Found Footage Fest Returns
By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 22, 2008 4:45PM
If you need something to take your mind off the weakening economy, the Palins, and other depressing stuff, consider paying a visit to the Lakeshore Theater this Friday for the Found Footage Festival's latest showcase of VHS wackiness. (Judging from the FFF's recent trailer, expect a lot of mullets and beards.) Festival founders Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have been collecting bizarro video since 1991, and have released two DVDs of their favorite gems. Recently we spoke with Prueher about the FFF's Oct. 24 showing here in Chicago (at Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, at 8 p.m.) and what we might expect.
Chicagoist: An early welcome back to Chicago! How often do you get to pass through here?
Nick Prueher: We come back to Chicago once a year with a new lineup of found footage and comedy. It is absolutely one of our favorite cities in the country, both for the audiences and the great public access TV. Last time we were in town, we went down to the local public access station and were able to get on the awesome children's dance show, Chic-A-Go-Go. I hope they're taping another episode when we're back in town.
C: What's new and different with this year's fest, besides the content itself?
NP: We have some pretty ambitious comedy bits in the new show, plus a couple of celebrity contributions -- including one by my personal hero, Chris Elliott.
C: Do you still get many submissions from the public?
NP: Yes, the more we tour around the country, the more we meet people who have found videos and want to donate them to the cause. About once a week, we get a package in the mail from somebody who's uncovered something, and it's always a treat. In fact, this new show is probably 50 percent submissions from friends and strangers from all across the country.
C: Can you do a breakdown of your inventory by source? For example, do you get more items at thrift stores, or garage sales?
NP: About 70 percent of the footage is stuff we've found at thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. The other stuff comes from garage sales, estate sales, and random places like garbage cans and warehouses, plus submissions from people we've met across the country.
C: How many videos do you think you own now? Have you thought of making a public library, or of working with an institution -- for example, a film studies department -- to make the footage accessible to others?
NP: We haven't done an official count, but we've got thousands of VHS tapes littering my apartment, Joe's apartment, and a recently upgraded storage locker in Queens, New York. I really don't think there would be any interest in making our collection public, mainly because 90 percent of the stuff we find is terribly boring. It's really a needle in a haystack to find something that's awful in just the right way, and when we do find something that makes the cut, we include it in our program.
If the Smithsonian wants to acquire some of our DVDs, they can order them here.
C: Have you got any insights on ways that corporate training videos have changed over time? Are they any less crazy now, or more so?
NP: We've got a bunch of training videos from the '80s and '90s in the new show we're bringing to Chicago, but we've also got some newer ones in our collection. Here's what we've found: The technology has gotten better and the production values have gotten slicker, but the bad ideas never change. Corporate indoctrination is still fundamentally insulting and wrong in just about every way, especially when they attempt to make it educational AND entertaining.
C: You've traveled across the country to find videos. What are some of your favorite thrift stores? How about in Chicago?
NP: There is a thrift store in Anchorage, Alaska called The Bishop's Attic that is a huge untapped resource for great videos. Last time we were there, we picked up so many videotapes that we had to check two extra boxes on our flight back to New York.
As far as Chicago goes, I seem to remember scouring a store called Unique Thrift Shop last time we were in town. If anyone has any good leads on other thrift stores, we'd love to hear them.
C: How has YouTube affected the festival? Do you use it as a resource for festival content, or do you have a "once it's online, it's off-limits" policy?
NP: YouTube is great, but we don't take anything off the internet for the Found Footage Festival. Our rule is that is has to be a physical piece of footage that is legitimately found by somebody. I think there's something more charming about hearing the story of how a VHS tape was discovered than to watch an anonymous streaming video online.
Since we started the festival before YouTube existed, we weren't sure how the glut of readily-available crazy footage on the internet would affect our shows -- but if anything, it has enhanced people's appreciation of what we do. And something magical happens when you're in a room full of 300 people watching footage that you can't see anywhere else up on the big screen. It's an experience you can't get in front of your computer monitor at work.
C: How is your other recent project, Dirty Country, going? How did you hit upon that project?
NP: About 15 years ago, while on a road trip in Wisconsin, we found a cassette tape called "Songs for Studs" at a truck stop. It turned out to be an album of very well-written, catchy country songs, but with the filthiest lyrics you could possibly imagine. Five years ago, curiosity got the better of us and we decided to track down the singer of these remarkably dirty songs. His name is Larry Pierce, and his story turned out to be far more interesting and entertaining than we ever could have dreamed.
Dirty Country tells Larry's story, but also tells the untold history of "dirty music" in America. We premiered the film at the South By Southwest Film Festival last year and won the Audience Award. Now we've wrapped up the film festival circuit and are looking to release the movie on iTunes and DVD in the coming months.
C: What are you working on now -- any more shorts or documentaries?
NP: In addition to our part-time gigs at The Onion and The Colbert Report, we direct short videos for a website called Howcast and occasionally shoot music videos for bands. We've got a few smaller shorts in the works, but we're also working on a Found Footage Festival TV show that we hope sees the light of day.
C: You're comedy writers. How much does found footage inspire your work?
NP: We are heavily inspired by our found footage. For example, one of the very first short films we wrote and directed was called "Gas 'N Fuel Employee Training Video #4A: Makin' It Happen!" It was a training video for a fictional gas station convenience store that was directly inspired by a McDonald's training video and other training videos we've collected over the years. You could call what we do an obsession of sorts, and one that seeps into just about everything we do, for better or worse.