TT with HD: Nick Prueher
[Ed. note: NP rode the totter on the sidewalk in front of the Michigan Theater a couple of hours before the show started. He co-founded the Found Footage Festival.]
NP: How do you do it? Do you go ...
HD: ... how do you do it??
NP: I haven't been on a teeter totter forever!
HD: [photography ensues] One of these should work. If it doesn't, there's always Photoshop.
NP: That's true. Put some big mittens on me, wouldja? [Ed. note: NP is making an allusion to a previous Talk.]
HD: Okay, now we're ready.
NP: Yeah, let's do it.
HD: What I was struck by, when I was doing background reading about this project, was that you guys use the word "curator" ...
NP: ... "curator," yeah ...
HD: ... which has a whole set of associations that go along with that. So that was a conscious choice?
NP: Yeah! I think so, yeah.
HD: So when I think of curating, I think of something in a museum, you're interested in preserving something, there's also sense of "culling" stuff. So what associations to the idea of curating made you consciously choose that as a description of what you do?
NP: Well, I think that AFI--the American Film Institute--spends money and resources restoring films like Citizen Kane to make sure that the great films of the last century are preserved, and there are archivists who do that. And the Smithsonian, too, they're saving artifacts of American culture. But at thrift stores, we'd see these VHS tapes, like Angela Lansbury exercise videos, and home movies and training videos and stuff, that if they no one had stepped in they would just be lost for the ages, that was our fear.
HD: So wait up, Anglea Lansbury actually made exercise videos??
NP: Yeah, she made an exercise video called "Postive Moves"--it's very new age-y, she's in a bath towel, talks about ...
HD: ... she's wearing nuthin' but a bath towel?
NP: She's wearing nuthing but a bath towel, giving herself a massage. It's very disturbing.
HD: Wow. [laugh]
NP: Nevertheless, we think that some of those moments that are captured on VHS that are either regrettable or that people might not want to remember, are just worth as worth hanging on to as other works of art. And that's sort of highfalutin, because in general we just find this stuff funny. But I do think there is some sort of anthropological value to it. It says something about our culture that a polished Hollywood film doesn't.
HD: You also talk about the need for a particular tape to be "found" ...
NP: ... yes ...
HD: ... in some authentic sense of finding something. So the Angela Lansbury exercise video, how was that found?
NP: Found that at a Salvation Army in New York--that's how we find a lot of our tapes, at thrift stores, we'll stop at local thrift stores, Value Villages, Goodwills ...
HD: ... was it you personally who found that one?
NP: Yeah. In our first shows it was all stuff that we had found personally. Since we started touring--we've been on the road doing it for six years now--people send us tapes that they've found, or they'll come up to us after a show and just drop something off that they've found just before the show at a Goodwill. That's how we've been able to keep it going, by hearing other people's stories of how they found things and sharing those with people.
HD: So how important is it to preserve the origin story behind the finding along with the archiving of the actual tape?
NP: For us, sometimes the story of how you find something is just as interesting as what's on the tape. Sometimes there isn't a story. But when there is, I think it's worth hanging on to that and preserving it. That's what separates what we do with our show from a YouTube clip or something. Apart from the fact that you're watching it in a theater with other people is the fact that we have somebody taking you through it and sharing the story of how it was found, putting some perspective on it that is lost in a little 30-second clip.
HD: Right, so you could just take all this material and just schlock it all up on YouTube.
HD: So what you'd miss is that you and Joe are up there in theater, telling you what you're about about to see, and commenting on it, sort of Mystery-Science-theater-esque ...
NP: ... definitely. I was an intern on that show ...
HD: ... you were an intern on Mystery Science Theater?!
NP: Yeah. You know all those things were influences. We grew up basically being smartasses, and making fun of television, like that's what you did in our small town in Wisconsin. So when I saw Mystery Science Theater and stared interning there I saw that you could be paid to be a professional smartass, you know, this is a career aspiration. So we took this little hobby of collecting videos and showing them to friends, and decided to rent out a theater and see if people would come to see it. And we were surprised, people really did. It really struck a chord with people.
HD: So when you were an intern with Mystery Science Theater, what was your actual day-to-day?
NP: It was like copying scripts and helping out--you know when the doors would open that would lead you through the tunnel? I was behind the doors and opening them on the set.
HD: Did you have a credit at the end?
NP: Yeah, yeah. You know it was for a semester. And then I did some production assistant work on it after that.
HD: I wanted to follow up a little bit on the criterion that the tape has to be found. Thinking about training videos, there had to be companies that got very good at churning these things out. And someone was directing them. So just hypothetically, if some old training video director said, Hey, here's my whole library! It would be great to have all the footage, but it would also seem like it would violate the spirit of the enterprise.
NP: It would be tainted somewhat if that happened. But, that said, in this new show, there's a video that we found in a Wisconsin thrift store, it's "Sing Along with Frank Woehrle." It's sing-along video of this older guy with a mustache singing classics from the American songbook set against a green screen. And they had like this very charmingly low budget tape, and then we found another one and we thought, It's a series! We need to get the rest of these!
HD: Do you have any language learning stuff?
NP: Yeah, let me think. Yeah, we do. I don't think we ever included it in a--no, actually we did. In last year's show there was a former ESL teacher--English as Second Language--teacher who hosts a local cable access show in Austin, Texas. He just over-enunciated everthing, like: I AM GOING TO THE STORE NOW. And then the scenarios got more and more bizarre. He'd say, "I like eating chicken every day." And there'd be footage of him eating a chicken wing. Just bizarre stuff. In one of them he runs out of a house and says, "Help, there's a drunk man in my home!"
HD: That happens pretty often, so you need to know how to say that stuff.
NP: And then we actually tracked him down and did a bit with him ...
HD: ... was he able to understand your interest in him?
NP: Yeah, I think so. He said that people around town would say, Hey, it's the Language Guy!
HD: So he'd achieved some measure of local notoriety.
NP: It seemed like it. But whenever we've met the people behind the videos, I think they understand that people are having some fun, but it's not mean-spirited. So everyone without exception has been flattered by it. Even people we thought might be angry are like, Hey, it's attention, you know. This moment I forgot about that ended up on tape and now is being celebrated by thousands of people across the country, it's kind of cool.
HD: Is there any one moment from tonight's show that you would point to as your absolute favorite? If you had to chop away everything else but one?
NP: There's a really good one, and this is an example again of something we had found and then supplemented it. This public access show, we found a tape of it from Long Island, New York, it was hosted by this guy who is a pet store owner, it was like a pet advice show. And you could call in and ask questions. And I guess to make it interesting, he brought in a bunch of pets, like animals that would never exist together in nature, and put them on a 3' x 5' table and let them run amok.
HD: A 3' x 5' table??
NP: Yeah, a three-foot by five-foot table. Like a chinchilla and a snapping turtle. Or a porcupine and a monkey. You know a mongoose and a snake. He'd put these mortal enemies together and of course it's chaos. There's animals falling off the table and it's just utter chaos. I just had one episode. And I wanted more. Somebody contacted us on Facebook and said: I was an editor on that and I have three years worth of this show. So he sent us the whole lot of it. And we cut together about four minutes of our favorite funny parts of that show. And we open the show with it. It's just animals falling off tables and stuff like that. It's a highlight.
HD: Listen, I know you've got to go prep to do the show, you've got two hours. Thanks for riding the teeter totter with me.
NP: It's been fun. I haven't done this since I was a kid.