TEAM VHS: INTERVIEW WITH “REWIND THIS!” FILMMAKERS JOSH JOHNSON, CAROLEE MITCHELL AND CHRISTOPHER PALMER
Austin, TX based IPF Productions have recently finished their documentary about something near and dear to the hearts of many film fanatics everywhere and that’s the VHS tape. The often dirty, tall boxes that we all grew up with, fascinated by their sometimes hand drawn artwork. We’d spend hours on end in a video store on a Friday night browsing row after row of movies to find just the right selections for a weekend’s entertainment. The video revolution changed not only the film market and how we view movies, but also paved the way for where we are today with streaming movies and DVDs delivered directly to our doorsteps. It’s this change, started by home video, that they’re exploring in their documentary “Rewind This!” which is premiering at SXSW this Monday, March 11th at the Paramount Theater in Austin, TX.
IPF Productions is composed of friends, Josh Johnson, Carolee Mitchell and Christopher Palmer, a trio who are not only VHS collectors themselves but also regulars in the Austin film scene, attending the festivals in town and spending weekends working through new film watching projects and supporting other local film geeks. Once they had decided to pursue a feature length film on the history and influence of VHS, they received an amazing response. It has become clear that there is an audience with same nostalgia for these tapes as Team VHS, a nickname they’ve adopted. Josh, Carolee and Christopher took some time out to sit down and talk to Film Threat about their project, as well as how they funded their movie and offered up some valuable tips for other filmmakers who are interested in delving into making their own movies.
For our readers who haven’t heard about “Rewind This!” can you give us a general overview of the film and how did you come up with the idea for it?
Josh Johnson (JJ): The initial idea for the movie was to talk about or document the reason that VHS tapes still have a value, even though they are no longer being manufactured which, you know, is because there are all these films that are only available that way. Films that never made the jump to later formats. And then it expanded beyond that to cover the whole story of home video, the history of it, how we arrived at this point and the impact that video had on everybody.
There are three of you working on the project, so how did you all come together as a group and what roles do each of you play?
Carolee Mitchell (CM): Well, Josh initially had the idea and the three of us had become friends at Fantastic Fest. We’d see each other in line and had become friends and Josh had this great idea and asked us if we wanted to participate in it. And that’s where Team VHS came from. We all do everything in some way or another, but our official titles, I am more of the producer so I worry about money and things in general. Raise red flags, the party pooper!
Christopher Palmer (CP): And I shot and edited and usually recorded sound. It’s kind of crazy to take on so many roles in a feature film, but we were such a small and intimate crew traveling together. It just made sense. Josh is really the guy who did the interviews, totally engaged with subjects, coming up with a lot the ideas of who we should interview.
JJ: Yeah, I’d say that’s a big part of what my responsibility was in the project. Kind of figuring out what direction things are going to go in and then reaching out to try and contact those people and line up what we’re trying to get on film. Carolee ensured those plans were possible, and Topher was the person behind the camera who actually captured the footage and assembled the finished product.
Since its inception and to the finished product, I imagine the project has changed direction.
JJ: Initially, we just wanted to focus on the personal side of the story, but as soon as you start getting into the industry side, you realize that even the people involved with corporate entities, that it was personal to them. So, every aspect of the home video story has a kind of personal or human element to it. Anytime that we found a new angle to explore, it expanded the focus of the film in a positive way because we were getting a personal engagement with those interview subjects.
CM: It’s been extremely organic. And for every person we talked to, they turned us on to ten more people, and you know, different ideas or tangents or angles that we haven’t thought of before. We’ve let it organically grow. With any good documentary, you don’t really go into it with a well written script.
CP: Yeah it’s the nature of the documentary, you have to really roll with what you got. You have to change the focus as people change the focus for you.
JJ: Prior to shooting our first interview we had an idea mapped out of what the piece may be. And then that first interview dramatically changed what that would be. That happened every time.
Have you found there is a common thread between a lot of the interviewees you talked to?
CP: Absolutely. There’s a lot of nostalgia for some of the people, even in a younger crowd that I would not have expected. There’s also, we’re not trying to not just do a love story angle, we’re trying to talk to the people who feel like we’ve moved in a better direction and it’s good for us to let go of this other format. So we’ve had some luck in not getting just the straight up advocacy but something that tells it from different angles.
CM: And we all came from that generation. We actually saw our lives change because of film. When we first started we talked to these collectors, but even as we talk to just people, not just interviews, we see how deeply affected people have been by the advent of home video. So, maybe it’s not a common thread within just the subjects we spoke to, but common thread amongst the people that we talked to, even outside of it.
JJ: I think the thing that’s universal to the audience for this film, the people interviewed for this film and the people that are working on this film, the thing that transcends everything is the idea that our relationship to how we view movies completely changed with the advent of home video. Because then, the audience is in control of what they consume. And that was revolutionary.
What is your history with film making? Didn’t you start out young making movies? Is this your first feature film?
CP: Josh definitely started out the youngest.
JJ: Yeah I started making movies on a VHS camcorder when I was seven years old and that sort of carried through to the present day. But this is the first feature length film that I’ve done. In the past I’ve always done short films or music videos, smaller things. This is the first feature that I’ve attempted to do.
And you just felt this was the right time for this project or felt passionate about the subject and thought maybe there was enough out there to make a feature length film?
JJ: Yeah but it was also that I wasn’t able to secure money or financing for narrative features. The problem with shooting a script is that you need to organize it into a matter of weeks so it’s hard to do it without having the money up front. And the appeal of doing a documentary was that I knew it was possible to get started and make a lot of headway without having to sink any actual investment into it.
In any type of film making the funding is a tough part of it, so how did you guys adjust to getting funds to actually shoot? At its basic level, a documentary requires the camera and equipment but there must have been a lot of travel involved. How have you been raising money for that?
CM: Travel was definitely the number one expenditure that we had and we’re very, very fortunate that we have all our own equipment. We have cameras, we have everything we need. And we have a very small team, just the three of us so we don’t have to worry about a large crew to deal with. But yeah, travel is the big thing for us. Christopher had the great idea to do an VHS themed art show, and Rio Rita here in Austin was very generous to let us have it there. Lots of very talented friends and people in the community were willing to donate pieces and the proceeds from that show funded most of our domestic travel. We’re doing it as cheap as we can. Staying on couches, really keeping it cheap. We’re paying for a lot of it out of our pockets but yeah, that was the first fund raiser that we had and any kind of external money coming in to help out.
CP: We found that we could get a lot of good footage just going around central Texas even before the art show. We took day trips to Austin theaters, Dallas rental stores, flea markets, VHS sales in the boondocks, and other places and were able to get amazing interviews that helped us kind of figure where we were going initially. And the art show helped us start to expand and pay for things like plane travel. Then Kickstarter was a whole new thing.
CM: And I don’t think being anywhere but Austin we would’ve gotten as far as we had without spending much money. So many people have moved to Austin who are film fanatics, in the industry, collectors. We were able to get a lot done just from the influx of people who have moved to town. But yeah, Kickstarter was our big one to be able to finish filming. To tell the story the proper way we had to go to Japan.
CP: We had to go to Japan, go to go to Canada and go to go to Ohio.
JJ: I think one of the things that we really learned from the art show is that if you provide people with something that they may potentially be interested in purchasing anyway, and they know that the funds are going to these people that are trying to do something in earnest on their own, that people are highly motivated to be part of that. That if people like the idea of what you’re doing and you offer them even the smallest thing that they might have an interest in, they are inclined to participate. So we brought that mentality into the Kickstarter and tried to set it up in a way that people would get something out of contributing and since we weren’t asking for a lot of money it ended up wildly exceeding our expectations with what we could do with that campaign.
Was there a reason you went with Kickstarter over something like IndieGoGo or any other sources for raising money?
CM: Kickstarter has kind of become the standard. At Kickstarter you have to reach your goal to get any money. At IndieGoGo you get it regardless even if you don’t reach your goal. People tend to, as far as crowdsourcing goes, understand Kickstarter a little more. It was just something that was more common place and understood by people, so if you said “we have a Kickstarter” they kind of knew what you were talking about. That was a bit of a shortcut for us to be able to just do that.
What was the the feedback like on your Kickstarter? You guys wildly exceeded the funding that you wanted, correct?
CM: Yeah we hit funding in 112 hours from starting. Up to the moment that we launched we were considering going 60 days rather than 30 because we thought there was no way that we would reach our goal.
CP: We asked for $15,000 and we got $23,000. We were totally shocked how quickly we made our goal. We totally used social media to our advantage. I think with Carolee’s expertise in social media as well as Josh and I being interested in that area allowed us to promote our film from a technology angle. And I think that’s part of our story, that the technology is ever expanding and a lot of it started with VHS. Maybe this is a little bit of a stretch, but I personally feel it’s a lot about control and we are in a place where have more control than ever of our viewing experience and ability to create. I know I started making films on DV, in high school and DV had just come out and it was just the cheap new way to do it. And I used DV technology in college when I went to the University of Texas to make shorts and music videos and that sort of thing. And it was just like the VHS step, it was another cheap way that people had access to control the motion image.
JJ: With Kickstarter one the things that was really surprising to us, I don’t know if you can say it was viral, but it picked up a lot of attention that we weren’t anticipating. Prior to launching it we contacted all of our friends or people that we knew who were journalists and they did, they got pieces up, but there was at least that same amount of people that we don’t know and we don’t know how they found out about it that also wrote pieces. So, one way or another it seemed to get out beyond just our limited sphere of influence. It seemed to pick up interest in areas that we weren’t expecting and people were getting excited about it that we hadn’t targeted at all. It’s an example of technology that didn’t exist 10 years ago that made our entire project possible, really.
Once you started the Kickstarter did you find you had to constantly go out there on Twitter or Facebook daily to advertise it, or did you feel obligated to go out there all the time?
CM: We were very, very careful to not be too annoying.
CP: Yeah, nobody wants to be spammed.
CM: So we were trying to be careful, we made sure that announcements were made in the daytime, not at night. We were also careful when we launched it, that it was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, that’s when most people are online. Even if you’re at work, that’s when most shopping is done middle of the day on Tuesday. So we were careful when we made our communications so that what we spoke about and what we said was meaningful and got seen by the most number of eyes. I don’t think anyone watching was annoyed but we tried not to be too innocuous.
CP: There’s always the fear that you’re just reaching your immediate community group, that you’re not expanding beyond it. It’s reaffirming when outside folks, people from other countries, people you’ve never met show an interest in your film. There’s always that insecurity that this is only meaningful for my friends.
CM: That being said, we were very excited and blown away. We were emailing on our personal accounts “Oh my god, in 24 hours we’ve just reached 50 percent!”
JJ: As far as advertising and getting it out there I think we initially suspected we would have to do that but we reached the goal so fast that there wasn’t the need to be out there and advertising it. It would’ve seemed sort of greedy and self-serving to be out there and pumping it so heavily. I don’t know what we would’ve done had it not occurred that way, but there wasn’t that need to do it.
CM: We even came up with all these ideas about trying to sell the idea of, I even put a tweet like this, “Hey for your loved one, you can contribute and get a thank you in a feature length film’s credits for Valentine’s Day!” We were trying to think of some creative ways to maybe get people interested in donating but we really didn’t have to do that.
I saw through your Kickstarter fund that you even got an executive producer for your movie.
CM: Two, actually.
One is Panos Cosmatos, from “Beyond the Black Rainbow”. Has he given you any feedback on the film or will he have any input?
JJ: Panos is a guy that I actually started talking to via Twitter during Fantastic Fest. I mentioned the project and it was just something he responded to from his childhood of going to the video store and loving the rental experience. None of us have actually met him in person yet. He was interested in seeing a cut and providing feedback but I never got the impression he wanted to have too much influence on the finished film.
CP: And his movie “Beyond the Black Rainbow” I know really resonated with us. Something about the tone of it felt like something we can all relate to. I don’t know how to describe why that is.
CM: Well he’s definitely a child of VHS. That influence is there that resonated with us. We were all pretty blown away by it.
JJ: Well the opening sequence involves putting a VHS tape into a deck and depressing it. And if you go to his website even now there’s a faux VHS box for “Beyond the Black Rainbow” as the opening page. So, he was definitely influenced by the same stuff. As different as they are, I think both of our films might share an audience to a certain degree.
How did the trip to Japan come about and what sort of information were you looking for with your trip overseas? It seemed to be the last key part of your travels for putting together “Rewind This!”?
JJ: The technology was created there, and that was our initial interest in visiting Japan. The key people involved in the development of the technology aren’t still around, unfortunately, so we figured out pretty early on that we would be limited in how much we could document that. The video revolution was a global revolution, so there were many other areas to explore though. The direct-to-video market is very different in Japan. Directors can move back and forth between video product and theatrical product without it any negative association. In the West, the straight-to-video market is considered the movie ghetto. We wanted to talk to people involved in that industry. The worlds of animation and pornography also developed differently there, and we wanted to show a side of all these worlds that wasn’t just North American.
Did you have a guide that you worked with and helped you with interviews while you were there?
JJ: We did, a wonderful guide. Her name is Midori Inoue. She does a lot of freelance work in the entertainment industry with her company, Tokyo Media International. She guided us around the city, arranged the interviews, translated during the filming, and generally kept us sane. I suspect she will be a lifelong friend.
I know you’ve talked to some filmmakers during the making of the film, but has there been anyone you really wanted to talk to but haven’t been able to get in touch with?
CM: Mr. Kim is the only one. We were super excited to tell the whole story of Kim’s Video in New York which was one of the earliest video stores, probably one of the most famous video stores. Why they decided to stop carrying VHS, what became of the collection and there’s an amazing story around that. And we were hoping to get that entire story which would have required us to travel to Italy, which would’ve been awesome as well. But the whole time we were in New York we practically harassed Mr. Kim and we had some moments where we thought it was going to happen. So that’s probably our one miss. For the most part we’ve been blown away with the response and most people not only want to participate but get excited and want to take us under their wings and help us as much as they can as well. For the majority of the time, overall it’s been extremely positive and we’ve been floored by the response.
CP: Most of the time things work out for the best and totally surprise us. You can always assume where things can go in a documentary but you don’t necessarily have control of that.
JJ: I really, really wanted to interview Bob Saget. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is a great example of a type of fame/entertainment that home video created. I talked to his manager for several months, but we weren’t able to work something out.
So that being said, what has been the most difficult part of the whole process?
CM: Just working around our own schedules. It’s all very exciting and we want to get this done as quickly as possible but we all have day jobs. There’s a lot of planning and scheduling in the future that we have to do.
CP: Narratives are easier in some ways because you can schedule long days and have a specific time that you need specific shots, and in the end you can be very judicious, not end up with tons of footage and have a really clear direction before you even get to the editing booth. But certainly when it comes to a documentary you get a lot of footage, and you have to spend a lot of time going over it considering what it means, what it could turn into.
Did you edit as you go?
CM: Yeah, just to keep from drowning.
CP: And you also think you remember what an interview was like and then you watch it and are totally surprised to see what was really there.
CM: Or you forget some golden moments.
Response for the SXSW screening has been massive and we’re less than a week from the premiere. What has been the toughest thing leading up to the screening and how are your nerves doing?
JJ: The most difficult thing for me has been waiting. I’m really eager to share the film with audiences. That is what this is all about, after all. My nerves are fine for now, but I suspect an hour before the premiere I’ll start getting nervous about standing on stage in front of people.
What kind of release are you looking at? Are you going to do a VHS release?
JJ: Hopefully. We’re planning to, but the details haven’t been finalized. We’ll definitely be looking at more festival dates, and the rest of the distribution strategy is currently in the works. We’ll have announcements to make regarding how more people can see the film soon.
CM: At this point we don’t want to promise anything like that because we’re being very frugal with the money we do have. And making sure that it all goes into making the best film that we can possibly make and not tie into novelty. We all collect VHS so that would be cool personally.
Do you have other tips for any film makers who decide they want to start up a documentary?
CP: Just do it from where you can. From where it’s local and with the time you have. I think you can get a lot done before you really have to spend some money.
CM: Be nice to people and they’ll be nice to you. I think that’s gotten us along.
JJ: I would say the two things that are most helpful in film making and life in general are to be passionate and to be kind. If you’re following what you most want to do and you’re kind to people, you’ll be amazed how much support you’re going to get. The Hollywood mentally tends to be shortcuts and scrambling, doing whatever you can to get to the top. And in my experience its so much easier just to be nice to everybody and be open about what you most want to accomplish and an overwhelming number of people will help you do that.
CP: Your relationship with somebody you interview is not over after the end the interview. You can plan that they will call you later, you will call them later, and you will have a friend for life.
JJ: Just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity because that doesn’t exist. If you really want to make a film, you need to start making the film. For sure.
CM: And also have fun with it! It’s so cliche but the process itself is so rewarding and so exciting that it’s not necessarily about that finished product but about that path to the finished product. We’re having a blast with it. Every time we interview someone we all leave high-fiving and super pumped and excited to do the next thing. Its something I have to remind myself of every time things get a little bit stressful that we’re having a blast here.
Thanks again for your time and good luck with the premiere and SXSW as a whole. We’re looking forward to seeing the final movie.
If you want to know more about “Rewind This!” and keep up to date on the progress of the movie check out their website: http://www.rewindthismovie.com/.
Posted on March 7, 2013 in Interviews by Noah Lee
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