No one would have guessed that, more than a decade after "The Blair Witch Project" broke box-office records to become one the highest grossing independent films of all time, audiences would still flock to found-footage flicks. From the ongoing success of the "Paranormal Activity" movies to the recent strong opening of "The Devil Inside" that caught many by susprise, one thing's for sure — the style is here to stay.
"V/H/S," a Sundance Midnight Madness entry premiering at Sundance Sunday, is one more in that vein. The buzzed-about film's a collective horror effort featuring segments directed by Radio Silence, Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg and Ti West, much like the upcoming "The ABCs of Death." To string all the parts together, "V/H/S" centers on a group of petty criminals hired to retrieve a rare piece of footage from a house filled with strange VHS tapes, which they must scan through individually.
One of the film's producers is Brad Miska, founder of leading horror portal Bloody-Disgusting.com and entertainment management/production company The Collective. Over the last year, the Collective and Bloody Disgusting have been testing out a new marketing and distribution model for international horror films by partnering with AMC Theaters to acquire and distribute films from the festival circuit directly to theaters. Their most recent release together was the Sundance 2011 shocker "The Woman," directed by Lucky McKee.
Indiewire caught up with Miska prior to heading out to Park City to discuss "V/H/S" and the ongoing popularily of found-footage horror in the marketplace.
Tell me about “V/H/S” and how it all came about. It’s been building this huge swell of buzz since the directors were all announced.
It was sort of like an outside the studio system kind of experiment. We kind of did things the way we feel things are evolving in the business… which is funny considering how it’s being reflected right now off “The Devil Inside.” You hear about how all these studios are now cutting down their budgets and hoping to use their funds to promote a movie as opposed to spending $20 million to make a film. And we foresaw that a little bit.
I’m not saying that we knew that every studio was going to change the way they were thinking. We just saw that there’s no reason to overspend when you make a movie. That you can make something quality if you work with the right team and the right talent and you don’t over finesse it. I sometimes feel like people spend too long finessing, and it ends up having 18 different people’s visions within it. And a lot of times when the director or writer puts something on paper they know in their head it’s going to be on screen. And when other people start touching it, it affects their vision. So it’s kind of like a trust fall, if you will, of moviemaking.
For “V/H/S,” we went to people that I have a relationship with via Bloody Disgusting — a group of trusted filmmakers who we thought would want to take part in this. They pitched us their ideas, then came to us with treatments and scripts. It was like, “If you like this, go do your thing.”
In terms of the movie itself getting green lit — the storyline that runs through the whole movie was something that we had originally discussed. So we just went with the decided upon streamlined story and just let the filmmakers go do their thing. Which is kind of a reverse of how you’re supposed to do a movie like this. You’re supposed to do that last. It became a ‘fill-in-the-hole' type project. What can we put here? What can we put there? You know, what would amp it up here? So it was a living project. A living film if you will.
So the directors pretty much had free reign?
Yeah, I mean we offered suggestions and ideas. We offered guidance and they’d come back with what excited them. We went from that.
Your project appears to share a lot in common with the other collective horror film “The ABCs of Death.” Why do you think there’s this new interest to bring together these new auteurs of the genre and have them let loose and collaborate in this way?
Frankly, my own personal perception is attention span. I have this dream of mine. I think movies are too long — especially nowadays. Two hours is too long to tell a story. And yet ours is an hour and 45 minutes. I’m a complete hypocrite! But I think the idea of short-form filmmaking is kind of cool, especially with a generation that lacks attention. I think it’s going to get stronger and stronger as time goes. And when you do an anthology type film, it offers people a breather, a chance to pause it and go do something else. It breaks you from the experience. In the world we live in, people would rather be on their cell phone than watch a movie straight through. Which is why I like to see a movie in the theater because it forces you to pay full attention (unless you’re a jerk who pulls out your cell phone). That’s my thought on it. As for like collaborating with a bunch of directors, quality directors, I think it’s just a coincidence. I don’t think there’s anything to that.
You guys released controversial Sundance horror flick “The Woman” by partnering with AMC. Do you foresee a similar release pattern for this film?
We’re actually hoping to sell it to a big studio. We think that it’s perfect timing especially after “The Devil Inside”’s success. Found footage films — there’s kind of this whole debate over whether or not they’re going to last. They’re treating found footage as if it’s 3D – it’s not. And I’ll argue this to the death until I die. Found-footage films are the future if you do it right. The problem with a lot of found footage films is that they don’t tell the story with the camera in mind. They just go, “Oh I’ll make a vampire movie,” and they make the vampire movie with some dude holding a camera. Then when you step back and look at the movie you go, “Why the hell is that guy holding a camera? It makes absolutely no sense.” I think if you approach a found-footage movie the right way, you put them in organic situations where it’s clear why this person has a camera, why they’d be walking around with a camera. If done right, it works the same way that like “Jaws” works with the water. It creates immediate scares. And you can apply that to any genre, which is why it’s infinite — just figuring out the best way to implore cell phone usage or webcams or security cam footage without it coming off cheesy and dated.
I spoke with James Wan the director of “Insidious” and the first “Saw” film about the correlation between indie film and horror film. A number of indie horror titles (“Paranormal Activity,” “The Devil’s Double”) are doing great business at the box office, eclipsing a lot of the struggling indie dramatic fare.
I think some of it has to do with the grittiness. When you do a movie low budget, it takes on a different type of tone or feel and when you do a horror film, the grittier the better. The more raw it is, the better it is. So when you’re looking at a comedy that’s got a really shitty aesthetic to it, sometimes it can take you out of the movie. Even thought there’s a lot of mumblecore films out there, I don’t see them doing it as successfully as horror films have. I think with sci-fi, you just need a bigger budget to do them. There’s no way to cheat your way around spending a lot of money on a sci-fi film. So if you spend a little money, it turns into a SyFy movie. Dramas, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t do a drama for less money, but it seems most dramas are ensemble pieces so they have to pay for names and that’s where most of the budget goes on those.
With a horror film, you don’t necessarily need a name to sell the premise.
In fact, it’s better to not have a name, because then it’s more believable. Say if you saw Scarlett Johansson being chased by Leatherface – it’d be kind of ridiculous. You’d feel like you’re watching an MTV Movie Awards short.
With that said, where do you see the future of horror going? It seemed to be on this torture porn trajectory, but that’s changed with the new found-footage thing that’s taken over the zeitgeist.
Yeah, I mean it changes every decade or so. Now that the economy has sort of tanked and everything’s been really shitty, no one wants to feel like shit when you go to see a movie. Found-footage movies scare you legitimately, but have a more fun feeling to them. You don’t walk out feeling sour. And I think it goes with the times.
In 2012, we’re shifting right now. Found-footage movies are just picking up steam. I think it’s got a good five years at least. I hope it stays around forever but I just don’t know how long until you’re out of ideas at some point. You think everything will be covered and then it’ll switch back to something else, like maybe it’ll be '80s-type movies.
I hope the next thing is the death of CGI in horror. I hope somebody realizes that you can make a movie without CGI that it’ll be amazing, sometimes better than seeing a horror movie with CGI.
What do have in the works at the moment?
Me and my producer friend have two ideas we’re brewing right now. Nothing is on paper yet. And then we have “Under the Bed” in post-production right now, which is a creature feature sort of in the vein of the Spielberg movies. It’s more of a family horror film. That’s what’s next next.
What makes a good, well-rounded horror pitch to you?
To be honest, I haven’t really read anybody’s pitches just because I don’t want to be responsible for them claiming I stole it. Most of the time I go to somebody I know and trust and say, “Hey I like you, I want to make a movie with you. Do you have any ideas? I have ideas. Let’s ping it off each other and see if we can do something.” It’s more of a collaborative process for my sake. Plus, for me it’s been very lucky. I’m not like the guy. I’m not the guy with the money. I’m just kind of going with the flow, my website’s my baby, my full time – it’s what I do.
For me, I’m super lucky to have the producing side of things be my hobby. It’s not something I stress and think about 24 hours a day like I need to get my next movie off the ground to pay my bills. It’s just something I do because I love to do it. It’s fun and different.
I think the most important thing that I would tell people based on the e-mails that I have received is spellcheck! You can really, really, really see how unprofessional people are when they e-mail you.
Visuals are important. I would tell any filmmaker if you want to get noticed, if you want to be a director: Make shorts. Don’t grab the camera and go shoot something in your backyard over and over again because at some point you have to evolve. Read books, look at people you admire. Copy them just to get an idea of how they did things. If there’s a shot you love, try to recreate that shot. Learn. If you’re a writer add some kind of visual piece to your pitches. Have somebody do a poster or some sketchers or something so you can put into the reader’s head of what you’re trying to convey to them. I think all of that’s really important.