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"There have to be more ridiculous videos right under our noses just waiting to be discovered!"
"You're already working a miserable, minimum wage job and they have the gall to try and teach you how to do it."
"He's dealing with all of these current allegations and I found videotape evidence."
"We thought it would help raise some funds for our documentary, but it eclipsed that, and has become our full time gig."
"It's like Christmas morning. We can't wait to open the cover and pop it into the VCR!"
"It could have been from David Lynch's estate sale. It's that weird."
"Whenever we meet people from these videos, for us, it's kind of like meeting a movie star."
"You're in a movie theater with 300 other people and you're given permission to laugh at them. And there's something cathartic about that for people."
Nick Prueher  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
January 2010

In today's world of YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, and hundreds of online video sharing sites, it's a pleasant surprise to see an individual sharing old school videos by VHS. Collecting thousands of oddball and hilarious tapes from bargain bins, thrift stores, and garage sales across the country, Nick Prueher has amassed a unique kind of treasure. Along with best friend, Joe Pickett, Prueher has edited these treasures for theatrical presentation. The shows include a live commentary, skits, and entertaining guests - all hilarious features of the annual phenomenon known as the Found Footage Festival.

Hailing from Stoughton, Wisconsin, Nick Prueher began collecting footage in high school. His love for comedy led to a writing gig with the Madison based newspaper, The Onion. And from there, he interned at Mystery Science Theater 3000, where he watched and learned from great satirists like Joel Hodgson and Kevin Murphy. Eventually, Prueher landed a top producing spot on Late Night with David Letterman. Researching old material for upcoming guest stars, the gig provided the foundation for the festival, which got its wings in 2004.

Continuing to celebrate the sublime, outrageous, and unintentionally funny, Prueher directed his first documentary in 2007. Aptly titled, Dirty Country, it conveyed the story of raunchy country music singer, Larry Pierce. This spring, he announced the First Annual Found Footage Academy Awards, aka "The Footies." And this summer, he and Joe will roll out the Found Footage Festival's Bad Movie Tour, featuring the 1987 sex comedy, Computer Beach Party - all terrific extensions of the one-of-a-kind found footage experience. So just sit back, adjust the tracking control on your VCR, and enjoy the show - coming to a theater near you.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Describe your background and your first experience in the entertainment business.

I grew up in a small town called Stoughton, Wisconsin. It's by Madison, the state capital. And there's really not much going on there. But I did meet Joe (Pickett), who does the Found Footage Festival with me, in the sixth grade. We immediately hit it off and shared a sensibility early on for ironic enjoyment, i.e. it's so bad it's kind of good. So, we became best friends and started collaborating on comedy projects. In our old middle school, we started a comedy newspaper and started making short videos and things like that.

Madison is where The Onion is from and we grew up reading it, especially toward the end of high school. Neither of us had seen anything like it and we both fell in love the newspaper. So much so, that when we were eighteen, straight out of high school, we wrote for The Onion for two years. And that was our first brush with the business - getting paid to do comedy.

And the found footage. How did that begin?

We were college roommates at the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair in northern Wisconsin when our video collection really took off. When I was a freshman, I found this short training video in a McDonald's break room called Inside and Outside Custodial Duties. Out of curiosity, I popped it in and couldn't believe how ridiculous and insultingly dumb it was. You're already working a miserable, minimum wage job and they have the gall to try and teach you how to do it, but also make it entertaining and cute and try to have a plot.

I knew I had to show this to Joe. So, I took it in my back pack and smuggled it away that night.

When there was nothing going on or if it was snowing in Stoughton, which was usually the case, we would have friends come over to my parent's living room. We would sit there and watch the McDonald's training video and Joe and I would do a running commentary. It became a routine. And we got to thinking, there have to be more ridiculous videos right under our noses just waiting to be discovered.

In 1991, that became our quest - to look in thrift stores, garage sales, work places, etc. for discarded VHS tapes. As the collection grew and grew, we would entertain friends in my dorm room by showing them videos and telling jokes along with it. After college, we both moved to Minnaeapolis. I worked as an intern on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Joe worked at a video duplication company. So, anytime a video would come through the pipeline, he would make an extra copy for us. And the collection kept growing and growing.

Where did you store all of the tapes?

Basically, they just cluttered our dorm rooms or apartments. At the time, we probably had about 100 tapes. I would have fifty and Joe would have fifty. And we would spread them around and pull them out whenever friends came over, telling them: "Here's our latest find!"

Then, I moved to New York and got a job at The Late Show with David Letterman. I was a researcher and later, a head producer of the show. Part of my job was to research celebrities that were coming onto the show. So, I would try to find old footage of them in a training video or an old commercial before they were famous so we could surprise them on the show. It was literally, the perfect training. With Joe doing his video duplication thing, it all became the ground work for the Found Footage Festival.

What was your most memorable moment working on The Late Show?

Well, I found a clip of Richard Gere acting in an amateur production of Grease in England when he was just starting out. Right out of high school. I found this old lady in England who had footage that no one had ever seen.

Now, Richard Gere is a serious guy. And as a result, I remember going back and forth about whether we should ambush him with this footage or not. Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with it. And it was great. He couldn't believe it. On air, he was so shocked that this footage was tracked down, he came up to me, shook my hand, and said: "I can't believe you found this. Can you please give me a copy of the full tape?" So, he gave me his address and I burned him a DVD.

Then, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for Governor, there was a tape called The Carnival in Rio that he had done. He was just a body builder at the time and a long way from being the Governor. I don't even think he was an actor yet. And a producer hired Arnold to go to Rio de Janeiro and find out what happens at all the nightclubs after dark. On top of it, they hired a few Brazilian escorts for him. So, he's basically groping them the entire time and they're clearly uncomfortable with it. It was like Arnold's groping tour of Rio (laughs).

At the time, several women had come forth accusing him of sexual harassment. So, he's dealing with all of these current allegations and I found videotaped evidence. On the show, we played a few snippets from it and it became a hit - the Arnold "clip of the night," like him seductively feeding a woman a carrot. I was really surprised that it didn't affect the election that much!

Where did the notion of putting all of this footage into a festival come about?

About five years ago, Joe and I were working on a feature length documentary based on something else we had found. But we were having lots of trouble applying for grants and fundraising. So, to raise money for the documentary, we thought, "why not take these videos that our friends seem to get a kick out of and do what we did in our living room?"

We thought, let's do it in a movie theater and charge admission for it and see who shows up...just thinking that our friends would show up with their friends and that would be it. I sent out some press releases and, for whatever reason, people really picked up on it. We got some good press and sold out the first show. And actually, had to turn people away. For whatever reason, it really struck a cord with people and we started getting offers to show the films elsewhere. Initially, we thought it would help raise some funds for our documentary, but it eclipsed that, and has become our full time gig.

Where does all of your material come from?

Initially, it was finding stuff randomly. We were big thrift store guys going to Goodwill and the Salvation Army. And we would find videos there, at garage sales, and what not. So, the original stuff, like the McDonald's training video, came from those places. And the first show was from our fifteen years of collecting.

Then, when we started touring with the show, we would spend the day looking though all the local thrift stores in the cities where our show played. And oftentimes, we'd have to ship boxes home, depending on how many videos we found.

Do people bring videos of their own to your shows?

Yes. It's been one of the most surprising things that we've discovered. People will bring footage they've found to our shows or send things to us. And we just love the stories of how people found the video. They have all these personal connections and what not. And it makes our job so much easier when people send us a tape or drop them off at shows. It's like Christmas morning. We can't wait to open the cover and pop it into the VCR!

What's the most bizarre or outlandish piece of footage you've found?

We received a fan video that was actually sent to us by guitarist Steve Vai. It's of this woman who claims to be Steve Vai's biggest fan. In the video, she looks into the camera doing various stunts and makes weird noises with parts of her body other than her mouth. It's very strange, goofy, and a little disturbing (laughs).

Then, there was one we showed a couple of years ago in our touring shows. We called it "Cleaner's Home Movie," something we found at an estate sale. We actually bought a VHS recorder from an estate sale for five dollars thinking it would be fun to shoot some stuff on VHS and what not. But when we got back and plugged it in, we found a tape inside that they hadn't ejected. And as it turns out, it was a window into the bizarre life of this particular person. It starts off with a woman dancing to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack dressed in scarves and some kind of theatrical costume - your typical home movie.

But then it cuts to an old man dressed like a woman dancing to the same Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. And we thought, "Okay, here are some folks having fun at home." But then, he takes it way too seriously. And it cuts to the same guy filming a construction crew demolishing a house. The foreman comes over and asks, "What are you taping for?" And he says "What's it to you?"

Then, all of a sudden, they get into a screaming match. It's like "F-you" and "I can do whatever I want you, you F-ing C#@& Sucker!" (laughs). Just this unnecessary argument about taping a construction crew. Unfortunately, in the middle of the argument, the tape cuts off. But we really feel it could have been from David Lynch's estate sale. It's that weird.

While on tour, have you had anyone recognize themselves in your footage?

Yes. Usually, we like to track down the people in the videos and hear their back-story first hand. We do our research and try to put the videos in context. But there have been a couple of times when we've had people relate to the videos or be in them.

For instance, we have this insurance video that is about accidents re-enacted in graphic detail, one right after the other, i.e. someone gets their hand caught in a table saw or someone falls off a forklift. It's really cheesy and they use dummies and rubber hands...all very obvious. I mean, if you tried to direct something and make it funny, you couldn't have done a better job.

So, we played this video in Minneapolis and someone came up to us afterwards and said, "Hey, I'm in that video!" We recognized him instantly. Even though he's twenty years older, he was the guy who got his hand caught in the table saw and fell off the forklift - the main stunt man in the video. So, we had him come up and re-enact our favorite scenes!

It's so interesting because whenever we meet people from these videos, for us, it's kind of like meeting a movie star.

Are there any legal issues with obtaining and using the material in a public format?

Our lawyer told us is it falls under satire. Taking short clips from longer videos, editing them, talking over them, and putting them in the context of a festival makes it a comedy showcase. It's a new work and the fairly liberal satire law covers us.

What do you plan to accomplish from the festival and what do you hope audiences take away from watching your footage?

Mainly, we hope that people laugh and have a good time. So many people come up to us afterwards and tell us that their cheeks hurt from laughing so much. It's like America's Funniest Home Videos. Say what you will about it, but I still laugh harder at that show than anything else on TV. The truth is stranger than fiction.

And I think there's something uncomfortably familiar about these videos, whether we're playing a training video like the McDonald's video or an exercise video that your mom used to watch when you were a kid or those insurance or sexual harassment awareness videos you had to watch your first day on the job. You're normally watching them in a context where you're pretty miserable. You can't laugh at them because you're watching them in a conference room at your job or whatever. But now, all of a sudden, you're in a movie theater with 300 other people and you're given permission to laugh at them. And there's something cathartic about that for people.

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