London Film Festival Director Kristy Matheson on Her “First Rodeo” and Landing World Premieres From Aardman, Daniel Kaluuya and Jeymes Samuel

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By Joshephira Honey

The 2023 London Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday (Oct. 4) with the European premiere of Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature Saltburn. While the ongoing actors strike means that the films lead cast  — including Jacob Elordi, Barry Keoghan and Rosamund Pike — won’t be in attendance at Royal Festival Hall, there will be a new face o look out for in LFF creative director Kristy Matheson. 

The Australian, who previously headed up the Edinburgh Film Festival, joined the U.K.’s most prominent film event earlier this year, taking over from Tricia Tuttle who, alongside her predecessor Clare Stewart, had helped build LFF into both a major public cinematic celebration as well as a significant industry stop on the festival calendar. While London may not compete with the A-list events in terms of its pulling power, its autumnal positioning just as awards season creaks into gear has given it both the chance to pick and choose the year’s most exciting titles while offering a potential boost as voters begin deliberating. It also has managed to attract the occasional world premiere for itself. 

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With Matheson now at the helm, 2023 looks to be no different, with a healthy selection of top, Oscar-tipped features from the summer and fall festivals — including Poor Things, The Holdovers, The Zone of Interest, May December, All of Us Strangers and Nyad — and an impressive crop of major world premieres. Among the features getting their very first bow in the English capital are Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, Aardman’s long-awaited sequel to its stop-motion animated classic Chicken Run, Jeymes Samuel’s all-star, Jay-Z-produced biblical epic The Book of Clarence (his second feature following his LFF-opening The Harder They Fall), Apostasy director Daniel Kokotajlo’s Matt Smith- and Morfydd Clark-starring folk horror Starve Acre, and the dystopian London-set festival closer The Kitchen, the directorial debuts of Kibwe Tavares and LFF favourite Daniel Kaluuya.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Matheson discusses her first year in charge, the joy of seeing directors build a rapport with the festival and its audience enough to return with future films, and what it is with Australians and LFF creative directors.

It’s your first year in the LFF big seat. How does it feel? 

It’s great. We’re super happy with the program and very pleased with how people are reacting to it. Tickets are doing really well and what’s pleasing are that people are really going across the program and quite deep into it. And for myself and the programming team, that feels really thrilling because we’ve all got films that we really love all through this programme. So it’s incredibly gratifying when you sort of think, ‘Someone else likes the thing I like!’. So we’ve been we’ve been really enjoying watching that happen.

You’ve been working at other film festivals and institutions previously. What was your view of LFF from afar before you were involved?

In terms of the UK it’s a really major moment in the film year. It just feels like a very concentrated period where audiences are really at full throttle and consuming new films, but the industry is also very much there. So I think where the festival is positioned in the year is really great timing because it allows you to sort of look at the whole year in cinema, but also have those forward conversations, leaning toward the awards as people start to sort of speculate and put their punters hat on. So I think both inside and outside you get that sense — it’s this beautiful mix of being very important for the industry and certainly an important space for profiling films from the United Kingdom. But you also get this lovely connection with audiences. 

Thanks to its positioning, you’ve once again been able to scoop up the best films from the year’s biggest film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto. But you’ve also nabbed a few big world premieres, including Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, The Book of Clarence, The Kitchen and Starve Acre. How easy is it for London to negotiate getting the first bow of these titles?

It feels so special and exciting to have Chicken Run. People that loved the first film are not going to be disappointed – it’s got all of those beautiful qualities of an Aardman film. It’s so great to be able to present a big film from Aardman – they are such a success story, not just of British animation, but animation globally. And with each of the other films, what’s so heartening as you start those conversations is that these are all filmmakers who have got touch points with the festival. With The Book of Clarence, Jeymes’ previous film opened the festival, and it’s so heartening when a filmmaker has a really great experience and wants to come back. Same with Starve Acre. It’s doesn’t mean it’s a shoo-in, but it really does feel incredibly special because you feel like over time, the festival and the filmmaker and the audience have this reconnection. And The Book of Clarence is just so good — I cannot wait for people to see it. It’s funny and political and he’s such a wild filmmaker. And obviously The Kitchen is a hugely special film for us, because it is completely of this place — all of the film team are from London, born and bred, it’s shot and set here, and really speaks to community and what you can achieve when faced with adversity. It’s creatively a very, very ambitious film so I think it’s going to blow people’s socks off. It feels very special when filmmakers trust you with their first screening — it’s scaring for them and feels very meaningful for us that we’re trusted in that way. 

Last year, Netflix launched Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio in London and it went on to win the best animated feature Oscar. Do you think that played a part in Netflix choosing London for Chicken Run 2?

I think when people are thinking about where they where they position their films, of course they’re thinking about what has happened prior. All of that hard graft from the previous directors of this festival and team itself — this may be my first rodeo but it isn’t theirs — and that level of care to get the audience to meet the film in the right conditions, giving people a sense of confidence that the film will be really cared for… all of those things and all of the previous editions, they play such an important role. The festival is the sum of its parts. 

This year is a strange one because of the strikes. How has that impacted the festival beyond simply the fact that many of the big name actors won’t be present?

We were very, very far down the road of programming when the strike was confirmed. Obviously, it’s stressful because you then worry about what might be, so we did a little bit of that, but really we just concentrated on the films and just worked hard to get that final balance right. And obviously the strike has got huge implications, not just for SAG members, it’s affecting the whole industry. That’s hard because you feel that. So really we just put our heads down and finished the film programme, and I’d have really just tried to not worry about things that are out of our control. We really hope that people can come to a resolution quickly because it does have very big implications.

You’re the second Australian LFF head out of the last three. What is it with Australia and this job? 

I don’t know! There’s a really terrific cinephile culture in Australia. It’s a very long way away, especially in Melbourne. It’s a city where I’ve been based for quite a long time and was where [former LFF head] Clare Stewart was also based. But per capita, it has a lot of cinemas and a ferocious cinema culture. And it has a great film festival where people in the middle of winter will literally line up around around the block. So I think you really fall in love with cinema when you spend a lot of time in that city. So maybe that’s it!


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