As the saying goes, first impressions mean everything; in a horror anthology, that old adage is of paramount importance. If the kick-off story is a dud, why should the viewer think that the rest of the movie won't be just as lame?
Wisely, the folks behind V/H/S decided to open the film with the ferocious "Amateur Night," one of the film's all-around best segments and a remarkable achievement for director David Bruckner, whose only previous feature film credit came from 2007's criminally underrated shocker The Signal, which Brucker co-helmed with fellow Atlanta, GA, natives Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush.
Of all the V/H/S segments, "Amateur Night" presents the most unique form of first-person video recording: a pair of cheap-o camera glasses. The wearer of said spectacles is a nerdy college-aged dude (Drew Sawyer) who, along with two of his loud, obnoxious, skirt-chasing buddies (Mike Donlan and Joe Sykes), hits the town one night to corral drunken chicks and bring them back to their motel room, where four-eyes will then record the ensuing sexual interactions. Unfortunately, a strange girl with huge eyes and an uncomfortable stare (played with excellent impact by fresh-faced Hannah Fierman) takes a liking to the nerd, and when she's brought back to the motel, she hits the heavily intoxicated, aloof fellas with a big surprise: She's not exactly human. Naturally, things don't end well for anyone involved.
Here, Bruckner explains the (mostly French) influences behind "Amateur Night" and why the best genre cinema assaults viewers with blunt force.
In another interview, you mentioned that one of your biggest inspirations for "Amateur Night" was Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void. In what ways did that film guide your segment?
Well, I’m really fascinated with the idea of film as a visceral medium, maybe as opposed to something that’s looked at and critiqued in a purely academic sense. That’s always been really fascinating to me; everything you see and hear is assaulting you, and it has a way of attacking you and undoing all the thoughts you have inside your head throughout the day, and making you available to receive something, because context is everything.
One of the things I love about Gaspar Noé’s work is I imagine he understands that. Like, the title sequence to Enter the Void is cool to look at, but what it also does is it gets you close to the point of an epileptic seizure, completely attacks your auditory sensory system, and by the time the credits sequence is done you are primed for an experience. You’re not thinking about what you brought into the room with you—you’re completely available to go somewhere. I love the attitude of that, and this little short, I just got inspired by the point-of-view work that he did in the first part of that movie, in particular. I was asking myself questions about how appropriate that would be in a horror movie, and what that would feel like.
The found-footage thing gave us an opportunity to do that. And we had this idea for camera glasses, and we were like, “Great, we can force the audience to participate in something whether they want to or not. You literally have to be this guy,” and that sort of informed, “All right, so what’s a situation that’s uncomfortable? What’s a situation that’s a little bit shady? How can we make them feel a little bit bad about themselves? And then we’ll unleash some terrifying horror stuff onto them.”
It’s interesting to hear you talk about your visceral take on filmmaking, because your segment in The Signal is that film's most violent and intense section. That's clearly your style.
Oh, thank you. It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate all the other higher levels of intellect you can achieve through cinema. [Laughs.] I just think that we’re very distracted, and that’s a strange place to start sometimes. I just like the fact that the medium can shake you up, and part of the awe of it is that you get to have an experience. Part of the magic of cinema is getting to go to space, getting to run for your life. And if we can get past ourselves a little bit and connect to that sensation, it helps us receive an idea that’s valuable.
Or getting pulled into the sky by some sort of winged demon creature.
[Laughs.] Or something that absurd.
Where did the idea to use camera glasses come from?
I knew they existed but I’d never seen a pair. We ordered them, and we actually used the actual camera glasses for all the scenes in the mirror, and then we built a helmet-cam rig because we needed more info than that, because the camera glasses are really lo-res and they only run 15-frames-per-second, and they get these weird frame catches. We loved that grimy aesthetic so much, though, so we built a camera rig to be able to do VFX work, and then we reverse-engineered it and brought it back to how the camera glasses work. And that’s how we did it.
But we kind of fell in love with them, even though they’re really cheap and they kept breaking. We had to buy several of them. There’s no way to run a line out; you can’t watch what’s happening on a monitor. The actor has to go, roll a take, then come back so we can download the footage, trans-code it, watch the clip, and then give notes—it’s very tedious.
How important was it for you to cast unknown actors to help sell the intended realism? Those guys really do seem like the obnoxious, drunken frat boy types you can find at any given bar on a Friday night.
They’re acting, by the way; that’s totally not the way they really are. [Laughs.] We did an open casting call for it, and we met with a whole bunch of people. My production company is based out of Atlanta, and there’s been a growing film scene here for some years now, so we got a lot of responses.
We looked far and wide to find those kids, and to put together something that looks believable. We wanted this to look as authentic on screen as possible. Then we took field trips to certain clubs where people hook up and stuff; that’s not really part of my own personal experience at this point in my life at all.
So we all went, had some beers, and got the guys talking in their own dialogue and started some inside jokes between them, and then went back and wrote a lot of that into the script. We used it as improve to hopefully put on camera. There’s a lot of banter they have that if you wrote that, it’d just be awkward. It has to just kind of occur, but you have to cultivate it, punch it, and treat it just right so it works in front of the camera, and doesn’t feel completely aimless.
They convey a lot of through laughing. It’s that kind of loud, obnoxious laughing that could piss people off in public.
Well, it’s interesting to me, too, because some people think they’re over the top. I don’t think they’re over the top at all—I think people are that big, first of all, especially when they drink. Honestly, looking at it, and not to compare it to this, but I feel like it’s channeling John Cassavettes’ Husbands, where there’s this constant, laughing banter and the joke never ends. Somebody’s just hanging onto the humor of the situation because that’s the only way they can understand it. That’s what the character of Patrick, on the couch, seems to be doing, and that’s actually the actor Joe’s laugh—he tends to be that enthusiastic in life. Not about filming girls without their knowledge. [Laughs.]. We had to reroute his brain into despicable and set him loose.
Did you stick to the original script a lot, or was it more about improv?
We knew what the emotional terms needed to be scene to scene, but we didn’t necessarily know we’d get from one to the next, so we just created these moments and named them. Like, “Here’s a scene about the strange girl trying to get information; our camera guy trying to check on her to see if she’s OK and simultaneously there’s this guy who’s laughing at her.” We just tried to come up with these simple dramatic scenarios and then we’d rehearse them, play, and improve and then tape it. A lot of those discoveries become tools you use in the moment, but, yeah, it’s definitely in the moment that we’re finding our way to the actual dialogue.
Sometimes what’s on camera is the first or second take, and sometimes it’s literally the 25th take. We just rolled and rolled and rolled until they were exhausted, because the more tired they got the more drunk they looked.
Was it a tough shoot?
We shot “Amateur Night” in five days. And it was tough; it was a tough shoot, because there were so many practical effects, and so many crazy set-ups. We had a cable pull, and lighting changes, and trying to match the cameras. Not to mention, the actors, Hannah Fierman, for instance, had to do these extraordinary things, so we had to keep presence of mind with that along with the entire production schedule. But it was fun. It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie.
Speaking of Hannah Fierman, she's a knockout as Lily, the demon-girl. Did she inform what character became, or did you know what you were looking for all along?
We didn’t really know what we were looking for; we knew what we were making could come off really, really bad if we didn’t do it right. It’s funny, when you do a casting call and you ask people to come and play a demon, you get a lot of strange responses. [Laughs.] They try to be spooky or they try to be scary, because they intuit that the script is scary, or they intuit that there’s a sexual component and they try to be seductive.
Off the top of someone’s head that tends to be cliché, but one of the things I love about Hannah is that she understood, coming through the door, that I need a relatable place to come to with this or else it’s going to be nonsense on screen. I had some ideas about that, and together we collaborated and came up with the idea that she’s really a foreign exchange student, to us—that’s how we approached it. She’s a person from somewhere else who doesn’t understand our customs and has an amazing attraction to this one guy. It’s really just trying to pick up, from the absurdity of the situation, on these little context clues, to do what she thinks he wants her to do, but he’s so fucking indecisive that he ends up mixing the whole thing, and putting her in an awkward situation, and then whole thing goes bad.
Because you’re doing a short, and we don’t have to explain her back-story and it wouldn’t service the piece to do that, we just were able to run with that. The audience gets all these little behaviors from her, they ask a lot of questions about that, and everyone gets a different experience from it. It’s great, because I think that makes her spooky simply because we don’t know where she’s coming from, and she has these weird behaviors. But if she were tryingto be spooky, it’d be so lame.
I've seen V/H/S two times now, and the second viewing was when I noticed that the demon-girl's forehead vein gradually grows bigger and bigger throughout the segment. It's a really clever touch.
Yeah, we wanted to do something… I think everybody always expects a twist when they watch a short-form horror piece like this, and we wanted to play against that—we wanted to run on dramatic irony. So it’s more like, the movie very clearly tells you that there’s something up with the girl, and if these guys were a little bit more sober they would get it. [Laughs.] There’s just something funny about watching people make bad decisions after bad decisions. But it was fun to slowly reveal what she would eventually become.
Anthologies always seem to have a very visceral first segment. "Amateur Night" carries on that tradition very well.
I think it’s the perfect order for this film; I wouldn’t change anything. I was very happy to see that “Amateur Night” was first. I think it made sense to start off with something that’s kind of outlandish at the top. There are far more nuanced, subtle pieces that live better once you’re in. I also think it’s really great to end the way it ends, and the Radio Silence piece is just fantastic. Having seen the film eight times now, or something, I’ve really come to appreciate just living inside the whole thing.
There's a resurgence of horror anthologies lately, from last year's Little Deaths and The Theater Bizarre to V/H/S and next year's The ABC's of Death. But V/H/S seems the most in-tune with current times, due to the found-footage approach. Do you think that style serves the anthology format better than the traditional style of filmmaking?
When I first heard about the idea, I kind of jumped up in my seat a little bit, because part of what is so enjoyable to me about found-footage movies is that first-person entry point. As smart as I want to be about movies, especially with all my friends, to some degree there’s that side of myself that just wants to get as close to the edge of the cliff as possible. I just want to get back inside the movie; I just want to have that experience of doing something I don’t get to do in real-life. So many moments in found-footage movies have given me that, but I don’t always need the long, slow build to deliver that to me.
There’s something that made sense about an anthology format where you can just leap in and out of these experiences; they’re not disposable, but they can be digested quickly. They don’t need emotional investment to get in and out of each of them; they’re so viscerally impactful on a surface level that they can grab you, shake you around, and spit you out the other side. That just made a lot sense to me. I would continue to watch found-footage anthology movies.
I guess the other thing, too, is I don’t take the found-footage thing too seriously. For me, I don’t need the legitimate handshake between audience and filmmaker that says, “OK, these tapes were discovered,” and, “This is based on a true story.” You don’t necessarily have to be all that true to it; it’s just this kind of fun, new style. It’s not the end of cinema. It’s something that will be incorporated into everything in its own way, eventually—I really believe that. I don’t need to legitimize it, necessarily, with a long build-up. Of course, there are some fantastic feature-length found-footage movies, don’t get me wrong. But it just felt like a good time for this, and I also thought it would just be a really fun night at the movies.