Four days of funny films: Jonathan Wakeham on LOCO

Showcasing the best in new film comedy, LOCO London is a four-day antidote to film festivals and award ceremonies that think that laughing doesn’t matter. Festival co-founder Jonathan Wakeham shares his highlights of this year and divulges his fantasy LOCO lineup.

Samuel Wigley
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A Liar's Autobiography

A Liar's Autobiography

Now in its second year at BFI Southbank, LOCO London is a four-day celebration of the world’s best new comedy films. Opening with a preview screening of A Liar’s Autobiography, a new 3D animated take on the life of Monty Python Graham Chapman, the festival also includes UK premieres of Julie Delpy’s Le Skylab and the Danish black comedy Klown, and a closing night preview of Jake Schreier’s Sundance award-winner Robot and Frank.

Amid a packed weekend, there’s a laughing yoga session, a showcase for short comedy films, an exhibition of the Terry Gilliam-esque artwork for A Liar’s Autobiography, and pink footprints around the venue will lead families to a special 50th anniversary screening of Blake Edwards’ classic The Pink Panther (1963). With the celebrations underway, we met festival co-founder and programmer Jonathan Wakeham to discover why he thinks LOCO is the best way to laugh away the January blues.

Why did you first decide to start a comedy festival?

My co-founder, Denise [Hicks] and I always loved comedy films. Comedy films are the most popular films at the UK box office. There’s a great British tradition of comedy filmmaking, from Stan Laurel through Cary Grant, through Peter Sellers, through Monty Python, through Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.

But what we realised is that comedy films are popular with audiences, but they’re very rarely discussed critically. They tend not to appear at film festivals at all. The London Film Festival is quite rare in actually having a Laughter strand. Most festivals there is nothing. [Comedies] tend not to win Oscars; I think only four comedy films have ever won best picture, and comedy performances tend not to win awards either. You win an Oscar for playing Lincoln, you don’t win one for playing Woody Allen’s roles or Richard Pryor’s roles or Bill Murray’s roles, or for any of the great films that have entertained generations.

I think what’s remarkable about comedy films is that great comedy films do not date. They feel fresh because they’re about human emotions, universal human truths and universal human failings. We felt that to have a comedy film festival was a chance to celebrate the art and the craft and the skill that goes into making comedy films, to illuminate what makes them work, and to celebrate our favourite actors, writer, directors… Cinematographers and composers too – I think comedy is very specific in all of those disciplines.

What were you doing before?

Denise and I met when we worked in an advertising agency, about 12 years ago. I think at that point we talked a lot about film, we talked a lot about comedy. Since then I’ve done a lot of work with production companies and I’ve been writing drama. I’d written three feature films with a producer; for me to be commissioned to write drama is all I’ve really wanted.

I’ve no ability to write comedy whatsoever, so there’s no point of conflict. I’m dazzled by comedy writers, because you have to do the plot, the characters, you have to make the action work, you have to hit the beats of the story. So you’ve done all of my job [as a writer], and then you have to make it funny. I’m daunted by that process.

How do you go about putting a festival like this together?

LOCO is an organisation which runs all the way through the year. We run courses, we host screenings, and then the festival is a focal point to begin the year, to cheer everyone up at the end of January when they’re feeling miserable, and to have a four-day festival of international comedy filmmaking. So the festival is three months of extreme hard work, and then during the rest of the year it’s about meeting people, building relationships, running workshops and training days.

Laughter yoga

Laughter yoga

I think the great thing about being the comedy people is that we can work alongside so many different organisations. I’m not in conflict with the Irish Film Festival, or with Whirligig, or with the London Short Film Festival, or with LFF, so we can partner with a large number of other organisations in a very open, fluid way. I’m really excited in 2013 to have more of those opportunities. How can we embed a bit of LOCO-ness in other events and organisations?

The festival’s in its second year now. What did you learn from last time or want to do better this time?

I think you can always get better. The most important thing for a film festival is the relationship with the distributors. They need to know that you will take care of their film, give their film the best possible shot for the audience. The relationship with filmmakers is very important: they need to feel that we’re genuinely on their side. This is a purely celebratory event.

Obviously, our relationship with the BFI is probably the core of it, because it’s the team at Southbank who make the festival possible, who guide us and keep us on track throughout the course of the year. The great pleasure for me of working at the BFI is that I grew up there. It’s the first place where I first saw [the films of] Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tati – a lot of the greats of comedy. But also Bergman and Fellini and Howard Hawks. So to feel like I’m hosting a festival at the temple of film is an extraordinary honour.

But it’s really all about the relationships, and trust and openness. I think there are ‘and’ people and ‘or’ people. ‘Or’ people say, “Well, if you’re doing your thing, that will damage my thing.” And ‘and’ people say, “You know what, the more the merrier.” Most people at this point in this country do not go to film festivals. If more film festivals work together, then we grow the overall audience for film festivals. That’s why we’re keen to work with as many different partners as possible.

Le Skylab (2011)

Le Skylab (2011)

Is there anything in this year’s festival that you’re particularly proud of as a programming coup?

I think the opening night film, A Liar’s Autobiography, is such an innovative piece of work. It was 17 different animation studios working on one film. It’s an extraordinary technical achievement to take Graham Chapman’s autobiography, and his reading, and then little sound clips and off-mic moments of his. So in the film, when Graham sucks on his pipe, that’s an actual recording of Graham sucking on his pipe; when he shuffles papers, that’s an actual recording of Graham shuffling papers; when he coughs, that’s actually Graham.

I think to be able to celebrate that film with Terry Jones [in attendance] is incredibly exciting. I think the panel after that – Rebecca Front, Tony Law, Ben Farrell – are great experts and performers in comedy today. So what I like about that evening is that it’s at once a celebration of the genius of Monty Python from 30, 40 years ago, but also looking forward to who will be the great influential comics, writers, actors, performers, directors of today that people will be celebrating at the BFI in 40 years’ time.

We’ve got Julia Davis coming to talk about her career with Lucy Lumsden on Saturday morning. Her breadth of work is breathtaking. Lucy has commissioned a lot of her work, and worked with her for nearly 20 years now, so I think that will be very insightful.

I love the training days. There are people who’ve made films, things on the internet, or done live work, and this is a chance for them to start meeting other people who are doing the same things as them, and working together to make new work happen. I think the fundamental difference between LOCO and other festivals is that it’s equally about making things and showing things.

We set up LOCO so that more comedy films got made, not so more comedy films got shown. It’s exciting after two years to see that beginning to happen.

What’s your favourite film in the festival?

Klown. I probably shouldn’t say that, but it is. It’s Danish, it’s very dark, it’s very strange. It’s got moments of excruciating embarrassment, but I think at heart it’s a very moral, truthful film. So Klown is the one that ticks all the boxes of what comedy should aspire to be: funny, and moving, and painful, and provocative, and thought-provoking.

Klown

Klown

Le Skylab is another real highlight. Fantastic critical reception for Before Midnight at Sundance this week; I hope it’s reminded people how brilliant Julie Delpy is. Skylab is a chance to see her on home territory, in France, writing, performing and directing this beautiful family comedy, full of awkwardness and embarrassment and teenage love and drunken dancing, but with a real political edge. But also, it’s the end of January, a fantastically cold and miserable weekend, so for me Skylab is like a little French holiday on a very cold afternoon.

Apart from the screenings, what else is going on?

We kicked off with laughter yoga. So at nine o’clock on Thursday morning, there were about 100 people laughing in the BFI foyer, doing yoga. There’s a pitching competition for the students, in which they can win a place on a crowdsourcing website to raise money to make a film happen.

We’ve got a Nora Ephron triple bill at the Lexi Cinema on Sunday. We’ve got the School of Slapstick on Sunday morning, so kids will be coming just before The Pink Panther screening to learn silent comedy techniques. There’ll also be a live Pink Panther for them to hunt through the building on a treasure hunt.

And at the Graham Chapman exhibition, there’ll be live animators working all the way through the festival, again making stuff happen. At the end of these four days, there’ll be more ‘stuff’ than there was at the beginning.

What are your favourite comedy films?

I could give you a list of a thousand, but let’s say Harold and Maude (1971) and Manhattan (1979). Those are the ones you can go back to again and again and again and again, and they still move you, and haunt you, and make you laugh.

We screened Harold and Maude in September at the Genesis [in Whitechapel, London], and I introduced it and asked how many people had seen it. About two thirds of them hadn’t seen it, so I envied them. Then when they were coming out, half the people were crying and half the people were smiling, and I thought: “Well, that’s Harold and Maude.”

Who would appear in your fantasy LOCO lineup?

Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Lubitsch. Cary Grant I think would be a laugh. Kate Hepburn, fun. Ingmar Bergman actually: huge fun to work with, everybody loved him. Not a joker! Woody. Edgar Wright. Simon Pegg. Probably not Peter Sellers, I think he’d be a bit of a nightmare.

Galton and Simpson. They came last year and we had the first ever performance of The Day Off, which is the film script they wrote for Tony Hancock, and we did a live reading of it. I script-edited it, which is a bit like script-editing Genesis for me. So I got to spend just a few days with Ray and Alan at their homes; that was amazing.

I think they are the originators of the kind of comedy that people are making today. If you look at work like The Thick of It, there’s a direct link from Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, because it’s about pain, and truthfulness, thwarted dreams, people trapped in a scenario they can’t escape from. It’s about how hilarious that is, that human comedy. Galton and Simpson are the towering giants of 20th-century British comedy.

So I’d want them, and they’re alive so they would come! The Q&A they did after The Day Off was just dazzling; here were two chaps in their mid-80s holding an audience in the palms of their hands.

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