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Q&A With Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival Jurors Aaron Douglas & Kate Dollarhyde
The Museum of Pop Culture in partnership with SIFF presents the 15th annual Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival (SFFSFF) live online this Saturday, August 29, with a virtual encore screening set for Sunday, August 30. This celebration of artistic excellence brings together cinema enthusiasts, filmmakers, and artists for a showcase of illuminating and unconventional films. The festival features industry professionals and genre experts encouraging and supporting new, creative additions to science fiction, fantasy, and horror cinematic arts.
Admitted films are judged by a nationally recognized jury comprised of luminaries in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, two of which we hear from today: Aaron Douglas (@theaarondouglas) and Kate Dollarhyde (@katedollarhyde).
Aaron Douglas is best known for his portrayal of Chief Galen Tyrol on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica. With over 100 other Film-TV & Video Game credits on his impressive resume—including X-Men 2, iRobot, Stargate SG-1, The Bridge, Hellcats, Hemlock Grove, The Killing, The Returned, Falling Skies, The Strain, iZombie, The X-Files, Supernatural, The Flash, Once Upon A Time, Dirk Gently Holistic Detective Agency, Imposters, Jordi Chin in Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, and more. Aaron is now creating and writing comic books for AfterShock Comics. His writing can be found in the first two volumes of Shock and he's currently working on his first original graphic novel, which is slated to be released in 2020.
Kate Dollarhyde is a WGA-nominated writer of speculative fictions and the former editor-in-chief of SFF magazine Strange Horizons. As a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment, she’s worked on The Outer Worlds and the Pillars of Eternity series. Her short stories have been published in Fireside Fiction, Lackington’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other magazines.
Ahead of this weekend's virtual festival, which you can find tickets for right here, we caught up with Douglas and Dollarhyde to ask them a few questions about sci-fi, fantasy, filmmaking, and more.
What did you look for when watching the shorts submitted for our 15th annual Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival?
Aaron Douglas: A beginning, middle and an end. Or, if you can’t do that, then make it clear where you’ve jumped us into the story and leave it so we want more. Keep it simple and clear, it’s a short.
Kate Dollarhyde: Character and theme. A coherent vision. Style. Earned emotion. I wanted to be convinced.
What is it about sci-fi and fantasy that draws you to the genre? What do you think are the genre’s weak spots?
Aaron Douglas: The endless possibilities is the thing that draws me to and pushes me away. If you’re going to make a purely fantastical film make it so I can completely escape. Don’t blend in the absolutely impossible with our world, all I see is our world and I’m reminded that this isn’t real. Keep that subtle and nuanced and I can buy in. Or make Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, then I can get on board because it is purely implausible.
Kate Dollarhyde: The possibility space of speculative fiction is an undeniable draw for me. The genre is a big tent with room for incredible variety. As an example, I have a special interest in strange and impossible cities, works in the spirit of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and within speculative literature, I have hundreds of examples to devour in short stories and novels. And every one of them I touch makes me want to create a strange and impossible city of my own. That it’s even possible for me to say that is remarkable to me. The genre’s weak spots will look different depending on where you’re standing, in my experience. What context and a point of view you’re coming from. If you’re hip deep in epic fantasy, for example, complex character work might seem a bit thin on the ground. Ditto a diversity of worlds and peoples—Europe of the late medieval period still has a hold on the genre. There remains a preoccupation with the lives and interests of the nobility. But I think that’s changing.
What are some types of sci-fi and fantasy that don't get enough attention from filmmakers?
Aaron Douglas: I would like to see more films that blend our real world with sci-fi and fantasy with the latter being used with a nuance that allows the audience to have pause and think, that could actually be real. Make films about real legends, both past and current, that are based in loose fact, perhaps even some having people genuinely believing in the phenomenon. e.g. Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch, ancient legends, UFOs. Like QAnon, but for people who are fun and not lunatics.
Kate Dollarhyde: I want to say climate fiction, weird fiction, fiction adjacent to horror, but I’ve been surprised by how wide-ranging filmmakers’ interests in speculative fiction can be. I wouldn’t have expected directors like Denis Villeneuve or Alex Garland to adapt stories like Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life (which became Arrival) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, respectively. These are strange stories that spend a lot of time in their protagonists’ heads, where time and reality are mutable things. I worried these stories wouldn’t translate well to film. Frankly, I think that speaks more to a misunderstanding on my part, as a speculative fiction writer, of what creatives in other fields find compelling in mine. The heart of both mediums is character. It’s people and their lives. More than a compelling world or a grand spectacle, that’s what readers (and viewers) want. People they can feel for, root for. They want to be moved. They want to see their struggles in the struggles of someone like them. People are where we find comfort—and courage. My hope is filmmakers continue to take that common interest in character and use it to tell stories a little closer to our world that address directly—not just through allegory—the injustices and joys of our time. We are in a golden age of speculative literature written by artists of color. Their work is more accessible to a large audience than ever before. I want to see stories like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth saga and Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby adapted to the screen. I want more Lovecraft Country-ies and original work like Get Out.
Of the various components that make up a great film, what do you think are the most important to the overall success of the storytelling?
Aaron Douglas: Dialogue. When I watch a film and think, “No one talks like that” I am totally out of it. Keep the story moving, don’t get bogged down in director or writer wank. Don’t spend 15 minutes on battles between giant unbreakable robots in scenes where they destroy a city throwing each other around in blinding cuts and action that can cause a seizure. It’s a wank, they’re indestructible, there’s no jeopardy because of that and because they are robots and the audience cannot identify with them no matter how much you anthropomorphize them. In other words, don’t focus on things that I absolutely don’t care about.
Kate Dollarhyde: Character, always. I am willing to forgive just about anything for a compelling character. You can have a story that’s slow, silly, or doesn’t quite make sense, but if the people the story follows have strong motivations, distinct points of view, and an unyielding desire, I’m on board to see it through. I’ll believe in that person and their world to the end.
What are the common pitfalls that filmmakers fall into that lead to their films not being successful?
Aaron Douglas: This depends on what you deem successful. Box office? Critical acclaim? A quality film? I’ve seen absolute dogs of films that have made hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s success in one sense. I’ve seen films that I have adored, yet not many others had the same view of them. I don’t listen to the critics, so I’d never base my opinion of success on what they say. It’s one person's opinion and why is theirs more valid than anyone else’s? Make what you want to make and if you like it in the end then that’s all that matters. Unless of course you are making it for pure commercial success, then just follow the formula and make the wank that the studio wants you to make. But remember, some of the people from the studio who put their hands into the mix are not filmmakers for a reason and it is this reason, if they’re allowed to weigh in too much, then your film will go sideways.
Kate Dollarhyde: I’m not the best-equipped person to diagnose a film’s lack of success, but I will say that when a film hasn’t worked for me, it’s often because the characters weren’t strong and the work had little to say. I don’t want a pat morality tale, but I want to see a story with a point of view. I want to feel like a filmmaker is trying to invite me to engage with something that fascinates them, delights them, repulses them. I want them to make an argument.
How do you think sci-fi and fantasy will respond to the calls for social change as part of Black Lives Matter? Are there some shifts in tone/subjects on the horizon?
Aaron Douglas: I hope the world of TV and film sci-fi and fantasy follows what has become the mantra for the conventions of the same; we are open to and here for everyone, regardless of culture, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, etc etc. If the shifts result in everyone feeling like they have a comfortable and supported place in the room then I am all for whatever tone or subjects need to change.
Kate Dollarhyde: I think some speculative fiction creators will be reconsidering their stories’ relationship to police, incarceration, and institutional violence against Black people. What are we really saying, for example, when we craft stories where cops are heroes in a world where they kill Black people with impunity? I hope that as speculative fiction grows and changes in response to Black Lives Matter and the protest movements yet to come that it also makes space for stories of Black joy, success, and happiness, too. No person—or community—is solely the worst things that have happened to them, they are their best, too. If speculative fiction wants to tell stories with courage and complexity that show people as their full and honest selves (and I think it does), it must remember joy.
Who has lifted you up and supported you and your work? How did you find them?
Aaron Douglas: Specifically there are too many to name. From directors and writers, other actors, people in the industry, and those people have been found through the work. My biggest source of support is my family, my friends, and the fans. The constant fan notes of gratitude and appreciation for my work and that they seek out my work in new and even old shows is an amazing thing. When I began, my thought was I want to emotionally move someone the way I am moved when I watch a great performance. To have someone articulate that I’ve done that to them is an amazing thing.
Kate Dollarhyde: I’ve been very lucky to have had several people in my corner during my writing career, and all of them were fellow writers. However, it wasn’t as if a community fell out of a tree or sought me out and brought me into the fold—I had to go looking for them. I found them in writing classes, message boards, special interest Slacks, on Twitter. They were like-minded weirdos doing work I admired, work that challenged the status quo, the received notions of how a story ought to be. It was the kind of work I wanted to be doing, but wasn’t. I read their stories in my favorite magazines and reached out to them to let them know I loved their work. I put myself out there in ways that were uncomfortable and a little scary, too. A game studio I admired was offering portfolio reviews for artists at a con I had planned to attend, so I asked if they might consider reviewing game writing portfolios, too. They hadn’t planned on it, but one of the writers attending thought it was a good idea. They gave me kind but honest feedback on my first short story, and later, on my game writing portfolio. That early encouragement was critical—I lived off that first critique for years. I was undoubtedly privileged to have had that opportunity, but I also had to ask for it first.
What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor/colleague?
Aaron Douglas: From my dad. Too many to list them all: Everything happens for a reason. Trust the process. Surround yourself with people who support you. Move those who don’t out of your life. Don’t let the highs be too high nor the lows be too low. Take your nose off the screen so you can see the full picture. Enjoy the journey of life and don’t rush to get to the destination. The universe is unfolding exactly as it is supposed to.
Kate Dollarhyde: A couple years ago, I received two pieces of advice that changed how I approach my work: go all in and write what terrifies you. Give in to your wildest desires. Write in service to your id. Abandon trying to make nice work that won’t scandalize your family. Dig into your own guts and root around for their darkest corners. Ask yourself: what lives there? What is the thing about yourself you’re most afraid of other people knowing? Put that on the page. Treat your fears like an archaeological dig site—uncover them and drag them into the light. Twist them around and ask now, where is the good in this? If you can find it, put that on the page, too. This approach won’t work for everyone. Some fears and traumas we bury for good reason, and some happiness we hold close to our breast. What matters, I think, is that we approach our work with honesty, clarity, and a knife.
Learn more about MoPOP's Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival & find tickets for this year's event at SIFF.net/SFFSFF
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