Fantastic Fest 2019: An Interview with Bleeding Skull’s Joe Ziemba, Director of AGFA

(Photo Credit: Annie Ray)

Fantastic Fest’s 15th anniversary this year just happens to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA). The nonprofit, which started out as a passion project for the Alamo Drafthouse after acquiring a large lot of 35mm films, has grown into housing over 6000 films and is one of the main theatrical distributors for genre film and outsider art. Over the years they have gone from simply finding, archiving, and making these films available to restoring them as well, making sure generations to come can experience them as they were intended on the big screen.

I’ve been following Joe Ziemba’s career since he was blogging solo on Bleeding Skull, a repository of SOV (shot on video) love. Today he’s still reviewing SOV madness, now with his partner Annie Choi, but he is also the Director of AGFA. I got to sit down with Joe at Fantastic Fest, very aptly in a karaoke room with a coffin for a table, to discuss not only how he got into this lost art of shot on video filmmaking from the ’80s, but the mission of AGFA going forward, as well as some exciting Bleeding Skull news for fans.

First, what was your introduction to SOV horror and how did you find your calling on Bleeding Skull reviewing films that, at the time, were forgotten?

I discovered shot on video movies completely by accident. I didn’t know it was a thing at all. I just knew movies, and I was touring with my band at the time across the country, and I’d started getting more heavily into collecting VHS — this is around 2002. So that was a time when all the video stores were liquidating all their VHS tapes. So, we would roll into each town and then I would find the video stores and then they’d be, you know, two for $3, all video tapes. I amassed so many tapes, and it was in the infant days of IMDB. So, I was really kind of going blind based on the covers and there wasn’t really any information on the movies.

I bought a movie called Boarding House. The tape is a Paragon VHS of that movie, and the cover was a woman on a bed, just kind of like jumping out of the bed, and there’s a monster in the bed grabbing her. I was like, this looks incredible. I don’t know what it is. And I got it home and put it in and something felt off about it. Like surreal when I was watching it. It took me a few minutes to understand that, oh, this was shot on a camcorder. It looks like video. It’s like my grandpa’s home movies. That was the first time I had been exposed to it. So, from there I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, is this is a thing, like people actually made movies on VHS and beta cameras, I couldn’t believe it.

So that’s where kind of the obsession for that started, because I just thought it was so fascinating. It’s so different than anything I’d seen, and Bleeding Skull came out of that. I would watch something that I really loved, one example is this movie Shriek of the Mutilated from 1974. It’s about a bigfoot in the hills of upstate New York, and I really loved the movie. It was one of the first bigfoot gore movies I had seen. So, I went online in the very early days of message boards, and people were just trashing it and saying “it’s so bad it’s good” and making fun of it and Mystery Science Theater. I was so disappointed, because I was having these experiences with these movies that were like unlike any I’d had before. I was like, this is a new portal of movies that I didn’t know existed, and I had all this new information that they’re wonderful, they’re like so crude and just crazy.

So, I just decided that I’m going to start writing about these films, because I want to share my point of view, which is not so bad. It’s good. I hated it. I just wanted there to be another opinion out there that was not — I wanted there to be respect for the movies and champion them. Because I figured there are other people like you out there. Bleeding Skull was originally supposed to be a design website for my design work, and then halfway through I was like, fuck this, I don’t care about design, I’m just going to write reviews. The first three or four years of Bleeding Skull I was doing like four reviews a week, I was just blasting through stuff.

So I learned. I hadn’t written anything before. I’d taken some writing classes in college, but I wasn’t like a writer. So yeah, I just, I just did it and that was it.

Yeah, that’s the one thing I really identified with when I found your site. You find the sincerity in the film and you talk about that. You can tell that somebody tried to make the best movie that they could make. It just turned out to be something like Blood Lake, and I really love that. How did you find your voice and work out your review style?

I think I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m inspired by The Psychotronic Video Guide and Psychotronic magazine, Steven Puchalski’s Slimetime, and Shock Cinema really. I’m impressed by the energy and the savageness of their reviews. They just cut, get right to it, and it’s hard. Their opinions and what they love, what they don’t love, and so those were really inspiring. I think it was just trial and error. I just eventually found a style that I liked, and then it just kept working at it all these years, because it was so fun.

That leads me into your new Bleeding Skull book on the ‘90s. I know it keeps getting delayed, is it done or is there any update?

Yeah, well we finished it two years ago. What happened is that Fantagraphics Books has a lot of big name books in the pipeline, so it just kept getting delayed for bigger projects. Yeah, when it went up on the Amazon, the cover is not the real cover. That was kind of a solicitation cover and the date that they had put up was never real. It was just like something they put up as a place holder. So now it’s going to be fall 2020 officially, which is three years after we finished the book. So it’s been a long journey, but it’s okay. I think it’s kind of indicative of where publishing is at to now. It’s hard to get a book published these days.

I mean, there’s a lot of really great stuff happening, like made to order books and people are self-publishing. But we were working on this for so long and working on the deal with Fantagraphics for so long and were just sticking it out. And it’s gonna be worth it in the end, it’s going to be a great book and we’re super happy with it.

Are you going to do the same thing you did before where you did the regular paperback and then the hardback for the hardcore collectors?

It’ll just be the one version, which is somewhere between a hard cover and soft cover. It’s the way that they’ve designed it. So, we’ll see if that sticks.

Joseph Ziemba (l) and Sebastian del Castillo (photo by David Brendan Hall)

So since you started out at AFGA it’s evolved quite a bit, with you debuting your first restoration at the fest. I assume you have to wear many of hats after joining up with the Drafthouse; what’s it been like transitioning from blogging on Bleeding Skull to working with AGFA and the Drafthouse?

I’m really happy that it happened, because I struggled professionally for so many years. I worked just so I could do Bleeding Skull and just so I could do music, and I never had a passion for my day job. It was always just a means to get somewhere else. So I started working in the Alamo seven years ago, and Zack (Carlson) actually brought me on. I was living in LA at the time because I went there to write the Bleeding Skull book, and then when that was done I was kind of like, what am I going to do now? Zack was like, would you be interested in coming and working for the Alamo? At first, I said no, because I like LA so much. I was like, I love the weather.

Actually, outside of what Zack and Lars were doing, I didn’t know what the Alamo was. It was like this amazing thing staring me in the face, and I’m like “man, I think I’ll be fine.” Then like six months later, Annie Choi, who’s my partner in life and on Bleeding Skull too, was like, you should really think about that again. That’s a really awesome opportunity. It’s doing something that you love. I was nervous and scared, and then a year after Zack had first called me, he called me again and he was like, no, seriously, I want to bring you to Austin and see what you think and if you’d like it. So, they flew me out for Fantastic Fest that year and I landed, I dropped my stuff off at Zack’s guest house.

They dropped me off at South Lamar, and they’re like, go over here, this is the waiting room. You can sit in here and then Winona Ryder walked in and the room and I was like, holy shit. This is insane. I couldn’t believe it. So, that was the moment where I was like, this place is pretty cool, I should probably think about doing something. Right after that they offered me a job. When I moved out I originally started out as a programmer helping out with design. Then within a month, I got the job of art director at the Alamo. So, I was overseeing all the design and video work, and I did that for about three and a half years, and I was also programming at the same time and hosting shows. Then it got to be too much. I was wearing 70 hats and I was like, I’ve got to pick something.

AGFA was always my favorite thing about the Alamo, and Sebastian del Castillo, who is now head of film preservation, was the sole steerer of the ship for many, many years. He was the heart and soul of keeping the archive going and doing the upkeep and all that. So he and I really hit it off, and when Zack first brought up to the AGFA archive and I saw prints of Doris Wishman’s Double Agent 73 and all this crazy stuff, I loved it. I just wanted to sleep over and spend the night, looking at everything. I was talking with Sebastian, and we’re like, what can we do with AGFA? Is there anything more we can do? And we kind of hit upon the idea that what if AGFA wasn’t just an archive? What if it was a place where like these films could get distributed as well, like on home video and theatrical.

So, I actually pitched Tim League the idea of if I could have a dream job here, here’s what I want. He was thankfully willing to listen to me. So now I’m a Director of AGFA and Director of genre programming at the Alamo.

AGFA had a film a day at Fantastic Fest this year to celebrate 15 years. How hard was it to pick films, and what were the criteria you used to select the films screening at the fest?

It was a team effort for sure. What happened was AGFA did a 10-year anniversary retrospective at UCLA over the summer. KJ Relth, who is the programmer at UCLA, put that together, and they flew us out and we were blown away. We screened Limbo, Don’t Panic and just all this crazy stuff. We also did a Reel One party on 35 millimeter, and we couldn’t believe we’re in UCLA and they’re doing this AGFA retrospective. Like how is this happening? That was really inspiring. Oh, we’re not just in this little bubble. Other people are recognizing it, and it’s exciting.

So, we pitched Fantastic Fest since it’s our 10th anniversary and your 15th anniversary, what if we did a screening a day? What if we did it just to showcase our work, what we’re excited about, and they were on board. The four of us looked at what was in the pipeline and what are we most excited about, passion picks from the team. Like Tammy and the T Rex, we’re obviously going to do that because it has to play. But everything else, like the Bleeding Skull ones, we decided between Annie and Zack and myself, and then everyone else got one pick. Then we just went through and kind of brainstormed together and decided what we wanted to do. Alicia was super passionate about Something Weird archive, which is great because we all are too.

And it was, it felt really like the time felt right to reintroduce maybe another movie that’s more representative, just something weird and to get that going. So we did She Mob, and then Sebastian was really passionate about Bloody Birthday, and Reflections of Evil is my pick. I watched that movie last year and I fell in love with it, and I contacted Damon Packard and I just wanted to screen it. Then I was like, well, what if AGFA distributed your movies? How about that? He was like, great where do I sign?

What else is the next plan for you guys? You’re doing releases now, restorations, what’s the game plan for AGFA going forward?

The game plan is definitely to focus more on the theatrical as we move forward, because we’re growing so rapidly that we’re having trouble keeping up. I’m shifting my time more to focus on theatrical promotion and creativity and how we can push that and make it better and better as we go. Because we’re starting to get really big titles now. Like with the Shout Factory deal that we did earlier this year, all of a sudden we go from, before we had, you know, a couple of holiday minor horror titles, and now we have Black Christmas, we have theatrical on Black Christmas, what do we do with that? How do we make that work?

So, it’s been a gradual shift over the last six months to really understand, okay, this is our identity now. We are a robust theatrical distributor, one of the biggest distributors of genre content in the world at this point. And so that’s a gift. So how do we make it, how do we grow it? How do we water the flowers and make them bloom? So that’s what we’re focusing on now, we’re still doing home video, we’re cutting back a little bit and probably doing closer to three or four releases a year. For such a small team, it’s very time consuming, and home video for us isn’t as lucrative as theatrical. So, we’re just kind of adjusting the balance a little bit.

So with all the great boutique labels kind digging up these buried treasures, are you ever worried that you’re going to run out of these crazy lost titles?

I never get worried about running out of stuff because there’s always something else out there always, no matter what. Like no matter that you think you’ve seen it all and you’ve found it all, there’s always something else. And it’s really incredible when you start to think about it. Vinegar Syndrome and Severin are two of our theatrical partners, they will put out stuff that I had never heard of.

They are definitely doing the Lord’s work.

Yeah, and its stuff I never knew was there, like I never knew there was a Killer Crocodile 2. Severin puts that out, and I am like, it’s great, this is amazing. I never get worried about there’s not going to be enough stuff, especially with the Bleeding Skull stuff too. Bleeding Skull is almost going on 16 years and I’ve never been at a loss, and there’s still so much to get to. There’s so much in our collections that we have a list of what’s next to review, and it’s like 300 titles on there. It’s just like overwhelming how much there is.

So finally what are, what are your grails — what are the movies you’re looking for to either put out one day or do a restoration?

Yeah, I mean there are a few different areas. I mean for me personally, there’s always the Bleeding Skull holy grails, with the movies that we love so much, but are only on VHS. They were shot on film, but then transferred to VHS, and then something else happened along the way. So it’s always, trying to hunt down the elements and the filmmakers, the rights holders for those are always exciting. And I’m always on the lookout for that stuff.

I think for AGFA in general, we have really kind of forged our identity in terms of what we look for to restore, and it’s really outsider filmmaking. It’s just outsider genre filmmaking and stuff that no one else would ever think to care about or think is valid. You know, I think one of the eye-opening experiences for us in the last year and a half is the Sarah Jacobson films.

Those were amazing.

They were so great, and I knew about them forever and I had known about them, I liked them, and we were working on the Bleeding Skull book that’s coming out with Fantagraphics, and Annie reviewed I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and I read her review. I was like, I’ve always loved this movie, but her point of view is so different than mine being a woman writing about it and what she pulled out of it. I was like this movie is super important, we should find out what’s going on because the movies are on YouTube and they screen them occasionally, but no one knows where they are. So, we actually, through her nonprofit at the Jacobson Foundation, found out where the film elements are and asked if they’d be interested, and right away they were like, we would definitely be interested in working with you.

We love these movies and they need to be out there, people need to know about Sarah Jacobson. That one really kind of crystallized our vision for what AGFA is. Cause that also goes to the Something Weird movies, that goes for the shot on video stuff. It’s like they all kind of fit together even if they’re not the same genre. So that’s really what we’re excited about. We’re excited about uncovering the stuff that’s out there and we know about that no one’s touching and no one knows what to do with it.

What can we look forward to in the future from Bleeding Skull?

We just recorded the commentary track for Limbo with Tina Krause, and we recorded an episode of the Bleeding Skull podcast with her that will launch in 2020. We recorded that with her, and it was the best time I’ve ever had recording with a guest. Annie and I were like, this is incredible! Her stories are so many more stories. It was really, really incredible. She’s totally fearless and super fun.

Her Q&A at the fest was great. How long have you been working on the podcast?

Just a few months. We’re hoping to launch in January. It’s going to be seasonal. There’s five episodes, and they’re half done at this point. It’s going to be more, not really us talking about the news, it’s telling the stories of movies with the filmmakers.

So it’s like the Bleeding Skull version of This American Life.

Yes, exactly that. We’re hoping we’ll be able to get it done by January, but we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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