If you’re a fan of the Winnebago man or a whole host of other oddball video characters, it’s likely you’ve got Nick Prueher (one of the co-founders of the Found Footage Festival) to thank for it. They’re currently on their most ambitious tour, covering all fifty states and making some stops in Hoboken, Manhattan and Brooklyn over the next few days, and you can enter to win FREE tickets to the Manhattan edition right here! I chatted to Nick over the phone on Sunday morning, and we covered all sorts of topics, from the impending doom of Frankenstorm, to the current status of Jack Rebney, to the weirdest, most disturbing videos he’s ever come across in his twenty years of archiving. And you can read all about it right…NOW!
So where are you right now?
I’m back in New York.
Good timing for Frankenstorm…
Yeah, it’s going to be weird; we’ve got a show in Fargo, North Dakota on Wednesday, and then we have to be back in Hoboken to do a show on Thursday, so I have no idea if any of that’s going to work out or not. I just remember last year with Irene it was just a light drizzle and everything was fine.
Yeah, I’m hoping it’ll be like that again, only less hungover this time.
Yeah, exactly. We’ll see, though. I haven’t bought water or anything like that yet, but I know people are starting to stock up on supplies.
I know, it’s nuts. I went to the store and it was like, the water was all gone.
Yeah, it’s crazy! I’m sure it’s not like that everywhere, but people seem to be really into flashlights as well. I feel like I have pretty good night vision, so I’m not going to buy one of those.
Yeah, I guess I should probably start thinking about those things just in case, but I don’t know.
Well, hopefully it’ll all be for nothing.
I hope so, too!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7AZVRqmXWI
So as Halloween’s coming up here pretty soon; when you go through all this found footage, do you ever get anything super disturbing or terrifying? Like, aren’t you worried that The Ring will turn out to be real, and after you watch a video you’ll be haunted forever or whatever?
Yeah, I mean, we have found tapes that will haunt me forever, you know, as long as I live, but maybe in a different way than The Ring. Yeah, actually, there’s a tape that’s in this new show that we were given by a guy at a show in Vancouver; he said he’d heard about a government office in British Columbia that was getting rid of all its VHS stock, and he wasn’t going to let that happen. So he went down and rescued anything that looked interesting, and “The Ring” tape that he handed us was called Handmade Love. We didn’t know exactly what was on it (we had some guesses), but we popped it in, and it turned out to be this educational video for developmentally disabled men about how to masturbate.
OH MY GOD.
Yeah. And it went in graphic detail about how that process works, from beginning to cleanup. And it’s one of those things that you just can’t unsee. I mean, it would have been one thing if it’d had decent production values, but it’s like a snuff film; it’s like, there’s no tripod, there’s no microphone…it’s all just very handheld and shaky, and it’s just like, how did they get a license to make this video? So yeah, we’re going to be playing that video. There’s also a sister video for women called Fingertips.
Oh my god. Gross. Well, good for you for making it through to the end, anyway!
Yeah, we’ve developed quite the tolerance. But if that doesn’t spook people, I don’t know what will.
Seriously. So once you’ve actually gotten the movies, do you watch them together or on your own time? How does that usually work?
It’s like a safety in numbers thing; you would drive yourself batty if you even watched more that two hours of video on your own, so occasionally we’ll do some independent study, but for the most part we’re locked in an apartment together holding hands, trying to get through as much as we can. It’s almost like a support group, because some of the stuff is just…we find a lot of awful, really bad things, and when they’re bad the right way it’s great, but most of them are just ordinary bad. That’s where it gets tough.
And so where do you keep your collection? Do you archive the ones that are keepers and then just chuck the rest?
Yeah, basically. We have this stack of probably over a thousand to-be-watched tapes, and the newest finds are all stacked up in our apartments, but the collection of stuff we’ve deemed worthy of hanging onto is about five thousand tapes, and it’s spread out over two storage lockers in Queens in Long Island City near where I live. So that’s where the archive is stashed. And the ones that we watch and deem not worth hanging onto we drop back at thrift stores for other people to find. Kind of the circle of life.
Oh, that’s cool. Well I was also going to ask you if you felt any pressure to find videos, but clearly you’ve got plenty of stock to go through still. I mean, are people sending you these things, or…
They do send them, but talking about pressure, last year we were at a Salvation Army in Memphis, Tennessee, and we were talking to the clerk there, and we were like, “Your VHS selection isn’t quite what it once was.” And they said, “Oh, we’re not even accepting those as donations anymore because nobody buys them.” And that just put the fear of god in us. That scared us to death, because that’s our livelihood, you know? And also, I just feel like VHS is a part of our history, and if those end up in landfills, it’s just gone forever. That really did put some pressure on us, lit a fire under us to be super ambitious in finding tapes; we launched this big fifty state tour this year (which is our most ambitious one to date) mostly so we can get out there and blanket the country for videos before they’re just gone.
So what’s the weirdest scenario or place that you’ve found a video?
Well, there was one time we went to an estate sale in Whitestone, Queens, where, you know, somebody has died and they’re getting rid of all their possessions. We found a bunch of clothes and stuff, but they also had a VHS camcorder, and we thought, “Oh, we should get that because it might be funny to shoot a skit or something with an actual VHS camera.” And so we bought it (it was like $5) and then took it home and plugged it in to make sure it worked, and out popped a half-recorded tape still inside. And it turned out to be the home movies of this guy who passed away, apparently, and it starts off sort of normal; there’s a woman, this kind of teenage girl, dancing to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack wearing a fancy costume dress. And THEN there’s a cut, and you see a little poodle, and then it pans back up and it’s the old man dressed in a wig and the same costume dress, staring directly into the camera and dancing to the Phantom of the Opera. It’s kind of like the Buffalo Bill scene in the Silence of the Lambs; it kind of has that feel to it because he’s just kind of creepily dancing. So that goes on for far too long, and then it cuts again, and it’s him videotaping the demolition of a house across the street from him. And this construction foreman is like, “What are you doing? Are you videotaping us?” and he’s like, “Yeah I’m videotaping, what’s it to ya?” And they start getting into this huge Queens, New York shouting match with each other about whether he’s allowed to videotape, and I still don’t know who was in the right there. But yeah, before you know it the tape’s done. You know, it’s like a perfect four minutes of video, and so we call it Queens Home Movies and we’ve played it in shows before. But I just like the story of how this guy had died and we found his legacy in his VHS camcorder because it was being sold at his estate sale, kind of in the middle of nowhere in Queens.
So obviously he can’t get mad at you for screening his movies, but do people get upset that you’re showing these videos? Or they don’t even know?
A lot of the time we track people down from the videos; that’s one of the things we do just to kind of quell our curiosity if nothing else. You know, we want to know the back-story of these videos, so we’ll track people down and interview them and bring them up on stage with us. The one close call we had was with…have you ever seen the Winnebago Man video?
Yeah! And I actually watched the documentary about him, too!
Right! So we’re in the end of that movie, and I can’t remember how much of this is in the movie, but, you know, he was the Holy Grail. We found this footage while working on commercials in Minneapolis; everyone tells the horror stories of the worst shoots that they were ever on, and we met this guy who’s like the assistant camera guy and he started telling us about this 1989 industrial film he was on in Iowa for Winnebago RV’s. He said the host had a temper, and as their revenge, the crew just kind of kept their cameras rolling and kept the raw footage. And so he gave us this raw footage of this guy (the host of the video, Jack Rebney) on these angry tirades, and we called it Jack Rebney, the World’s Angriest RV Salesman. We closed our show with it, and we thought, “He has to be dead of an ulcer by now,” you know? Or some anger-related issue. We just couldn’t find him, so we figured he was gone, but the filmmaker who made Winnebago Man wasn’t going to give up that easily, so he hired a private investigator to find him. So he tracked him down, found him living like a hermit (you see that in the movie), and when he heard that we were showing his video and that it was on the Internet and everything, he was pretty upset by it. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, I guess, given his temperament, but it was cool because we convinced him to appear at a show with us in San Francisco where he saw people watch his video; for the first time he was witnessing what reaction his video had on people.
He was very prickly when we met him; he was like, “Okay, who are these lunatics coming to the show to enjoy my misery?” And we were like, “No, Jack, that’s not it. You’ll see, you’ll see.” So we watched him, and you could see in the back of the room that he was kind of just ready to be pissed off about this whole situation. But as soon as he saw the joy his video was bringing people, and how people were just doubled-over with laughter, wiping away tears, he totally changed his tune; like, you could see the smile come over his face, and, you know, he came down and regaled the audience with stories, and people were lined up to get his autograph afterwards. And he hugged us at the end, so we figured, you know, if that guy (who’s known for being the angriest man in the world) is okay with what we’re doing, then we’re probably in the clear.
Right, smooth sailing! But yeah, he seems terrifying. Is he still alive now?
Yeah, he’s still alive. His house actually burned down in the wildfires in California, but he’s living with family now and he’s doing okay. But yeah, he’s a strange character for sure.
Yeah, I mean, that whole part in the documentary where his eyesight isn’t so good, I mean, I was very nervous for him there. So it’s good he’s living with family now, anyway. God help them.
He’s still ornery as ever, so I think that means he’s still Jack.
So I was also going to ask you, are you based in New York? Do you live here full-time when you’re not touring?
Yeah, we’re on the road for about nine months out of the year on and off, but yeah, based in Long Island City and have been for about thirteen years.
Cool, so have you ever seen Concrete TV, then?
I have! Yeah, somebody gave me an episode of that.
It’s the most bizarre thing, but I mean, if I’m hanging out with friends and drinking at home and that comes on, it’s kind of like the perfect awful, weird thing to watch.
Yeah, well public access TV is awesome, and I’m so glad that it’s still thriving in New York, because in so many cities we go to it’s just dying off. You know, it was created with the intention that the airwaves should belong to the public, so you could have access to express opinions about censorship and all that. Well, now that there’s the Internet, and now that there’s a built-in webcam on every computer, there’s no government mandate for it anymore. So it’s losing funding, and cable stations are dropping it. But yeah, I mean, just growing up in my small hometown in Wisconsin we’d just sit there and do nothing but watch public access TV and record it, and some of our best finds have been from New York public access; there’s a show called Goddesses, have you ever seen that one?
No I haven’t.
It’s about large women and the men who get into large women. You know, it’s celebrating big and beautiful, and it’s always like, plus size fashion shows. And so there’s a video in there of this older woman singing this song she’s written called “He Loves A Big Girl.” And she’s singing this awful homemade song, and then there’s this kind of menacing guy who comes up and is kind of like, grinding against her during it…I mean, this is just amazing footage that you’re not going to find on network TV or cable. So I hope public access TV stays around for a long time.
I do, too. I mean it’s great, though, that you guys are doing what you’re doing and sort of bringing these things to everyone. It’s obvious that people just get a lot of joy out of watching these weird, strange, funny movies people have made.
Well, and we started doing it pre-YouTube, and I think what people forget is how fun it is…like for us, we’ve been collecting these videos since high school, like twenty years now, and the fun part for us is gathering a bunch of people in a room and watching them together. Like you were saying about public access; you know, you’re drinking and you’re up late watching it, and that experience I think is dying out. Because everyone’s just watching funny videos on YouTube now, and you can laugh at those and think, “Oh, that was weird,” and then you forget about it, but like, you miss out on the social aspect of it by it all being on a little two-inch window on your laptop. So that’s one thing we weren’t intending to do, but I’m glad we’re doing it and sort of keeping that tradition alive, of making it a social event and of sort of recreating that experience of sharing videos with friends, but now it’s in a movie theater for three hundred people. So yeah, it’s still holding a candle for those bygone days.