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Montreal-Born ‘Turbo Kid’ Gets Rowdy Hometown Welcome at Fantasia

Four years after pitching their project at the Frontieres Intl. Co-Production Market, 'Turbo Kid's' creators bring the film back to where it all started.

The audiences at the Fantasia Film Festival are famously vocal when it comes to showing their approval for genre-movie gore, action and all-around creativity: When the lights go down, they meow like a roomful of anxious kittens, and when cars (or heads) explode onscreen, so do the ovations and laughter in the room.

The directors of ’80s-tastic sci-fi homage “Turbo Kid” knew to expect such energy going into their Quebec premiere, but they weren’t prepared for just how excited the Montreal audiences would be to see their BMX-riding “Mad Max” tribute. At one point, a character tosses an old VHS cassette onto the campfire for warmth, and the room may as well have lost its collective mind.

After all, this was a movie custom-tailored to play that room. “Turbo Kid” may have debuted six months earlier as a midnight movie at Sundance, but co-helmers Anouk Whissell, her husband Francois Simard and brother Yoann-Karl Whissell (clearly a family-and-friends team) all hail from Montreal and made the film to satisfy their fellow Fantasia fans.

“They’re the best crowd in the world,” Yoann-Karl tells Variety. “It sounded like a rock concert! We felt totally overwhelmed.”

As it turns out, this screening wasn’t just the film’s Canadian premiere, but a massive homecoming, screening four years to the day after the trio pitched the project at the fest’s first-ever international co-production market, Frontieres@Fantasia. According to the grateful threesome, the film wouldn’t exist were it not for the festival and its still-new industry component.

Over the course of an almost-15-year collaboration, the Whissell, Whissell and Simard have made more than 20 short films together, including the tongue-in-cheek “Ninja Eliminator” series (a pre-“Kung Fury” retro martial arts tribute). “Turbo Kid” originated as a submission to the “ABCs of Death” horror anthology, whose curators had left the “T” spot open in their depraved alphabet to a contest between amateur filmmakers. “T is for Turbo” won the popular vote, but wasn’t selected, and yet New Zealand-based “ABCs of Death” producer Ant Timpson was so impressed, he approached the trio about expanding their idea into a feature.

When the team heard about Fantasia’s plans to host an industry pitch session in 2012, they hunkered down, cooked up a draft and submitted, earning one of a dozen spots in the inaugural Frontieres market. With Timpson already onboard as their New Zealand producer, the group went in hoping to find a Canadian partner who would allow them to qualify for incentives and seek support from Telefilm Canada and the regional Sodec fund.

“We had a great pitch,” Simard says. “We showed up in costumes, we brought BMX bikes and everything. (Our executive producer) Jason Eisner even did a cartwheel as part of the presentation.”

After pitching to a room full of potential creative partners at Frontieres, the three helmers met interested parties one-on-one, hitting it off especially well with Anne-Marie Gelinas and Benoit Beaulier of EMAfilms. (Following their successful Frontieres session, Epic Pictures, Raven Banner and Film Option all came aboard during pre-production.)

“I was actually looking for a psyschological thriller,” Gelinas recalls. “I am not at all into gore, blood or any of that, but their pitch was just over-the-top crazy, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to meet these guys.’ We just fell in love.”

Gelinas has been back to pitch projects at Frontieres twice in the intervening years, and EMAfilms is working with the “Turbo Kid” team once again on their next feature, “Elora’s Death Wish” — the project they’ve always dreamed of making.

“We’re very early in the process,” Anouk Whissell says. “We have a poster and an outline of like 40 pages.” But the concept is clear: The film will start out like a classic revenge movie and then twist in the middle to become a classic ’80s action film.

“What’s interesting about the character is that she’s not a professional trained killer or a martial arts expert. She’s a girl, but she has an obsession about action movies, and she has an imaginary friend that is like Commando or Rambo,” Simard explains. And yes, they’re dreaming of Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role. (“Turbo Kid’s” biggest star is Michael Ironside, who plays one-eyed villain Zeus.)

After pitching “Elora’s Death Wish” to a new batch of potential producers the morning of their “Turbo Kid” premiere, the trio spent the next two days taking “nonstop meetings,” encouraged by the amount of interest from Frontieres attendees. And of course it doesn’t hurt that thanks to Fantasia, they now have a feature under their belts to show potential partners.

This year, Fantasia also hosted the world premiere of another feature, “She Who Must Burn,” which emerged from the market’s 2013 edition. John McNaughton, who screened “The Harvest” at the festival last year, returned to pitch his next project. Raven Banner picked up worldwide rights to director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s maniac-in-a-Luchador-mask pic “El Gigante,” while the event brought together more than 375 genre-savvy industry professionals.

As Frontieres grows, the organizers have expanded the co-production market overseas, setting up a sister event at the Brussels Intl. Fantastic Film Festival. The “Turbo Kid” crew has been to both, but of course, it’s the Montreal crowd they have in mind when making their vintage-styled ’80s-movie tributes. After all, they can count on Fantasia-goers to catch all the inside jokes — and to appreciate how deadly serious they take their jobs.

“We never parody anyone,” explains Yoann-Karl Whissell. “We don’t want to laugh at the artwork. It’s always an homage. If you found a VHS tape in the wasteland, that would be ‘Turbo Kid.’”

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