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Found Footage Fest: A home for lost tapes

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You might think of the Found Footage Festival, a traveling roadshow featuring the finest in dumpstered, thrifted and otherwise cheaply-procured VHS cassettes, as a cross between, appropriately enough, Found Magazine and the cable puppet show Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Like Found Magazine, the festival collects discarded ephemera: home movies, exercise videos made by not-even celebrities, public access talent shows, how-to tapes on potentially creepy subjects such as hypnotism and ventriloquism, ill-advised concept videos (on this go-round of the festival, a couple disasters: Linda Blair's How To Get Revenge and Rent-A-Friend).

And like MST3K, the festival's hosts, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, add their own take to the sometimes excruciating original material, making some jokes via voiceover, working up their own skits between segments (including, on this tour, a short featuring comedian Bob Odenkirk), chopping out the boring parts to get to the meat, the most boneheaded, unintentionally funny moments.

Prueher spoke with NUVO in advance of the festival's stop this weekend at Big Car Gallery. A screening of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a documentary short filmed in a parking lot before Judas Priest show in Maryland in 1986, will precede the festival.

Nick Prueher: When I grew up, what we'd do for fun in our small town was sit around and make fun of videos and bad television. That's where we all are the most comfortable. Joe, the other guy, and I have been friends since sixth grade, and that's pretty much all we do, that's where we're most at home. It was natural when we started finding videos at thrift stores to have that be the source material and to entertain friends in a living room. And when we got up to New York, there was a lot of alternative comedy going on. We had this huge collection of tapes at this point, and we thought, Let's try it, let's try to make this into a show and see if anybody shows up. And I think it just hit at the right time, where people were ready to appreciate this stuff from the VHS era. I think YouTube started just after we started the show, so it seemed like a convergence of all that stuff; people were just right for it. And people showed up, we started getting offers to bring the show to other places and it'll be seven years since we started the show in April.

NUVO: Have you ever found anything too disturbing to use?

Prueher: We clearly don't shy away from the disturbing as long as it gets a funny reaction. There's only been one we've outright said "No" to. I don't know how best to describe this for print. It's a fan video that was sent in to the guitar player Steve Vai. A friend who was in a band gave us a sixth-generation dub of this tape. And it's this woman staring into the camera talking to it like it's Steve Vai: "Steve, I love your music, and I'm going to prove how much I love you." And then she proceeds to do various stunts, like blow out candles and make noises, with an orifice other than her mouth. It's goofy, there's no denying that it's goofy, but this woman has this dead-eyed stare and she just clearly has a few screws loose. So for us, it's always been a little more disturbing than it was outright funny. So we've rejected that for a live show. But flapping wieners, there's nothing wrong with that; we have no qualms at all about full-frontal male nudity in close-up.

NUVO: It's been said that Heavy Metal Parking Lot was made at a perfect time: cameras were increasingly accessible and portable but people were still impressed by them, and metal was at its silliest.

Prueher: It was a perfect confluence of things and it was also that they were at the right place at the right time. They had access to a video camera from a public access TV station and had the foresight to go down to the Judas Priest parking lot and capture the colorful characters there. And because cameras were new, everyone thought it was MTV and was more than willing to go up and chat with them. It was the perfect storm, and because of that it's an amazing time capsule...Like our stuff, it was never really commercially released because of rights, but it was one of these underground tapes that you had to get by trading with other people, where when you got a new piece of material, you gathered all of your friends together to watch it. I feel like that's something that doesn't happen in this era of YouTube. The way you share a video now is someone sends you a link and you post it on your Facebook wall, and you watch it on a little two-inch window on your laptop or work computer, get a few chuckles and kind of forget about it. If anything, I feel like we're trying to recreate that tape-trading era where you find tapes and you do a show-and-tell for your friends. And in this case, you're projecting it on a big screen and putting it in on in a theater for 200 other people.

NUVO: Is maintenance much of an issue? Do VHS tapes have a short shelf life, even when well-maintained?

Prueher: Yeah, they do. A lot of them break and we have to repair them. Sometimes they get caught in a VCR, so you have to have your head cleaner around. So there is a lot of maintenance involved. I know we didn't start the show to do this, but we're kind of preserving these moments, these tapes that could have been lost forever. The Smithsonian does not have a collection of VHS exercise videos in a temperature-controlled vault somewhere, so we're doing our part.

NUVO: Could you tell me a little about Dirty Country? It's based on the story of Larry Pierce, who's based out of Middletown, Ind.

Prueher: That's based on another thing we found, a cassette tape we found in Wisconsin when we were on a road trip. We looked in the truck stop comedy section for something to entertain us and found this tape called Songs for Studs. It had Larry Pierce on it, who looked like a hick with a mustache, and we were like, "We've got to listen to this." It surprised us. It was really well-written, original country music, but with the filthiest lyrics you could possibly imagine. So we were fascinated by this guy. We would crank it on road trips, singing along to every word at the top of our lungs. Anytime we would stop in truck stops, we'd see if they had the new Larry Pierce. And over a dozen years, we got a dozen Larry Pierce albums. He's written over 150 original dirty songs.

Seven years ago we tracked him down. We wrote him a letter, and he said he'd never received a piece of fan mail in the ten years he'd been doing this, so he had to write us back. I'll never forget, he said, "Guys, I'm married with kids, I live in a small town, I'm a factory worker and I work third shift, and when I'm bored on breaks, I write these dirty songs. I've never played them in public. These are just on tapes. So my life's not that interesting." And we thought, That's the story. Here's this family man who works in a factory and this is his outlet for creativity. He's the Amadeus of dirty music and here he is cooped up in a factory somewhere.

So we followed him, not thinking it would be anything more than a short documentary, and all this stuff started happening to him. He was forced into early retirement at his job and didn't know what he was going to do for money. And he found out that a young band that tours all over the country had been covering his songs for eight years on the road and had a huge following. And they tracked him down while we were following Larry and totally hit it off. And they said, "Hey, we want to be your backing band," and have you play in public for the first time. The movie ends with him playing for the first time, seeing that he had 400 fans in Minneapolis who came out to see him. So it's this great American success story; it kind of goes from total obscurity to relative obscurity, but it's the journey.

NUVO: Anything else?

Prueher: Since it'll be our first trip to Indianapolis, I wanted to mention that, while we'll be hitting the thrift stores for the few hours we have in town, we're not there all year, so if anybody's gotten anything, in or out of Indianapolis, from a thrift store or on local TV or whatever, we would encourage them to bring that stuff to the show. We would definitely give it a good home and we love to hear stories of other people's finds.

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