Exclusive: Behind the Scenes of the Found Footage Festival World Tour

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The Found Footage Festival kicks off its 2009-2010 world tour September 18 with an all-new show at the Anthology Film Archives. Since 2004, co-founders and hosts and Joe Pickett have engaged legions of fans across the country with a revolving lineup of film clips, supplemented with their trademark wry observations. Flavorpill interviewed Prueher, whose credits include the Late Show With David Letterman, The Onion, and Entertainment Weekly, about what to expect.

Flavorpill: We’ve read the back story, but in your own words, where did you get the idea to establish a found footage festival?

Nick Prueher: I found a training video for McDonald’s custodians in the break room of the McDonald’s where I worked in high school. I popped it in the VCR and could not believe how incredibly dumb it was, so I took it home in my backpack that night and showed it to [co-founder] Joe Pickett. We fell in love with this video and began showing it to friends in my parents’ living room, making smartass remarks and offering our perspective on the video. It became this cult thing. Then we thought, if there are videotapes this stupid just lying around in break rooms, imagine what else is out there. And so began our quest to look in out-of-the-way places like thrift stores, garage sales, and garbage cans for discarded VHS tapes.

FP: In which format do you typically find your films? Do you feel the quality of the scenarios/narratives varies based on format?

NP: We specialize in VHS, because that’s what we grew up watching and that’s what turns up most at Salvation Armies nowadays. Lately, we’ve been finding DVDs more and more, and there have been some gems on that format, too. I guess what we’ve found is that the formats change and the technology improves but the bad ideas stay the same. And as long as there are people with bad ideas and access to video equipment, we’re in no danger of running out of material.

FP: Describe the process of obtaining and selecting the various films for presentation.

NP: We’re always on the lookout for new tapes in every city we visit on our tour. You can find us rooting around in the bargain bins at Goodwill, browsing garage sales, and searching in dumpsters for footage. Then, when we’re putting together a new show, we just sort of lock ourselves in a room, hold hands and try to get through as many tapes as we can. I’m not going to lie — it’s pretty arduous. Most of this stuff is just the most boring garbage ever committed to videotape, but when you find one piece of footage that’s bad in just the right way, it makes it all worthwhile.

FP: How is your work different than, say, that of Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Library, Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks, or the folks at Everything is Terrible?

NP: I’ve seen Rick Prelinger’s stuff and we once shared a bill with Skip Elsheimer. God bless those guys for preserving and archiving all those hygiene films from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They’re doing great work. I haven’t seen Everything Is Terrible but I’ve heard they post some funny VHS clips on their website. I guess the big difference between the Found Footage Festival and those other guys is that we’re primarily a comedy show. Our background is in comedy and, having found these videos and watched them over and over, we feel we’ve earned the right to make fun of them.

FP: How will this festival be different from previous ones? What kinds of films can audiences expect to see at this year’s Found Footage Festival?

NP: This festival features quite a few pre-taped comedy bits, which keep getting more and more involved with each incarnation of the show. There are some surprise celebrity appearances this time around. Content-wise, we focus on a lot of short-lived VHS phenomena, like VCR games, sports team music videos, and video dating. Plus, we’ve got some of the most disturbing full-frontal male nudity you’re likely to see anywhere this year. FP: Do you feel found footage films are a more accurate reflection of American life, as they are meant to be ephemeral, as opposed to theatrically-released productions?

NP: I think it’s definitely worth preserving and celebrating these lost and disposable moments on VHS, even if most people involved would rather forget them. To us, these videos say just as much if not more about our culture than do our greatest works of art. If you’re only looking at, say, the AFI Top 100 films list, you’re getting a very incomplete picture of who we are as a people. To put in perspective, we’ve released hundreds of terrible fitness videos in the last few decades, but produced only one Citizen Kane. FP: How authentic are found films in representing the reality of American culture?

NP: A lot of what attracts us to this footage is its authenticity. That’s why public access TV will always be more entertaining to us than anything on network TV or cable. There’s no filter. Amateurs are behind the camera and in front of the camera and anything goes. And in all the various training videos and exercises videos and promotional videos we’ve found, even when people are trying to put on a professional veneer, their humanity seeps through the cracks. Is there anything more American than attempting something really ambitious and failing spectacularly? Certainly, there’s nothing more entertaining.

FP: What do you think it is about our time period that yearns for these types of videos?

NP: What is the old saying? Tragedy plus time equals comedy? I think that applies here. By watching these odd and hilarious relics from the ’80s and ’90s, we have enough distance to look back and laugh. But there’s also something uncomfortably familiar about it, as if we recognize that not much has really changed.

FP: How do you feel about the idea of using found footage as raw material in the creation of new works?

NP: Well, we’re all for it, obviously. It’s fun for us to take this unwanted footage that was meant to be seen in a break room or in your living room and project it on the big screen in the form of a comedy show. Something magical happens when you put it in this new context, where a couple hundred people gather in a room and are given permission to laugh at this stuff. It’s cathartic. But I don’t know if I’d call what we do art. There are too many boners.

Check out the Found Footage Festival website for details about a show in your city.