If there is to be anything commended to the first V/H/S film, despite it’s unique perspectives in the found footage genre and the intense, realistic dread the film carries throughout, it may be that the film holds one of the greatest poker faces in the history of anthology films. While the Adam Wingard-directed wrap-around segment introduces a group of crude anarchist thugs who videotape their crimes, the lack of actual horror in exchange for dread-building and mystique allows the audience to lower their guard enough for David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” to attack them full-force.
A personal favorite of many of the fellow V/H/S contributors, “Amateur Night” presents innovation in the terms of camera-glasses, realism in identifiable frat-boy behavior and raw intensity in the form of an indefinable monster, playing with ferocious devotion by an all-in Hannah Fierman. Bruckner proves with the piece that his promising work in The Signal was no mere freshman phenomenon: Bruckner knows how to scare you, make you laugh and pull your strings as to his accordance. In fact, many can attribute the ambition of V/H/S’s follow-up, V/H/S/2, to Bruckner, who’s segment raised the bar too high for the unsuspecting segments that followed. Bruckner graciously chatted with Diabolique and dug into the guts of “Amateur Night”, cleared the air on The Signal and even dropped some hints on The Amityville Horror reboot, The Lost Tapes…
DIABOLIQUE: “Amateur Night” is a twisted and terrifying tale, truly setting apart the V/H/S series from the horror anthologies that have come before it and raising the bar for the segments that follow it. How did you come up with the concept for “Amateur Night”?
DAVID BRUCKNER: Well, it’s been a minute [since I developed “Amateur Night”], but at the time, my writing partner Nick [Tecosky] and I were really interesting in doing a POV-type of experience and the idea that we could implicate the audience in behavior that might make them uncomfortable. One of the ways [Nick and I] have always structured horror is to find the original sin; something that the characters and that the audience, deep down, are somewhat guilty of. So if you can bring that to the surface, that anxiety is something you can build scares upon, and those scares will have a greater effect when the blood starts flying. It creates an opportunity for the violence to become a cathartic response to that [anxiety].
I also wanted to do something to echo the old video nasties, like a mischievous little movie that captured what video technology is creating these days, which is a voyeuristic opportunity for the audience. We’d also thought that no one has tackled sex tapes with found footage, and we’d thought, “How come nobody has done this? This is hilarious.” It’s such a part of our culture right now, especially with the influence of pornography on the internet and everything. So we took all these nasty ideas and swelled them together and said, “Let’s do a piece about some guys who have learned everything they know about sexuality through pornography, and then they try to make their own porno video, and they’re going to try to do some terrible things and they’re going to pay dearly for it.” And if the audience can find some uncomfortable, hard-to-admit common ground with these guys in ways they don’t want to talk about, then it’s going to be a very scary experience when things go badly.
DIABOLIQUE: There’s been a lot of talk about what exactly the monster is in “Amateur Night”, although public opinion tends to sway to the monster being a modern succubus. What made you choose a demonic female figure rather than a conventional monster, such as a vampire or a werewolf?
BRUCKNER: I don’t know. At one point, we wanted to do a “Fembot”. We really wanted to do robot horror gone badly. Sex robots are a joke in pop culture, but they’re totally going to happen, and we thought, “What a strange, bizarre place to go: to have men take liberties with an android and watch that go terribly wrong.” But we didn’t have the budget to pull that off, so we started to play around with other ideas. We just thought that the spirit was kind of demonic.
There were arguments about whether or not she was a succubus or if she was a creature of her own invention. At one point, we started with [her being] a succubus, but we didn’t want to play too much to the succubus myth, so she kind of came something of our own creation, just for the purposes of our story. We came up with a backstory for her, just to supply Hannah Fierman, who’s really fantastic in the movie, with some context in order for her to take the performance to somewhere really interesting. It wasn’t necessary for the movie to explain that to the audience. We had some fun with what she was. We came up with our own little mythology, and it was a fun time.
DIABOLIQUE: V/H/S was your first effort in directing found footage. Considering the short form narrative of the segment, did you find using the found footage techniques to be more of a benefit or a burden?
BRUCKNER: Well, it’s both. On one hand, you don’t need quite as much of the filmmaking apparatus there, so not having a 5-ton grip truck and working with a reduced crew in a more fluid fashion was useful. Victoria Warren, who was our Cinematographer, was able to a lot of lighting design with very little to work with, so [her work] has an effect on what you’re seeing but it doesn’t look composed. There’s a very fine line when you say, “Hey, we want this to look like it’s on accident, but it’s not on accident. You’re designing this idea from the ground up.” That has a certain aesthetic principal to it that is very satisfying.
I’d say found footage is both harder and difficult in certain ways. One of the things that is most difficult about found footage is getting the performance style right, because if you stick a traditionally written script in a narrative where the camera is acting that way, it just feels scripted and it doesn’t really work. So we had to find performers who had a knack for improve and could bring something different to the table. So we workshopped for a little while and came up with some things specifically that the guys would do, and that wasn’t the kind of stuff you can write. That’s the stuff that can only emerge from a group. We wanted it to capture the spirit of rowdy college-age boys drinking. So there’s a lot of dialogue overlap and a lot of frenetic energy on screen. So that was part of it, but the verité aspect of it was a lot of fun to make.
The hardest thing for me, found footage was, is that the last 13 minutes of the movie is functioning as one shot, because the camera glasses can never cut, and there’s probably like 100 to 200 edits throughout the course of that. So just being able to stitch all those things together and make them look seamless was a logistical challenge, especially when you don’t have a lot of money and you’re shooting something in five days.
DIABOLIQUE: When making “Amateur Night”, were you cognizant of the tropes that appear in the found footage genre? If so, did you attempt to work with that to subvert audience expectations or did you work against that to place your own stamp on the subgenre?
BRUCKNER: One thing that we had fun with, and it’s one of things about the V/H/S franchise having recently seen V/H/S/2 and loving it, is that everyone is throwing in their 2 cents about what found footage is. There is some negative energy out there with found footage, especially with genre fans, but there’s also so much about found footage that should be embraced that you have to recognize. For instance, I have to admit that seeing something stylistically from the point-of-view of a handheld camera in that it allows me to suspend my disbelief so much more easily, so old genre ideas that have become more conceptual to me are now suddenly and incredibly real. You get that sense when you’re watching Cloverfield that you’re in the city, running around while there’s a giant monster up above you. That’s something you kind of have to acknowledge.
In the spirit of that, it made sense just to go and do found footage as well as we could. We had to make this ridiculous idea as well as we could, just for fun. Then again, there are a lot of tropes in found footage that come to the surface that we wanted to have fun with. We wanted to pay a service to them but at the same time have our tongue planted firmly in-cheek. For instance, they always drop the camera at the end of these found footage movies. So we wanted to drop the camera but we wanted to drop it from the sky, so we watch it go all the way down to the ground and then break. Then there’s the classic horror trope where somebody is running from a stalker and they fall. We wanted to do that, but we wanted to do that from their point of view, make them go down stairs and have them break a wrist. We had some fun putting our own spin on those conventions.
But as far as coming away from [“Amateur Night”] and what I think about found footage, I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think it’s going to go bold and become integrated into our toolkit. I’m fascinated to see where it goes, but I think V/H/S is really great. I think the franchise is really wonderful place for filmmakers to experiment and see what found footage is. Also, with V/H/S, because they’re anthology by nature and comprised of short films, filmmakers tend to get pretty rowdy when they only have a 20-30 minute commitment. They don’t have to sustain an entire narrative, so sometimes you can just run with crazier ideas in a short format where you don’t have to pay [the story] off in a three-act structure. I think that will always give the franchise a certain playfulness.
DIABOLIQUE: “Amateur Night” is incredibly inspired and surprisingly well-thought out for a project that came together so quickly and without a full structure. Was the idea for your V/H/S segment something that was developed at all prior to the anthology?
BRUCKNER: “Amateur Night” was something that we definitely came up with for this project. It all came together really fast over one sleep-deprived evening between Nick and I. In my experiences, I’m not really out at clubs the way these [characters] are, so it was anthropological for us, in one way. We were like, “Yeah, let’s get inside what this is,” with that Girls Gone Wild culture that these guys aspired to [emulate], so the film was something we came up specifically for V/H/S.
DIABOLIQUE: In that regards, specifically, was it important that the characters in “Amateur Night” who we’d be seeing the story through who would have this cathartic violence happening to them be, in a sense, unlikeable? Inversely, was it important that Hannah’s performance have a sense of vulnerability to her, despite her character’s monstrous nature?
BRUCKNER: I think that the vulnerability of Hannah’s character, whom we called “Lily”, was absolutely essential to the piece. It’s something that we worked on. There’s something to be said about the old-school monster movie in that the [monsters] are just doomed and they want to connect. We thought that there’s a great divide, in this movie, between men and women understanding each other that there would be a sense of disconnect apparent at the end, although we were making really fun jokes about the matter.
But as far as the guys are concerned, it’s weird because we didn’t strive to make them likeable, but I’d say they’re not as unlikeable to me as they are to some viewers. I think that sometimes, seeing them on screen that way is a little bit outside what we typically expect when we’re watching a movie, and I didn’t realize how alarming that would be. It’s kind of a fun discovery, in that regard. But I think, with all of my characters, I feel somewhat sympathetic. I think they just don’t understand what they’re doing and they don’t understand how bad it is. I think there’s a lot of peer pressure involved.
One of the interesting struggles that we ran into was the lead character, Clint, the guy wearing the glasses, was meant to be the classic trope of the guy who is driven by the peer pressure of his friends. That’s something that we all can relate to, no matter how bad their behavior is, in some kind of way. But one of the challenges in the movie was that our ability to relate to him had everything to do with being able to connect with his face. We still transpose our empathy that way, as an audience, and it was difficult to make sure the audience would identify with that poor soul in this situation, in the context of his alpha male friends.
We didn’t set out to make them intentionally unlikeable. We just set out to create guys who were behaving badly, not understanding they were doing deplorable. I don’t know. People hate them to varying degrees.
DIABOLIQUE: At least in the way that I interpret the piece, “Amateur Night” plays like a folk-esque cautionary tale, which portrays these guys negatively, although they’re not evil people, so when they receive their comeuppance for their behavior, there’s a sense of karmic justice to those consequences.
BRUCKNER: Absolutely. But, for me, there’s also a tragedy in the situation. And one of the things I had wanted to make more clear is just how much pornography has influenced their behavior. They’re trying to emulate what they’ve seen by making this tape because they just don’t know better. There’s a sick comedy in that, especially when they die so gruesomely.
But we talked a lot about comeuppance, and we tried to find the line. It’s interesting to see how far an audience will go with that because some people think it’s really funny and they really rally around the comeuppance, while some people think that [the character’s] behavior goes a little too far for them.
DIABOLIQUE: Previously to V/H/S, you were most known for your co-directorial effort, The Signal, and one of the interesting aspects of that film is how segmented it feels, tonally and aesthetically, whist also feeling whole. What was the co-directorial process on The Signal like? Did you all direct a different segment of that film or did you direct the film collectively?
BRUCKNER: We conceived the story together, as one. And I’ve been doing a ton of independent film stuff with Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry, and our whole crew in Atlanta in a community of filmmakers who had rallied around at that time. We spent a lot of time on each others’ sets, acting in each others’ shorts, helping each other out, working with a lot of the same actors, many of whom went on to The Signal.
We had an idea of what each persons’ thing was, and what each segment was trying to express. So we had the idea of, “Let’s do an Exquisite Corpse (2004) type project where we’ll trade off a story and it’ll be like channels flipping in the movie, and it’ll be this bizarre, psychedelic experience that’ll work well with this conceit.” So we came up with the concept together, but each of those transmissions are very much the work of one filmmaker trying to articulate [that concept].
What’s interesting is that, throughout our processes, we spent a lot of time talking about how we all would try to go for the same stylistic template, and people comment on this a bunch, but when someone watches the movie, it’s curious how fundamentally different the chapters are, and they turned out more different than we had anticipated they would. Once we figured that out, we embraced it and had these moments on-set that were like, “What are you doing?” So when we were directing, we’d have to defend it and articulate things that were hard to articulate, like why I’m putting the camera there or why we have to see this death from a distance as opposed to up close. But after a while, you learn to trust each other and just run with it.
That’s part of the fun of it, but during the shooting, we were just like tag team directors. We’d just be on-set, and Jacob would have his shots, Daniel would have his shots and I would have my shots. We’d be urging each other to hurry. We’d jump in, get what we need, and then the jump out and someone else would get what they need. Sometimes, we shot for one another, or we’d help out for art department or we’d go into another room and help set up. We were all involved in each others’ segments. But it was very much in the service of a singular vision from transmission to transmission.
DIABOLIQUE: Which transmission from the film did you personally direct?
BRUCKNER: I directed the first one, which gets us in and structurally is the easiest. It’s easier to start a movie than finish a movie. But it’s all set up and therefore it’s the most conventional, in terms of horror, whereas there’s definitely a heavy satirical factor on Jacob’s second chapter and there’s more of a psychedelic influence by the time we get to the last one. But I had a lot of fun setting the world up. We each focused on a character, too. So, we got to work really close with an actor, and I got to work really close with Anessa Ramsey. [My transmission] was Anessa and I’s opportunity to tell a mini-arc in the character “Mya’s” life in that opening 25 minutes.
DIABOLIQUE: Throughout your work on The Signal, how much did the film transform from its initial concept to what eventually became the final product?
BRUCKNER: That movie was chaos. We shot it in 13 days, which was just insane. It was just an obstacle course. I mean, it always is, but with The Signal, because it was three directors and it was this very collaborative effort that happened so fast, we didn’t have any idea of what we had until we got to the end. The great thing was we were spending such a small amount of money on it, although comparatively it was a lot of money to us, at the time.
But [the small budget] gave us a certain amount of freedom. We were just like, “Let’s see what happens.” We also didn’t have any expectations of Sundance or any kind of domestic distribution. We really didn’t think people would see that movie. I think, for that reason, we had a lot of faith in that if we just did what we wanted to do that it was a win-win situation. I think if we had known that it would have gotten out there the way that it did, we might have censored ourselves a little bit or thought too hard about some of our decisions. I’m glad that we did The Signal in the spirit that we did.
I had no idea what The Signal would be, just like V/H/S, which was an anthology film. I hadn’t even seen it until it premiered at Sundance. I’m getting used to not knowing what my movie is going to look like until it’s done.
DIABOLIQUE: The Signal introduced the genre community to AJ Bowen, who has carved quite a name for himself in films like The House of the Devil, A Horrible Way to Die, Hatchet II and the upcoming You’re Next and The Sacrament. Had you know AJ prior to casting him or was he just a random audition gone good?
BRUCKNER: We actually all went to college together! We went to the University of Georgia in Athens. AJ had been making movies with Jacob for years. They had done several shorts that I’d seen before I met Jacob. So Jacob and I were riffing on stuff, going back and forth, and I think AJ had moved out to L.A. at the time. I had met him through the theater scene at the college, a little bit, and I instantly knew he was the guy as we were crafting the part. I was like, “We gotta get AJ down here to do this thing because he has such a sharp wit.”
It’s weird though, because we thought we were casting him against his personality to cast him as this villain in this movie. It’s been so fascinating to see him go on and play such a great villain in A Horrible Way to Die and The House of the Devil. He does such terrible things to people in movies now, and it’s quite fantastic. But I haven’t seen You’re Next! I’m dying to see it. Obviously, nobody has seen The Sacrament, but I can’t wait to see what he does next.
DIABOLIQUE: What do you think it is about The Signal that makes that film stand out as much as it does amongst the horror underground?
BRUCKNER: It’s hard to say. I go back and revisit it every few years, and every time I’d watch it through the lens of what didn’t work. In a way, it’s hard to watch your own movies. I would probably want to say, and what I hope it is, is the spirit of the piece. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we didn’t know what we were doing at the time. Maybe the freedom of that comes across in the film, and that makes it a fun exploration of those ideas.
What I like about The Signal, more than anything, is how many genre influences it explores in a single movie. I love that it bounces back in forth between being completely ironic and completely sincere all the time. I can appreciate it on those terms, but it’s a hybrid beast. The Signal belongs to no one, so I’m just excited that people still talk about it.
DIABOLIQUE: Both The Signal and “Amateur Night” carry hefty doses of dark comedy into their proceedings. What is it, in your opinion, that makes horror and comedy work so well together?
BRUCKNER: Well, both genres are the same exact thing when you’re staging a scenario. The set up is exactly the same. It’s all set-up and pay-off. You’re trying to get the audience to look in at your right hand so that you can slap them with your left. It’s always trying to engineer that unpredictability on a moment to moment basis.
I’m terrified of doing something that promises to be funny, but whenever I’m making horror films, it’s always funny. Like, to me, “Amateur Night” is a comedy. I think it’s a big joke. I even think the segments of The Signal… well, maybe not Dan’s, but the other two segments of The Signal are humorous to me.
But sometimes, I think it’s fun to write the joke but then play it really, really straight. I don’t know. That’s something I find really curious about myself because you’re not really supposed to laugh. What we go through with horror is something you have to laugh at. We’re gathering in a theater together to experience negative emotions so that we can cathartically channel them. I think the whole experience is ridiculous but necessary and sort of fantastic. So if you can’t giggle throughout that experience, then it’s not any fun and I don’t know why you’re doing it.
DIABOLIQUE: At the core of The Signal is a romantic story, where, as the world is falling apart, this woman and this man are trying to reunite. Even your V/H/S short has an element of romance between this hopeless romantic guy and this aggressive woman, who turns out to be a beast. Do you intentionally create genre stories with a centralized romance or love story within them?
BRUCKNER: Not on a conscious level. Not that all of my films have to include that, but in those two pieces, it definitely came through on some level. I don’t know. I’d have to think about that.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any upcoming projects at the moment? Would you be adverse to working again in a short-form anthology format?
BRUCKNER: Yeah, Nick and I just wrote The Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes for Dimension. We’re trying to see if we can take the franchise into a very interesting direction because there’s such a built-in expectation. It folds into the Amityville narrative, and we had a lot of fun in where that might go in the future. We’ve also been working on our pitch for a feature version of our V/H/S short. But I’ve been spending a lot of time working on a film called Intrusion, which I’ve been developing with Lava Bear Films, and it’s a stalker film set in San Francisco. That’s been the majority of my time recently, so I’m trying to get that movie made.
DIABOLIQUE: The Amityville Horrot: The Lost Tapes is for Jason Blum, right? Can you talk about that at all or is it too hush-hush at the moment? Does that have a found footage element to it?
BRUCKNER: Yes, Jason is producing it. I’m not sure if we can talk about it right now. As I said, we just wrote a draft. But we’ll see about that one. As for found footage, not exactly; not in a traditional way. I’ll say this: you can’t deny the influence of [found footage] on anything that we’re creating now. So I think there’s going to be a mix of found footage elements in everything that we’re working on at the moment.
DIABOLIQUE: Does that include Intrusion? Is there a first-person perspective element to that film, ala the Maniac remake?
BRUCKNER: All I have to say is that it’s a stalker tale for the 21st century, so we’re definitely going to embrace modern technology.
V/H/S/2, which features segments from V/H/S director Adam Wingard, as well as Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, is currently in select theaters and is available for rental on VOD, iTunes, Amazon and other streaming services. For more from David Bruckner, visit DavidBruckner.com or you can follow him on Twitter: @Brucknermachina. As mentioned, Bruckner’s work can be seen in The Signal and V/H/S, both currently available on DVD/Blu-ray and Netflix Instant Streaming. For more on The Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes, Intrusion and more of Bruckner’s future projects, keep checking back at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! And don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17 later this month, which features more on Horror Comedy from the likes of Alex Winter, Doug Benson and Lloyd Kaufman, and even more exclusive comments on V/H/S/2!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.