Boredom led two buddies from small town Wisconsin to scour thrift stores for entertainment, and ultimately led the pair to develop the Found Footage Festival.
Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are bringing their latest compilation of found video footage to the UICA on Friday, Dec. 1. The friends will entertain audiences as they provide a guided tour of the compilation they’ve put together, which includes clips from videos scored at garage sales, thrift stores, warehouses and dumpsters across the country.
GR|Mag caught up with Prueher ahead of his visit to Grand Rapids to talk about the origins of the Found Footage Festival, how it’s evolved and what its like to meet the people in the long lost tapes.
GR|Mag: I’ve heard of the Found Footage Festival, but am not super familiar with it. How did it get its start? How many years have you been producing the compilations of found footage?
Nick Prueher: My childhood friend Joe and I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and there wasn’t much to do, so we’d spend a lot of our free time in thrift stores looking for entertainment. In the mid-90s we started finding a lot of VHS tapes like “Mr. T’s Be Somebody or Be Somebody’s Fool” and instructional tapes on how to use beard trimmers.
On Friday nights, we’d have people over and screen our favorite VHS finds, offering a running commentary of jokes and observations. That’s essentially what we’re doing now, except instead of doing it in my parents’ living room we do it at movie theaters, rock clubs and museums all over the country.
GR|Mag: What do you think audiences enjoy about the compilations you put together?
NP: The show is a live guided tour through our VHS collection and I think people enjoy that these videos are curated and given some context. There are funny videos online, to be sure, but we’re showing stuff you can’t see on the Internet and only showing folks the best stuff from our years of collecting.
Also, I think people forget how much funnier these things are when presented on the big screen in a dark room with a big group of people. I’m sick of people saying, “You need to see this video,” and then handing me their phone. Something magical happens when we’re watching all these videos that were never meant to be seen in public in a public place.
GR|Mag: How has your work evolved?
NP: I think we take things a lot further now, perhaps too far. For example, we always want to know more about the videos we find so we used to do research and occasionally tried to track down the people in the video by doing a Google search. Now, we hire private detectives to find people and go fly and meet them, then play our interviews at the shows. It’s become an even bigger obsession.
GR|Mag: What stories do you think it tells about America’s past and present?
NP: Well, I think these sometimes-regrettable moments captured on videotape are a lot more honest representation of who we are as a people than the 50 greatest movies of the last 50 years. It shows that we’re a video-obsessed culture that deems almost anything worthy of committing to tape. Like, what three people in the world was “How To Identify Machine-Made Marbles” for? Yet, that hour-long video got produced in the ’80s. This footage also shows that we have a lot of ambition even if we don’t always have the talent to back it up, and I can’t think of anything more American than that.
GR|Mag: What’s been most interesting to you over the years that you’ve been doing the Found Footage Festival?
NP: I love that people donate videos to the cause now. Joe and I can only be in so many places at once, so we love when people send us their VHS finds or bring them to shows. Earlier this year, we got a box in the mail filled with 17 different police instructional videos. No note or explanation was included so we assumed it was from a cop who wanted to remain anonymous. That pretty much made our year.
GR|Mag: Have you ever had anyone from one of the found footage videos contact you after seeing themselves in your work?
NP: This happens quite a bit. After a show in Minneapolis a few years ago, a guy with a mustache came up to us and said, “Do you recognize me?” It took me a minute but all of a sudden it hit me: he was the guy who got his hand caught in a table saw in the safety video, “It Only Takes A Second.” His mustache was grayer and he was a little balder but it was definitely him. We were instantly star-struck. I mean, we watch these videos hundreds of times, examining every little detail, so when we meet someone like the hand-in-the-table-saw guy, it’s like meeting Johnny Depp or something.
GR|Mag: It sounds like you’ve also tracked down some of the people in the films. What’s the typical reaction when you tell them what you are doing and what video footage you’ve located?
NP: So far, everyone we’ve tracked down from the videos has gotten the joke and been fully onboard for participating. We did have one letdown earlier this year when the host of a computer commercial whose actual name is Ben Dover agreed to let us come out to Washington to interview him but backed out at the last minute. His family apparently advised him not to do it. That one hurt because we really wanted to know what it was like growing up with the name Ben Dover.
GR|Mag: Is there anything else that you think would be important to include?
NP: We are currently being sued for a harmless series of news appearances we made as a strongman duo called Chop & Steele earlier this year and need help fighting this important but stupid First Amendment battle. You can see clips of the news shows and learn about our legal defense fund at www.gofundme.com/chopandsteele
*Photo courtesy of Thinkstock