With the documentary Rewind This!, director Josh Johnson has created a fine overview of the VHS era, covering the many different facets of the home video revolution. It’s not an easy task to tackle the whole format from different angles, but Johnson pulled it off, crafting something that’s part history and part call to action.
Last week I had a chance to sit down with Johnson as well as cinematographer/editor Christopher Palmer and producer Carolee Mitchell. Before the recorder got going, we talked a bit about Upstream Color, which at the time I had yet to see, and other things we’d seen or wanted to see at SXSW.
Since VHS is a broad topic, we would up talking a bit about the various aspects of the format, from collecting and archiving efforts, to video store memories and those unique rarities shot on video tape (one of which was put up on YouTube and I’ve embedded in the interview). And somehow there was even a little talk about professional wrestling.
[This interview originally ran as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the exclusive iTunes release of the film on August 27th.]
So what prompted all of you to get involved in a movie about the VHS and home video revolution?
Christopher Palmer: Jooooooosh…
Josh Johnson: The initial prompt was the number of people that I had seen or known there were still collecting video tapes years after they’d stopped being manufactured. They were all doing it for the same reason, which is that there are a lot of films that were only available on that format that haven’t maybe jumped to other formats. So it was this sort of amateur archival effort to preserve and continue to have access to these films. And I started talking to people, I realized that there was a kind of subculture or community that could be plugged into, of people who were really passionate about this. And not in an exclusive way but in wanting to share this material with people. And that seemed like a good thing focus on for a film.
The first thing I did was talk to Christopher about coming on board to shoot and edit and help out with the film. And [Christopher] brought on Carolee as a producer, and the three of us sort of talked about other types of angles we needed to explore so it wouldn’t be such a narrowly focused documentary. That’s how we came up with a lot of the other angles and approaches that the film takes.
There’s so much you could have covered with the subject matter. What made you focus on the different aspects of VHS that you have in the film?
Christopher Palmer: Umm, the desire to get as near to 90 minutes as possible. [laughs]
Christopher Palmer: We had so much content and we were talking to people– I mean we were talking to filmmakers, collectors, and people who were distributors, and all different kinds of people involved in the story. As we developed and as we traveled, someone would bring something up and all of a sudden we’d realize, “Oh, shit, we need to focus on artwork!” or “Oh, we need to focus on this other thing.” And so we asked all of those questions as it was appropriate to each individual person, and we just tried to distill it into a feature-length that would be digestible.
We really do have so much content that’s still excellent. It’s not like this is the bare minimum. It was killing babies the whole time getting rid of a lot of this footage to get it down to that length. Hopefully it’ll be extra features or something.
Like on a three-tape set.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah.
Josh Johnson: Another part of whittling it down was also evaluating all of the comments we had on a particular subject and then considering whether or not when added together it would be worthy enough to be an addition to the film. So we may have had several interesting comments on a particular subject, but it still didn’t feel like there was enough weight or information there that actually deals with that subject, and then the decision was that it’d be better to not get into it at all rather than get into it and not feel like we covered it properly.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah, like laserdisc. We were going to hit laserdisc hard, and then we kept looking at it and were like, “Well, this was a transitional phase; this was another format. Are we going to hit every format? How much weight can we give it and do it right?” And then we realized that we can’t. We have to move on. You know, mention that technology exists but just moving it forward to VOD and where we go.
There’s a community of VHS collectors. Did you ever find a Beta-collecting community anywhere?
Carolee Mitchell: Not Beta. We talked to lots of laserdisc collectors; or lots of people who collected laserdisc, or some people who specialized in it. We found people who had a few Beta here or there, but not like specifically Beta collectors. I don’t think we even heard about anyone who did that.
Josh Johnson: Yeah, the only thing that I’ve seen is that recently there is a Facebook community for Beta Max collectors and it’s very, very small. Like maybe 30 or 40 people, or something like that. That was just recent and that was the first time I’d ever really encountered any kind of group of people that were actively collecting Beta.
Christopher Palmer: And remember that [VHS and Beta] were going head to head with the same movies coming out at the same time. VHS has so many movies and videos of weird stuff out there that only exist on VHS. With Beta Max, you could have all that stuff on VHS. There was really nothing in particular that would make you feel like, “I have to have this Beta Max” other than the desire to have something that’s weird. And most people don’t have a machine that’ll play it, which I understand.
Can you talk about some of your favorite local video stores growing up? Obviously a lot of the love and passion for VHS comes from those places.
Josh Johnson: For me growing up it was actually not a video rental store for the most part. It was a video rental section within the local grocery store.
Josh Johnson: I would explore the aisles and eventually kind of memorize the stock that they had, because they didn’t really get new stock in more than a few times a month. So I would kind of go with a new title in mind that I wanted to get or an older title that I needed to have or wanted to revisit. And for years that was really where I went to. It wasn’t until I was older that we had a local chain video store.
For the most part it was that small operation out of the grocery store. And it eventually became really significant for me because when I was old enough that my parents let me ride my bike to the grocery store by myself, they just told them to put me on their account and I could rent whatever I wanted. So I would ride almost every day and get a new video and return them the next day on my bike and just keep that cycle going. I was able to see a lot to movies.
Christopher Palmer: For me there were two stores. One was attached to a supermarket. It was attached to a Kroger. I don’t know if you know Kroger’s — there was a Kroger Family Video. And it was cool that it was called Kroger Family Video because they had all these horror posters up and this fantastic horror collection: all this really raunchy, weird stuff. And so, you know, I worked my way through like all kinds of mainstream classic comedy stuff, but I also got to lots of horror that way.
And then when I decided that I wanted to know a lot more, there was this place called Hastings. And this is like Texas stuff, maybe. I’m not sure if it’s just the town that I grew up in, but they had an extensive collection, including weird shot-on-video stuff that nobody really should have. It was just amazing that in this town that may not be considered a cinema town the rental store had so much selection for you, and you could explore any genre.
Carolee Mitchell: And I grew up in the tiniest of all of the towns — I grew up in a really, really, really small Texas town, and we had two locally owned video stores, one of which is still open.
Carolee Mitchell: Like tiny, super mom-and-pop. And then there’s another one there that opened a little later. We didn’t actually rent that often. We recorded more than we rented. Like renting was something really special for us. My family didn’t really have much money at all so we did a lot of recording and rewatching things from TV, but when we did rent it was definitely something special. And so we had all kind of agreed what we wanted to see and that was the route we went. Though when I got a little older, of course, we’d go with friends and would pick out movies to see over a weekend.
There’s sort of a resurgence, especially in the Brooklyn area lately, of local video stores. I still haven’t had a chance to schlep to any of them., unfortunately. Have you guys made your way to any?
Carolee Mitchell: We’ve been to Video Free Brooklyn.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah, that place is nice.
Carolee Mitchell: It’s kind of amazing.
Didn’t he have a Kickstarter campaign for that?
Carolee Mitchell: He did. Yeah, yeah. It’s fantastic. I kind of pride myself in really knowing film well, and they have stuff I’ve never heard of. It’s very small — tiny, tiny small; about the size of a walk-in closet — but just amazingly curated. It’s pretty fantastic.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah. We’ve got in there and seen movies or even labels that we’ve never heard or never read about.
Carolee Mitchell: It’s definitely something special.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah.
Do you all collect VHS yourselves, or at least some nostalgic items held over from childhood?
Christopher Palmer: Oh, we all collect VHS, but different types of things. We all have our own interests.
Josh Johnson: Yeah, I think what’s consistent amongst the three of us as far as VHS collecting goes is that we’re all really interested in things that are only available on that format versus artwork that we like or just nostalgia that we have for a particular title. It’s usually more of an archival thing, that we want to have access to these films that we love because VHS is the only way to have that.
Christopher Palmer: Sometimes you have to check your titles and say, “Did this come out on DVD?” or whatever, or some format. You know, “Is it supposed to be widescreen?” “Is it accessible?” “Okay, now it’s time to take it out and give it to Goodwill or a friend or something.”
Actually, I did appreciate that pan and scan moment in Rewind This! because for the longest time when I worked at a video store, people would keep wondering about the black bars thing. It rang sadly true.
Carolee Mitchell: Oh, when my dad started buying DVDs he bought full screen because he was exactly that person who didn’t want to have the black bars. So he would buy almost anything — if it was available full screen, that is what he’d buy. And no arguing would make him change his mind. [laughs]
Christopher Palmer: But it’s so weird that the marketing industry has allowed up to or encouraged us to think about aspect ratio so that we buy this new format — it was another reason to buy DVD — and then so we eventually buy the new TVs to fit that. But it’s an education, that process.
Josh Johnson: It’s interesting that there’s a generation that’s much younger than us that now has primarily experienced things via the widescreen set. So it was important for us to in the film to visually represent the things that we were talking about so that it could be absorbed by people that didn’t go through this portion of home video history.
How did you decide who to interview in the film? Obviously you had to choose from a wide range of people.
Josh Johnson: We interviewed twice as many people as you see in the finished film, so a huge part of it was covering as broad a range as we could without necessarily knowing what things we would ultimately focus on, and then whittling that down in the edit. Initially we started talking to collectors and filmmakers and each time we would do an interview that would lead to four other suggestions of interviews that we could or should do. And we just kept following the trail wherever it went and thinking of new angles to explore.
And once we got into the editing room, that’s when we really figured out which topics we were going to get the most out of.
Christopher Palmer: It’s a very organic way of creating a documentary, just getting everything and figuring it out from what we had and what people are telling us, not trying to lead them anywhere — what did we really need to tell this story.
Carolee Mitchell: And we can’t forget to mention how important social media was in this. We were all very involved in Twitter, Facebook, so tons of recommendations from people and people reaching out to us saying, “I hear you’re making this doc. I have someone that you need to talk to.” So that played a huge role on the production of the film.
Josh Johnson: Absolutely. We got a lot of recommendations from people we did not know and had no interaction with whatsoever. They became aware of the film and reached out to us.
You guys Kickstarted the film.
Josh Johnson: Yeah, for completion rather than the upfront funding, so we’d been working for a couple years before we launched [a campaign on Kickstarter] to get the funding to complete it the way we wanted to.
How was the campaign? I’ve always wondered about crowdfunding through social media. Was there a learning process involved?
Carolee Mitchell: Well, like we said, we’re pretty involved in social media so we did a lot of research about the best practices. We had already been prepping any press outlet that we had friendships with and let them know that this was coming a few months before we even launched it. And then just following best practices and being very explicit about where the money is going.
I think the fact that we already had so much put into the film helped us get the funding. It’s a lot harder of you haven’t started it and haven’t put anything in to get people to give you money. But we have a great trailer, you know, we have a great teaser for it that showed the quality of what we’re doing, the quality of the people involved. I think that people had confidence that their money was actually going to lead to something that would be finished and successful.
Josh Johnson: The other thing that I think was really significant about it was that because we were so active in social media in cultivating an audience, we had a large audience for the film in place before the Kickstarter launched. So not just journalists, but there were also people that were becoming fans of this film before anything actually existed. When the Kickstarter launched, they were already right there aware of it and ready to contribute.
Let’s get back to the collectors. With the collectors that you interviewed, did you find any commonalities in their personalities or differences even?
Christopher Palmer: Well there were different kinds of collectors, for sure. There were ones that all about collecting en masse. There was certainly that. And there were some that I feel like were much more about the hunt: going out to flea markets, garage sales, and just that process. And then there was like Dormarth, who were just about getting horror and breaking it down into sub-genres. There were different kinds of collectors out there.
Josh Johnson: One commonality that we found that was very surprising to us — although I suppose it does sort of make sense on a certain level — is that there was a huge overlap between VHS collectors and professional wrestling fans.
Josh Johnson: So many of the people that collect videos that are featured — I mean, we don’t get into it in the movie — but in their personal lives, they really are passionate about watching professional wrestling. They may even tape it or have viewing parties. There was a lot of overlap.
Carolee Mitchell: That was surprising for me.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah. What do you think the explanation for that is?
Josh Johnson: I think just that professional wrestling in the form that it’s primarily known as now is something that really got popularized in the 80s around the same time that the video culture was booming, so I think it’s a nostalgia for the same time. But there’s no obvious overlap for me. I mean we’re all passionate about home video, and yet we don’t have any interest in professional wrestling. So it was a surprise to us.
I guess it kind of makes sense. I remember when I was still really into wrestling from age 10 to 18, I’d tape pay-per-views. Maybe that’s part of it too? I don’t know.
Christopher Palmer: I mean, nostalgia is a huge aspect to this, but it’s access too. We don’t want anyone to believe that there’s some sort of arrested development going on with our subjects because there isn’t. I mean, there’s so many different reasons to appreciate VHS and it’s still relevant today, which I think is the message to come away with.
And taking two steps back to what we were talking about a second ago, it’s a testament to how universal this story is; how powerful the home video concept was: to own it and control it. We were getting support from all over the world. All over the world people were like, “Here, yes. We want to encourage you to continue and make this project successful.”
How do you think streaming and online video have changed the way people experience movies?
Carolee Mitchell: There’s definitely a mass consumption aspect now, right? I mean almost anything you want to see is available immediately and you’re able to sit down and watch films 24 hours straight without ever getting out of your couch, really. [laughs] There is something about the fact that there is so much media that’s instantly available. I don’t know what that says, but there’s a complete difference.
Christopher Palmer: There’s a perception of infinite access. It’s this idea, and I think it’s false, that we have so much control and we can see anything we want at any time. And yeah, you can download things, you can bit torrent things, you can watch things on Netlflix, and we have a great deal of control, but in some ways we don’t. And I feel like that’s something people need to talk about now. You pay this money and you access this [digital information], but it’s an ephemeral thing, and it doesn’t exist in a way that you can resell it or hand it to a friend to say “Watch it.” And, you know, what does that mean for the future of being a film consumer?
Josh Johnson: What the home video revolution changed more than anything else about our relationship to movies was that concept of ownership. Once people had ownership over their movies they had a sense of entitlement to have access to these movies. It was considered dangerous to the studios because they no longer had that control to give or take at will. What’s interesting about the streaming phenomenon is now going [against that]: the studios can grant or deny access at will.
So the perception that the access is unlimited is in fact kind of false. The streaming revolution is probably the closest the industry has ever been to the way it was in the 1930s, when studios had a monopoly on the entire distribution system.
A movie is no longer an artifact — it’s intellectual property and digital information.
Josh Johnson: Exactly. And the control is completely in the studio’s hands.
What do you think that spells for the future of how we consume media? Especially if it does wind up going in that direction.
Josh Johnson: That’s a good question… It’s difficult to speculate, but I think one thing that’s going to change is that physical media is probably going to go away beyond being more than a nostalgia item, and there will be a lot of access to a large library of films.
What I think is going to go away is the ability to truly see anything that you might want, because [studios are] going to make things limited for a certain amount of time, they’re never going to pull their entire catalog and then digitize it. So the need to maintain some of these physical objects as they are released is going to be more important, because they’re no reason to assume that they’re going to be available in any other version, whether it’s on a cloud or something else.
And this sort of amateur archival effort is happening now with videotape collecting is going to become more relevant and more important, because it really will be clear that it’s going to be the only way to be seeing this material.
Are there any professional VHS archivists who are working or is it just the network of collectors?
Christopher Palmer: I mean aside from the torrenting community — which is really all it has been up until this point to get VHS content out there that’s only on VHS — there are a few start-up archives that want to digitize [VHS] and make this stuff available. Nothing is widely available at this point.
Josh Johnson: It’s starting to happen but there’s a lot of resistance within the archival community because there’s been so much time and investment put into celluloid archiving that to step away from that to start working on this is something that not a lot of people are very interested in doing. The reality is that the timeline is more urgent for video than it is for a lot of celluloid.
Christopher Palmer: Celluloid’s going to keep for a while. It’s more stable–
Carolee Mitchell: If properly taken care of.
Christopher Palmer: If properly taken care of, yeah — it doesn’t catch on fire. [laughs]
Christopher Palmer: Magnetic tape is [more finite].
They were saying 30 years, roughly?
Christopher Palmer: Yeah.
Have they starting to notice a lot of magnetic tape starting to go kaput? Is it just a matter of getting blurred or a steady degradation over time?
Christopher Palmer: It’s a gradual degradation. It’s not like it’s gone. It’s just more– I don’t know how you’d describe it. It’s looks like tape wear, you know? It looks like more and more tape wear.
Josh Johnson: Yeah, the actual timeline is not really definitive. Some tapes are aging better than others. It’s hard to know exactly what the lifespan is going to be, but that’s exactly why it’s urgent that this material be preserved as soon as possible, because the timeline is so vague.
The nature of nostalgia is something that I’m always interested in. You talked about the commonality of pro wrestling with collectors. Are there any other nostalgia items that are common to VHS collectors?
Christopher Palmer: That we’ve encountered?
Christopher Palmer: Some people were into tape cassettes, which was interesting because I don’t know if it’s possible that there are things on tape cassette that are not on vinyl or on a CD. But I feel like that is something that people are definitely harkening back to earlier time to appreciate.
Carolee Mitchell: A lot of the people that we talked to and a lot of the people that we know who are collectors really are focusing [on VHS]. I would say that with the majority of the serious VHS collectors, it’s not nostalgia-based — it is access-based, that it’s not available anywhere else, and if you want this movie, it has to be VHS. So it’s necessarily nostalgia.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah, I think it’s so easy… We’re very forgetful in this modern age. Something new comes out, and we’re ready to adopt it very quickly, which is cool — you know, we appreciate that, and something movies forward. But then we forget what we just had, and maybe even throw that stuff in the garbage.
I know for myself, and this is kind of stupid, but when DVD came along I was so excited about 5.1 surround — you know, I knew what that meant — and widescreen — I’ve been wanted that for a while. And I gave away my tapes. I gave away my tapes, and I kind of regret that, and it took me a few years to realize that there are a few things [with VHS not on DVD] and I really should give up on this format for the new one.
Josh Johnson: That’s not to take away from the function of nostalgia, which is also obviously a part of the film. As far as other commonalities like professional wrestling, I’d say skateboarding is something a lot of people had a lot of nostalgia for, and skateboarding was a popular thing in the media [of the home video era]. And also just a general kind of love for underappreciated cultural touchstones: things that were meaningful when you’re 15 that people dismiss when they’re 30. A lot of people that are motivated by nostalgia are really holding on to certain artifacts of a particular time of their lives and they want to be able to continue to celebrate it.
I totally have to ask about that shot-on-VHS western.
Christopher Palmer: Ah yeah.
Like seriously, how is it to watch that? Is it really as awkward as the clip in the documentary?
Christopher Palmer: Every. Single. Scene. It’s under two hours but it feels like three days.
Christopher Palmer: But it’s magical! I don’t know. Josh? What do you think?
Josh Johnson: It is absolutely that awkward, but it’s also that unique. I mean, it doesn’t feel like any other movie; it certainly doesn’t feel like a conventional western. Most shot-on-video movies tend to be action and horror, so even on that level of other amateur films it doesn’t really feel similar. So it’s a very unique experience. Good or bad, it stands alone.
Christopher Palmer: And that’s one that you cannot get on a bit torrent. You are not going to be able to find.
Still VHS only.
Christopher Palmer: Yeah.
Is there a prize item in any of your VHS collections?
Carolee Mitchell: Well, we have more of a Holy Grail item that I know Josh has been looking for.
Josh Johnson: I’ve really been trying to find this movie called Science Crazed.
Josh Johnson: Which I’ve seen but don’t have a copy of. It’s a Canadian film that was shot on 16mm independently in the late 80s and then realeased direct-to-video in 1991. And it’s a feature film comprised of about 45 minutes of footage and they stretch that out to a feature length by recycling the same footage over and over into different contexts and new scenes. And it’s sort of a fascinating editorial [experiment] to watch and study how they use a limited amount of footage to create a full-length movie. It’s just nowhere.
Carolee Mitchell: We can’t find it. We know a couple of people who have it–
Christopher Palmer: And one of them was a star in it! [laughs]
Josh Johnson: There were probably hundreds of tapes made but, they just seem to have fallen off the radar. We haven’t been able to find any. It never turns up on eBay or the Amazon marketplace.
Carolee Mitchell: We’ve been looking. [laughs]
Christopher Palmer: And what’s amazing about this era was that the people who made this film were able to go to mom and pop shops and be like, “We’ve got this movie. You should rent our movie!” And they sold this movie directly to the mom and pop store. You’d never be able to do that. You certainly can’t just walk into Netflix’s headquarters and be like, “You need to put this on Watch Instantly!”
Christopher Palmer: It’s just not going to work that easily. There’s a structure now. [But back then] it was so fast and loose that just anyone could do that.
Josh Johnson: It was a wild west industry during the early years of the home video era, and it’s really exciting to think about the film industry in those terms.