Sundance 2013: S-VHS Interview with Directors Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener and Adam Wingard and Producer Roxanne Benjamin
After the premier of S-VHS, the horror film anthology sequel to last year's V/H/S, I was able to get in a few quick questions with some of the filmmakers behind this impressive, multi-national collaboration.
I saw V/H/S here last year and really liked it. As is rarely the case with sequels though, it felt to me like you really stepped it up and improved on the concept with S-VHS. It really felt tight, and while some of the pieces in the anthology last year stood out to me as being stronger than others, in S-VHS every segment felt just as strong as the last.
Adam Wingard: The main thing we learned from V/H/S is that a found footage anthology film should not be two hours long. The only main thing that was said to all the film makers was to bring it in under 15 minutes. Of course, Timo and Gareth totally disavowed that and made a 30 minute short, but it was fine because we all came in really short so it worked having one really good, long one. It still came out to be 90 minutes, which was kind of our goal from the beginning.
Simon Barrett: The creative inception for the film was seeing how people responded to the first V/H/S. We weren't sure if people would react to what we were trying to do with that film; but audiences were largely positive about it. We learned from what they were reacting to and what they weren't, and it gave us what we needed to know to kick it up a notch.
Roxanne Benjamin: It was much more coordinated between the groups as well. Everyone was kind of seeing each other's stuff and commenting on it and sending set photos. It was much more of a cohesive project because of that.
Adam Wingard: The first one we were making it up as we went along and so that whole time we didn't know what this movie was until it was done. We didn't know what we had until we premiered it at Sundance last year and so using that as a bounce board, not only Simon and I having experience with the first one, but Jason and all these guys were able to watch the first one and deduce what they felt like were the strongest sequences in it and I think everyone worked off of that and tried to make the tightest, most interesting movies based on that. We were trying to make the Empire Strikes Back of V/H/S movies.
Simon Barrett: You have some advantages with the sequel too. Like Adam said, V/H/S was about doing something authentic and different, in terms of what other people were doing with found footage horror. This time we could actually focus on being scary and having fun with it.
V/H/S was definitely fun and funny at times, but S-VHS really embraced the fun and humorous aspects much more. For me, this made the scares, scarier and I think it makes it more welcoming to someone who isn't necessarily a huge horror film fan. It works on a lot more levels. Was that part of the plan?
Simon Barrett: Definitely. We all wanted to have more fun, since this time we could. The first one established the dynamic and now we could play with that.
Adam Wingard: When we did the first one, Simon and I had done it before YOU'RE NEXT which is very fun. It's geared towards the audience being entertained and even later on our ABC'S OF DEATH short was comedic and so we didn't really have the experience doing something with that sense of humor until we'd done all of the these other things. So, when it came down to doing this piece, it just made sense. That's kind of where our heads have been at and what we've been moving towards.
Simon Barrett: Yeah, you know, when we did the V/H/S wrap around, we did it right before YOU"RE NEXT and it was kind of like... the whole point of YOU'RE NEXT was doing a home invasion movie that you could actually enjoy and be kind of empowered by. S-VHS was kind of like that with moments where the audience could actually clap.
Roxanne Benjamin: The Radio Silence short in the first one was such a fun roller coaster, it was like, how can we make this whole thing a fun roller coaster.
Simon Barrett: That one was a big inspiration. Also what David Bruckner did in the first one which was pretty awesome. It was like, how do we riff on that.
Jason Eisener: That definitely set the bar. For me, seeing Radio Silence's short, if you are going to do a sequel and be part of the sequel, that sets the bar and it really pushed us to do something that matched the energy that that short had.
Because of all of these things, it really did feel much more cohesive. However, you are all based in different parts of the world.
Adam Wingard: The filmmakers on V/H/S were also pretty spread out, although not quite as international, as far as Indonesia. But you know, the whole point of the project is to find different types of filmmakers with different styles and what's cool about this is it allows them to utilize their environment that they live in. It let's everyone bring in, like the Nova Scotia thing and the Indonesian thing. Wherever you're from, they're left to having their own crews and making their own little nitch film.
Simon Barrett: Everyone had total creative freedom but we were always sending each other our scripts and set photos. We never looked at each other's dailies because we wanted to watch the cuts fresh, like normal viewers, but like Jason, we mostly talked on twitter and we were all always sending emails...
Roxanne Benjamin: The film was really made in Twitter DM.
I really liked that each piece felt like it was of a specific sub-genre and then taking an interesting perspective on said sub-genre, flipping it on its head. You've got a haunted house movie, a zombie flick, a satanic cult movie, an alien invasion film and a Japanese style horror concept...
Simon Barrett: That was an original thing that Brad [Miska] wanted in the original concept. The shorts should always be playing with horror archetypes. I remember on the first one, he was like, "I want a slasher! I want an alien one!" and he would say it like that, specifically. Then the alien one, the Joe Swanberg thing, no one could figure out that it was an alien so he was like, "I still want an alien one!" and fortunately Jason was inspired by that. It was just about finding what inspires people.
Jason Eisener: And you know, it was weird because I didn't know Brad was into having an alien short so when I pitched my pitch, he was so ecstatic that I wanted to do something with aliens.
I love that it's based on local folklore from where you're from.
Jason Eisener: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was the story of Shag Harbor in the 60's and it sat under the water for four days and a lot of the locals had seen it. There was actually more supporting evidence for that incident than Roswell and I have an uncle who was in the navy at the time and there are stories about how navy ships sat over the UFO for days and then supposedly another UFO traveled underwater, joined up to the first UFO and they were joined up for two days and then they both took off towards the Gulf of Mexico. I really love that idea of a UFO hiding under water If you listen, the Jennifer character gives an address to the police and that is the same address where Shag harbor supposedly took place.
Adam Wingard: There is no supposedly. It actually happened. We've uncovered it.
Simon Barrett: Jason "found" some "footage."
Jason Eisener: Also, when I was a kid, my biggest fear was being abducted by aliens, so I wanted to make a film that was kind of a kids movie but that also explored fears I had as a child.
Adam Wingard: For me, it was trying to find a new way to do the ghost thing. It started off for me because I was a director on the first one and I had kind of done this super low-fi thing. What I was responding to then was I couldn't stand seeing any of this big budget found footage thing where it's filmed on a $700,000 dollar camera and they try and make is look like a prosumer thing. So on the first one I was like, I'm going to shoot on real VHS and do it totally authentic. But for the sequel, I wanted to do completely the opposite and I wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore some of my weaker points as a filmmaker, like my reluctance to use CGI and visual effects. Up until now, I didn't know any good VFX guys and I was just so afraid of having bad effects in a movie that I always relied on practical things. After seeing the first film, specifically Radio Silence's segment and how well the incorporated VFX into the movie, that was kind of like where I was like, I need to grow up and try this out. So, going into the film, I told Simon that I specifically wanted to do something that was really effects heavy. That was the kind of the initial inspiration and then we built it out from there.
Well, it looks like we're quickly running out of time. It appears that Simon has already been abducted, himself (he got pulled to the other side of the room for another interview) and I'm guessing you will be next... My last question is this: You guys are all huge horror film fans. You clearly bring this enthusiasm to your own work. Now that you've made several horror films each and have been a part of creating all of these different stories and styles of scary movies, how has that changed the way you view horror movies now? With the curtain pulled back and knowing all the tricks, what does watching scary movies do for you now?
Adam Wingard: I guess its not just about horror films. I look at all movies differently in general, just from making them. Now I'm looking at where the production designer really half assed that paint on the wall in the background and that sort of stuff. I find myself doing that anyways, and horror movies are no exception because a lot of the time, having done so many practical effects when it comes to gore, whenever I watch movies with any of that sort of stuff, I'm either saying, "this looks great" or I'm thinking how they dropped the ball because I've dropped that ball very similarly, myself.
Jason Eisener: Same with me. I'm just always looking to see something fresh and turning things up on their head a little bit. It's what was done with the first V/H/S and now the second one. There are some classic genre's we're playing with like a haunted house, aliens... but we're taking them and flipping them on their head and I always appreciate it when filmmakers try to do that.
Roxanne Benjamin: Same thing from the producer's perspective. How do you take a trope and make something fresh and new and interesting out of it. That's what's so cool about the V/H/S franchise. It's allowing the filmmakers to play and take something that's old and tired and turn it into something new and exciting in a format that you might not be able to do in a full lengthen film, but just in a segment it's just enough.