V/H/S 99, the fifth installment in the found footage horror anthology series V/H/S film series, recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and to promote the release of the film, Verona Blue, one of the stars of V/H/S 99, and Maggie Levin, the writer, and director of the “Shredding” segment sat down with Horror Facts to discuss what went into bringing their “Shredding” segment to life.
Horror Facts: First off, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to Horror Facts about V/H/S 99.
Maggie: An honor and a pleasure.
Verona: So thrilled to talk to Canadian media. I’m very excited.
HF: What brought you to V/H/S in particular?
Maggie: I was approached by the producers of the franchise when they were working on V/H/S 94 but, at the time, I was already in prep for second unit directing on The Black Phone, so the timing just didn’t work out. Of course, it was an immense honor as an up-and-coming horror director to be asked to be a part of this legendary cult franchise so I was really bummed that the timing wasn’t going to work out then. But, fortunately, they kept me in mind, so when they knew they were going to do their next one, they came to me and asked if I had any concepts for V/H/S 99. We kicked some stuff around and eventually landed on something that I deeply love that also had, not just room for but need for, the skills of some performers that I had worked with for a long time including the miss wonderful Verona Blue. So that’s how this all came together.
HF: Are you both fans of the V/H/S franchise?
Maggie: I’m a fan of the series. What’s great about entering into a long-standing series like this is that, because of the way it’s structured, you can create the ultimate mix-tape for whoever you know out of previous V/H/S installments. It’s kind of a treasure that way. It’s part of the extraordinary gift of getting to work on it. It is also a gift being connected to this kind of legacy of great horror filmmakers who are involved in the franchise to this day, like David Brocker and Radio Silence. So, really, it’s just a special thing to enter into that family, and also to play in one of the more gonzo sandboxes in horror! They are all about, take the training wheels off, put the bumpers away, just ride it till you break the car.
Verona: So, my history with horror is, I used to watch a ton of horror, but then, as I got older, I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know if that’s the pressures of society just weighing on my adult brain all of a sudden and being like, “Oh, there’s no room here for fake problems; we have real problems” or if it’s because horror has changed a lot in the last thirty years. It tends to be a lot heavier, a lot more realistic, a lot more lifetime traumatizing, compared to, like, some of the goofier stuff, like popcorn movies when you were younger. But everybody I know who is into horror watched V/H/S and was like, “I think you’ll really like it.” Every time I would start to watch it, I would be like, “I don’t know. I’m so stressed out already.” But Maggie was a big fan and she showed me two in particular, and I was like, “OK, this is really dope. I’m stressed out, but this is really dope.” Now I am definitely a fan. I watched more of them after that.
HF: I didn’t get a synopsis of your segment. What’s the synopsis of your story?
Maggie: I know that everyone is being very mindful of spoilers. But I can tell you that we are playing in the areas of prank videos, teenage hubris, riot girl bands, as well as – I am going to use the word gonzo again – some classic gonzo V/H/S madness. So those are our zones.
HF: The only thing I could dig up about your segment was that it was about rock and roll.
Verona: That’s pretty much Maggie’s MO in every movie or show she makes. Where it doesn’t matter to the genre, there’ll be bisexual lighting and maybe a disco ball somewhere and there’s always original music or somebody rocking out to something. Music is in everything I’ve ever worked with, whether I was doing a little walk for the day to just help out and be a body or something where I actually played a significant part in the story. Music is always so essential to everything that Maggie does.
Maggie: Yep. Verona was been a rave crashing vampire for me and also a roadie.
Verona: I was a drummer/roadie where I walked through twiddling some drum sticks and looking intimidating. But it’s always there. It doesn’t matter the story line, music is just so much of her style. If you watched her previous movie, Valentine, on Hulu, that is a music-centric story and I feel like it doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction or comedy or something with no genre at all, you would always get that element from Maggie because it’s just how she directs. You can just feel it in the room; there’s this pulse of rock and roll with everything she does.
HF: Verona, are you able to talk to us about the character that you play in V/H/S 99?
Verona: Like Maggie mentioned, riot girls play a big part in this film and I play a character called Deirdre. She is a bassist in this up-and-coming punk rock, kind of post punk, band. They are very on the cusp of really breaking through. Deirdre is a full-on, hardcore, white faced, giant hair, post-punk goth, unapproachable, safety pin in the nose, leather jacket in summer time, full on hardcore goth chick who definitely has that punk rock vibe.
Maggie: Nailing the era authenticity was exceptionally important to me in this film on every level. I think, with a short segment like this in an anthology piece, you have mere seconds to get to know who somebody is, what they’re there to do, and what their whole deal is, so it was important that every single actor coming in had a character built, with guns blazing, so the audience can identify who they are and hopefully identify with them instantaneously. And Verona brought that in buckets, and so did the rest of our cast. I got very lucky and we just had great chemistry with all the performers on set. Also, top down creatively, everyone really understood the movie we were trying to make and the tone that we were trying to nail. We also have this gift where, with a lot of the work I do, it’s a sneaky musical, so there are two original songs written by the incredible Dressage in it that I think are total lost 90’s bangers. I’m really looking forward to unleashing this piece on the world because it’s got a lot of high octane scares and a lot of joy to share with the world.
HF: I agree with what you’re saying. With horror, you have to attach yourself to the characters; you have to care about the characters because, if you don’t, they could come, they could die, you wouldn’t care. As the audience, you have to invest in this character because, if you don’t, it has no effect on you. Horror is not just horror; it’s drama, it’s comedy, it’s everything now and I think that’s what draws us to it now as it’s so all-encompassing of everything.
Maggie: Yes. I am a real big believer in, and I really love to make, what I call life-affirming horror, the horror that gives you the same feeling as a good roller coaster ride where, when you’re done with it, you feel your aliveness more. I think that’s done through the vehicle of great characters with a lot to them. This piece also does an interesting thing where the presentation of who’s the hero and who’s the villain is done backwards but, by mid-point, you kind of get what’s going on. I am really excited to show this at TIFF and see how an audience responds to that turnaround because I think that the cast really pulled it off beautifully.
HF: Verona, is there any part of yourself you put into this role? Or were you just playing a character?
Verona: So, my character is really special to me because I was a teenage goth and now I’m an adult goth. I sometimes get to play kind of goth characters on television but, with more mainstream broadcast stuff, it gets this veneer of family friendly, TV polish and becomes whatever the producer or costume designer thinks goth is – or punk or whatever – but it always feels like I’m a manager at Hot Topic. They just bought me this outfit and are like, “You have to wear this today,” and there’s never any authenticity. So, one of the great things, in particular, about working with Maggie is that I had so much freedom to kind of creatively direct how the character looks and how she presents herself. I was able to pull that from my real life, my real culture, my real friends, my real background. I’m also left-handed so, for her bass, I just got a right-handed bass and restrung it backwards. Bass players will notice. Somebody who actually plays in a band will be like, “That’s a right-handed bass.” They’ll see it immediately and that was a choice to be, like, this character doesn’t even buy a real bass; she just got the one that she stole from her ex or bought from a garage sale or whatever and was like, this is fine. Even though she’s about to make it big, she’s like, I don’t care; this is good enough. What does it matter? The tool is not what matters; the music is all that matters. She’s a character that’s really deeply grounded. I hope people who lived through that era and before – or who were or knew that kind of person in their youth – will immediately be like, that’s the real deal; that’s not a Hot Topic manager, that is a person who exists! She’s like this bad ass, sarcastic, sardonic, mean, scary-looking, goth chick, basically.
HF: After your role in V/H/S 99, do you see yourself wanting to appear in more horror projects?
Verona: I’ve been on the periphery of the horror community because I look like I should be super in to it but, like I said earlier, I’m a little bit of a scaredy cat about it. From all the interactions I’ve had – with people who talk to Maggie, my other friends, or those that work in the horror genre, whether it’s creators, actors, voice actors, or animators – I have found everyone involved in the horror genre are so cool and they seem so fun to hang out with, and nerdy in the best way. I’m really excited that I get to dip my toe in that and, hopefully, people will welcome me with open arms because I would love to do more. Being able to be on set and the director is like, today you’re a blob monster and you get to put on whatever weird outfit and then rip some child to shreds. What a great time that is!
Maggie: Today, we’re dumping a bucket of blood on you.
Verona: Now, today, we’re tearing your heart out and you have to eat it.
Maggie: It’s the best.
Verona: It seems like so much fun to just be able to play in this very extremely goofy, but really huge scene, so I’m like, hopefully I can get my little claws in the community and become friends with everybody. I’m so excited!
HF: What’s the motivation behind the piece? Is it an original story or did you draw inspiration from somewhere in real life?
Maggie: Oh yeah. There’s definitely some real-life middle school in there. The people who tortured me in middle school are in there a lot. Also, I think that anybody who lived consciously through the late 90’s will recognize the spirit of a lot of things there. There’s a thread of, if you grew up watching skate videos, CKY, the alternative side of MTV or MTV 2, it’s heavily present in the film. It’s got a good pop culture blend without ever presenting anything explicitly from pop culture. You’ll feel its roots throughout.
HF: So, you’ll feel the year 99.
Maggie: Yes. It is a hard dose of 99.
HF: V/H/S is known for being filmed in the found footage format. How did you film your segment to achieve this look?
Maggie: It is done in a lot of era authentic formats. I love the story of busting out the Sony VX1000 at a skate park one day and it was like a celebrity had shown up on set. It is the quintessential skate video camera and we used it. It had a real beauty to it. We also gave Verona and her bandmates a lot of time in front of a Bolex. There’s some actual 16mm in there and we treated each camera format as belonging to the people shooting. We actually have a lot of moments where my DP, Alex, got to familiarize the actors with how to use these cameras which was really fun and cool. Then, really going for that authentic feel, throughout the editorial process my editor, Andy Holton, invented (I think he invented) this button mashing strategy to create natural, organic glitches on a V/H/S player that we put into the film instead of pulling any kind of digital stock glitches. Really trying to nail that found footage feel to the hilt was our goal.
Verona: I definitely have a vivid memory of Maggie showing us this pile of VHS tapes they bought off eBay that had random stuff recorded on them to use as already messed up blanks. So, instead of starting from blank, you record over something a bunch of times and you will eventually get these fragments of the previous recordings that start to come through. It’s this dedication to detail by Maggie, Andy, the set design team, and everybody to build this world that, when you’re bringing it into the editing and bringing it into post, you don’t have to rely on the idea of CG to make it feel deeply glitchy. It is, like, fucked up; it is broken because it started from such a legitimate place.
Maggie: I think that people went through a found footage period of time. Then it kind of died out. I think it’s back in this whole new boundary-pushing way and that’s what I tried to do and I think that’s what my fellow filmmakers on this installment of the franchise did was try to push what can be done because we’ve been through the original wave of Blair Witch, etcetera, etcetera, so, “Where can we go with it now?” was really everybody’s perspective that I could see, and certainly mine.
HF: What was the reason behind getting the VHS tapes?
Maggie: This was done because we really wanted to give this idea that the tape itself was haunted and so a lot of the things that we did were to communicate that feel. We’ll see if the audience can feel that haunted quality. That’s why I was buying and stockpiling fifty tapes off of eBay from some doctor.
HF: That would make the VHS tape feel like a character itself. Was that the goal?
Both head nod.
HF: In your own words. Can you tell our readers why they need to watch V/H/S 99?
Maggie: Again, I’m so thrilled to be playing in this legendary space and hopefully bringing something exciting and different and really out there, pushing the boundaries of what can be done in true V/H/S spirit. I’m just so excited for horror fans to lay eyes on this and give us their honest feels about it. That’s the wonderful thing about releasing anything in this genre: the community is so incredible. And even though the idea is to get in a theatre and scare the crap out of people, there’s such a joyous feeling about it. I think about being at midnight madness at Tiff with this, at Fantastic Fest, which is just a notoriously wonderful place for the genre. It’s a really exciting schedule ahead and then to land on Shudder, which is the number one home for getting your pants scared off? It’s a really rocking time. Even if you weren’t a conscious being in the late 90’s, there’s something here for every horror fan to enjoy and, truly, that is one of the gifts of being an anthology movie: there’s something here at the store for everybody.
Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, V/H/S 99 went on to screen at this year’s Fantastic Fest. You can catch V/H/S 99 next at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 14, 2022.
V/H/S 99 will finally make its national release on October 20, 2022, when it streams exclusively on Shudder.
While you wait for V/H/S 99 to be released you can check out the Into the Dark episode, My Valentine directed by Maggie Levin, available on Hulu.