Philip Ilson

Director of the London Short Film Festival, shorts programmer for the BFI London Film Festival, roving international panelist, loyal champion of exciting new filmmakers - there's not much Philip Ilson doesn't know about short films. As the excitement builds for the 11th LSFF, we catch up with the man under the hat.

What’s your connection to the British Council?

I actually worked at the British Council in the 1990s. I joined the Accounts department as a temp through Office Angels and it was one of my first ever office jobs. I transferred as a contract temp into the (then) Films & TV Dept in 1995 as Events Assistant and stayed until 2000. This was the time that I set up the Halloween Society short film club as part of London's burgeoning underground and alternative film club scene, which I did outside my day job. I also met Kate Taylor - now at the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) - at the British Council at that time who had joined as a temp in her gap year before university, and we both went on to found what eventually became the London Short Film Festival in 2004. When I left the British Council in 2000, I ended up working in a freelance capacity with the Design department to curate a touring club project called Sensurround, mixing club visuals, DJs, short films and fashion, which went to various international venues through the British Council's overseas offices throughout 2001. Since starting the London Short Film Festival in 2004, the Festival has collaborated with the British Council a number of times, specifically on an award for Best UK Short Film, which is still in place for the 2014 Festival. We are also working with them to bring a delegation of European short film programmers over to the Festival to view new British short films.

What’s your current project?
Most immediate is the 2014 London Short Film Festival, the 11th edition happening between 10-19 Janaury.  

What/who originally turned you onto film?
I don't remember particularly why I was into cinema any more than any other kid, as my parents took me to see films (as most parents do). But I remember a defining moment when I was about 16 when a friend's dad from school (who was an actor) took a couple of us to the National Film Theatre to see the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers; I really fell in love with the venue, and from the age of about 17 I went there off my own bat to see Altman, Scorsese, Coppola films, and then discovered other London cinemas such as the Scala, Everyman, Ritzy, Electric, all showing a mix of rep and new art-house releases. My dad also had always had a super-8 camera for holidays, so I played around with that sometimes, and ended up making low budget short films with friends.

What has been your career high so far?
It's hard to say as there's been a lot of moments over the years, but here's a few: 

-          300 people queuing on a Monday night to get into our monthly Halloween Society nights at Notre Dame Hall off Leicester Square, back in the 90s

-          Touring with Sensurround to Tel Aviv, Bogota, Caracas and other European cities

-          Being asked to join the BFI London Film Festival team as Short Film Programmer in 2006

-          Being invited to a film industry reception in Windsor Castle in the presence of the Royal Family. (I'm not a Royalist, but it made my parents happy and helped to understand what I do)

What was your first job in the film industry?
If you don't include filmmaking hobbies and music videos for friends’ bands, then my first official job was the one at British Council as an Events Assistant

If I knew then what I know now…
You can have a career in the film industry: Not coming from an arts background, I learnt day by day, year by year, that someone has to run film festivals, someone has to run cinemas, and someone has to organise events etc. These things don't just happen without a dedicated team of people

What is your favourite British film?
I was asked to do the Sight & Sound Top 50 Films of All Time Poll (which they do every 10 years), and the only UK film on my Top 10 list was:

Peter Greenaway's 1982 The Draughtsman's Contract , A unique film that doesn't seem to be set in any reality, despite being set in rural England 1694. It's a murder mystery in a country house, but its incomprehensible plot takes second place to a surrealism and originality in script and design that makes it a one-off. It sits nicely together with Chris Petit's 1979 Radio On as films that have a highly distinct cinematic language.

I'm also a fan of Ken Russell (particularly The Devils), Nic Roeg (particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth) and Lindsay Anderson (particularly IF...). I've also watched The Wicker Man many times.
If you could have directed/been involved with any film ever made, which one would it be?
I have a fondness for Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo, 1997), as it's another unique original piece of cinema, not rooted in any specific style. I like its looseness and its atmosphere, with a superb soundtrack and lo-fi design. Vincent Gallo also plays a damaged hero, and he gets the girl in the form of Christina Ricci.
What’s the first film you remember seeing? What was so memorable about it?

I'd already mentioned my NFT trip to see the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Early memories include watching films on TV, when I was very young before the invention of VHS players even! Two films that I remember, which I didn't know what they were at the time, but now know, that definitely made an impact on an infant me were 1963 Brit comedy Sparrows Can't Sing with Barbara Windsor set in London's East End (where my family are originally from, so maybe that's why it affected me). And bizarrely, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch; I think my nan was babysitting me and it was a Saturday night film, but the final shoot-out and it's slo-mo balletic choreography and fountains of blood maybe defined my interest in more violent cinema.

What’s your favourite line or scene from a film?
Its cliché time, but my all-time favourite film is Taxi Driver, seen at a rep cinema in London at the age of 18, so was defining for me. But De Niro's improvised 'You talkin' to me' in the mirror has to be classic cinematic gold, despite unfortunately being overly played and done to death. But I think f when I first saw it without the baggage that now accompanies it.

Favourite screen kiss?
My top 10 films don't feature many kisses. Films like Paris, Texas, Buffalo '66 and Eraserhead are more about a perverse, unrequited love. Another early favourite from my childhood is the original Planet of The Apes and the final kiss between man (Charlton Heston) and ape (Kim Hunter) is strangely moving and tender.

Who’s your favourite screen hero and/or villain?

My heroes are anti-heroes, specifically Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; you don't want to aspire to be him, but his complex character makes you question yourself, particularly when seeing him on screen at a certain age. Villain would be Frank Booth as played by Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet; his screen persona is terrifying and unpredictable for every second he is up there.

Who would play you in the film about your life?
Stephen Dorff plays a crazy cinema obsessive underground filmmaker in John Water's Cecil B Demented. Doing the work I do, there has to be a certain amount of obsession involved, so perhaps Dorff could reprise his role...

The London Short Film Festival runs from 10-19 January. Full programme available here