Is your life worthy of your Instagram account? You do your best. You scour endlessly for the right angles, searching for the perfect lighting and relying on a trusty filter when all else fails. Capturing your identity on your phone is real work, but the true physical and mental trauma occurs while you’re waiting for the little hearts to turn red. Did you do a good job? Is your feed valuable? If the last shot fails, you move on to the next one, racking up nearly infinite documentation of your life. Every waking second can be preserved in amber for some poor, exhausted archivist to sift through in our grim future.
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to freeze a moment in time, then you had to work for it. A camcorder with a VHS or Betamax was required. The strip of magnetic tape within was limited, and could easily be damaged or erased if not carefully stored. The videos were precious artifacts, hidden like family treasure inside walk-in closets and basement libraries. To tamper with such cherished joy was criminal and punishable by death or parental belt. To record the latest episode of Star Trek atop your father’s basketball game required brash adolescent bravery.
VHYES celebrates this particular danger. Shot entirely on VHS and Betamax, the film is a riotous comedy depicting young Ralph’s adventure as he dares to record his favorite late-night programming over his parent’s wedding video as well as his own misspent shenanigans around the neighborhood. While Ralph channel-hops through porno sets, infomercials, and public access nightmares, we are trapped as witnesses to this special realm of nostalgia hell.
The film played like gangbusters at Fantastic Fest. Equal parts Kentucky Fried Movie and Freddy’s Nightmares, VHYES is a true blast from the past expertly concocted by director Jack Henry Robbins. As you’ll hear from the conversation below, stitching these 72-minutes together was no simple achievement and required about as much tremendous effort as that inevitable Instagram sifter from the future. Lisa Gullickson and I gathered inside the Highball’s Inferno themed karaoke room in Austin to chat with Robbins as well as his cast, including Tim Robbins, Kerri Kenney, Mason McNulty, and Rahm Braslaw.
The gang was riding high off their screening and wanted to talk to each other as much as they wanted to chat with us. We dive into the wave of nostalgia that VHYES rides and how the young cast connected with such outdated technology. From there, the conversation turns to why Jack Henry Robbins needed to tackle the permanence of memory in such a painstakingly brutal fashion, and how he convinced others to join him on this venture.
Here is our conversation in full:
Brad: VHYes feels like it was practically made for the Fantastic Fest crowd.
Tim Robbins: Oh, my God. It was so great. What a great screening.
Jack Henry Robbins: I think it’s the kind of movie that you have to to see in theaters because it draws you in. It sucks you in a little bit and you get stuck in it in a way, which is the intention. Of course, it’ll end up online or whatever, and we’ll see.
Lisa: The film captures such a nostalgic time for me. That time when television went from something ephemeral, where you have to be staring at it because God knows when you’re going to get to see it again, to something that you can capture and something that you can keep. It’s kind of a perfect metaphor for youth. Childhood is also fleeting and you have to keep what you can.
Jack: Well, one element that’s really interesting to me is how VHS was the birth of being able to record your life cheaply and reproduce little moments as if they were important. All of a sudden you were able to record some random thing you would see on a Sunday morning show that you would never watch again. We do that kind of thing to the max now. That’s every day of our lives. We take photos we’re never going to look at again. So for me, using this kid’s journey at the birth of this moment represents today’s culture. It’s a cool way of portraying the impermanence of your life and how you record it, and then it’s physical and it’s there, but then it’s not really something real.
Lisa: When you first started using VHS, to record television, you really did feel like you were getting away with something.
Tim: And then you had to choose what was most important to you. It wasn’t limitless, the amount of video cassettes you had, right? If you weren’t going to be home, you could record your favorite show or something. It forces you into a decision of what is my priority, right? What I loved about it was that you took the ultimate priority, a wedding, even that is fleeting in this world, your memory of a wedding.
Brad: Yeah, for sure. I never recorded over my parents’ wedding video, but I definitely recorded over some of my dad’s sports programs.
Kerri Kenney: I feel like there was this thing about how you could hold these memories in your hand. You could hold in your hand these photographs, these VHS tapes, and when someone passed or when you were moving, you physically took those memories with you. Now we live in this time where everything’s in this random cloud somewhere and it’s not tangible. What I loved in this movie was that you’re sort of watching this tape almost as if it’s a character in the film going through the passage of time and collecting these memories. And the memories are changing and the memories are becoming something different. The physical tapes in our lives back then had their own life.
Brad: Right, and when you recorded a movie from television, the movie transformed with the addition of commercials.
Kerri: Well, now we watch them back and you see the commercial and it’s really revealing the time more so than the film itself.
Tim: I still have all my videotapes. We were tempted to use real commercials in this film, but you can’t do that. There are some commercials that were amazing. When I was a kid, my dad had a Super 8 camera, like a film camera. That was expensive. You had to really choose what you’re going to record.
Jack: And it recorded for what, every minute and a half?
Tim: Yeah. Every minute and a half. And so I have these select visual memories of my childhood from that. Now you have tapes and boxes and boxes of tape, every single baseball game, every single school assembly. Everyone’s lives have been documented so, so much and now it’s just out of control with it.
Kerri: Now it’s real-time.
Tim: Yeah. That’s the thing. We have those boxes of video cassettes for his generation. Now it’s all up here [in the cloud]. All your memories are up here.
Brad: Yeah. And hope it lasts up there.
Kerri: Right. Yes.
Brad: How did you, the young stars of VHYes, comprehend the backward way of VHS tapes?
Rahm Braslaw: Well, I know how technology advances and I understand that that’s how they used to watch movies back then and it’s very different from the way it is now. I haven’t watched a lot of stuff on VHS. I think I saw Toy Story on VHS. I’ve used discs, but mostly I use online movie services. A lot of people now don’t even have real TV channels and stuff. They just have Netflix and stuff like that.
Lisa: Can you imagine prioritizing your memories? Because when we used VHS, we only had a couple of hours of tape. I can’t even remember.
Lisa: Yeah. Two hours, geez.
Tim: But they had the six-hour tapes too. You had to record at a slower speed and the quality was not as good.
Brad: Yeah, it looked like garbage.
Lisa: So you only had a limited amount of space to record your life. Can you imagine having to pick and choose what pictures you’re going to take, what video you’re going to take?
Rahm: I mean, yeah, I can understand. I think a lot of people now film their selves way too much. On some of those social media apps, they spend 15 to 20 hours in a three days span on this one app just taking videos and taking pictures of themselves instead of just actually going and making memories and documenting that instead of just lipsyncing to some song.
Kerri: Good man. The future.
Lisa: What was your shooting schedule?
Jack: Well, we shot over 15 days with 80 cast members. We had something like 15 locations. It was one of the hardest things ever. Our production truck got stolen on week one. So we lost everything but the cameras.
Jack: Yeah, it was crazy. So we had some huge obstacles because they were really hard, working VHS in pristine cameras. We have six of them now. We had the market down. [Laughter] We had 15 days shooting and then we ended up doing three or four re-shoots after the fact that focused more on Ralph’s character. That was important for us to extend that story.
Lisa: How impossible was this to edit?
Jack: Obviously, we didn’t edit on tape. We processed everything digitally and then started editing. The editing process was wild for this movie. It took eight months to get it right. We had four different test screenings because each part — if it’s too long or too short, it affects the other parts because it’s all told through channel surfing. Every cut has to deal with the last cut and they all have to go together. And sometimes they interact with each other. There’s probably an hour of hilarious content we had to erase from the film. There are whole segments that are not in the movie, not because they’re not funny, but just because there’s only so much space. It’s a 72-minute movie.
Tim: And they take you out of the world a little bit.
Jack: Yeah. It’s 72 minutes and it had to be around there. It couldn’t be 85. It was just the way that it’s designed. We wanted to get you to come back. It’s like you can re-watch it and watch it again. The more and more you watch it that you can see.
Brad: And how did you determine what kind of commercials to include, and what kinds of programs to record to tell this particular story of Ralph’s journey?
Jack: There were certain aspects of late-night television that we wanted and that are just in our memory banks already. Everything from infomercials to the Antique Roadshow to QVC to porn to these things that, as a kid, you’d stay up and watch this kooky world of VHS because VHS was the invention of something where everyone can now have a camera for good or for worse.
Tim: Those cable weirdo shows.
Jack: Punk was another thing we really want to do, like a punk show. Things that kind of existed because of VHS. We then became inspired by different ideas that we just came up with and fit them into places. We could make another movie with all the stuff that we decided not to shoot.
Brad: That’s for the Blu-ray.
Lisa: Particularly when the wave of nostalgia really hit me was in the Painting with Joan segments. As a kid, I watched channels 32, 24, and 26 because those were the public television channels my Christian parents would allow me to watch. I definitely got a Bob Ross kind of vibe from you, Kerri. Was he the main inspiration for Joan?
Kerri: Well, first of all, the painting segment was shot a year and a half before.
Lisa: Right, because there was originally a short, right?
Kerri: Yeah. That was the short. In case you noticed why all of a sudden I gained and lost 45 pounds in the middle of the film.
Lisa: I did not notice.
Kerri: As a side note. [Laughter] Well, certainly Bob Ross. I was raised on Bob Ross and I’m still kind of obsessed with Bob Ross.
Lisa: So is everybody.
Kerri: And a total footnote, I just found out that his family is not selling any single painting of his and that they’re storing it, which I think is just so beautiful.
Brad: In our hometown. They’re all in a warehouse in Herndon, Virginia.
Jack: Oh, wow.
Kerri: I unabashedly loved him. Love him! And there was just a quiet beauty to him. So, with Joan, it is really super funny and it goes on this wonderful tangent, which is my favorite kind of comedy, but you don’t see it coming and it gets really dark. I do also worship that kind of purity of Bob Ross, and that kind of innocence and that kind of beauty in a person that’s unapologetically just pure and not worried about what you think, but then I’ll hit you on the side of the head with something completely inappropriate.
Jack: I’m actually curious about something. Joan is obviously in a different universe, stratosphere than Bob Ross. In Joan’s mind, what does she think? What kind of person in your mind is Joan? I’m just actually curious about that.
Kerri: Honestly when you say that she’s different than Bob Ross, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. I mean, remember we would watch him and say, “What planet is this dude from?”
Jack: Yeah, that’s true.
Kerri: Who talks at that pace? What is it?
Tim: I think she might be his mother or sister or something
Kerri: Yes. I think they were probably raised in the same sort of off-the-grid. I don’t think she knows really what a camera is maybe. It’s just this other being that’s in her space that she’s talking to. I think she’d be doing it anyway. Yeah. I mean I think it’s a really, really fun, beautiful character that you created and I got it right away on paper. I got it right away, and it was such a beautiful sort of monologue of insanity that started, Oh, I recognize this too. Where the hell is this going?
Tim: There was also, by the way, Motorcycle Repair with Joan.
Jack: Or Cooking with Joan.
Kerri: More for the Blu-ray.
Brad: I want all that.
Jack: The Blu-ray’s going to be long.
Lisa: All of this parody stuff was a huge juxtaposition to the scenes about Ralph’s family and about Ralph’s life. And I think that you evoked some really wonderful performances from your young leads. Mason, what was it like working with Jack?
Mason McNulty: It was actually really fun and amazing working with Jack. He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
Jack: Good answer.
Mason: The scene that brought back the best memories was the Christmas scene.
Rahm: Oh yeah.
Mason: Because I remember getting my iPhone X for Christmas, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” And I went on the camera literally and started recording everything.
Lisa: Back in my day, you never got the right batteries for your gift, and I would be so mad.
Tim: I can’t tell you how many toys I put together on Christmas morning. So tense. “Is it done yet? Is it done yet?”
Jack: That’s funny, though, that you actually have the same experiences as you in the movie.
Brad: Everything is an unboxing event on Christmas day, no matter the decade. There is a thrill to wrapping your hands around the latest technology whether its an iPhone X or a VHS player.
Kerri: VHS started as a sort of an elite thing at first. I don’t know if you remember, but in the very beginning, we had Betamax and it was a couple thousand dollars.
Jack: Yeah. It was expensive.
Kerri: And then it quickly became more commercial.
Lisa: I also remember it being this huge, heavy thing. We had to connect the camcorder to the TV, and we used my youngest brother’s stroller to hold all of the equipment.
Jack: Our cameras on the film were really interesting to deal with. They had to be plugged in at all times for them to work. So we actually had this system where we had computer charging batteries that could handle high voltage and we had backpacks on at all times for them to plug into.
Kerri: Did people try and talk you out of shooting on VHS?
Jack: This guy did. My father did.
Tim: No, I didn’t.
Jack: Well, at first you did. Yes, you did. Well, you asked, “Can we just do it on digital and figure it out and make it look like VHS or print it?”
Kerri: Which to me is the obvious question I would’ve asked.
Jack: Yeah, I mean totally. And the truth is, people do that. Tim [Heidecker] and Eric [Wareheim], at first they did all tape and then they did digital and treated it. But our thought process was pretty much there are elements of filming on a camera like this that you can’t recreate. So, for example, the focus shifts, you can’t recreate that on digital. The zooming, the imperfect zooming you can’t recreate. And to me, that was so crucial to the comedy and to the field. But it was scary to have a box full of VHS’ at the end of our shoot that was our entire dailies. Un-captured because we didn’t have time to DIT on set. After a big shoot, you’re sick and you’re crazy and it’s been 30 days of just effort. I looked at the box, I looked at my house. What if a leak happens or a fire? For three days, I stayed up. At night, I would set alarms every three hours. I just stayed up.
Lisa: Because they transfer in real-time, right?
Jack: Yeah. They transfer in real-time. The first day of work I realized that the VCR I was capturing on it wasn’t giving us high resolution enough.
Lisa: Oh, God.
Jack: So I actually had to switch out the VCR. So I stayed up for three straight days and just digitized every single tape.
Look for VHYes in some form (but maybe not VHS) soon, courtesy of Oscilloscope.