SXSW 2013
SXSW 2013

The VHS revolution: An interview with Josh Johnson, director of Rewind This!

An interview with Josh Johnson, director of Rewind This!

In many ways, Rewind This! is a bit of a miracle movie. Not only did this documentary about the VHS revolution get made, it got made by a crew that was also holding down day jobs on a budget raised on the kindness of friends and strangers. But it all looks worth it: The film is set to premiere at SXSW on Monday, March 11.

CultureMap sat down with director Josh Johnson to discuss the film's lengthy production, what it's like to be a filmmaker in Austin, and how VHS is still relevant in the age of digital downloads.

CultureMap: You've been working on Rewind This! for some time now. How long has it taken to get here?

Josh Johnson: It's been almost three years at this point. It'll be three years in June.

CM: Documentary filmmaking is generally all about flying by the seat of your pants, but why did it take you so long? What kind of challenges did you face?

JJ: We started the project without any funding, so initially anything we were doing was what we could afford to do in our spare time. There were three of us working on projects around day jobs. So we started filming around Austin and Central Texas and got all of the interviews we could get here. At that point, travel was required. So we had to fund that.

We put on an art show hosted here at Rio Rita and that financed our trip to New York and part of our trip to Los Angeles. Then we did a Drafthouse screening, which funded the other half of our West Coast tour. At that point, we probably had about three-fourths of the footage that we needed. So we started a Kickstarter campaign and released a teaser trailer and used that to raise the remainder of the money to go to Canada and Japan and the remaining places.

At that point, we had a hundred hours of footage to sort through so the remainder of the process was about going through that footage over a few months and organizing it and cutting it down to a feature film running time. And all of this is still happening around our day jobs, so it was primarily on evening and weekends.

CM: When you were trying to raise money at various points, did you usually find that people were welcoming and supportive, or was it an uphill battle all the way?

JJ: It was overwhelmingly supportive, to the extent that it's hard to imagine what would've happened [if] we tried to make the film anywhere else. The Austin community immediately embraced what we were doing and couldn't have been more supportive. We financed a large portion of our travel via an art show at a time when the economy was at its worst! Nobody was going out and spending large sums of money on original art work. It was shocking to us that so many people came out and supported that.

Once the Kickstarter was launched, we raised all of our funding within the first four days. We were initially nervous that we should've done 60 days instead of 30 days for the campaign and within a hundred hours it was already fully funded. I know people like stories of adversity and having to overcome obstacles, but for us it was shockingly easy. Everything we attempted to was met with immediate and overwhelming support. 

CM: In the age of Blu-ray and digital downloads, why is VHS still important? Why make an entire movie about it?

JJ: As recently as our parents' generation, or at least any generation previous to 30-year-olds right now, it was inconceivable that you could see a film again after you had enjoyed it in a theater. After its initial theatrical run ended, you had a chance of seeing it on broadcast television, but there was no real way to revisit it. After the home video revolution, all of the control over how you consume media fell into the hands of the consumer. That's something that's ever going away.

Now, everyone feels entitled to have ownership over their media and how they consume it, but it was literally something that didn't exist as recently as 40 years ago. I think it's important that we understand where we came from in the film industry and where we are today. There's also this tremendous archival value for video tapes. Because the market was so explosive in the early days, everything was released and as a result, there are now thousands of titles that are only available on that format. If you're passionate about film or interested in lesser known works, it really is the last bastion for those films. It's the only way to track them down and see them.

CM: What's your Holy Grail VHS?

JJ: I really want to find a copy of this movie Science Crazed. It's a movie that I've seen but I don't personally have a copy of it. I'm really obsessed with it. It's a Canadian film that was made in the late '80s and released on video in 1991 and it's about 45 minutes of footage stretched to feature film length. They do this by recycling the same scenes over and over again into new contexts. It doesn't feel like a movie in the traditional sense, but it's also kind of inspiring and fascinating in its own unique way. I'm really partial to that movie and would love to have it readily accessible at all times.

CM: It seems like most of these lost VHS gems are great cult films in the making.

JJ: Yeah, definitely. Because of the ability to make and distribute films on video and how cheap that was, a lot of entrepreneurs got involved in making these small films. At the time, horror films and other genre films had a built-in niche audience that would rent anything that fit in that genre, so you had a glut of content within those genres that would come out. Good or bad, there was a lot of it! There are classic and important films that are still lost on VHS, but the overwhelming majority are things that were released directly to video.

CM: There are a lot of really interesting people and big names interviewed in the movie. How'd you manage to get so many people involved? Was there anyone you wanted to get but couldn't?

JJ: The person I really wanted to get but couldn't was Bob Saget. I thought America's Funniest Home Videos was a very significant thing culturally and it would have been a really interesting aspect of the home video story to discuss. I spent months on the phone trying to make it happen, but it never came together. As for how we got other people, it was easier than I thought it would be.

A lot of the time, people are available on Facebook, and you can contact filmmakers directly and if you seem legitimate and can prove you have a real project, they're fairly open. The other thing that really helped was our subject, which was really important to some of these people. For them, this was their college days, their heyday. Early video is where they made their mark and accomplished many of the things that they're still the most proud of. The fact that somebody wanted to celebrate that and talk about what they did was encouraging for them.

CM: Which interview was your biggest boon?

JJ: Atom Egoyan was someone I thought we'd never get since he's such a revered and serious filmmaker, and everything about our movie online indicated that we were dealing with a lot of schlock and bargain basement film celebration. I figured it would be hard to get him anyway, but we were worried that the more his people looked into our project, the less it would seem like something he should be involved in.

Thankfully, his assistant was pretty open minded and over the course of a few months I was able to talk to her and convince her that he was a relevant interview subject for the film. But up to the day we were filming the interview, I thought it would fall through.

CM: So you've filmed for years. You have 100 hours of footage? How do you even begin to tackle that? Do you work out a script? Do you figure it out as you go?

JJ: We didn't have a script, but we had a sense of a tone. It would be largely based around nostalgia, but it would also be as informational as possible. We wanted to have a nice balance of dispersing information but also being really fun to watch. How we did it was we organized our footage into categories. We took all of the interview footage that focused on a specific subject and organized it into a chapter.

What we ended up with was a five-hour film with multiple sections. From that point it was just about cutting down and realizing that there are certain chapters that we didn't need at all or that there were certain people that we didn't need anymore. The most difficult thing was getting rid of redundancies, because several people would say the same thing, but you really liked how someone got across that point.

It's detrimental to the film to have people make the same point, but it's hard to decide which is the best one because they're all different angles, which are, in many ways, equally interesting. Once we had a structure figured out, it was about whittling everything down to one essential comment about a particular thing.

CM: And here you are at SXSW! How does it feel to have your film, your baby, in a position to be seen by thousands of people?

JJ: It feels really exhilarating! I was always fearful that the film would be something that would appeal just to a small group of friends or people that are are already similarly obsessed with the subjects covered in the film. To have it booked at a major festival and to see it get positive responses from programmers is really encouraging and suggests that it will appeal to a broader section or people.

We wanted to make a film that's entertaining and accessible to everybody, but it was hard to know if we had accomplished that until people started to see it. It's also exciting that the community that's been so supportive from the get-go are going to be the initial audiences.

CM: This is a premature question since your film has just been accepted to its first festival, but do you know what you want to do next? Is anything nagging at your brain right now?

JJ: The focus has to be on this film for the time being, but I have several projects in mind that I want to do next. What I move forward with is largely dependent on what happens with this film. There are a couple of documentary and a couple narrative projects that I'd like to do and it's really a matter or figuring out what investors and distributors are interested in being a part of

Rewind This! premieres Monday, March 11 at the Paramount Theater. There will be additional screenings on, March 12, 13 and 16.

austin photo: jacob hall_rewind this_mar 2013
Rewind This! shows Monday, March 11. Courtesy of SXSW.com