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INTERVIEW: Nick Prueher of the Found Footage Festival

Imagine what kind of gems you could unearth if you spent an afternoon digging through the video collection at a thrift store. Instructional aerobics from the 1980s? Battered VHS copies of local cable access television shows? Home videos, starring the most spectacularly mustached men you could imagine?

Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, co-creators, co-curators, and hosts of the Found Footage Festival, have spent many an afternoon elbows-deep in such thrift-store video bins, and the fruits of their labor are screened, for a live audience, at shows around the country. Sometimes awkward, always hilarious, this “found footage” serves as an authentic historical marker of consumer, health, educational, and fashion trends from the past several decades. And damn. People were funny.

[The Found Footage Festival is currently on tour! Click here to see when it hits your city!]

Rooftop spoke to Nick about his favorite types of clips, those dadgum Internets, and the magic of the movies.

ROOFTOP: Do you find all of the footage yourselves, or do you take submissions?

NICK PRUEHER: We find a lot of the videos ourselves at thrift stores and garage sales, but we always welcome submissions. Whenever somebody sends us a VHS tape they’ve found somewhere, it’s like Christmas morning for us. We just can’t wait to open up the package and pop it in the VCR.

ROOFTOP: How much footage do you get from people who had some part in creating it, versus submissions from people who serendipitously stumbled upon random gems?

PRUEHER: In general, we don’t take footage if the person involved in it sent it to us. Our criteria are that the footage has to be legitimately found somewhere, so that sort of feels like cheating. For us, the story of how a video was found is sometimes just as interesting as what’s on the tape. Plus, it’s always more fun watching something you’re not supposed to be watching. If the creator sanctioned it, it would seem lame.

ROOFTOP: Tell us about some of your all-time favorite footage.

PRUEHER: Boy, it changes from time to time, but right now I’m really enamored with this public access TV show from Austin, Texas, called “At Home with English.” It was this eight-episode series starring an adorable man with a mustache who attempted to teach non-English speakers some common English phrases. But instead of presenting ordinary situations, like “Where is the bathroom?” the scenarios become increasingly bizarre. In one scene, the phrase is “The short man eats chicken every day.” We were in Austin on Sunday and actually tracked the guy down. He still looks and talks the same.

Watch Found Footage!

ROOFTOP: Can you think of any funny “what the FUCK?” moments, about watching footage that either did or didn’t make it into a screening?

PRUEHER: Yes, one comes to mind. It’s this fan video that a young woman made for guitarist Steve Vai, and to prove her devotion for him, she performed various odd sexual stunts on video. I don’t how to describe them other than to say they involve blowing out candles with body parts other than her mouth. Pretty goofy stuff, but the woman clearly has a few screws loose, so it’s more disturbing than funny. Ultimately, that’s why it didn’t make it into the show.

ROOFTOP: How long does it take you, generally, to collect enough footage for an entire screening?

PRUEHER: We travel around the country for about a year, doing the show and scouring thrift stores and garage sales for videos during the day. Then, at the end of the year, we lock ourselves in a room and try to get through as much footage as we can. Then we take three months to pick out our favorite parts and edit them together into a comedy show.

ROOFTOP: Has the format or “hidden gem” feel of the festival changed since the birth of video-sharing sites like YouTube?

PRUEHER: We’ve been collecting videos and sharing them with friends since 1991, so we weren’t sure how the advent of YouTube would affect our show. But we’ve found that it’s actually increased awareness and appreciation of weird footage. Also, I think now that there’s this glut of funny videos out there right now, people are looking for curators and tour guides who can wade through it all and present just the cream of the crop. Luckily, we’ve developed a pretty high tolerance for terrible videos over the years and are willing to suffer for other people’s entertainment. Lastly, there’s just something magical that happens when you bring 200 people in a room, project videos you found in garbage cans on the big screen, and give people permission to laugh at them. That’s something you can’t get in your inbox at work.

ROOFTOP: Have there been any clips that you were dying to include, either in a screening or on a DVD, but can’t because of distribution rights issues?

PRUEHER: Nope, we’ve never run into any rights issues with the festival because we’re covered under fair use and satire laws. We’re taking short clips from much longer videos, talking over them and putting them into the context of a comedy show. Besides, I just don’t think the production company behind the instructional video for the Hairdini Magic Styling Wand – if it still exists – is that interested in coming after two dudes who collect video in Queens.

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