Shortly after Joe Swanberg's segment concludes, the V/H/S wraparound story, "Tape 56," also reaches its own (bloody) payoff, which, traditionally, would signal the anthology film's end. Fortunately for its viewers, however, V/H/S defies the normal anthology format and saves its craziest, most over-the-top, and, frankly, best segment for last.
Written and directed by the Los Angeles-based quartet known as Radio Silence (comprised of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella), "10/31/98" is a haunted house movie on steroids, uppers, and big doses of killer PCP. On Halloween night, four well-meaning friends (played by Bettinelli-Olpin, Villella, Gillett, and Paul Natonek) show up for a house party at the end of a quiet, strangely empty suburban cul-de-sac; finding a back entrance, they search the house for any signs of partying life, eventually heading into the attic where an elaborate exorcism is underway. Only, it's not some make-believe gag being acted out by amateur thespians for the holiday's sake, and once the four costumed, dumbstruck friends try to rescue the shrieking girl before them, the house erupts into a storm of grabbing arms, flying silverware, contracting window-frames, and other components of freaky, brilliantly staged mayhem.
For the Radio Silence guys, who'd never worked on a feature film before V/H/S, "10/31/98" was a natural progression from their 2010 Internet-circulated, found-footage viral short film "Mountain Devil Prank Goes Horribly," the video that first caught the attention of V/H/S producer, and premier Radio Silence advocate, Brad Miska. Given a slightly higher budget and the blessings of the V/H/S crew, Bettinelli-Olpin, Martinez, Gillett, and Villella entered the project in its final months and, pun intended, killed it. Now, it's time to get familiar with them.
In atypical fashion, V/H/S doesn't end with the wraparound's resolution, but, rather, Radio Silence's "10/31/98" segment. What prompted that decision?
Adam Wingard: Whenever we saw the movie all edited, to where the movie was finished and the wraparound was last, at least I had the reaction of the Radio Silence short's ending being such a stronger note. It ends with this explosion of energy, and it was just a better sendoff to the movie. So it became obvious.
Plus, the wraparound had been conceived to work around three or four shorts, but since we ended up with five shorts, it was just another part of the process of how do we make this puzzle work? We watched the film in different orders, and it really gives you a different feeling depending on what order you're watching everything in. Ending with the Radio Silence short gave us the most explosive sendoff of any of those orders.
Brad Miska: And it sort of still does end with the wraparound. That was the whole thing of the end credits being a montage of footage from the wraparound. So it still leaves you with the wraparound. We knew we needed one more short, and it's such a weird process what happened toward the end. Internally, we were discussing whether or not to do one with Bruckner or to do one with Radio Silence, and I had been a big champion of Radio Silence, I'm a big fan of their YouTube stuff, and Gary is a big fan of Bruckner, as am I, but I wanted to go with some unknowns because that's part of the fun for me and Gary wanted to go with someone who was stable and had done something amazing with The Signal.
Ultimately, Gary was super cool about it and said, "Fuck it, let's do both." So it was really awesome. We ended up doing both of those, seeing them, and saying, "Holy shit, these are both really good!" [Laughs.] And then why did we do the alien one?
Simon Barrett: We did it after that. I mean, the thing is, nobody quite knew what we had. Because a few filmmakers had to drop out at the last minute… The funny thing is, first of all, the segments are not shown in the order that they were made, at all. That's not part of it at all. The wraparound and Ti's and Glenn's were shot over a period of about seven months, and then Bruckner's and Radio Silence's and the alien one were all done within a month. [Laughs.] So we just hedged our bets and thought at least one of them would probably be good.
Roxanne Benjamin: And then they were all really good. [Laughs.]
Simon Barrett: At that point, we knew a little more about what the movie was because we had Ti's and Glenn's. For example, when I wrote the Skype segment, I knew what I was riffing on, and so did Radio Silence and David Bruckner and those ended up becoming strong segments because of that. That was more how I think anthology films are traditionally made. [Laughs.] So then we had five shorts instead of three or four, and then Adam said we should end with the Radio Silence short, and then we put together that end credits thing as a way to bookend it in a fun way, to make people leave the theater with a smile on their faces, hopefully.
For the Radio Silence guys, how'd you first get involved with this film?
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: They sort of reached out to us. We sent Brad a fake email actually on the “Mountain Devil Prank” video, where we were like, “Hey, dude, this is Rebecca! I found this video and I think you should check it out!” And then he got in touch with us, which we’ve also never told him, by the way. [Laughs.]
We became fast friends with him a couple years. He has been our biggest supporter and advocate. So he got in touch with us when he wanted to do this as a television concept, and then when it turned into a movie he brought us on. He just came to us and was like, “Hey, I shot these things with these other guys—can you guys come and do something?” We pitched him a few ideas and he liked the one that became “10/31/98,” and that was kind of it.
Tyler Gillett: Yeah, he was really aware, having put the whole team together, of what the whole style of films would be, and he knew that they wanted something action-packed with a bit of comedy in it to play somewhere in the mix. Having watched “Mountain Devil” and some of our other stuff, he came to us, thankfully, and asked us to do our thing.
Did the inability to see anyone else's segment before making yours make things difficult for you guys?
Justin Martinez: We saw nobody else’s footage until we did the final sound check, actually. Even concept wise, we knew only, like, a one-liner about what each of the other segments was going to be about. We had no idea.
Gillett: We had a sense of how experimental it was going to be, which was definitely a great springboard for us. We were like, “Oh, shit, OK, we can really push the limits. It can be really dirty and really gritty.” It was clear that other people were taking risks with their stories as well.
Were you given any guidelines?
Gillett: I think the budgets were the same across the board. We were the last to get involved, so I think our timeline was a little bit compressed, because they had some festival submission deadlines. So we moved pretty quick; we didn’t have our location until three days before we shot it. It was a very, very fast pre-production. Soup to nuts, it took five weeks to put our project together, with about five of those days used for shooting. I’m not exactly sure how long other people took.
Martinez: They shot the wraparound segment first, about eight months before us.
The house itself isn't all that different from any house you'd find in any suburban neighborhood, at least from the outside. Was that a house you guys were familiar with already, or did you have to scout locations?
Bettinelli-Olpin: I have a producer-friend who, I think, worked on an episode of The Ghost Whisperer there, and they used the downstairs part of it for one quick scene. She suggested that we check it out. I called the person in charge of the house, and all four of us went out there to do a walk-through, and we found it that way. When we got there, there was nobody there; it was just this creepy old house at the end of a cul-de-sac, right next to a brand new house. So we had to walk around the back to try to find a way in, and there was a hidden key…
Gillett: It was a lot like the short. [Laughs.]
Bettinelli-Olpin: [Laughs.] Yeah. There was a hidden key magnet, and then we walked into the house and “Bohemian Rhapsody” was playing on a phantom radio that we couldn’t find, so we were like, “This house is great! We’re scared as shit right now and we’re just walking through it!” [Laughs.]
Martinez: And every part of that house got used except for one room, so every piece of real estate that’s in the short is pretty much the house.
Gillett: The biggest challenge was finding a place where there was some distance between A to B, so that the search could really feel physically justified, from walking from one room to another and walking down long hallways. We really wanted that to be in one location and we’re so lucky that we found it. The house is in Altadena, it’s east of LA.
Did you write the script before or after finding the house?
Gillett: We had a beat-sheet, we kind of knew the rough ideas. We knew our A to Z, but we just didn’t knew a few others in between. So we walked through the house basically writing the story specifically for the house.
Martinez: We did a long walk-through and literally broke it down shot-for-shot.
Bettinelli-Olpin: And that really allowed us to see the whole thing and how the house was gonna be its own character. We weren’t just playing around inside of it—it was part of the story in a very significant way.
"10/31/98" is full of totally batshit and incredibly impressive visual effects, especially since the budgets were very low. Were the effects difficult to pull off?
Martinez: Technically, the effects felt a little easier than “Mountain Devil,” actually, because it was less 3D stuff involved. But when we were planning it, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to do the train practical or not, so it had the possibility of being a really complicated visual effects piece.
Gillett: Yeah, I think we always aim to do as less practically as possible, even the visual effects that you see—the dishes that fly at us are really the only 3D element. Everything else is photographed and green-screened in some way, which I think certainly saves time and adds to that sense of realism, where if you break it once you lose your audience. We’re always good about trying to keep the effects as photographic as possible. Also, there’s always a level of improv in the effects that we do. We’ll plan a shot for an effect giving ourselves some room to decide what that effect specifically is when we’re in post. And Justin always does a really great job of conceiving the best things for the shot.
Martinez: For this, we probably had more challenges shooting the green-screen of the guys who had to suspend, basically, in our office and in front of a green screen. [Laughs.] That’s where it really got tough for us.
Do you think the fact that you guys have shot some first-person POV videos in the past gave you an advantage over the other directors for this project?
Gillett: It meant that we’d had the conversations before about justifying the camera and why is it found-footage, many, many times. We learned from our mistakes while shooting “Mountain Devil.” I also think we found a confidence in what we could bring tone-wise to that style, and it was really about, Alright, let’s tell a longer story with our usual action, adventure, comedy, and horror mash-up. So we went in knowing that was achievable. We were really driven to serve that the entire time.
From day one, what’s been the appeal of the first-person style for you guys?
Bettinelli-Olpin: Well, the first time we shot found-footage anything, we didn’t even think about it as found-footage. It was this alien thing, and we just did it because it was what the story required. It was a couple of roommates pranking their other roommate, and we said, “Well, they should just shoot it.” So it kind of just developed naturally. And the other obvious side to that coin is it’s very nice for the budget. [Laughs.] For that alien one, we had a camera that was ten years old, so we just went and shot it.
Gillett: In between shooting the shorter bits that are online, we shot a fair amount of movie-conventional work, so we also really practice and try to become well-versed in that style of filmmaking. With V/H/S, we just really wanted it to feel really gritty and punk rock. The found-footage approach really allowed it to be experimental for us, and that shows. I think the film, as a whole, feels like this really kinetic experiment.
Gillett: The level of trust that was involved in this project has been really inspiring. The fact that they really did just cut six directors loose to do what they wanted to do makes it a really cool experiment.
Was telling a first-person story in a haunted house an idea you guys had prior to V/H/S?
Bettinelli-Olpin:We’d been toying with that idea in a very rudimentary sense. Basically, we’d been like, “Oh, Halloween and exorcism,” and it was just one of the things in the background that we’d been talking about. When Brad came to us with this, it was at the top of our list of three or four ideas we sent him, and that was the one they liked. We really just ran with it from there; it went from whatever it was initially to this crazy thing we shot.
Gillett: And it was kind of great that we didn’t have time to sit around and think about what we were going to do. We literally had a couple weeks to get this thing together, so we went to our list of ideas of things we’ve always wanted to make, that was the one that made for the best fit, and we didn’t question it once.
Amongst all the filmmakers involved in V/H/S, you guys are the only ones who hadn't made a feature film prior, or even had any visibility within or outside the gene community. But, quite impressively, "10/31/98" has been widely hailed as the movie's strongest segment. And I'm not about to disagree. That's definitely something to be proud of.
Bettinelli-Olpin: You have no idea how happy that makes us to hear. We just don’t want to be embarrassed. [Laughs.] I don’t think that was in our heads during the shooting, at that time, it was pretty much just Miska being like, “You guys want to do this?” And us being like, “Sure!” I think it was more after the fact that we said to ourselves, “Oh, shit… I hope we don’t suck and embarrass ourselves in front of all these people we respect.” [Laughs.]
Gillett: I think that naivety allowed us to just go and do our thing and have fun with it, and hopefully that translated.