Tribeca Interview: "V/H/S/2" Co-Producer Simon Barrett Talks Bringing Zombies, the Apocalypse, & Aliens to Found-Footage Horror

Get familiar with the best film in the Tribeca Film Festival's Midnight lineup.

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Horror rule of thumb: When making a sequel, it's either "go big" or "get the hell out of here." Fortunately for the creative team behind the independently made, found-footage anthology V/H/S/2, they chose the former when constructing the follow-up to last year's Sundance-born genre sensation V/H/S. Curiously enough, V/H/S/2—currently screening in New York City as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's Midnight section, following a Sundance premiere in January and SXSW shows in March—is actually shorter in length and scanter in total segments than its predecessor. Instead of five shorts and a wraparound story clocking in at just short of two hours total, V/H/S/2 barely passes the 90-minute mark with four segments and another wraparound. How exactly is it "bigger," then? It's all in the subject matter.

Whereas V/H/S (featuring shorts by indie directors Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) was, for the most part, a reasonably scaled-down enterprise, the sequel boasts a massive narrative scope. The included segments: "Phase I Clinical Trials" (directed by returning filmmaker, and franchise co-producer, Wingard) follows a guy who gets a microchip-camera implanted into his eye and starts seeing malevolent ghosts; "A Ride in the Park," co-directed by Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) and Gregg Hale, is a zombie romp shown from the POV of an undead flesh-eater; the incredible "Safe Haven," a collaboration between Gareth Huw Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Timo Tjahjanto (The ABCs of Death), about a doomsday cult whose apocalyptic beliefs come to gory, action-packed fruition; and "Alien Abduction Slumber Party," a frantically paced and brilliantly executed Goonies-meets-Fire in the Sky showstopper from Hobo with a Shotgun mastermind Jason Eisener.

The filmmakers' ambitions have paid off—even those who had more complaints than praise for V/H/S have been applauding V/H/S/2's superiority. Give the producers credit: All very active online and aware of critics' reviews and message board chatter, they paid attention to what was said about the first film, addressed as much as possible, and crafted a crowd-pleasing, funny, and adrenaline-packed movie that's perfect for midnight crowds looking to get rowdy.

In town for V/H/S/2's Tribeca screenings (leading up to the film's VOD release on June 6 an its limited theatrical run beginning on July 12), co-producer, co-director (the wraparound, "Tape 49"), and co-writer Simon Barrett spoke with Complex about learning from previous mistakes, giving fans something fresh, and the advantages of making small-scale movies with friends.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

How did the Tribeca audience respond to the movie Sunday night?
I used to live in Park Slope, and I'd go to Tribeca every year to see films, and the crowds there, I remember, tend to be somewhat muted. They're respectful audiences, and aren't going to be shouting at the screen, and V/H/S/2 is designed for audiences to react to it. I sat in for about 30 minutes and it seemed like the crowd was into it.

It's also a good indicator when it's Sunday at midnight and people stick around for the Q&A, and most of the people did. I think it went over well, but I guess I'll do a Twitter search later today and see how people really feel. [Laughs.]

Is it weird to come from showing the film at Sundance and SXSW, where the audiences are much rowdier and more energetic?
Yeah, but every festival is different. Fortunately, I'm familiar with New York City audiences. This is a city that takes film seriously, especially at festivals. It's good to see how different crowds respond to the film. They're not all going to be screaming at the screen, and it's imporatnt to be aware of that as filmmakers.

Taking this back to the beginning, when you guys were working on V/H/S/2, had the first movie come out yet? And if so, did you use the reviews and reactions to V/H/S as learning tools and ways to improve the sequel during production?
The reaction to V/H/S was completely what inspired the sequel, in terms of witnessing how people reacted to the first film and seeing what worked and what didn't. That said, the sequel came together shockingly quickly. Basically, we based it on the reaction to V/H/S at Sundance. V/H/S was, as exemplified by its mumblecore roots, a very spontaneous thing. We didn't really know what it was going to be until it was all edited together. For example, that's when we discovered that the running time was two hours. Which seemed too long. [Laughs.]

When we were making that, we weren't sure who the audience was going to be, but then when we made it into Sundance and people responded to it, Adam, the other producers, and I had this feeling of, now that we did that, we know how to do it better. We also all had a window of time to ourselves. Adam and I were waiting for You're Next to come out, which is happening this summer. We also started putting together some larger projects, but we learned that larger projects also take much longer to put together.

There was this period in 2012 where we all realized we had a large enough window to make V/H/S/2. Gareth Evans, who we'd become friendly with, was kind of in the same situation that we were in, putting together the sequel to The Raid but also realizing that it was such an enormous endeavor. The pre-production was going to take a year on that. So we decided to work on the sequel while we were all just sitting around.

We are not filmmakers who do not read our reviews. I wish we were filmmakers who do not read our reviews. [Laughs.] But we obsessively read our reviews, even reviews that are tweeted somewhat pejoratively at us we take fairly seriously. If everyone is saying this one thing, maybe they're right. You shouldn't second-guess yourself as an artist, but you should use that as inspiration to maybe do something different. Seeing what people responded to in V/H/S was a big help, especially Radio Silence's segment, which closes the movie, and David Bruckner's short, which opens the movie. Those are clearly crowd favorites from the first V/H/S. And also seeing what people weren't responding to, particularly in the segments I'd written. That was definitely something we brought to the sequel.

It all happened very quickly, though. V/H/S premiered at Sundance in January, and in March we pretty much had the entire team for V/H/S/2 together. Everyone that we reached out to, it kind of worked out immediately. So that's why we're in this weird position of releasing a sequel that nobody even had time to want. [Laughs.] The movie is coming out on VOD on June 6 and then in theaters on July 12, and that's less than a year after the first film came out. I think some people are a little confused.

A big difference between the first movie and V/H/S/2, in addition to the shorter, leaner running time, is that the sequel's wraparound segment, for lack of a better term, has more of a point, at least from this viewer's standpoint. There's a clear mythology being developed this time around. Was that the intention even with the first film's wraparound, or did the mythology come into play when you started working on the sequel?
That was the plan. The weird thing about the first one was, it was originally by Brad [Miska, one of the producers] as a TV show, but in a very abstract way. Like, "Wouldn't it be great if this was a TV show?" And we all kind of shook our heads, shrugged, and nodded, because none of us know what to do with a TV show. [Laughs.] We don't own a network, and we don't know how to reach out to the people at AMC or Netflix. So Adam and I pushed it toward the anthology thing early on.

Not only because I actually like those old-school anthologies a lot, like the 1972 Tales from the Crypt, but because they have unique framing devices. Actually, the first R-rated movie I saw in a theater was Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, and I think that made a huge impression on me as a kid. I love those films, but also because we knew that if we were making a low-budget feature, we knew we could get that made. We knew what it was. You produce it for a small amount of money and then submit it to some festivals—that was a business model that we had a pretty good understanding of.


The mythology in the wraparound of the first film hinted at this larger thing that we've been talking about, that the sequel delves into more deeply, but it's still all very abstract. There's plenty of room to explore. The thing is, we're all hinting at it, but if we were explaining it anymore, it would be super on-the-nose. If we were to explain it anymore, it's just going to be brutal expository dialogue; like, the wraparound is just gonna be one big, long monologue. We decided we'd just give people enough information to hopefully figure it out on their own.

I'd also like to hope that V/H/S/2, more than the first film, is a film that rewards repeat viewings. We tried to design it that way, so if you happen to want to see it again, you'll hopefully get more out of it. Not that you need to see it again to get it; it's not Upstream Color. But if that situation somehow arises, and you're trapped somewhere and somebody has the DVD of our film and you end up watching it two or three times, you'll get more out of it.

There's a great moment within the wraparound where the one character is reacting to the end of Jason Eisener's segment, "Alien Abduction Slumber Party," which involves a dog, in the same way that the audience is responding. It's a nice, funny touch that the first film's wraparound lacked.
[Laughs.] We talked a lot about how, if we do another V/H/S we'd have to shoot all of the segments first and then shoot the wraparound, but then, sure enough, there just wasn't enough time for that.

Adam and I were immediately going into production on something else, so we had to shoot the segment that he directed and I wrote the segment that I wrote and directed right away, basically back-to-back, while Gareth and Timo [Tjahjanto] were simultaneously filming in Jakarta [Indonesia] and Eduardo [Sanchez] and Gregg [Hale] were simultaneously filming in Maryland, and then Jason actually filmed his segment two-and-a-half months later.

But I knew what it was all going to be, so I was trying to second-guess that stuff this time around. The goal with the wraparound in the first V/H/S, and I'm not sure how much people get this, but the only real goal with the first wraparound was to be totally authentic and let people know that we were playing by a different set of rules, by opening the movie with four minutes of people being assaulted and things being smashed. [Laughs.] That was us trying to uproot expectations before David Bruckner's segment began, to let people know that we're not doing things you've seen before.

But then having done that, for the sequel we wanted to make the wraparound more grounded and clearly define who these characters are. You know, baby-steps towards coherency. [Laughs.] For us, that's a huge artistic leap: "Maybe the audience should know who's actually speaking at all times." We're working on it. [Laughs.]

The scope of V/H/S/2 is much bigger than the first movie, with segments including zombies, the apocalypse, and an alien invasion. Compared to the first film, which has a naturalistic and subdued segment like Ti West's "Second Honeymoon," the sequel is massive. Was that the goal all along?
Yeah, we learned a lot from the first one. Actually, the budget on this movie was only very slightly bigger than the first film. Radio Silence obviously made their first V/H/S segment for very little money, and we looked at that and thought, Wow, there's a lot of stuff and effects in here. So it was taking those lessons learned and taking cues from what worked in the first movie. You don't want to make a sequel if you're just repeating yourself in those ways. It's not like we had some kind of artistic rejection of the first film. We did that, we're proud of it, but we wouldn't want to make a sequel if it was just going to repeat things. We do these things for fun and for the artistic challenge—it's not like we're making any money doing these films. [Laughs.]

We approached V/H/S/2 with, OK, we've established this world, so how do we kick it up a notch? And I think by bringing in filmmakers like Jason, Gareth, Timo, Gregg, and Eduardo, it worked out that way. They're all perfectly suited toward that attitude. They'd all seen the first film and wanted to figure out how they could top that. That's how you end up with something that feels like it has a much larger scope. There's literally no point in making a V/H/S sequel if we're going to give the fans of that film the exact same thing again. We wouldn't disrespect people like that.

And then also, when you hire Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, the way they make movies in Jakarta is just very, very impressive. We all knew that, no matter what the money was, they were going to deliver that was huge in scope, so we were all just trying to not get overshadowed by them. [Laughs.]

Do you think it helped to have the first V/H/S as proof of what you were doing with this aesthetic and concept when reaching out to filmmakers like Gareth Evans, Jason Eisener, and Eduardo Sanchez?
Yeah. The first film was kind of interesting because it really all people that we already personally knew, and who we able to reach out to directly, through friends of friends. Ti and Joe [Swanberg], we were already working with them on You're Next, so it was very easy to bring them on-board, and then Brad knew Radio Silence, and I knew Glenn [McQuaid]. Our producer Roxanne [Benjamin] knew David Bruckner. So they all came on through personal connections. That's how it goes when you're making a small, strange movie like that.

So, yeah, having the movie come out at Sundance, get a huge reception and make the big sale like that, that did help us say, "Oh, Brad knows Eduardo Sanchez, and he hasn't made a found-footage movie since The Blair Witch Project, but maybe he'll want to!" [Laughs.] So it was kind of great to have the first V/H/Sas a calling card, to say, "Look, we can make this work." But at the same time, the process was us asking friends to get involved, though we weren't asking them to take quite as big a leap of faith as we were the first film's directors.

With the first film, we basically said, "OK, here's the wraparound, we shot this about eight months ago. We don't know exactly what we're doing, but this is what we're going for stylistically. Let us know if that gives you any ideas." With V/H/S/2, everyone at least knew that it was ultimately going to become a movie.

Considering that you guys took so many lessons from the reviews and reactions to the first V/H/S, how has that process been since V/H/S/2 premiered at Sundance and played at SXSWthis year? Have you learned any new lessons so far?
Yeah, definitely. I think if I were to do another one of these things, and I doubt I would be as involved with it as I was for this one, because Adam and I are really busy now, but if we were to do the wraparound ourselves, we've learned that the wraparound is a bit of a challenge. You watch some insane thing like Gareth and Timo's short, and then you come back to the wraparound and it's like, "Wait, why are we with these people again?" And we kind of realized that from the first film, but in the first film they were just anonymous thugs. [Laughs.]

I think if we were to try and do this again, the wraparound would just be really abstract and funny. We'd try to bring a lot of humor to it. It's just really hard to play that stuff seriously, and to completely engage the audience you need to be entertaining them.

We tried to make V/H/S/2 a much funnier film. There's a lot of humor in the first film, but it's still a lot darker and maybe less obvious. So we tried to deliberately make this a funnier film, and that stuff really seems to work with audiences. If we were to do another one, we'd continue to go in that direction with the sinister, sarcastic humor, because it really does seem that audiences are responding to that in the sequel.

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Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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