Shudder is well-known for its awesome selection of horror movies. So when I saw a podcast had landed on the platform called Video Palace (2018), my first thought was, “what is a podcast doing on a horror streaming service?” After I read the description on Shudder, I was intrigued: “When video collector Mark Cambria watches a mysterious VHS tape, he begins talking in his sleep in a language that doesn’t exist. Mark and his girlfriend Tamra set out to investigate the tape’s origin and find themselves caught up in a web of conspiracy, occult, and dread surrounding a legendary video store with a sinister purpose beyond imagining.”
I grabbed Creator Michael Monello, writer Bob DeRosa, and writer/director Ben Rock to talk with me about Video Palace and its place in the realm of found footage.
Brandy Clark of Nightmare on Film Street: Michael and Ben, both of you were involved in The Blair Witch Project (1999), which many horror fans count as the beginning of the found footage genre. Now, horror fans have Video Palace. Did either of you bring your experiences with Blair Witch and found footage to the making of Video Palace? If so, in what way?
Ben Rock: One lesson I learned not during the production of The Blair Witch Project, but rather during the fake-documentary marketing spinoffs [including Curse of the Blair Witch (1999), The Burkittsville 7 (2000), and Shadow of the Blair Witch (2000)] was a technique we used extensively on Video Palace, and that was the way we approached interviews. Rather than scripting every word of any interview, a 1-2 page bio was given to the actors both at auditions and for recording and they were to answer questions, basically as themselves, but with the information given to them in the bio. What you then get is always a more meandering answer that needs to be cut down for time, but the process of doing all of that makes the interviews sound extremely authentic – after they’re cut down.
Obviously, instead of getting the three minutes of finished interview you’d get by scripting it, you get maybe 20-30 minutes worth of raw material. I ended up cutting most of these myself for Video Palace, but in the hands of the right actors, you get a result that’s almost indistinguishable from a real interview.
Michael Monello: I never really thought of Video Palace as being found footage, to be honest! The main character is making a podcast and releasing it, and while there are some elements of found footage, like the white tapes or the answering machine tape, the story really unfolds as an investigative podcast, which is how I always thought of it. That might be splitting hairs, as so many people do call it found footage. I take that as a huge compliment to the acting and Ben’s direction–everything sounds so completely natural and “real” that it feels like a found footage story.
NOFS: Michael, you created this podcast, along with Nick Braccia. Where did the idea for Video Palace come from?
MM: Nick, Ben, and I have been talking about doing a scripted fiction podcast for some time. Nick and I work together at Campfire [http://www.campfirenyc.com] and had been talking to Shudder about a project when we heard they were looking to get into podcasts. That felt like a perfect opportunity so we decided to develop an idea specifically for Shudder. Nick brought the theme of exploring collector culture, so we started there and set about trying to create something that felt like an urban legend. I met with Owen Shifflet at Shudder and pitched a high-level version of it, which he liked, so we fleshed it out to a 10-page outline of the season. Once Shudder agreed, Ben, Bob, Liam and the rest of the team came in and the story evolved from there. It was an incredibly satisfying creative experience.
NOFS: The podcast is incredible, by the way. So why make Video Palace into a podcast and not a found footage film? What was the impetus behind wanting to turn it into a podcast instead of a film, and did any other horror or found footage things serve as inspiration?
MM: Video Palace was conceived from the beginning as a podcast. I’ve been obsessed with podcasts since they first started and have been tracking the space for a decade or so. I always felt that horror lends itself incredibly well to audio storytelling. Much like Blair Witch, what you imagine is much more terrifying than anything we can show, and with audio, we can be evocative and leave room for listeners to imagine the thing that terrifies them. Nick and I did discuss H.P. Lovecraft when discussing the mythology, and classic horror morality stories like Tales from the Crypt were an inspiration when developing the story. The found footage genre didn’t really enter into discussions until after Ben and Bob came on.
“I had a lot of complicated ideas about how that audio language could be turned on itself and used to tell a fictional story, the way film documentary language was employed in The Blair Witch Project or Man Bites Dog (1992) or David Holzman’s Diary (1967).”
BR: Honestly I love podcasts and I love the unique spin on documentary storytelling that’s emerged from them over the years. And I had a lot of complicated ideas about how that audio language could be turned on itself and used to tell a fictional story, the way film documentary language was employed in The Blair Witch Project or Man Bites Dog (1992) or David Holzman’s Diary (1967). There’s any number of ways to build an investigative podcast but by and large, it’s the language of voice-over narration, in-person interviews, spontaneous recordings, archival audio, and a musical language that ties it all together. Unlike movies or television, these stories are designed to be listened to by one person at a time, often while doing solitary tasks like being at the gym, in the car, walking a dog, etc. It’s a very intimate form. I don’t know that I would have articulated it exactly that way before making Video Palace, but playing with those parameters is distinctly different from making a film.
So this all had been swirling around in my brain for years. When Mike and Nick reached out to me to possibly work on it I knew from our previous conversations that they felt similarly and we all thought this story would be a great opportunity to put some of these ideas to the test.
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Because of the way we had to record #VideoPalacePod, the entire cast was never together….EXCEPT for the cast reading we had right before production began. So behold (almost) all of the most amazing cast in any podcast ever! #NotBiased pic.twitter.com/13FMyuh3MU
— Bob DeRosa (@thembob) November 26, 2018
NOFS: Do you feel that the podcast format lends well, or better, to the found footage genre than film? If so, in what ways?
BR: I do think there’s an enormous amount of visual ideas that the brain creates when it only gets audio to work with. Audio kind of hits me in a less-literal place, a little more emotionally, and engages my imagination a little like a book might. The trick with podcasting is to figure out its distinct language the way movies, TV, books, comic books, political cartoons, etc. have for decades. The language is still being formed as it’s not a radio play like the old radio shows like Lights Out (2016) or Inner Sanctum (1948) were, but it’s not a movie. Part of that is the newer technology for audio production, but a giant part of it is the ever-emerging technology for audio consumption. Smartphones and RSS feeds have enabled podcasts, and they’re constantly experimenting with new ways to engage their specific audiences like early TV did.
As far as found footage specifically goes, I think maybe we all have a greater understanding of what real “found footage” is thanks to YouTube and smartphones. We see (and hear) a lot of spontaneous moments from our friends at concerts to people filming real altercations on the streets, even with the police. We’ve developed an acute sense to know when something sounds “staged.” It actually makes it harder to pull off well in film or audio in my opinion.
“If you’re watching video footage, you trust your eyes. You can stop an image, dissect it, look for clues as to the reality of what you’re seeing. With audio, you’re in the dark (pun totally intended). All you can do is close your eyes and listen.”
Bob DeRosa: Another interesting thing about doing “found footage” in the audio medium is that we’re removing a key sense that people use when they decide if something is real or not. If you’re watching video footage, you trust your eyes. You can stop an image, dissect it, look for clues as to the reality of what you’re seeing. With audio, you’re in the dark (pun totally intended). All you can do is close your eyes and listen. I think this really opens up the possibility of unreliable source material and also misinterpretations. It pulls the listener into the story in a way that is even more immersive than if you’re watching something. I think some of the scariest moments in found-footage films are when the visuals give you no information and all you have is what you can hear. Like when Josh is screaming off in the distance (or is he?) in The Blair Witch Project. That creeped me out more than anything.
MM: The intimacy of podcasts is fantastic for telling creepy or scary stories in general. The success of found footage, however, really lies in the execution and performance aspects of production, regardless of the format. If it doesn’t sound real or authentic when it is supposed to, then that sense of immersion is broken. Performance, in particular, is the downfall of many found footage podcasts and movies, and I knew from working with Ben in the past on things like Curse of the Blair Witch that he had a working method to address this challenge.
We got to make a show with these maniacs! Here's @Neptunesalad and I with the stars of #VideoPalacePod — @Chillamson (John Dies At The End) and @devinsidell (Rob Zombie's 31)! pic.twitter.com/y90BuXnFWY
— Bob DeRosa (@thembob) October 22, 2018
NOFS: Speaking of challenges, what are the challenges of bringing a found footage podcast to life? How did you make sure that the podcast kept to quality production standards while keeping an overall “Do It Yourself” tone that found footage films and podcasts tend to have?
MM: We didn’t really think about or reference found footage movies when developing the initial story, it was always fashioned as a podcast. There was some initial discussion about whether this should be told in the traditional “podcast” format or whether it should be more like a scripted radio drama and I was insistent on it being a “podcast” because the format is still young and the ideal forms of storytelling are still emerging. Audiences are familiar with the investigative podcast format so that seemed the ideal format to tell a horror story. Developing the initial outline, we started off very structured — Episode One is a straight-up traditional investigative episode with expert interviews and a host telling a story after it happened but very quickly it moves into “real time” and as the story progresses it takes a few liberties with the investigative format, but by then audiences are too invested in the story to care.
BD: In terms of story, there was a particular challenge we had to tackle. By using the documentary-style improvised interviews that Ben mentioned above, we had to keep straight exactly what information characters were learning and when. In movies, you have a script-supervisor to keep everything story-related in order, but we didn’t have room in the budget for that position. Our producer Liam was in the recording booth, making sure every scene was covered, while Ben and I were in the studio with the actors. We’d often have to stop and recall an improvised interview earlier in the process and make sure that no one was using information that they hadn’t heard organically yet. Luckily, Ben and I were both crazy focused on the story and knew it backward and forwards, and could generally track Mark and Tamra’s discoveries over the course of the production.
BR: A lot of the challenge could be discussed with our head sound designer Jeremy Lee. He was given a ton of audio recorded in a soundproof stage and he had to make it sound like literally everything we’d come up with while writing the script.
The biggest advantage of doing it in audio from the get-go was that we could move fast. In the film and TV world, you tend to shoot 5-8 pages per day. Bigger budget projects have a lower daily page count. By comparison, we were recording an average of five pages per hour. We recorded like 42 pages our first day, and that was working each scene until we were all happy. Even including more time for interview segments which took maybe 30 minutes or more to do for three pages of finished content, we were still able to fly every day.
The way we made sure it sounded like a real podcast is one of my favorite things to talk about. Firstly, rather than just bringing in actors to record their lines in an isolation booth, Bob and I worked with everyone in a given scene in one room and we staged every scene like it was film or theater. For the actual recording, we had expensive wireless mics on every actor and a slick overhead boom mic for the scene, but depending on who was supposed to be recording in a given scene – Mark (Chase Williamson) or Tamra (Devin Sidell) – we gave the actor a handheld recording device called the h4n made by a company called Zoom. It’s a $200 digital handheld recorder that would probably be the very device Mark and Tamra would use. In each scene, we’d talk about who would be holding the Zoom, where it would be in the room. In scenes where Mark is running from someone, Chase would really be running across the soundstage from whoever was chasing him and they’d both be physicalizing it as much as they could so we’d get the most realism possible out of that little device.
And in the final mix you heard, it’s mostly the Zoom except in the voiceover scenes or phone calls, when we tended to use the wireless mics.
This stack of cards represents season one of #VideoPalacePod. @Neptunesalad and I started with a series document created by @NickBraccia & @mikemonello. We broke that doc into these cards, then more than 180 pages of script, and finally over 3 hours of recorded content. pic.twitter.com/LvpmGNFgzU
— Bob DeRosa (@thembob) November 29, 2018
NOFS: Ben and Bob, you both wrote the script for Video Palace. When writing the script, how did you make sure to write it so that the script held the chaos of the situation of the white tapes and also helped keep the listeners’ and audiences’ attention? Is it the same as writing a script for a film, or different?
BD: I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time, and I fell into a trap pretty early on. With movie scripts, the old axiom is “show, don’t tell.” I wrote an early draft of an episode, and when Ben shared his thoughts, I realized he was essentially saying “tell, don’t show.” Once I made that switch in my brain, the episodes really started coming together. Ben, in particular, was super into the language of podcasts and was very comfortable just letting characters speak and reveal themselves. I had to quell my instinct to get in and out of scenes as soon as possible, but as I soon as I figured that out, we fell into a nice rhythm.
As far as the chaos, I’m hyper-focused on making sure listeners get exactly as much of the story that they need in that moment, no more, no less.
[MINOR SPOILER:] For the final basement scene, we had two versions of the scene, one with every word of dialogue on the page, and another with certain words essentially redacted. Those were the words that would be just out of earshot for the listener.
So we had the cast record the scene where we could hear everything and then it was fun working with Jeremy to pull back on exactly what we could hear and what we couldn’t. This creates a situation where the listener is hopefully leaning in, hungry for every word they can get in order to understand what’s going on. Too little clarity, and it’s frustrating. Too much, and it takes all the fun away. Finding that sweet spot in between was a huge challenge creatively, but I think it pays off.
BR: Mostly because we were writing something that was documentary in form, we took our style cues from podcasts like In the Dark (2019), S-Town (2017), Serial (2014), Crimetown (2016), on and on in terms of form. So there’s a lot of voiceover narration in the script. We wanted to make sure that we don’t have too many extremely-cinematic events occur while Mark happens to be recording at that second. In the whole season, there’s maybe three moments like that. As far as the horror itself, we talked a lot about Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, HP Lovecraft, The Wicker Man, and lots of other horror projects that have sparked our imaginations over the years that play into the kind of horror we were hoping to make Video Palace into.
The scripts themselves were, in format, a great deal like those Blair Witch spinoffs I’d written in 1999 and 2000. Bob brought a great deal of knowledge regarding how to break this idea into a season as he has done in the television world, and we really looked at structuring each episode with that in mind.
To your question about chaos, we (along with sound designer Jeremy Lee) really focused on what real live recorded chaos sounds like. What does it do to the recording device? How little can you hear and still put together what really happened? It’s an interesting balance to try to strike because if you go too chaotic it just sounds like pandemonium and the audience has no chance of reconstructing the scene as you’ve imagined it, but if it sounds too clean it just sounds like a radio play (which we weren’t making) and the stakes of found footage go right out the window. I think I tend more in the direction of chaos, and everyone including the execs at Shudder tends to reign me in so that the scenes make more sense. But in the end on a project like this, there’s a real balance to be struck.
NOFS: And finally, the question that everyone wants to know: we want a Season 2 of Video Palace! Can you confirm if there will a second season?
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BD: Nothing makes me happier than when a fan of the podcast wants to know, “What happens next?” We really hope we get to answer that question soon.
BR: We’re very excited about the possibilities that lie in a second season and we have some ideas we can’t wait to try regarding deepening the mythology and the characters. We hope we get to do it.
MM: My fingers are crossed! We have some ideas for Season 2 and would love to make it happen!
You can listen to Video Palace on Shudder and iTunes. And let us know what you think of Video Palace on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!