The Origins of V/H/S and Its Wraparound Segment, "Tape 56" (Directed by Adam Wingard)
Nearly all horror anthologies are anchored by the "wraparound," which frames the individual segments with a connective story and acts a linchpin for each solo, movie-within-the-movie tale. In the case of V/H/S, producers Brad Miska, Adam Wingard, and Simon Barrett bucked tradition in a few unique ways, namely by keeping all of the framing story's characters out of the mini-films. Behind the scenes, though, the filmmakers of the V/H/S wraparound, "Tape 56,"—screenwriter Barrett and director Wingard (who'd previously collaborated on last year's impressively atypical serial killer flick A Horrible Way to Die)—went completely against convention, shooting their footage before any of the segments were even conceptualized, let alone made.
Which, in a way, explains why "Tape 56" has its own unique feel within V/H/S. In it, a group of Jackass-like troublemakers, always armed with a video camera and their anarchist spirits, earn dollars by filming themselves destroying public property and exposing female strangers' breasts for the Internet viewing public to see.
One day, the cyber celebrities get a random assignment from an unknown employer, for which they have to break into an isolated home and retrieve one specific VHS tape. What they find inside, however, is a dead body seated in front of a stack of unmarked tapes and piled-up TV monitors. As some of the guys poke around the basement for the mysterious tape, others watch the tapes found near the corpse, leading into the various segments and gradually bringing about their own collective nightmare.
Here, Wingard, Barrett, Miska, and co-producer Roxanne Benjamin recount the humble origins of V/H/S and give the back-story of "Tape 56."
Let's start from the beginning. How'd the initial idea for V/H/S come about?
Brad Miska: The short version is, I had talked to The Collective, who co-own Bloody Disgusting; they were interested in doing a sort of Bloody Disgusting movie, and I had this idea for a TV show. A very basic concept of the TV show idea is what the wraparound is. I'd worked with Adam and Simon before, and I really wanted to work with them again. The Collective and Gary Binkow, who produced this, really wanted to work with them. So we came together with Simon and Adam, and Simon wrote the wraparound. And we just moved from there; they went and shot it before You're Next.
How did you expand upon the initial TV show idea?
Miska: It was this concept of a bunch of kids go to some house where they hear there are a bunch of tapes…. The original idea was of a bunch of kids who stumble across a vault of tapes….
Adam Wingard: Yeah, it was like grad students or something. It was a weird idea.
Miska: Yeah, it was different but also similar. And then Simon had an interesting spin that he added to it, where they're creating the tape that we're watching, and then he integrated the whole hoodlum aspect of it, which was really cool.
Roxanne Benajmin: On The Collective side of it, with Gary, the other producer, we've co-produced a bunch of different stuff, and we've done a lot through acquisitions through Bloody Disgusting Selects. We knew that Brad wanted to get more into production, so it was a thing where we'd been acquiring all these movies and Brad had all of these relationships, so why not get onto the production side?
Once you got past that stage, how quickly did the whole film come together?
Miska: Simon and Adam were fast; they had a short window before they had to go shoot You're Next [Wingard's next movie, scheduled for an August 2013 release via Lionsgate], and we really wanted to work with them, so they went and shot the wraparound. So we had the wraparound, and then we went and slowly started talking to people. We had some other directors on board, and then their schedules changed and they couldn't do it. Then we got different treatments. It was trying to work out schedules with people we were excited to work with. The second we were all in agreement about their treatment and script, we would give them the go-ahead. It was a long process that we went through, I believe, like August or September….
Benjamin: It was November through September. Yeah, it was a pretty long process. [Laughs.]
Wingard: We were finishing the movie, basically, like a week before Sundance.
Simon Barrett: And we'd filmed the wraparound almost a year prior. [Laughs.]
Shooting the wraparound first seems like a risky move. Was it difficult to integrate the wraparound into the final film, as a whole, without knowing what the individual segments would even be?
Wingard: Yes. [Laughs.] We realized that was the challenge. We actually designed the wraparound to be based around three or four shorts, but then we ended up with five. We had to reconfigure things to match that, and then, even along those lines, once we saw all of those shorts in the context of a feature, we realized that aspects of the wraparound were too long, so we had to trim things in support of the greater good, essentially.
Movies should speak for themselves; if it's good, people will recognize it, and if it's bad then people will recognize it and destroy it. - Brad Miska
Barrett: The film came together, and I think it was ultimately to the film's advantage, in a lost improved way. We were always not quite sure what the film was gonna be, so we designed the wraparound to do mainly two things: One, be pretty flexible. We knew we wanted a wraparound, because having an old-school stylistic format with a very current filmmaking style was, to me, the fun of the project. But we also wanted it to establish the authenticity and the cool, lo-fi aesthetic of the film.
We tried to make it adaptable, and then the whole thing came together so gradually and we weren't ever quite sure, but at the same time that led to a film that feels very spontaneous and organic, and obviously that's what's missing from a lot of found-footage horror films. They often feel stagy and stagnant, and you lose that sense of danger and authenticity. Just by not having the smoothest or most professional process, we managed to keep that organic feel. [Laughs.]
Was the plan to always have the wraparound mirror the original TV show concept? In the old Amicus horror anthologies, the wraparound segments would typically feel like a traditional movie and include characters seen in the individual segments, and there'd often be a final twist once the segments were all shown. The V/H/S wraparound goes against that template.
Barrett: Well, Brad and I riffed a lot together to come up with that idea, and then I started working with Adam once the idea became more concrete. I really love all of that old Amicus stuff, and I wanted to riff on that, but I also felt like, in terms of the way those wraparound always had a twist, I never found myself actually giving a shit once those twists occurred. So I wanted to keep the original spirit of those wraparounds.
Organically, someone is either telling stories, being told stories, or, in our case, it's a found-footage movie about people finding footage. But I wanted to keep the idea that they're maybe not the best characters, but also give it a more authentic, in the age of the Internet, sharpened aesthetic. It was our way of trying to do something original with that old style. Whether or not that's successful, obviously, isn't for us to say, but that was the goal.
Did you guys give the directors any direction to dictate what various horror sub-genres and tropes would be explored in each segment?
Miska: Ti's was his own thing; Simon and I, again, talked a lot about the alien segment, which Joe Swanberg directed and Simon wrote. The Radio Silence guys, we gave them some guidance, telling them we wanted something supernatural, and then they came back to us with something that had their own spin. Bruckner had his own thing, too. So, yeah, it was a mix. When we got towards the end, we felt there were certain elements that were missing, but right off the bat we definitely wanted a slasher and Glenn McQuaid was the first to respond to that.
Barrett: Going back to the Amicus thing, part of the fun of it was to try to do new stories in established genres, in some way. There was a certain point where the fun of it, in a certain waxwork kind of way, was we'd say, "OK, we should try to do a slasher one," but for the most part I think the filmmakers had their own interesting ideas.
Wingard: Another interesting thing about the whole found-footage thing in general, and I think this is the special thing about V/H/S, is the film takes familiar tropes and puts them in a new context, which was the whole point of doing found-footage. What I think makes our unique take on the whole thing different from other people's is even beyond us starting with different sub-genres, all of the filmmakers started off by saying, "OK, this is the type of movie we want to make, so what's the perspective? How do you frame this in that unique way?"
That's the cool thing about found-footage: You can take a story that you've seen a million times and suddenly see it in a new context, with a new spin, and now it's unique. This film manages to do that, basically six times, which is kind of a miracle in itself, the fact that it's constantly changing and it's constantly innovative.
Did you give any directions as far as how each director should use the found-footage technique, like tell one person to try something like Skype since a different director already used camera glasses?
Miska: Well, one of the main rules we had decided from day one was that the characters had to have a reason to be filming; if there isn't a reason for them to be filming, then it just doesn't work. I think that was the only real heavy guidance. With the slasher, we said, make sure there's a shit-ton of blood, and real blood, not digital blood. That's the only major guidance that was put into it.
Benjamin: And other than that, there were some internal ideas that were pitched and then there were ideas that we got in; it was very collaborative across the board. There wasn't any real mandate per segment where we had a specific idea and then gave it to someone. It was definitely collaborative on both ends.
Is it true that you filmed some of the wraparound using an actual VHS camera?
Wingard: It was a lot of fun. It was kind of funny, I had told Simon and everybody early on that it was important for us to film on actual load-in-tape camcorders. Simon was like, "Oh, perfect, I have one from years and years ago, so we can use that one." So he shows me and, sure enough, it's like the exact camera that I had grown up with, the same one that I'd used to make my first backyard movies, and it's a total piece of shit camera; it's a Sharp camcorder. You actually put the tape in. [Laughs.]
It was kind of interesting juxtaposing that with the way I would do things when I was a kid as opposed to now. The battery on the back, for instance, is a huge, heavy brick, and it's really easy to jostle it, it never sits tight on that camera. So every time you tap it, or you run and jiggle the camera too much, the footage has this very interesting analog, fluctuation glitchiness to it. And back in the day, when we were doing martial arts films in Alabama backyards, you'd do a take and the camera would have a little fritz from you bumping the battery, but for this film it was exactly the opposite. [Laughs.] It was like, how do we get more of that? How do we make this look more and more sketchy?
For me, I really like really nasty-looking things that feel almost like they weren't even filmed, like they're just some nasty things that appeared out of the Earth. That's the vibe we wanted, where it truly has this sketchy found-footage feel to it.
Barrett: And Adam had also talked about how old video is so different from the video we're used to seeing as video now, with the REDD and the Alexa and stuff. Now, old video has this cool analog look, almost the same way that the eyes recognize Super-8 as something that's inherently anachronistic. Using the video of our childhood is cool and interesting looking, whereas before it was just shitty. Now, it doesn't look like just a shittier version of modern video; it looks like something completely unrelated to modern digital video.
Once the film was ready to be seen, was it difficult to get it into Sundance?
Miska: We just submitted it and didn't even think anything about it. When we submitted it, I can't even say it was a rough cut; it was not even a work-print cut. [Laughs.] Simon and Adam hadn't even seen the cut we assembled. Frankly, we probably shouldn't have sent it when we did, but we were right up against the deadline. There was a day or two left where if we didn't submit it then we wouldn't have even had a chance to get into Sundance. We got a call right after Thanksgiving, I think, saying we got in, and then it was like, all of the sudden it was scramble time.
Wingard: Previously we didn't have a deadline of when we needed to mix the film and everything, but once we got into Sundance, it became a thing where, OK, now we all know we have absolutely no time and we just need to get this thing done as quickly as possible. So, really, everything didn't come together until the beginning of January, when we started mixing and all that stuff.
One of the coolest things about V/H/S was that nobody outside of those involved knew the project even existed until the Sundance film lineup was announced. That's impressive, considering that horror blogs and websites report on every single movie that's been green-lit, rumored, or in production. How intentional was that on your end?
Miska: There were a couple of things, from my perspective. I remember growing up, seeing trailers, and not really seeing anything before the movie, so it all felt new to you when you eventually saw the movie.
If it was up to me, the V/H/S trailer would have just been Adam and Simon's wraparound, and you would have thought you were only going to see Adam and Simon's movie, and then you'd go in and be like, "What the fuck is this?" Because to me that's what makes it interesting and fun. The people who were at Sundance are so lucky, because all they saw prior to the movie were these two weird stills, and I didn't even want them to see that. [Laughs.] I didn't want any trailers, no stills.
I think the idea of going into a movie blind is super cool. Running [Bloody Disgusting] for 11 years now, I see how people promote their stuff and when you start talking about your own projects it just comes off desperate and weird. Movies should speak for themselves. If it's good, people will recognize it, and if it's bad then people will recognize it and destroy it.
Sundance was this moment where these people were going to decide the fate of the movie, not me or anyone else. They'll go out and talk about it, and it will still feel personal to them because they discovered it, not because they were told they should see it. But, of course, that made for a really stressful screening. [Laughs.] That first screening was not fun. I was pretty much having an anxiety attack through the whole thing, but that made for a really special experience. It's been really fun this year to see and hear people talk about the film without being told to talk about it.