Josh Johnson, the director of the recently released VHS documentary Rewind This!, was cool enough to do an interview with Rock! Shock! Pop! to discuss the movie, the format that it covers, and the state of physical media in general. So without further ado…
Rock! Shock! Pop! - So Rewind This! is out on DVD now and it’s played some festivals and what not. How has the response been so far?
Josh Johnson - The response has been great. The reviews have been extremely positive and the audiences have been really enthusiastic. One of the most rewarding aspects of doing a festival tour with the film is seeing that it plays exactly the same everywhere, whether it’s showing in Boston or South Korea.
R!S!P! - The movie was shot over the period of a few years, right? How long did it take to put all this together and what were some of the reasons that it took as long as it did?
Josh - It took us around three years to complete the film. There were only three of us working on it, and we were doing it on evenings and weekends around our day jobs. We didn't have the funds or the available time to make this a full-time endeavor, but we felt an intense desire to tell this story. We could have completed the film in a third of the time if we had been able to make it our sole focus. I wouldn't change anything though. It was the most enjoyable three years I can imagine.
R!S!P! - The movie focuses not only on the VHS boom in North American but in the UK and Japan as well. How did these ‘international collaborations’ come about and why was it important to you to showcase the international impact of the format?
Josh - The home video revolution changed the entire world, and we didn't want to make a film that only reflected the North American experience. To do that would be to show a far narrower version of the story than we felt comfortable with. We would have liked to show an even more international perspective than we did, but we could only go to so many places. As for how these collaborations came about, it was usually just by contacting the individuals we wanted to talk to, mostly through email. The Japanese interviews, however, took a lot more work. We had two different individuals, one in the US and one in Tokyo, helping us coordinate all of those arrangements. The Mamoru Oshii interview came about because he happened to be out for drinks with a friend when that friend got an email about our film. He agreed to do it there on the spot. The entire production was full of exciting and unexpected moments like that.
R!S!P! - You and your team financed all of this independently, with Kickstarter playing a large role in that. Why the decision to go this route and how was the response?
Josh - We launched the Kickstarter when we were almost finished with production. We had managed to fund the project up until that point with small fundraisers, but we knew that it would take a lot more to get us to Japan and through the entire post-production process. We were in a good position though, because we had footage to share which indicated what the finished film would be like. We reached our funding goal in the first four days of the campaign, which shocked us. It speaks to how important the invention of home video was to our current society. The response was overwhelming and inspiring. We not only met our goal, but exceeded it to the extent that we were able to add additional filming trips. Those additional trips led to some of our best footage, so the impact of that crowdfunding effort cannot be overstated.
R!S!P! - How did Panos Cosmatos of Beyond The Black Rainbow fame come onboard as one of the documentary’s producers?
Josh - Through Kickstarter, oddly enough. He is a fan of the subject matter and wanted to help us get across the finish line. He contributed at the Executive Producer level of our crowdfunding campaign.
R!S!P! - Why the decision to shoot a documentary on the history of VHS in the first place?
Josh - Nothing has changed my life more than the humble VHS tape. I have been obsessed with movies my entire life, and the ability to seek out a wide array of films to watch without having to leave my neighborhood completely built the person I am today. This also holds true for my partners in this endeavor. Additionally, there was a strong contemporary value to telling this story. The way we consume media is rapidly changing, and so many of those changes are mirrored in the birth of home video. When you combine that with the archival value of VHS, the possibility of so much original content disappearing if not preserved, it feels like a story that urgently needs to be told.
R!S!P! - As a VHS junkie yourself, what’s the crown jewel in your collection and why?
Josh - My crown jewel is not the most rare or valuable tape in my collection, but rather the one that means the most to me on a personal level. This would be the one-of-a-kind Canadian oddity SCIENCE CRAZED. It could be argued that great movies are ones that consistently make the right choices in their execution, while bad movies consistently make the wrong choices. In my opinion, the most fascinating movies (whether good or bad) are the ones that consistently make unique choices. SCIENCE CRAZED will never be considered a good movie, but it is so completely unlike anything else I've ever seen that it has become one of my favorite movies to share with other people.
R!S!P! - Out of all the interviewees that you snagged who was the hardest to track down?
Josh - Our box cover artists were the most difficult interviews to lock in. So many of the great artwork from the VHS days is uncredited. Figuring out who the artists were was the first challenge. After that, the next challenge was tracking them down. That was easier in some cases than others. The final challenge was convincing them to participate. Many of the artists responsible for the lurid artwork we all loved so much have moved in a different direction over the last twenty years, and don't want to be associated with their work from that time. The fact that we got two artists to participate, and were able to capture their original paintings on camera, was a huge thrill.
R!S!P! - And out of all of those interviewees, which one was the biggest ‘catch’ and why?
Josh - Atom Egoyan was a major accomplishment for us. We had a lot of people from the exploitation and horror worlds talking to us, but home video obviously had a major impact outside those areas. Egoyan is a renowned arthouse filmmaker, which is a unique and valuable voice to hear from, but he is also someone who has employed the video concept in a lot of his work. Unlike some other respected and acclaimed filmmakers we could have attempted to interview, his personal connection to our subject is very strong. We wanted to add a very specific voice to the film, and he was the perfect person for that job.
R!S!P! - VHS has made an unexpected come back in the last few years with a few boutique labels giving certain cult films limited edition releases geared towards the collector’s market. Do you see this as a trend, a way to cash in on a hipster-heavy craze or do you think this will have some longevity to it?
Josh - I think several of the bigger studio releases on VHS have been designed purely as a marketing stunt. It's a way to start a discussion about a particular title, and do something unconventional with the home video release. Most of the VHS releases I'm seeing from boutique labels or small limited edition start-ups seem motivated by something different though. They're created specifically for, and often from within, the collector community. These small batch releases should definitely have some longevity, because they're manufacturing small enough numbers that they don't need to reach a wider audience to survive.
R!S!P! - How do you feel about some of the astronomical prices old tapes have been hitting in the collector’s market and on places like eBay the last couple of years – does this make the hobby less accessible and does it do more harm than good?
Josh - It definitely makes it more difficult for people who have been collecting for years. There was a time when finding a coveted tape was the main obstacle. Now, being able to afford it is just as much of an obstacle. Like any collectors market, an item is worth whatever someone will pay for it. At the moment, there are people willing to pay incredibly high prices for certain tapes. That might make it somewhat less accessible as a hobby, but there are still plenty of amazing films that only exist on VHS that don't carry a hefty price tag.
R!S!P! - The movie makes an interesting and valid point about how streaming gives back control of what we watch and how we watch it to the studios. Do you feel that the death of physical media is inevitable and that we’ll all eventually be at the mercy of the studios as they slowly but surely force everyone to adapt or do you think physical media, be it VHS or vinyl or DVD or whatever, will always exist because of the collector’s market? Is this question too long? It’s phrased kind of oddly.
Josh - Physical media is slipping further away every day. Fewer and fewer units are sold all the time. That said, the actual death of physical media is not imminent. I believe bigger corporations will start producing smaller runs of titles, and will likely move more towards alternatives like "burn on demand" distribution. Eventually, on the big studio side of things, the physical media paradigm will probably wither away almost completely. I believe there will still be boutiques making specialized products for a smaller audience for the foreseeable future though. I would still encourage everyone to back up whatever they have now. There is no way we'll be seeing everything of interest made available in a newer form down the road.
R!S!P! - The documentary shows off a lot of great video stores like Scarecrow in Seattle and Queen Video in Toronto – what’s the coolest video store you’ve ever been in and why? I’ve gotta go with either Suspect Video in Toronto or Movie Madness in Portland, but this is about you, not me.
Josh - Movie Madness is perhaps the most unique video store I've ever been in, because they also have an amazing museum of film props and costumes. You walk through pieces of film history while you browse their selection. It is a unique feeling. I will also mention Scarecrow Video in Seattle and Vulcan Video in Austin because they both have the friendliest employees in the world.
R!S!P! - The cover art for the home video release is pretty rad, it has a cool and appropriately retro-80s style vibe to it. Who did that art and how much input did you have into that design?
Josh - The poster art was done by Francois Simard, a mega talented artist and filmmaker from Montreal. He was given some suggestions of key elements that we wanted, but the layout is completely from his brain. We gave feedback on the direction it was heading, and he would adjust on the fly. A lot of individual details, like the tentacles and the skull-faced woman, are influenced by his own childhood experiences browsing the shelves of the video store.
R!S!P! - Now that Rewind This! is finished, what’s next on your plate? And having asked that, what are the chances of a Rewind This! sequel? Is there more to cover or do you feel you’ve said your piece?
Josh - I'm currently developing several narrative features, and prepping a documentary called Canuxploitation, all about the significance of the Canadian B-movie industry. I have no plans to make a sequel to Rewind This! in the future. There is definitely more that could be said, but I'll leave it to someone else to say it.
R!S!P! – As someone who still proudly holds a Canadian passport, I’d say that a Canuxploitation documentary is long overdue, glad to hear this is in progress. Thanks for taking the time out to do this Josh! Anyone interested in learning more about Rewind This! should check out the movie’s website by clicking right here!