in 2016. We’ve had each year since then, and you’d think I would get better at nailing this down. I guess the easiest thing I can say is, like I said, a midnight movie. It’s a whole festival dedicated to that kind of weirdo midnight movie. The problem there is that—not so much among filmmakers but among audience members—so many people just don’t know what that means. They just think it’s going to kind of be a weird horror movie. And sure, we’ve had weird horror movies, but our focus is on anything that is disconcerting. Of course, as soon as I say that and hear those words come out of my mouth, there’s a lot of stuff I’ve seen that’s disconcerting that I wouldn’t accept for Sick ‘n’ Wrong. What they call extreme horror is not something generally that I gravitate towards. Oh man, I am making a complete hack of this answer.

PopHorror: I knew it was going to be a tough one. That’s why I asked it.

Stephen Stull: I think my difficulty in answering speaks to how nebulous the concept is. We accept all genres and all formats. We’ve had documentaries in the past. We’ve had music videos, very rarely, though docs are probably the rarest. It’s really a wide net. I hate to fall back on a Supreme Court ruling, but I’ll know it when I see it.

PopHorror: This year, you went virtual for the first time. Has that helped getting the word out because now, suddenly, anyone with a computer can log in and watch?

Stephen Stull: I think it definitely spread the word. After five years, I think it’s safe to say the filmmakers who know about Sick ‘n’ Wrong have a pretty good impression of it. It’s just trying to fill the seats with butts during the actual event has been my hobgoblin. I don’t know if it’s just, generally, getting Orlandoans out of their house to do anything is kind of hard. I’ve talked to some friends here in town who run different kinds of events, and they say the same thing. They have trouble getting people to come out. So maybe it’s an Orlando thing, or maybe I’m really bad at marketing. Which is also entirely possible. So, it’s nice to have it online where people can dip their toes in with one program, and it doesn’t require any travel time. Not everybody can run out to Orlando on a moment’s notice just to watch movies. So, I hope it helped.

I can say for certain that going online gave me a much greater filmmaker participation. A lot of the films we get at Sick ‘n’ Wrong are indie films paid for out of people’s pockets, and they can’t afford to travel. Being online meant that they could jump into the Q&As. It’s not a very well- kept secret at this point, but we had a secret filmmakers’ lounge online, and they were able to jump into that and hang out with the other filmmakers. That was very satisfying because that’s always my favorite part of the festival, hanging out with the other filmmakers. I’m trying to figure out ways to carry that into the future, even when we go back live. I would love to offer some opportunity for filmmakers who couldn’t make the trip to hang out and chat and maybe do Q&As, maybe watch some of the movies. It gave me a lot to think about going into the future. Opening up that access to everybody is such a daunting and significant advantage. It was a real learning experience this year, and I really want to take better advantage of it next year somehow. Hopefully, we’ll be back live; that’s why I pushed it out to December 2021.

PopHorror: So, you’ve brought the audience in to watch and now, with the 72-Hour Debacle, you’re bringing the audience in to make the movies as well.

Stephen Stull: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for. Part of the motivation for the Debacle is certainly selfish. Because I did make the decision to push the next live festival out to next December, and I personally didn’t want to wait a year to start seeing more Sick ‘n’ Wrong stuff. I think that there are a lot of creatives who are stuck at home right now and unable to do the stuff that they’re used to doing. Obviously, everybody’s living a different life right now. So, I wanted to come up with some way to get them involved, to bring people in together in a low-stakes setting where they can still exercise some creativity and put something together. I’m not the one who invented the idea of a timed film challenge, sadly, but I might be the one who invented 72-hours. Maybe I should apply for a patent or something.

PopHorror: Besides the number, what sets this apart from a standard 48-hour film contest?

Stephen Stull: Every contest generally has some parameters that you’re assigned to prove that your movie was shot during the set production time. That’ll often involve a line of dialogue or a prop or a character name or something like that. Most of the time, with a vast majority of the 48s, you will get your assignment at the start of the 48 and then you have 48 hours to incorporate it. I wanted to make sure anybody who had any experience with 48s or other time challenges knew what made Sick ‘n’ Wrong so different, so I published the prompts beforehand. You can on Sick ‘n’ Wrong’s social media and see what the prompts are.

Every team is going to get two prompts, a mood and a plot element. The difference between this contest and some of the other contests is going to be really, really clear as soon as you start looking at these things. We’ve got six moods and twenty different plot elements to send people randomly. I can’t remember all twenty plot elements off the top of my head, but I think I can remember all six moods. I’m not a big fan of genre definitions, so I didn’t want to hand out comedy or horror or animal movie, which is something I’ve seen in other contests. So, filmmakers can make their movies in whatever genre they want, but the moods are Anxious, Murderous, Nihilistic, Horny, Emo, and Manic.

Sick ‘n’ Wrong is supposed to be a very different festival from most of the ones you’ve been to, and the Debacle is supposed to be very different from most of the film challenges you’ve been to, so on our plot elements list, we have things like “eating something that isn’t food” and “finding teeth in a surprising place” and “expelling an inordinate amount of effluvia from the body.”

PopHorror: So you’ve now, in a roundabout way, defined what Sick ‘n’ Wrong is in the loosest sense.

Stephen Stull: Yeah. When people ask me about Sick ‘n’ Wrong, and I did it with you, I always cop out and start listing movies. That’s the easiest way for me to handle the question, even though it’s not very satisfying or rigorous. Same thing with the Debacle. If you really want to know what makes the Debacle different, take a look at our plot elements. You’re not going to get prompts like this at the 48-Hour Film Festival, the big global one.

PopHorror: What do the intrepid filmmakers look forward to in terms of prizes?

Stephen Stull: Every team that completes their movie on time will receive an enamel challenge pin for the Debacle. It’s a little enamel pin designed by Kylie Marklin, who is on Facebook as Cat Feather (@yummymeats) and Instagram as Cat Blether (@cat_blether). She’s incredible, and she drew up a piece of art for us. I had it made into an enamel pin. So every team that completes their movie is going to get something out of this.

What you’re talking about, the trophies, there are going to be three trophies for the top three films. The judges are the same judges we had this year at Sick ‘n’ Wrong, who are Logan Donahoo, Ashley Stone, and Michael Bekemeyer. They all agreed to come back and watch the Debacle movies.

The top prizes for the top films are one-of-a-kind custom action figures designed for Sick ‘n’ Wrong by a bootleg toy artist out of Athens, Georgia, named Dain Marx. I posted some grainy pictures of them on our social media, because the poor guy has only got his cellphone camera to work with as he moves studios, but they’re gorgeous. He makes such incredible art. It starts with him mushing together different pieces from all kinds of different plastic toys and then making molds of them and creating whole lines of his bootleg action figures. He’s on Instagram as @damarxtoys and he’s got a webstore linked from there. He’s making three unique custom action figures for the festival. I asked him to do this without thinking about how upset and jealous I was going to be that I wasn’t going to get to keep any of these things. And they’re going to have custom blister packs like the little Star Wars toys you had when you were a kid.

On top of that, if anyone’s interested, all the completed movies are going to get streamed live on December 11th. I see that as a bonus.

PopHorror: Besides the audience and the action figures, why would you encourage somebody to give the 72-Hour Debacle a try?

Stephen Stull: I’m going to take a little sidetrack here. Over the years that I’ve been talking to the Sick ‘n’ Wrong filmmakers, very frequently I will hear that such-and-such filmmaker works their day job in a post house. They edit Wendy’s commercials or they edit instructional videos for Best Buy or they shoot car commercials or something like that. The movies that they make that they submit to Sick ‘n’ Wrong and then get selected are often emotional and creative events. They’re a way to defy the rigid professional standards they’re usually being held to in their work. They’re very cathartic, generally. So that is why I would like to encourage people to participate, because this is a way to do something that you’re familiar with—most participants are going to have made films already—but in doing it for the Debacle, you’re going to be freed from expectations.

You know you’re not going to be judged based on how well your movie fits the Syd Field three-act structure. The judges watching Sick ‘n’ Wrong movies are not going to care whether you save the cat. They’re going to be looking for your voice, your unadulterated imp of the perverse. We want to see your most id-driven film product. And then we’re going to reward you for how weird you can be. That’s an opportunity that would be appealing to me as a filmmaker.

For filmmakers so appealed, the registration deadline for the Debacle is November 26th. The cost to enter is only $25 for each filmmaking team. The suggested length for finished entries is 10 minutes, but like the definition of Sick ‘n’ Wrong, that’s flexible.

Further details and registration information can be found here.

About Jeremy Herbert

Jeremy Herbert enjoys frozen beverages, loud shirts and drive-in theaters. When not writing about movies, he makes them for the price of a minor kitchen appliance.

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