Found footage horror films are becoming like romantic comedies in the late 90s or political conspiracy thriller in the early to mid 70s (except not nearly as good).
When the producers of V/H/S (including bloody-disgusting.com owner Brad Miska) approached a sextet of filmmakers to create the segments of their short story collection, they must have had very strict instructions for the writers and directors. But as two such teams tell it, the remit was pretty free, and the result is a film with very distinctive individual marks that – despite the crowded genre – is quite inventive and as scary as hell.
Joe Swanberg, the man behind The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger, is a seven-year veteran of film, video and shorts as an actor, director, writer, producer, and cinematographer. V/H/S has already helped propel him into bigger leagues, with his Anna Kendrick/Olivia Wilde-starring comedy Drinking Buddies already having wrapped.
In a film called V/H/S, why were you the only one who did a segment about online video chat?
I was really excited about the format because of the way people talk to each other, it’s a rare opportunity to get to look at both actors’ faces for the entire length of the film. Other than using split screen or some experimental technique, you’re typically over the shoulder.
Also there’s this really beautiful light interplay between the screens because everything Emily [Helen Rogers] is doing with her computer is changing the light that’s hitting her boyfriend’s face. There are a lot of really cool cinematic qualities to it.
Also, a lot of the scariness in horror films for me comes from what you can’t see. I feel like there’s something nice and claustrophobic about that Skype window. We only get to see what’s within range of each computer camera.
Did that make it an easier shoot, because you’re just recording people sitting in front of webcams?
What was different was all the choreography we had to do because we still had to think about sound and lighting and things like that, but we had to think about it in a 360 degree environment because Helen’s walking around and doing full circles with her computer. So we couldn’t have a sound person following her around or any visible light sources. Working with the actors was pretty straightforward but it ended up being a lot more technical directing than I’ve ever done.
Obviously there wasn’t a hard and fast rule from the producers that the whole film had to be about the VHS format?
One the really fun and exciting things about the project was that the producers were really open about what we could do, and I feel like each filmmaker did their own segment in a vacuum. Then it was really fun when the movie came together to see the overlaps between the stories. It captured a serendipitous feeling because there wasn’t a lot of communication between the directors.
But the producers were really commissioning and then seeing these things come in one by one. I was actually the last person to shoot so by the time we did mine there was a framework, so they knew they wanted something ghostly and alien-abductiony. But even within that framework they were really cool and let us do our thing.
Even though you all worked in isolation were you given any kind of common thread?
There was guidance for each of us but it was very broad guidance. They knew they wanted a slasher one, mine was an alien autopsy one, which we ended up modifying. They wanted to hit some classic genre beats.
How do you think audiences will respond considering the Sundance buzz?
It’s my first real experience with that. I had a film called Uncle Ken’s at Sundance the year before and it played really well but it was a relationship drama. It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to get this huge visceral response from the audience. I think we all knew about halfway through the screening that it was going really well and people liked it.
But the following week I think the hype became a little intimidating to everybody because you set the stage for a movie to have a lot to live up to. But there’s no real backlash. Maybe that’s on its way but I think it’s different enough and it’s for people who aren’t typically genre people. It’s so far outside of anything else that’s in theatres or on DVD right now that it’s a welcome change of pace for people.
Radio Silence, a four-man filmmaking collective, were responsible for the last segment in V/H/S, 10/31/98, which the guys wrote, directed and starred in. It’s the story of a group of dudes looking for a fancy dress party who stumble upon the wrong house and pay dearly for their mistake. Like Swanberg and the other teams behind V/H/S, they received minimal instruction from producers and similarly enjoyed the freedom.
How did you manage that very VHS-specific look?
Tyler Gillet: We actually shot on HD, the camera was small enough to be worn the whole time. But in post we ended up going through quite the process, it was very frustrating at times to give it that very authentic analogue look. We went out of Final Cut Pro onto a DVD and then went from a DVD into a higher camera and then from a higher camera back into Final Cut Pro, and the look of the film changed so dramatically, it ended up with that analogue feel.
So it made you guys not just the directors, writers and star but the post-production technicians?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Yeah, it was quite a process getting it looking as ‘bad’ as it does. We’re actually looking forward to seeing it now on 35mm.
The other segments were inspired by slasher and alien tropes, 10/31/98 was a little more traditional ghost story themed. What influences did you have for it?
Tyler Gillet: We’d been kicking around the idea for awhile of this group of likable, average guys that end up in a situation they’re completely unprepared for. The story was really built while we were scouting locations. That location is really responsible for a lot of what’s in the film and how the story progressed. We walked through that house and it was really clear what the scares and jokes were going to be based on how the place was laid out.
The concept of the movie lends itself to a series of short on the web of even a TV series, has there been any discussion about that?
Tyler Gillet: We’ve had several conversations about growing the short into something larger because there’s definitely a larger methodology at work, and it’s been really fun to reverse engineer a story from that 17 minute segment. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen with it. Hopefully we get to tell it someday.
How does Radio Silence work, are you guys a tight-knit unit or is it very fluid and individual?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: It’s the four of us and we do the whole nuts and bolts from writing onwards. We act in it, we shoot it and we direct it, we edit it, we do craft services. We do pretty much everything we need to, which really makes it fun. It allows us to just move fast and nothing’s precious. We all have a strong and unique opinion but we’re all working in servicing the same goal, so it becomes a really quick short hand between the four of us. Everybody gets into whatever the other guy’s doing so it’s sort of like a band.
Chad Villella: It’s also the case that a lot’s done in preparation since we’re in the process from the concept onward. We have these discussions about what works and what doesn’t work before we even get to set. So when we do get to set we work pretty quickly, production-wise.
Tyler Gillet: Just to add to that, a lot of friends of ours in the business have a common complaint that they wish there was more of a dialogue in their process. At some point they feel like they’re sort of an island with their own ideas. There’s something really refreshing about just being engaged in a creative dialogue at all times. It keeps you really honest with what’s great about the story and it keeps you honest about making the best project possible. We never run out of inspiration because we’re always having a conversation about what’s best for the story.