Of the the many cool films that playing Chattanooga Film Festival this week, one of the most intriguing pieces of programming is Lonano-thon, CFF’s Brian Lonano short film retrospective. You may not know who he is, but if you’ve been to genre festivals in the past two decades, chances are you have seen at least one of his films. From the moment I first saw Crow Hand–a domestic tragedy about a man who receives a much-deserved ‘I told you so’ from his wife–I knew this was someone I had to meet.
Thankfully, my wish was granted, and Brian generously gave me an hour of his time to pick his brain on everything from ambitious cult films like Zardoz and Southland Tales to the works of Ken Russell, and even The Mitchells vs The Machines. You can hear our full conversation over on the podcast Not Suitable For Anyone.
While most filmmakers view short films as a sort of stepping stone to a career in feature film, Brian carved a rather unique niche for himself that lead to his work being recognized by prestige distributors like Arrow, and the Chattanooga Film Festival. When Arrow sought out his work to be programmed for their new streaming channel, Brian remarked that it’s “like being invited to be part of the Criterion collection. You know, for my little trashy movies like they get this royal treatment, it’s so nice and very rewarding.”
Further, about the retrospective, he adds, “I’m very humbled by it. This retrospective means a lot to me too, because Chris [Dortch, CFF Festival Director] is such a great guy and he hosts such a great festival. I’m so honored to be in league with so many talented film makers and big important people in the in the genre film world.”
Of course, he did once have greater aspirations, admitting in his early days that he dreamed of Academy consideration with a Verhoeven-inspired short called Attackazoids. “I was like 24 years old at the time, and I was like ‘I’m going to get this into festivals and it’s gonna win something, and I can get it into the Oscar race and whatnot.'” And while that that obviously didn’t happen, Brian did get closer than you might expect. “We became a finalist in a festival that was Academy qualified, so we got pretty close.”
Several of the films in Lonano-thon have been off the festival circuit for many years. “It’s exciting to see them back … being able to play in front of an audience again,” he notes. That earlier work consists of a variety of music videos, narratives, and experimental films evocative of a variety of influences. I’ve already mentioned the Verhoeven-inspired Attackazoids, but his music video for the screamcore song Insect God feels like a low budget Tool video from the MySpace days. Other experimental films, like 8bit Ghost Hop, reveal a fondness for works like 1977’s Hausu, and a desire to experiment with low budget practical effects. “We literally just bought a little fish tank, filled it with water and made these ghost out of tissues. I was inspired by the ghosts at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those were done with puppets that would swim around in a fish tank, so I wanted to try that too.”
But as for the aforementioned Crow Hand, “I would say I would say it’s a turning point, absolutely.” Coming off of Welcome to Dignity Pastures–a film made for the ABC’s of Death 2 competition, the inspiration came to him quite by chance. “I came across this totem on the ground in the parking lot of the festival …, and my wife is like ‘That’s creepy. Don’t pick it up.’ And so we joked that like my hand got cursed and turned into a crow … we laughed and said that would be a great idea for a movie.”
Previously, he might have just dismissed the idea as too stupid or silly, but perhaps emboldened by some success on the festival circuit, he decided to pursue it. “It’ll be like a fun stupid movie to do,” thought Brian, but he had a good feeling about it as it started to come together. Turns out, those good feelings were validated: “I got an email from SXSW saying they accepted the film, and I was just completely floored that this stupid idea that we had for this little 2 1/2 minute movie got into one of the biggest festivals in the country.”
Brian admits he definitely felt emboldened to take more risks as a filmmaker. His follow-up film was the now famous Gwilliam. “[It] was an idea we had back in 2010, and back then I was like ‘I don’t think we can do this right now. It’s too much.’ I wasn’t quite ready to tell such a daring story. After Crow Hand was successful at SXSW, my wife was the one who said like we should do Gwilliam next.” Fortunately, taking his wife’s advice proved to be as successful as ignoring her advice about the crow totem. Gwilliam went on to earn the “Wrongest Film” award at the Sick ‘n Wrong Film Festival.
While, thus far, Academy consideration continues to elude Brian, he found recognition, by some measures, far more satisfying than an Oscar. “When [The Devil’s Asshole] played at festivals, some people of course called it stupid, which is, like, … what else is new? But there’s people there that appreciated, you know, the stupidity and the humor of it, so it got to play at the Rose Bowl on Halloween night for this Joe Bob Briggs event.”
Brian genuinely appreciates this types of intangible adoration for his work. “There was a band in New Zealand that cut an album, and they have a song called ‘Crow Hand’ and it was just based off the fact that they saw the movie and they loved it.” He continues, “It’s like this great little merit badge I get, alongside people cosplaying as Crow Hand, or a barf bag that was made to promote Gwilliam is in this virtual barf bag museum.”
Brian’s experience with interviews shows by bringing up the question of when he’ll make his first feature–a topic I otherwise avoided sine I’m sure it’s been asked at length. “I don’t know if I have the attention span to write a feature script, or I just really like the medium of short films. So, I sort of like sabotage myself from trying to creatively pursue something as a feature. I start to lose interest because, you know, you tell everything you want to tell.”
He admits to sort of “tuning out” the question, saying it “almost makes me not want to make a feature … just to be that contrarian.” But, ultimately, the real reason is that he has yet to find the right idea to adapt into a feature. He’s been asked about exploring the origins of Gwilliam, for example. “I know his origins, but I don’t need to like make a film to talk about that because, if I keep whoring him out, I feel like there’s going to be diminishing returns.”
He’s cautious about not overplaying his very colorful characters. “I like him as he is, which he shows up and then he goes away. You know, there’s sort of that little taste and then you leave before you overstay your welcome. I try very hard to make films that sort of entice you and then you leave you. You come in late and you leave early.” He references the Cruella origin story, saying, “She can just be a person who wants to make a fur coat out of Dalmatians. I love not knowing the answers, and I don’t like giving out easy, direct answers. When I start to answer them, I start to lose interest. But planting those little things implies what is happening in the bigger picture.”
Brian Lonano’s films, if nothing else, plant seeds of a larger world that will root in your brain to grow and fester until they’ve infected every corner of your silly, disturbing, filthy, disease-ridden subconscious … (in a good way). His retrospective, Lonano-thon, is playing at Chattanooga Film Festival beginning June 24, 2021. A selection of his short films is also available via Arrow Player.