Horror anthologies are unique and beloved in the genre, and V/H/S has been the gift that keeps on giving since 2012.
Writer/director/producer David Bruckner has been with the franchise since the beginning, in addition to directing some of the horror genre's best entries in recent memory. The Ritual is a personal favorite, and The Night House gave us some extremely creative practical effects.
Bruckner directed the wraparound (or framing segment) for V/H/S/85, "Total Copy." The film is presented as a documentary that's been taped over, occasionally popping in through fuzz and static between the other directors' segments. "Total Copy" is a mockumentary about a strange being that has the ability to mimic anything it sees, as scientists attempt to communicate with it. As you can imagine, it doesn't go very well.
We spoke with Bruckner via Zoom ahead of 85's release to ask him about working in horror shorts (and why it might be easier than features) and what his advice is for horror filmmakers. Press record with us, and dive in!
V/H/S/85 | Official Trailer | Coming to Shudderwww.youtube.com
Editor's note: the following conversation has been edited for clarity.
No Film School: I just want to ask about the challenges of directing and working in an anthology. I know that you have directed in the past and produced these movies, so what is that process like?
David Bruckner: One of the things that's great about these anthology films is that there's just more freedom in short form. You get to show a short in a feature context.
Sometimes it's hard to get short films out there. There's not really a destination for them that everybody sees, so I think that incentivizes filmmakers a lot to give it a shot.
I think particularly with horror, one of the things that's great about shorts is say, you can get in late and get out early, so you're not sort of burdened with a third act, which can be very challenging in horror, because it oftentimes mystifies all the lovely possibilities that you've set up.
I think having something scary beating on the other side of the door, and it's almost always a little disappointing when you finally reveal what it's up to, so I think there's that, and there's a sort of go-for-broke kind of gonzo flavor to the V/H/S films, in particular, that I think is freeing for film directors.
Sometimes, a feature film can be a bit like steering an aircraft carrier. There are rules to the machine and how you can work within it, and I think V/H/S shorts, in particular, in anthologies perhaps on the whole, sort of offer a frictionless kind of process. It's a smaller endeavor. There's just more freedom on all sides.
NFS: Although your segment in this is a little bit more polished, what about the challenges of working with found footage?
Bruckner: Found footage is surprisingly challenging in some ways. You don't have coverage, so if you're working in horror, you've got gags. If you're doing horror that has, a movie that has the year '85 on the back of it, then you're doing practical gags, because that's the spirit of the era.
A lot of the ways that you shoot around gags is, that you shoot coverage and then you really zoom in there and you edit exactly what you need, in a way, to create the illusion that the effect works. But in a found footage situation, it's a persistent camera. It's oftentimes a wide shot.
You have to whip away and come back to it. You have to stick with it longer. You have to block the camera. A lot of times, we use edits in-camera to keep the action alive. So, instead of editing to a closeup, somebody either has to step in front of the lens, or the lens has to find somebody nearer to the lens, in some ways, or zoom in, or you have to justify it in different ways.
So, the big trick in challenge, and part of what's so fun about found footage filmmaking is, that you still have to hit the beats of a narrative. You still have to make a film, you just can't get caught doing it.
And maintaining that level of authenticity can be ... It's surprising what will play and what will not play. Sometimes a great movie line, or something that has a quality that you might love but is a bit performative, just will fall on its face in a found footage context. The audience will just reject it because they can suddenly see the acting. They can see the lighting. They can feel the production design, so they become aware in a different way. And so, I think all of that is the challenge and the joy of found footage.
Even though we did something that was kind of a made-for-TV documentary as the wraparound for this V/H/S, we still owed something to found footage at the end of the film. So, we do cut to raw footage at the end of the film and attempted to construct something that's like a seven-minute oner. Obviously, there are hidden edits, but it plays in one seemingly persistent take. And so that was an interesting craft challenge. That was a lot of fun.
Courtesy of Shudder
NFS: I am going to ask about that throughline. I read recently that you created that last, or you came to it after everyone else had semi-finalized their segments. What was that process like?
Bruckner: Well, the wraparound with V/H/S is a bit of a tradition at this point. In the first few VHS movies, it attempted to sort of explain the origin of the tapes. At a certain point, we kind of feel like the audience is onto us with that. A few, I think it was the last V/H/S, V/H/S/99, was the first time we did just a mix tape. So, the idea is that the entire film is just some weird, archived mix tape that somebody constructed, that you are watching.
The opportunity for the wraparound in a mix tape becomes less of a formal element that's been put together for you to see, and more of something that's actually just being taped over, so the challenge is really interesting. You're getting pieces of something that's kind of eerily incomplete in a way, and that has to both, again, grab the audience's attention, but also take it away from them in interesting ways, ask questions, and then leave us with them.
Evan Dickson, who wrote the piece, and I were brainstorming ways to do that, and because we went last, because we had seen all the other shorts, we were able to also think of it as, almost like a rug that holds the room together, like something that pulls different elements and influences in from the other pieces. We got a little bit of body horror over here. We've got professional characters, police and rescue workers over here, and we've got sci-fi over here.
How do we pull all that into something that gives and creates a cohesive experience across the movie? It was, I think, in that sandbox, that we arrived at the idea of a television documentary that has been cut and curated in the style of the era, and watched a lot of Unsolved Mysteries, a little bit of In Search Of..., a lot of Robert Stack supercuts on YouTube. It's fun stuff to dive into.
NFS: There is something that's inherently creepy about that. I love analog horror in general. I find it so fascinating.
Bruckner: Yeah. Absolutely.
NFS: When you're watching a rookie filmmaker's work, in this case, especially in horror, what mistakes get made early on, and how should we avoid them?
Bruckner: I'd say the biggest thing I see is not in the films themselves, but in the emphasis, what the filmmakers are trying to do with the films.
I think what I see a lot is somebody who maxed out some credit cards, hired a professional or semi-professional crew to go shoot their short, and now they've got a pretty good-looking short film, but it doesn't really compete with studio films. People watch Marvel movies all the time. There's no end to the kind of spectacle we can consume, and we're sort of numb to it at a certain point. So, somebody has put way too much money, energy, and time into something that ultimately is at a half measure towards Hollywood studio films. Then, they spend a year, or two years, trying to get the film seen, trying to get it out there, pushing it on their own.
I think—and this is just speaking from my own experience—what I have noticed does people better ultimately is, a period of time where they have less friction to create and are creating more things. They're creating things, short films, longer films, music videos, whatever they're into at the time, but they're doing it for an immediate audience, either screening it at local venues or putting it on the web, and they're not too concerned with getting it out there.
They're using the environment around them, or they're picking a visual style that is related to their means, because the hard, hard part is—and this is totally ironic, given all the money that goes into filmmaking—but the hardest part is the writing, directing, and the acting of it all, is the storytelling.
If you can take a simple camera and put two characters in a room, chamber drama, call it that, if you will, or really any idea, and hold somebody's attention, building to some climax point or destination for 20 minutes, that's a feat.
If you can do that with next to nothing in terms of resources, then you can begin to use resources as you move forward. But I don't know, I'm somebody who believes the audience will come, the opportunities will come, and that what people are usually missing is just an uninterrupted period of high output and creation, where you have time to build an intimate relationship with the medium, kind of find your own voice.