Interview: Josh Johnson (Director: ‘Rewind This!’)

Home video changed the way the world consumed films. The cultural and historical impact of the VHS tape was enormous. REWIND THIS! is a documentary that traces the ripples of that impact by examining the myriad aspects of art,technology, and societal perceptions that were altered by the creation of videotape.

The film is the first feature length effort from IPF Productions, with shooting locations all over North America and abroad, including a two week stint in Japan. The team spoke to filmmakers, studios, archivists, rental chain operators, personal collectors and media experts to create an overview of the video era that is both informative and celebratory. The film premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX.

Buy or Rent ‘Rewind This!’ on iTunes, presented by FilmBuff HERE

You started shooting interviews in Austin, Texas before you expanded outward. Aside from the fact that you were living in Austin at the time, was there a specific reason why Austin was a great place to start?
What exists in Austin is a very specific kind of film culture. It’s very voracious in its appetite. They’re interested in consuming all aspects of film. Not just art house films or films that would be playing at a repertory house. And not just mainstream films. It’s all of those things, combined with trash cinema and things that have fallen between the cracks. They’re exactly the sorts of people that are still collecting videotapes, because there are tens of thousands of titles that were only released that way, and never made the jump to DVD or Blu-ray. So there were a lot of people that were very relevant to speak to this topic in the area. It was very helpful for us to be able to have a home base that offered so much. If we had started anywhere else, I don’t think we would have been able to assemble the same amount of footage before leaving town.

How did you start picking up your interview subjects? How did you start reaching out to people?
We started by interviewing friends of ours or people that we had met in the local community: People that we knew were dynamic on camera, and that would have something to say about this subject. Sometimes it was people we knew very well, and sometimes it was somebody that we would encounter at a store while they were shopping for VHS tapes, and that would launch a conversation that made them seem like a relevant person. It was a wide array of different approaches. But what was consistent early on is that we were focused locally. Once we decided to expand the scope of the film, we started getting a little bit more serious about making lists of who would be good to talk to, and approaching those people directly. Sometimes it would be through a manager or their representation, but usually it was through personal emails or friends of friends. In some cases, people started contacting us. Once the film had an online presence, and people were aware of what it was, interested parties would drop us an email, or send us a direct message on Twitter, asking to participate in the film or suggesting that we talk to a particular person that they knew. So it became easier and easier as we went along, because there was more of an awareness about the project.

Rewind This!What draws you to films that have “fallen between the cracks?”
I’m interested in the area of film that doesn’t get written about very often. I think when you’re a young person and you’re getting interested in films, there’s an established canon that you can look to that represents what most people would consider the great films of cinema history. And on top of that everybody is constantly exposed to giant blockbusters because they’re marketed so heavily and designed to get gigantic audiences. And at a certain point, I think if you’re really interested in movies and very obsessive about them, you start to lose interest in those worlds, because they are so established, they are so well-designed and organized and presented for you. And I think you start to get interested in digging into the cracks and finding the things that nobody is writing about, the gems that haven’t been discovered or heralded. Because then you’re not just a participant in the film experience, you’re kind of like an archaeologist, somebody who’s actually part of this movement of discovering films that aren’t being presented to people. I got a little bit bored with the established canon and wanted to establish a canon for myself — finding the things that were meaningful to me, rather than just the things that I had been told over and over should be meaningful to me.

What are some specific movies or kinds of movies that have been meaningful to you in this archaeological search?
There are a number of films that had a healthy theatrical life many, many years ago, and because of the huge glut of product that was released on VHS when it dominated for so many years, they were released on videotape. But now the film elements are damaged or not available or haven’t been transferred to newer formats, so VHS represents the last stop for them. One example is ‘The Road to Salina,’ a pyscho-sexual drama starring Robert Walker, Jr. and Mimsy Farmer. I think that film has an atmosphere that is very specific and very unique. It also has one of my favorite film scores that I’ve ever heard. That’s an example of a film that’s still trapped on video, unless you have access to a thirty-five millimeter print that you can run in a theater somewhere. And one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not just trash horror or straight-to-video workout tapes that are lost on VHS. Some of the major films by our greatest filmmakers are still languishing there. One example is Robert Altman’s ‘Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.’ And I’m also interested in the films that could only ever have existed in the home video format. There’s a film from Canada called ‘Science Crazed,’ which was shot in 1987 and then released onto VHS in 1991.  And the reason it didn’t get any kind of theatrical release and didn’t even make it to video for a number of years is that it really doesn’t even feel like a “movie” in the sense that we think of it. They had about an hour of footage. But they put together a feature length film by recycling the same shots and the same moments over and over and over again into new contexts, or playing them out at length. So the film is heavily padded, more so than any film I’ve ever seen before. It really feels like you’re watching two thirds of a movie that is somehow, through alchemy, stretched to being feature length. And that’s an example of a film that came out on video because there was such a demand for product that almost anything could get released. But in any other time, in any other era, it would never have seen an audience of any kind.

Would some of these movies lose their luster as “archaeological finds” if they were widely available in other formats, or would you be all in favor of that?
I would be all in favor of it. I believe the most significant thing that happened with home video is that it created access, and it made people value access, and demand it. I don’t think we’ll ever reach another point in our history where audiences don’t feel a sense of entitlement over being able to control what they watch, and when they watch it. And I think that’s a really good, healthy thing. What would lose its luster for me would be the appeal of discovering certain things. There is a value and a sense of fun in discovering these films and helping to give them a life. But the ultimate goal is always to give them a life – to discover them and then expose other people to them. I think there was room in the video store, and there should be room today in the digital space for navigating your own kind of film history, or your own brand of interest. But the way things have moved, where now control over what you have access to is largely going back to corporations, I think what is at risk is that these strange and interesting films aren’t going to be discovered, because there isn’t really going to be a method of discovering them.

You mention the digital space. Your own film is finding life there. Do you think digital distribution is going to be good for smaller films?
I think digital distribution is going to be a huge advantage for smaller films. I think what we’re still figuring out, and what I hope we will figure out in the near future, is the way to curate a brand and to create spaces online for particular types of content. I think we’re going to be moving toward more subscription-based content providers, where you have a brand that’s heavily curated, and people trust that brand. And so they will spend X number of dollars to have access to everything that brand puts out. The same way people subscribe to Netflix, I think we’ll see people subscribing to more curated brands, because they know that there’s somebody at the helm who’s going to steer them in the direction of exciting content. That’s what excites me the most about the digital space for independent filmmakers: They’re not having to compete with giant summer blockbusters. They can exist in their own world, and people that are interested in that world are going to be able to find it, because it’s all going to be housed online, easily accessible, and hopefully presented to them in a way that makes it easy to identify what that product is and why it would matter to them.Rewind-This

Do you think we’re in a better era for independent film now than we were during the video boom?
I think from a financial standpoint it’s probably still very difficult to be an independent filmmaker. I think during the video boom, if you created a film, there was absolutely an opportunity that you could get a large amount of money to sell the video rights to somebody. And even if it was a relatively tiny film with a limited audience, just because of the way that business was operating at the time, it could still be a huge financial gain for you. I think that world of large advances and large profits is dwindling all the time. But I think because of the variety of outlets – digital streaming, physical media, theatrical booking, as well as new forms that are just now starting to take hold, there are more revenue streams than there were before. So I think we’re now living in the era where filmmakers are kind of hustling to promote and advertise their own films a lot more. And they have a variety of different ways to get them to audiences, all of which can bring in small sums of money that add up to something that could be a living wage. Whereas before I think your obligation was really just to make the film and deliver it to somebody, and you would get a large check and move on to the next thing. So I think it’s a different space for independent filmmakers right now, I don’t know if it’s better or worse. But it’s definitely created an opportunity for more content to be seen. I think that is, in and of itself, probably a very good thing.

Over the course of the project, what are some of the things that you learned about the history of VHS?
Some of the most interesting things that I learned were about how the video business took off and changed the film industry in other parts of the world. When we were in Japan, we had people tell us a variety of stories that provided information that I had never known before. For example, we talked to an adult video producer in Japan that relayed a story about the earliest days of video pornography on the islands of Japan. They had what they would call “video boxes,” which was essentially a garage at a person’s residence. You would pull into it, pay somebody and select a video, and they would have a television set in the garage and play it. So it was sort of like a combination drive-in and peep booth. You could watch the videotape of adult content and have a moment to yourself to do so, but without going into a video store and renting the title, or going to an adult movie theater. And that was a concept that I’d never heard of. That was really fascinating to me. And I don’t think it was an officially sanctioned thing, I think people just started doing it in their garages because they recognized it was an opportunity to make money. And there would be stories like that in other parts of the world, where the video store didn’t take hold initially, so the way that people would get access to films would be entirely through bootlegging and the gray market. People were recording copies of videotapes in one part of the world, and sending them to another to create a marketplace there for people that had the machines. So my initial thought had been that the rollout happened kind of simultaneously everywhere in the world — that people were buying these VCRs and having access to films once that industry took hold. But in fact, there were a number of years where that was not the case all over the world. It really developed in a few key places, and then rolled out much more slowly elsewhere. That was very surprising to me.

What are your thoughts on the long-term viability of VHS? Do you think the recent resurgence will last?
I think that the resurgence will continue for a while, and we’re going to see more and more films being released on limited edition runs of videotapes. What I don’t think is going to happen is stores starting to exist that are specifically designed to provide product for that market. With record stores, most commercial music that’s released nowadays also comes out on vinyl. And oftentimes you’re getting a digital download or an mp3 link as part of buying that record. But I don’t think we’re going to see that with VHS. I think VHS is very much going to stay for the collectors’ market. But I don’t see us ever getting to a point where it becomes a mainstream thing and it’s actually popular amongst people in the general public.

How would you like people to respond to your film?
I would love it if people would recognize that there is a huge chunk of our cultural and filmic history that is at risk of being lost. Whether or not that inspires them to start collecting tapes, or to look into methods of preserving content, or even just being less closed-minded to how they consume entertainment–it’s not really important to me. But I want people to walk away with at least that understanding, that there is a huge amount of content out there that is only available this way, and it’s the only way that we’re going to be able to access it, unless we do something about it. The other thing that I think is really important for people to take away is just a sense of how important the home video revolution was. If it hadn’t occurred, we would never be where we are today in terms of how we consume media. We are, at this point, forever in control of our media. So many things are at our fingertips. And we’re able to watch what we want, and how we want to watch it. That really started with the VHS and Betamax industry. I think it’s really important not to forget where we’re coming from and not to allow ourselves to ever lose control over our consumption of media.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by David Teich

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