When you’re David Bruckner, every day is Halloween. The writer/director works compellingly in the Horror genre, dabbling in zombies, demons, sex and the human psyche (as much as one can dabble; at times, watching a Bruckner film can feel a lot like falling down a suspenseful, terrifying rabbit hole).
His latest, the short “Amateur Night” in horror anthology V/H/S, somehow crosses the genre threshold from Found Footage into borderline Sex Tape, and so it came as no surprise that Bruckner had much to say on the subject of sexual politics in cinema–not to mention rape and male nudity.
We were able to catch up with him about all of this and more (how do we connect with the bad guys in movies?) and are certainly the better for it….
Happy Halloween, David. Are you doing anything in particular to celebrate?
You know this is just like the first year ever that I don’t want to do anything tonight. I think I just have too much going on. Right now I just wanna work– I just want to make movies. It’s like Halloween year round.
So are you working on any specific projects you could tell us about?
Yeah, we’re working on a few different things. Today we’re wrapping up a treatment that my writing partner [Nick Tecosky] and I did for someone else, and maybe that will turn into a movie. There’s two other ideas that we’re really eager to make into movies and I’m not sure which one I want to make. The climate has been changing a lot lately. There’s a lot of good ideas, and V/H/S has been very lucrative as far as getting us out into the field and meeting a lot of great people to make connections with. We’re optimistic.
I saw V/H/S earlier this month and I don’t want to come across too fanboy, but I was pretty genuinely horrified, which movies don’t usually do for me anymore. So each of the directors took their own segment and found a way to do their own take on the found-footage subgenre of horror– but your segment in particular, “Amateur Night,” found a really unique way to approach that. You present it in essentially a first-person perspective, and I can’t think of many movies, horror or otherwise, that have even tried to pull that off. And I thought you pulled it off really, really well.
How did you come up with that?
I hadn’t been thinking of doing a found footage movie, although I had been really drawn to certain aspects of found footage that I really enjoyed in several other movies in that genre. And there’s always the same problems: “why are they still holding the camera while this terrible thing happens?”, forcing exposition to occur in a scene where someone just happens to be holding a camera, all the contrivances of screenwriting can really show more when you’re presenting a movie that way.
But at the same time I find myself being really viscerally affected by found footage, the way it ties you so much closer to the protagonist, that brings you right along with them toward the cliff they’re creeping towards. And I was really interested in the immersive potential of it. I saw that Gaspar Noe movie Enter the Void , and he had several sections inside the “void” that were POV, and really psychedelic and bizarre. I just really loved that as a storytelling convention. We put ourselves more into the scene than we do the character– we really rely on transposing our empathy into a human face, you have to see the character to know them and what they’re feeling; when you remove them from the scene by giving us their perspective, those things are suddenly happening to us in the audience. And so as soon as the opportunity to do V/H/S came around, Nick and I started brainstorming how we could do a movie that was POV, but also being recorded on camera.
Well, and the solution you came up with, having the character wear spy glasses, isn’t just a contrivance, but it drives the plot as well.
Definitely. Well and you get so used to seeing movies told in the found footage style where it’s just a regular movie, and then they cram in a reason for there to be someone recording all of it and for the footage to turn up later. But I think in our short, the narrative is the entire reason the movie gets caught on film. The narrative is that these guys want to go out and film a porno without someone knowing, and we thought that there was a lot of fun anxiety that came from that. In a way we kind of don’t want to admit to, we want them to succeed, and hopefully we feel terrible about that at the end.
What point did you see how the other directors were approaching the found footage aspect? Were you aware of where they were going before you got started?
There was very little communication. We had ours completely mapped out when I first saw the wraparound, and I didn’t get to see the movie as a whole until it appeared at Sundance. All that any of us really knew was what basic idea all the other directors had, what genre subtropes they were going for, so that we wouldn’t accidentally make two similar haunted house or two Frankenstein movies or something. But I had no idea what the tones of those movies would be. Knowing the other guys and being a fan of their previous works, I had a sense of where they might go, and we hoped to play off of that. It works for me; I get to be a fan of the whole movie. I love all their films, and then I sit there feeling self-conscious about my twenty minutes.
Well you have a previous project as well that I thought was really great. You directed the first third of The Signal, which was also broken up into smaller pieces directed by other people. Were these two moviemaking experiences comparable?
Not really– The Signal was a different beast. V/H/S is really individual films by different individual directors. With The Signal, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry and I–all directors out of Atlanta who have been making movies together for a while– we wrote the story together, and concepted the whole piece together and made this strange, omnibus movie that sort of has a Rashomon quality to it. The whole film was built around this love triangle, and each “transmission” of the story was told from the perspective of one of those three characters. We figured handing each piece and each character out to a different director and kind of letting them go literally crazy with it was the best way to show just how insane and fragmented the world is becoming around these characters. And tonally each section is different, but it’s one cohesive story. And compared to the completely different segments in V/H/S, it was just a totally different experience.
Well, you know I did notice some similarities between your “transmission” in The Signal and “Amateur Night”– for one thing, I found that the most suspenseful moments in those pieces are layered over these much more common, but still terrifying, everyday occurrences. So in The Signal you have Mya [Anessa Ramsey] come home to her half-crazed boyfriend who is interrogating her and basically implying that he knows she’s cheating on him, while she tries to dodge his questions and play like he doesn’t know where he’s going with it.
And thats frightening even if you don’t know he’s turning literally and violently insane. In “Amateur Night” you’re forced into watching what’s kind of starting to look more and more like a gang rape caught on tape.
[laughter] Yeah, we’re always trying to find a pre-existing anxiety for the viewer to connect with. Get us into an uncomfortable situation and then build on top of that. The hope is that if you’re invested in the character, and build the tension so that when the actual horror happens, it has an effect, and even comes as a relief or a catharsis for us. So in The Signal we watch and say “oh, we would never cheat on someone, we would behave ourselves,” and a lot of people would warn me not to start a movie with an affair or you run the risk of making the audience hate the characters. But I think deep down we’re all guilty of something, and that’s where we can relate to what they’re going through. It’s very easy to fall into her shoes and be preoccupied with seeing her try to get away with the lie. And in “Amateur Night” we’re trying to push the limits of peer pressure. The guy with the glasses clearly doesn’t really want to be a part of this. He’s far from being the alpha male of the group. The guy who is in charge just builds this momentum that our protagonist is really just trying to hold on through. I think thats a really relatable place for a lot of young men.
I think it’s interesting that you call it “gang rape.” It’s always strange finding out what impressions people come away with in that scene. It all seems to come down to really tiny details, really based on the reaction of the female character. How complicit is she? How aware is she of the situation? It was quite a tightrope to walk because I didn’t want to make her a victim, but the guys aren’t really innocent either. You should be anxious watching it unfold, but not to the point where you completely disconnect from our main character. If he’s still on board and the guys bring the situation to a really dark place, can we still sympathize with him for sticking around?
And it’s interesting that you say that what it really comes down to isn’t just what’s happening to a woman in that situation, but how she reacts to what happens, even subtly. It’s why we have to have the idea of “no means no” really just beat into our heads at every opportunity. But here, of course, she’s not just a normal woman– she’s a monster. And we have to interpret the emotions of something completely foreign to us– how much is she a victim? Or is she plotting the whole thing?
True. And it was this weird thing– we found ourselves in the middle shooting just being very aware of that. Her lack of communication could come across as her not being in control of the situation. But of course as we move on we learn she’s very much in control. Hannah Fierman, who plays the girl in the red dress, had these really strong, creepy ways of showing that her character was in control. The scene in the car really sells that it’s her decision to come back with these guys. They think that they’re taking advantage of her, and the guys think they have this victory for tricking these girls into this situation. But she’s the figure that warns us that you’re not in charge.
Well, and this kind of brings me to something else I found in common between these two movies. And I don’t know if anyone’s ever asked you about this before, but both those segments happen to feature male nudity.
[awkward laughter] Yeah.
Which is pretty rare in cinema, although I guess more common in horror movies.
Yeah. And you know it wasn’t until I had a couple of nights reading message board posts from horror fans that I realized it might be a big deal. I think with The Signal it was far less planned. We wanted the opening scene with Ben [Justin Welborn] and Mya to feel more intimate; we wanted there to be a certain kind of intimacy, which meant nudity. But really we just couldn’t figure out how to get Ben in a wide shot with the TV without showing his bum.
Dan Bush was there with me and was pushing for it– no, man it’ll be this awesome shot of man vs technology, you know, like the first scene of The Terminator! And Justin said yeah we can do it, no big deal. So we got our cool sci-fi shot of a nude man walking up to the dancing madness on the plasma. And on “Amateur Night” it was much more particular. We knew from the start that we were going to do full frontal on Lilly, our female lead, because the whole point of the segment is that they’re out to film a porno. But we tried to corrupt that expectation in this one shot where the dress finally falls away, and we’re giving the audience just what we want, and then we see there’s something wrong with her feet.
And once we decided on all that, just the sexual politics of the piece, we thought, okay we can’t do that and not do full frontal nudity for the guys. It seemed appropriate to have one completely naked man, one mostly naked man screaming and hiding in the bathroom, covered with blood. And we get the fun shots with her in her contortion silhouette, while a naked guy brandishes a shower rod to confront her. We get this man vs. woman thing. And the actors were on board, they said yeah this is fucking great.
Well hey thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. We ran an interview with Ti West earlier this month, another Georgia-based director with a segment on V/H/S, and it seemed like it would be a good complement to get you, too.
Yeah, well it’s been such an honor working with these other directors on V/H/S. I had been a huge fan of Ti previously, and I’d say House of the Devil is my favorite of his movies.
Which has another connection, in that House has AJ Bowen, who also starred in The Signal.
Haha, yeah that’s right. And you know it was Ti who asked Jacob Gentry, who directed the middle transmission of The Signal, to get on board with V/H/S. Jacob couldn’t do it but he got me in touch with the producers on V/H/S. It’s been really cool to get to know that whole community of filmmakers. Adamn Wingard, and Glenn McQuaid, and of course Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence. Mostly I’m just blown away by how prolific those guys are. They’re just always making movies.
Well, and it sounds like you have some more movies in the pipeline as well; I certainly hope to see more out of you in the future as well.
V/H/S is currently available on Video On Demand and in select theatres.