He’s been the country’s leading supporter of the strangest films in the world, and now he’s made his first feature film. Sam Brooks talks to Auckland film champ Ant Timpson about his directorial debut, Come to Daddy.
My first encounter with industry legend Ant Timpson was from afar, at a 2010 screening of The Room, the notoriously bad Tommy Wiseau vehicle that’s spawned midnight screenings across the world. Timpson hosted the night, where people would yell out lines from the film, throw plastic spoons (unthinkable in 2020, I know) and engage in the kind of euphoric revelry that happens when a group of people come together to enjoy an unashamedly (also unknowingly) bad movie. He was maybe the happiest of us all. Not just because he loved The Room as much as we did, but because he loved bringing The Room to us.
His is an enthusiasm that’s infectious. Even when we talked over the phone, it was hard not to catch secondhand excitement. This is a guy who loves film, and especially loves the kind of lowbrow (like, so low it’s basically a beard) films that you’re actually encouraged to scream, laugh and holler at. Even though he’s been part of the film industry for decades, founding both the Incredibly Strange Film Festival – which he helms to this day – and the 48Hours Film Festival, the breakneck filmmaking contest for everyone from cinemaphile high schoolers to the staff of professional production houses.
While he’s produced the horror-comedy anthology films The ABCs of Death and The Field Guide to Evil in the past, his latest project is his first as a director. Come to Daddy, starring Elijah Wood, is cut from a similar bloody cloth as his previous output, but with another layer of depth. It follows Norval Greenwood, a privileged man-child (read: kind of an asshole) who responds to a letter from his estranged father who he hasn’t seen in 30 years. When he arrives at his father’s too-idyllic cabin, Norval finds that he has no memory of sending the message. Daddy issues, well, ensue.
It’s been a year since the film’s world premiere at Tribeca, and since then it’s played the Overlook Film Festival, Frightfest and other festivals around the world. Timpson talks about the film’s release with his trademark enthusiasm. “You suddenly realise you’ve been living in this festival bubble – where everything’s a little bit more intense and it’s all kind of heightened. You start to think ‘I don’t know how it’ll actually pay to a stone-cold audience who are turning up paying hard-earned cash outside of a festival’.”
Before making Come to Daddy, Timpson didn’t have any burning desire to direct a feature film. He’d made short films a few decades ago, but he was fulfilled producing other people’s work, and wasn’t looking at scripts with any need. It was when his father died that he got a wake up call. “It was like, ‘Hi, Grim Reaper here knocking at your door, might be a good time to get some shit together before you shuffle off into the mortal coil.’ It was the impetus for me to do something, and it had to mean something – who wants to go and make a Chucky movie or whatever?”
“It had to resonate and come from a place of purity to drive me, because I knew without that I wouldn’t follow through.”
Come to Daddy has been described and compared to seemingly incomparable films, from Manchester by the Sea to Under the Silver Lake, not exactly films that sit within the silly, scary and over-the-top brand of Incredibly Strange. Come to Daddy is not necessarily just a horror comedy film or an exploitation flick, though it incorporates tropes from both genres; it’s a film about the inherent trauma of not knowing where you come from, and how that vastly affects where you’re going. “Toby [Harvard], the writer, and I wanted to play with the expectations of an audience who are savvy and have seen a lot of material. You know you’re on that path when people can’t actually tag it properly – it’s horror, horror comedy, thriller, dark comedy, dark horror thriller? So straight away they can’t pigeon-hole it, which to me is good. It means we’re in the right zone.”
After years producing other people’s work, the pressure to make something worthwhile was significant, Timpson says. “Even though [Come to Daddy] is aligned in the same vein [to his previous productions], my prior knowledge just disappeared and I was back as that filmmaker decades ago, trying to focus on the basics.
“Obviously the producer’s hat never goes away. Make your days, that’s the number one thing that I brought in from my producing background. You have to get everything in the can on the day, otherwise we’re fucked. We have no money on these films, so whatever you get, you get.”
Despite the stress of its production, he’s happy with how the film turned out. “I knew when I was with the editor and we had close to a locked cut. From that point on the cliche is ‘I don’t care what anybody thinks, I made it for myself.’, I just knew that we had all done a very good job and it was hitting all the marks it needed to.”
Timpson knew that the audiences that would flock to Come to Daddy are the same ones that he’s cultivated over the years. If you build it, or in this case, if you make it, they will come. They’re the kinds of people who book a ticket to every single film in the Incredibly Strange programme, and the kinds of people who show up for every screening of The Room possible.
“It’s cool that there’s still a lot of people from the very very early days that followed a lot of the programming and curation that I’ve done, which I’m so thankful for. They’re the best cheerleaders you could have in life, they’ve been super supportive.”
But it’s far from a one-way relationship. Timpson has been an avid supporter of not just the kinds of films that you might see at a drive-in or a grindhouse, but the people who make them as well. After all, it means nothing to support the films if you’re not supporting the people making them. “I’m just a good ‘gardener’ – terrible in real life – but in industry terms, I’ve had a lot of success laying a good garden and then watering it for a long time.
“It feels great to see others go on to success that have maybe learnt or been inspired by whatever madcap scheme I initiated but these things were never just me – they were supported by many others for decades, and without them, I doubt they’d be successful as they were.”
The 48Hours Film Festival, now in its 17th year, might just be the best example of the Timpson ethos. The film contest feels like the perfect distillation of his vibe: It’s run on fumes, a crate of V, and as much enthusiasm as a human being can muster. And it’s been the springboard for some of this generation’s most successful filmmakers, including yes, recent Academy Award winner Taika Waititi.
“We’ve been using Taika as the poster-kid for the competition for decades,” says Timpson. “He’s won an Oscar now so you can bet your arse we’re going to use that until his lawyers step in.”
You can watch Come to Daddy in selected cinemas now.