Lost and Found

As the Found Footage Festival washes up on our shores once again, we speak to festival founder Nick Prueher about Jeremy Beadle, whelping and weirdos

Feature by John Stansfield | 06 Apr 2015

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have been friends since they were ten years old, bonding over a television show called Small Wonder, about a little girl who is secretly a robot. Prueher says, "All our classmates loved the show but Joe and I appreciated it on a whole different level. We did not excel at anything in school but we definitely had an advanced sense of irony at an early age. Luckily, we found each other." This shared love for curios and oddities led the US duo to finding and collecting VHS tapes which they've been doing now for 24 years. The live show Found Footage Festival followed 13 years later, and after amassing some 6000 tapes between them, they now bring their collection of weirdos to the British Isles for a full tour. We spoke to Prueher about the art of found footage.

The Skinny: What’s the process for the videos you choose?

Nick Prueher: You never really know until you watch a tape but we’ve identified a few promising characteristics of good videos over the years. First of all, if there’s a C-list celebrity on the cover we will pick it up. It’s usually an exercise video or a health product they’re endorsing – can’t-miss videos for us. Religious puppets are always a winner, and you’d be surprised by how many of those tapes we found in the South. Apart from singling out misguided graphic design and misspellings on hand-labelled videos, we also look for anything where people who have no business rapping are rapping. There’s an alarming amount of misguided rapping in late-80s training videos.

Is there a particular theme to this upcoming tour? Or is it just new things you’ve found?

We’re calling this show Found Footage Festival’s Salute to Weirdos. As you know, weirdos are America’s number one cultural export, so we’ll be serving up the oddest characters we’ve ever found on VHS. They include Pretty Boy Floyd, a billiards instructor who talks more about sandwiches than pool; exercise video weirdos like Angela Lansbury, Traci Lords, and a bearded hippie named Zar; a supremely creepy Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 1983 travel video for Brazil; and a woman who makes her rabbit play the piano. If that doesn’t sell some tickets I don’t know what will.

Are there any videos that you have disagreed upon or certain ones that you thought weren’t great but have captured the audience?

Joe and I disagree about little things all the time. I remember we had an instructional video for something called the 'Caverject' that was basically a hypodermic needle you inserted into your penis to give you an instant erection. This was in the days before Viagra. Anyway, we were editing the video as part of a montage and Joe thought we should show the needle going all the way into the wiener. I thought we should show some restraint and cut away from it before the needle goes in. We tried it both ways and it turned out I was right in this instance – audiences don’t want to see hypodermic needles poked all the way into penises. The funny part to me is that there was never a disagreement about whether or not to show a video like this; it was a given that the penis injection video was going into the show.

Is there anywhere in UK that you have found to be a treasure trove of found footage?

Maybe we are looking in the wrong places but all the charity shops we’ve been to in the UK are sort of fancy with designer clothes in the windows. It’s hard to find a VHS tape anywhere apart from the odd cricket bloopers video. We did turn up a few gems at a video store in Brighton last year – Topless Darts and Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff – and some friends in Manchester donated a pretty great prank video by Jeremy Beadle. The weird UK footage exists – we just haven’t found a lot of it yet.

Have any DVDs made it into the collection, or is that against company rules?

We are not proud of this but we have admitted a few DVDs into the collection over the last few years. The first exception to our 'VHS only' rule was made at a thrift store in Memphis, Tennessee, called Amvets. This place claimed to be the world’s largest thrift store and it certainly was huge. Crammed in amongst the hundreds of VHS tapes was a DVD from 2004 called How to Sing Like the King – a training video for Elvis impersonators. How can you say no to something like that? One of the benefits of being around so long is that we’ve become a magnet for other video collectors out there. About once a week I’ll get a box in the mail full of tapes from Portland, Oregon, or Anchorage, Alaska, or Madison, Wisconsin. It’s like Christmas morning every time! However, it can be a double-edged sword because video collectors tend to be an odd lot, and now they have our cell phone numbers.

Do you have any favourites?

A few years ago in Denver, a local oddball named Andrew came up to us after a show and asked if we’d like to come to his house and watch some of his VHS finds. He could have been a serial killer but we decided it was worth the risk. Turns out he was the best kind of weirdo, a lovable eccentric with a great video collection. He lives in a pink house filled with clown paintings, pictures of meat on barbecue grills, Barbie Dolls and jars of dust from the bottom of breakfast cereal bags, plus a white Chihuahua named Tiny Coconut. Now we are great friends and hang out every time we’re in Denver. He hasn’t murdered us yet.

Have you ever met any of your heroes from the videos?

Yes, we always try to track down the people that fascinate us from our favourite videos. A few years ago we found two episodes of a public access TV show out of Los Angeles called Dancing with Frank Pacholski. In it, this balding man with a lot of body hair is clad in nothing but an American-flag Speedo and a Lone Ranger mask, and he’s dancing suggestively to John Philip Sousa marches. But the best part is that the audience for his prancing is a group of eight elderly people who look like they don’t want to be there. We had so many questions about this footage and this man that we hired a private detective to find him. The results of our quest to meet Frank Pacholski will be part of our UK tour.

Is there a case for not judging a VHS by its cover? For example, Gary Coleman: For Safety’s Sake looks amazing, but does it live up to that wonderful cover?

It happens all the time, which is why there are no shortcuts for us. We have to watch every single video. I remember finding a tape in the dumpster in my apartment building that was hand-labelled in pencil, 'Bonion Sergery.' This person had somehow managed to misspell both 'bunion' and 'surgery.' I couldn’t even do that if I tried! It looked promising – perhaps homemade bunion surgery on video? – but it turned out to be a science show taped off TV. On the other hand, we found a really boring-looking tape on Long Island last year called Special Delivery: A Practical Guide to Whelping. It didn’t seem like much but we found out 'whelping' is the practice of aiding the birth of puppies. More importantly, canine mothers are referred to casually as 'bitches.' Over and over again, they talk about how 'bitches should not be overweight' and how you should 'shave your bitch down.' That’s pay dirt when you’re running a lowbrow found-video show.

More from The Skinny:

Found Footage Festival: The videos they wish they'd discovered

rocking the vote with jonny and the baptists

Found Footage Festival's Salute to Weirdos comes to Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds, 20 Apr; Liverpool Small Cinema, 24 Apr; Leadmill, Sheffield, 25 Apr; and the Deaf Institute, Manchester, 26 Apr http://foundfootagefest.com