One of the best horror stories of the year is a found-footage-audio podcast called Video Palace from some of the folks who made The Blair Witch Project. We had a chance to sit down with co-writer and director of the podcast Ben Rock.
Video Palace tells the story of a man seduced by obsession. Chase Williamson (John Dies At The End) plays VHS enthusiast Mark Cambria, who comes across something unique: a white VHS tape filled with static and chanting. What do you do when faced with your own creepypasta-esque artifact from a bygone era? In 2018, you start an investigative podcast!
Cambria’s new hobby isn’t without side effects. For one, he starts chanting in his sleep. Yet, this troublesome development only fuels his desire to investigate. While his girlfriend Tamra, played by Devin Sidell (31), is supportive and actively contributes to the investigation, she’s a bit more cautious. That is to say, she is not possessed by obsession. Even when someone starts skulking around their apartment, Cambria’s inclination is ever deeper into the pit.
The tapes, the leads, the danger all seem to originate from a store, long closed, called Video Palace. Welcome to the podcast!
Ben Rock, a production designer for Blair Witch, just wants to tell horror stories. Horror is what gets him out of bed in the morning. Be the stories true to life or completely imagined, Rock connects with the experience of the characters. Especially the obsession.
That love for compelling stories certainly primed him to be a first adopter of one of our newer storytelling mediums, the podcast. He name drops several that hooked him hard, but I’ll tell you that Video Palace is every bit as addictive as your favorite podcast.
Rock shares that the story originated after an ad campaign pitch to Shudder. Mike Monello, another Blair Witch alum who now runs an ad agency called Campfire, pitched a campaign with Nick Braccia. While that didn’t take off, it opened the door for other creative pitches.
If you don’t know, Shudder is a niche horror-streaming service that’s hitting home runs with every choice they make. Those homers are coming directly from investment into the genre’s culture. For example, they gave indie filmmaker Mickey Keating his own half-hour show, The Core, to explore the how-to of horror filmmaking in his own inimitable style. One episode even featured the Soskas literally ripping off Keating’s penis mid-interview, which got my attention. And then they dissected how they pulled off the shot!
The streaming service talked Joe Bob Briggs into bringing back the Drive-In Theater with The Last Drive-In in July. The 24-hour marathon was so popular it broke the internet. Dead Wax, their episodic neo-noir thriller of obsession with occult vinyl, just dropped. They’ve also nabbed some stunning new releases, like Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge or Joe Lynch’s Mayhem.
Yes, I’m a subscriber and I love the heck out of what they’re selling. I’m not lauding their successes just to feel good about where I’m spending my money. Their curation comes from knowledge and love, and they let that drive their pursuits of creative content. And that is precisely what is responsible for the birth of Video Palace.
Given the recent successes of podcasts like Lore or Homecoming or Dirty John transitioning into television shows of their own, this isn’t small potatoes. Shudder is embracing a great way to try out new ideas on an affordable budget.
Rock talks about what it’s like to use his filmmaking skills to lean into the idea of telling a compelling story through a podcast. Up and coming filmmakers should take note. There are challenging and fulfilling storytelling opportunities out there to enterprising folks willing to step outside of the box to find their success.
If Video Palace finds a huge audience, there’s nothing stopping Shudder from turning it into a television series akin to Channel Zero. No matter what happens on that front, Shudder and Rock have put out some of the best horror content this year.
Check out our conversation with Rock. We get into the origin story of the podcast and then an in-depth discussion from a filmmaking perspective about the changing nature of the business and the value of trying out new mediums.
Before you go any further, do us a favor: click on over to iTunes and hit subscribe. Download that first episode. They’re all streaming on iTunes. Or, use your Shudder membership to get at them.
A Conversation with Ben Rock
William: When I realized I could get all of the Video Palace episodes via my Shudder subscription, I binged. I sat in my driveway just to finish episodes. The podcast is one of my favorite horror stories this year. So, with that exclamation out of the way, what’s the origin story for the podcast? As a long-time filmmaker, as far back as a production designer for The Blair Witch Project, why go the podcast route?
Ben: I quit my day job in 2000 because of my association with Blair Witch. I also wrote a bunch of the mythology and backstory for it, and I’ve done that on a few projects since then. But to answer your question, “Why podcasts?” I’ve been kind of obsessed with podcasts since 2006 or 2008, somewhere around when I bought my first iPod. It was around then that Apple’s iTunes Store started featuring podcasts, and I started listening to them, and it was like, “Where the hell has this been my whole life?”
I stopped listening to the radio and just fell into that world. I feel like until Serial came out, I would have to preface every podcast-related conversation with any random person with, “Do you listen to podcasts?” Because most people didn’t. I feel like Serial kind of broke it into the mainstream, and other things like S-Town have done a world of good for podcasts.
Mike Monello, who’s the co-creator of Video Palace along with Nick Braccia, and I had been talking about making a podcast just as a goof for ourselves on our own dime for like three years. What I think we’re seeing right now in shows like Video Palace is that companies are interested in developing intellectual properties to see if they have narrative legs. Probably one of the most accessible, affordable, and honestly fun ways to break into that is to do a podcast. I suspect you might see a lot more of that coming up.
I love the format. I love messing with it. As a filmmaker, it’s like, I’ve done a lot of things that kind of constrain the toolbox, you know? Making a feature film, you have a lot of freedom to work any way you want. But, it’s different with something like, say, a found footage movie. I made a bunch of spinoffs for Blair Witch that were TV specials, like The Burkittsville 7and Shadow of the Blair Witch. You paint yourself into a corner where you can’t just have any shot you want to tell the story. There has to be a reason that that footage would exist.
A podcast is kind of an interesting way to do that as well because it’s like, “Okay, every scrap of audio in this has to come from somewhere, so where does it come from?” You know? It forced us to get very creative, as much as we could, to kind of say, “What are all the kinds of sources?”
When Bob DeRosa, who was the co-writer for Video Palace, and I would outline an episode, we would actually make a list of how many audio sources there were. We’d go think that through before we wrote a full script. Like, we might realize, “Hey, this could be an answering machine message,” or whatever, and that would direct how we solved the narrative challenges for that scene. It was very cinematic in that way.
William: The mythology for Video Palace feels like it has a fully developed bible. Did you find that trying to answer questions as to where audio would have been obtained constrained or altered the way that you approach the creation of the mythology for the idea?
Ben: It became a storytelling device more than anything where the primary objective was to keep our audience engaged and awake. There are great podcasts, like Lore, where it’s just one guy talking into a microphone. They do exist, but that’s not what we were trying to do. In all of our heart of hearts, we want to make movies, but we’re actually here to make a podcast. So, let’s use the tools of a podcast!
As far as the bible goes, to me, one of the biggest limiting factors of this was we were trying to create the idea of an urban legend. Not that we were trying to make it super realistic. We weren’t trying to hoax anybody, but we didn’t want somebody to be like, “I’ve never heard of that bullshit.” Setting something at the dawn of the internet helped with that. Sure, there was an internet in 1997, but Video Palace wouldn’t have necessarily had a webpage back then. It’s easy for stuff to fall away, and that enabled us to kind of set the folklore back then.
In the chronology of the mythology that we created for this, it sort of has a mythology that currently goes back to the 70s, but could go back much further. The fun thing about that is then saying, “Okay, well what audio artifacts would even exist?” You get to episode six, and they find the answering machine tape from Thurman Mueller from 1997, you know, and stuff like that. That’s the fun of this project. You come up with something that would exist and then set about simulating it.
William: I love the way problem solving basic things like that encourages creativity. So, you’ve been kicking a podcast idea around for years. Why not just execute on this idea with your friends? Why go to actors, who were excellent by the way, for a performance?
Ben: Well, I know this isn’t a super controversial thing to say, but I’m a big fan of working with good, trained actors who are great at their job. Video Palace really only came up probably late or mid-spring last year.
Mike, who was the co-producer on Blair Witch, runs an ad agency in New York called Campfire. They do super weird, out of the box experiential stuff. Really, really smart, interesting stuff. He and Nick, who’s one of the partners there, had pitched an ad campaign to Shudder. While Shudder passed on the ad campaign it had opened the door for them to pitch other things. Like Video Palace, to which Shudder said, “We’d really like to do that podcast.”
Mike knew that a podcast was something that I really wanted to do and so he reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in writing and directing it. That’s when I brought Bob on. We’d been working together on a web series called 20 Seconds to Live, but honestly, Bob and I have been working together for almost 20 years, on late night goofball theater projects and stuff. We have a really good kind of shorthand with each other. Plus, Bob’s experience as a TV writer, most recently on White Collar, was really helpful when it came to breaking the story out into episodes.
To us, using actors was about putting together a great cast that could both help sell the idea and push the creative boundaries. We worked with a casting director named Leah Mangum, who I’ve been working with pretty much since 2003-ish. She’s married to Jonathan Mangum, who’s Wayne Brady’s main collaborator on everything, and she knows every fucking improvisor who ever lived. Improv acting turned out to be a big part of Video Palace.
Now, if I were to show you the Video Palace script, it’s 183 pages long. That’s for all 10 episodes. Each episode, they average out to about 20 minutes apiece. It’s scripted very specifically, but there are parts of it where the dialogue is in italics. This is a technique that I started doing back in the Blair Witch days when I wrote Curse of the Blair Witch.
I also used it on The Burkittsville 7and Shadow of the Blair Witch. And then there was a Hellboy special that I wrote and directed for the first Hellboy movie, called The BPRD Declassified. The technique is pretty simple and is used a lot for auditions. You just write up a bio. The wording of the bio is not the important thing, it’s the information that matters. In this, case, we used it for the recording session, specifically the interviews.
With really great improvisers, people like Joel McCrary who plays Jacob Manders or Kelly Holden Bashar who plays Amber Hutchens, I could give them free rein to embellish or to add a different understanding of the character. In the bio, I’ll imply how the character would feel about stuff, but they can mess around with it. So, when we sat down to do the scene with Kelly, it’s like Chase Williamson literally interviewed her. Now, there were questions in the script, but Chase could ask her other questions.
Bob DeRosa and I were in the room, so we might stop them and redirect them. But, the point is to keep it from sounding like the interview is just my words. I want it to sound like it’s spoken in their words.
There’s a certain way, an unconscious way, that we all know we’re watching an interview or listening to an interview. And, all interviews are cut to fit. So, with Kelly’s scene, maybe it’s only four minutes of the final thing. Her full interview was probably 40 minutes. But, that’s how long a real interview would be.
William: What was the time commitment like for the actors?
Ben: With the exception of Chase and Devin, no actor was there for more than four hours in the whole season. That’s because SAG does this stuff in four-hour blocks, so we were trying to be economic. It forced us to work fast, but not idiotically fast. We got so much more material than we needed.
In fact, if you heard it on Shudder, there are five bonus episodes. Those are the interviews with the real people. So Adam Green, Steve Barton, Sam Zimmerman, Brian Collins, and Eric Spudic. Those are all real interviews with those guys. I gave them bios as well, so they could give us info on the White Tapes. When I started trying to cut those scenes into the show, I had to chop it way down. But, like, Adam gave us like 30 minutes of really good stuff. I was like, “I can’t. We gotta do something with this!”
William: What was the overall production timeline for Video Palace?
Ben: Insane. If you’re used to making films, you’re used to shooting, let’s say, on an indie film, you might do eight, nine pages in a day. We were doing five pages an hour.
Ben: We recorded everybody in five days. We originally had six days scheduled, and our first day we only had, I think, 30 pages scheduled to record, but it was all the Devin and Chase stuff. So, if we went over, there was plenty more, because we had more space with two days that were mostly just the two of them.
We ended up doing like 42 pages the first day. I was like, “Oh shit. This is gonna go faster than we think.” Which is good, because that meant that we were able to cut a day of recording in the studio.
From start to finish, I want to say we probably spent four months. In earnest, we probably started in June, and we delivered everything in September.
William: The emphasis on the audio feeling authentic or genuine comes through in more ways than just the rhythm of the interviews. How did the rest of the sound design work?
Ben: Very interesting. One of the things I wanted to do to make it sound as natural as possible. We did all the sound post at a company called Diablo Sound that does lots of live installation stuff. They do Halloween Horror nights and lots of work for Disney. They’ve got great people who do production audio. The main sound designer we worked with was a guy named Jeremy Lee.
The way that it worked, they’re in Pasadena, which is kind of a hike from where I am in Sherman Oaks. And I had a new baby, so it was hard to get out there as often as I wanted to. But because it’s audio, and frankly because it’s audio designed to be heard in earbuds, it made life a lot easier. Jeremy would just send me stuff, and I would listen to it. I have professional audio studio monitors at home, so I’d listen to it on those, but I’d also listen to it on my earbuds, to make sure that it sounded like a real podcast.
At the beginning, Diablo had encouraged us to put everybody in isolation booths. I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. I want everything to feel like everybody’s in a real space.” We’d even kicked around the idea of doing all the recording sessions in the actual locations they would be recording. Like if it’s a scene in a car, we go record it in a car.
Because of the timeframe that we had, we ditched that idea. We went with this amazing company in Burbank called Icemen Audio. They did Exeter, which is another podcast that’s on Sundance now. They had a Foley stage, so it’s like a sound stage the size of your living room. Not a giant room to work in, but a big enough room that we could stage the scenes for the actors. We would block the scenes just like a play or a movie.
I had said we should give Chase an omnidirectional microphone because he’s a podcaster, so he can point it around, and the guys at Icemen did one better. They got a device called a Zoom H4n, which I’m looking at on my desk right now. I have the same exact one. It’s like a $200 gadget that you would use as a podcaster to record field audio. The guys at Icemen wired it right into their booth, and we had Chase in every scene pointing it around.
It’s a stereo device, too, so you get some positional audio out of it automatically, but we would have Chase hold it the way his character would hold it. Every scene it’s like, “Well, where would the mic be?” The mic becomes its own character.
In scenes like in episode two, where he’s chased out of the house by Shane Mueller, played by Justin Welborn, he’s literally running across the room. We got a diagonal in the room, and Justin actually chased him across the room, you know? You get the mic handling noise and all that. I’ve done a lot of ADR for film and the trick to making ADR sound real is to have them physically do as close to what they’re supposed to be doing as possible.
Ben: If they’re standing, you record them standing. Sitting, sitting. Laying down, whatever it is. Also, if they’re walking, you’ll have them walk in place or something, just so you get the right cadence and breath. That really helped with the blocking of the scenes to kind of listen to it and be like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound right.”
What we gave Diablo Sound was basically only the acting, but it was good audio of them being very physical. Chase is such an amazing actor to work with that in scenes where he’s sneaking around and breaking into places and stuff, he was literally moving around in the Foley booth.
Diablo had their work cut out for them in terms of creating the other side of all of that, and it was pretty amazing to work with them. That was pretty much how it went, and it went also just outrageously fast.
William: What was your biggest lesson learned in terms of storytelling? What changes from movies or television when it comes to podcasts?
Ben: I feel like one of the things that I never really thought about, even as a very avid podcast listener, is podcasts don’t function like movies and TV. They’re not trying to tell you the story with any efficiency, but rather just trying to tell you the story. Podcasts are more like novels that happen in your head. They’re meant for one person by themselves, alone, to listen to them. We all might watch a TV show together. Very rarely will me and some friends sit around and listen to a podcast.
There’s something very intimate and inefficient about podcasting that’s exciting to work in. You can have a character go off and explain stuff in intricate detail, or learn about a failed attempt to do something, for a long time. There’s an episode of In the Dark where the whole episode is her exploring a lead that was on a post-it note on the side of a box. It’s somebody’s name. She spends a whole episode trying to track down that person and finds five people with the same name who aren’t the right person. She goes into all the detail about how she found each one of them, and I feel like in a television show, you’d be like, “Fuck you. Get to the important part! Give me a montage, and then get there.”
William: Right. Right.
Ben: But this, it was like, no. Her journey is interesting because she’s making a point about how, “This guy is a criminal suspect, and I can’t even find him. Here’s how much effort I went through.” As long as it’s presented in an interesting way, it’s so much fun.
I feel like you have that ability, so in something like Uncovered: Escaping NXIVM, yeah, you can make a TV show out of it. They made a TV show out of Dirty John. I was watching a trailer for it, and it might be great. Eric Bana is in it.
William: Oh, wow.
Ben: It kind of looks like a made for Lifetime movie a little bit. It looks like one of those salacious movies, whereas Dirty John, I don’t know if you heard it, but it’s like, edge of your seat thriller.
William: But it’s the medium. It plays into that, where you can do that.
Ben: Yeah. Exactly. I remember hearing about Dirty John like six months after it was over, and then I sat in my house with the lights off and binged the whole thing in one day, because I was like, “What the fuck? I need to know what happened next.”
I mentioned this earlier, but I learned about Undercover: Escaping NXIVM that just wrapped up, maybe into its second week. Again, I was just like, “What the fuck?” I could not put it down.
In NXIVM, she goes into such detail about the branding, and it’s hard to listen to. I wouldn’t watch it for as long as she’s talking about it, no matter what it was. Nobody would watch it. You’d have the shot of the cauterizing iron getting close to her pubic region, and then you’d cut to a close-up of her face in pain, and that would be all.
William: Oof! That NXIVM story is bonkers and terrifying and, yeah. All the emotions. Speaking of obsession and things that get out of hand! There’s a lot of obsession in Video Palace. Especially with the preservation of media. You ever go down the rabbit hole of obsessive collecting?
Ben: When I was in high school, I was a huge fan of Pink Floyd, and I became a huge fan of Roger Waters. I found out that he’d done the soundtrack to an early 1970s BBC documentary called The Body. When the album was released, it was called “Music From the Body”. I went to Wax Tree Records in Winter Park, Florida, and special ordered it. It took like a month to get this fucking thing, and then I had this media that I loved.
There’s something kind of cool about it, but we were all personally curating media libraries, so we all had our books. We all had our music. We all had our movies. One of the great gifts of the DVD time was that they figured out how to make them affordable enough that people would buy them, you know? VHS tapes often were like $90, and no one’s gonna spend $90 on a VHS back then.
William: Dude, I remember that. Always return your VHS tapes!
Ben: While I was doing Video Palace, I watched a documentary called Adjust Your Tracking about VHS collector culture. In fact, Eric Spudic is in that. It was interesting to hear these people talk about curating and preserving VHS movies. There were movies that were made for VHS that will never see the light of day anywhere else. I worked on a few of them, you know? I did. True story. I worked for a director in Mobile, Alabama named David Pryor, who passed away about three years ago, but when I started, I was a makeup artist. I made monsters and shit for David, in Mobile, Alabama.
I think part of the concept for Video Palace is this is a guy who’s obsessed with being a preservationist. He’s not one of the hardcore people who would have been interviewed in that documentary I’m describing.
William: Is there more in store? Whether it’s more Video Palace storytelling or other similar types of podcasts for you and your relationship with Shudder?
Ben: At the moment, I don’t know. Working with them has been an absolute blast and they’ve been very encouraging. Honestly, the working relationship has been one of the best I’ve had with a network or whatever. I think it’s because I’m a giant horror fan. It’s the thing I love. It’s what wakes me up in the morning, makes me want to do stuff. You know, horror genre stuff. And they are, too. At Shudder, they get it. They understand that the genre is a bigger tent than just extreme close-ups of chainsaws going through people’s throats. It’s a lot more.
William: You’ve talked a lot about other podcasts that have made the transition to a visual medium and the desire for companies to field test new intellectual property. Is Video Palace an outside the box sort of proof of concept to generate funding for a movie or a show?
Ben: I think that a lot of people are looking at that model and saying, “If you can take a basic idea and break it out to an audience, and get an audience excited about it this way, it’s less expensive, it’s also a little bit more homespun feeling, you know?
William: Oh, for sure.
Ben: I mean, think about it financially. If you were to make a pilot for a TV series version of Video Palace, it would have cost 20 times what it cost. Maybe 100 times what we spent.
It wouldn’t be as long. It would be 20 minutes, 22 minutes, or 44 minutes, but our thing is almost three hours long. We have a whole season’s worth of content, you know? And we were able to do it as efficiently as we could. Now that I’ve gotten to the other side, there are inefficiencies I know we could do differently, but that all just comes from doing it and learning.
I think that the reason that Shudder is excited about doing this kind of stuff is they want to try ideas out that maybe could be a TV series or maybe could be a movie.
I don’t have a degree in audio engineering or sound effects design or anything. I don’t have a background in audio. I went to film school. I have a background in film. You quickly realize it’s just a different aspect of the same thing. If you’ve made a lot of films, you get how this works. It just means that your script is not visual at all. Your script is describing how stuff sounds all the time, and if you’re talking about something or you have something happen, you kind of go, “Well …” If you’re reading a screenplay and you can’t see it, you can’t hear it, you go, “Well, that’s bullshit. That’s just their sort of writer was jerking off.”
Ben: But with this, I think that obviously you could take an idea such as this and turn it into a TV series, or a movie, or a web series, or whatever. You could develop it into other mediums, media. You could make it into a comic book or a webcomic.
I don’t think you have to listen to it that carefully. We’re definitely self-consciously leaving little hooks into other stories that we don’t resolve in any way, and the idea is, that’s a path we can go down later, you know?
Ben: It’s kind of a Lovecrafty idea. One of my big reference points was Stuart Gordon’s movie, From Beyond, an HP Lovecraft adaptation, where there are these dimensions that are just around you, and you don’t see them. We kind of came up with the idea that there are eight of them. Now, there can be more than eight, you know? This weird cult that was Video Palace, they maybe only have figured out how to tap into some of them, you know?
Ben: If Shudder wanted to do a second season, I know all of us are pretty much on board to do that. If they wanted to do something else, we’d be down. It isn’t a bad way to develop a creative idea, you know?
Over the course of my life, I’ve gotten to the point where if I just get to make something and I’m happy with the thing I made, that’s enough. That has to be enough because you never know if it’s going to lead to anything else, and it’s frustrating to hope that it does for me. Just being happy with what we did is fine.