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Programmer Profile: Brennan Tilley

Programmer Profiles is a blog series that brings you into the life of our esteemed programmers. Through this series you will gain insight into the lives of the hardworking people who spend their days hunting the latest and greatest film releases. They are our tastemakers and curatorial geniuses, and they all have a story to tell. 

On the roast this week is Shorts Programmer, Brennan Tilley who admits that his favourite accessory is his HDMI cable. Brennan previews films wherever he can, but prefers to do so in the company of his cat - who's selections we will be doing a feature on next week if we can wrangle the interview. 

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I first became involved with the Calgary International Film Festival in 2005 as a volunteer previewer on the recommendation of a Film professor at University of Calgary. I returned to this role annually until becoming Shorts Programmer in 2015. I also worked as Operations Coordinator for the 2011-12 Doc Soup season and served in a variety of volunteer roles. Past film-related jobs include Rogers Video, Uptown Stage and Screen, Calgary Underground Film Festival, Calgary Cinematheque, and FairyTales Presentation Society.

Name a film that changed your life and why it’s important to you.

There are so many ways I could answer this. As long as I can remember there have been films that shaped me as a person or provided direction in my viewing, programming and writing. One that helped me on my path to programmer is JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER. I saw it at the Uptown Stage and Screen in 2001. This is the first film for which I remember hunting out a theatre to watch it. It seems odd now but until that point, I had mostly watched popular movies at the multiplex or less well known ones by myself. Watching a film with an audience enriches the experience and I was becoming aware of theatres, festival and other events that provided a wide range of programming.

Working in the arts is a labour of love. What makes it all worth it?

Connecting with audiences, filmmakers, and colleagues. I am fortunate to have opportunities to see countless great films each year. It is a joy to bring these to an audience. Audiences reactions during the films and conversations afterward are my main driver. Connecting with filmmakers, showing them my love for their work and helping them find an audience makes me feel like I am in a small way fostering more of the films I want to see. Interacting with colleagues reminds me of our common goals and shared labour of love.

What do you do when you’re not watching movies?

My daughter was born in May. She keeps me busy whether or not I am trying to watch movies. I love to travel. The first thing I do when arriving in a city is look up where the cinemas are. I am not sure that counts as not watching movies.

What’s the most moving thing that’s ever happened to you on the job? 

A high point was screening my favourite movie, Noah Baumbachs KICKING AND SCREAMING, last year with Calgary Cinematheque. I stopped working as soon as I finished the introduction. My wife and I sat in the back row enjoying every moment of it. People at the screening approached me for months afterwards to talk about how much they loved the film and discuss favourite moments.

What’s your number one piece of advice for filmmakers trying to get into the festival? What makes a film stand out?

The number one thing I look for is originality. A film has to stand out from the other films I have seen. Along with originality. If a filmmaker has a story one needs to tell and the drive to tell it their way, it comes through on screen. A personal story often connects universally.

How many films do you watch each year (or per day) to select your lineup?

At peak periods, I watch up to 60 shorts per week.

What’s your film-watching routine? 

The best way to watch is at film festivals. This is the closest experience to how the audiences we program for will view the films. If watching at home, I mimic the experience of watching in a theatre by getting popcorn kernels stuck in my gums. The vast majority of the films I consider are watched through an online link. I carry my laptop and an HDMI cable with me whenever I think I will have a chance to set some time aside. When I am focused on shorts I watch mainly on my laptop – because I regularly make notes, I prefer to not connect to my television. For our Interspecies and Intergalactic package I watched the shorts with one of my cats.  There were so many great options that I deferred to him for final opinion. I hope he made good choices.

What’s your advice for aspiring programmers?

Programming is about understanding the audience. If you want to be a programmer, get involved in other ways with the festival/organization. Interact with people and learn what films people want to see.

With 68 shorts in the 2017 lineup there's a lot to see! Are there any particular shorts you love that our audience shouldn't miss?

This is a great year for Iranian film. We have three shorts in three different packages. I expect we will see one in the Best of Shorts package as well. We also have several films that have won major awards. These could be frontrunners for Oscar nominations. It is fun to have seen the short film nominees when the Oscars come around. Examples of films that have won major awards are DEKALB ELEMENTARY, FACING MECCA and A GENTLE NIGHT.

Many filmmakers get their start by making short films. Are there any shorts you've seen over the years from up and coming directors that have gone on to make feature films?   

There are too many to mention. Denis Villeneuve had already had successful features when his short NEXT FLOOR screened at Calgary International Film Festival in 2008. Two years later his film INCENDIES received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. This year, ARRIVAL received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, among many accolades. In 2011, the festival screened Spike Jonze’s SCENES FROM THE SUBURBS.