The Found Footage Festival's Nick Prueher on Ahnold and disturbing ventriloquist dummies

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There's nothing like found footage to showcase a wide cross-section of humanity's most maladapted, inept and bizarre, and as far as that goes, nothing beats the original. Since 1991, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett have been collecting old VHS tapes, and in 2004, they started editing down the weirdest and most hilarious moments of their collection to show to delighted audiences the nation over -- that gig has since become a full-time job, and the Found Footage Festival brings its sideshow to Denver for back-to-back shows tonight and tomorrow. In advance, we caught up with co-founder Prueher to chat about research, public access TV and renting a friend.

Westword: You were a researcher for David Letterman for a while. What was that like?

Nick Prueher:I was the head researcher there for four years at the Late Show, and later a producer. Basically my job was to make the guest interviews entertaining -- you'd be surprised how boring celebrities are. I'd read about what they'd been up to to try to find interesting talking points, and then talk to them on the phone right before the show and try to get a feel for what might be interesting to talk about. And I would try to find interesting things to do during the segment, like find old commercials or embarrassing films they'd been in -- so it was good training ground for what I'm doing now.

One I found in a bargain bin was called "Carnival in Rio," a tourism video for Rio de Janiero, Brazil, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger before he was even a movie star, when he was just a body-builder. Basically, the tourism authority or whatever, they hire a few escorts and told him to go nuts -- and he does. He gropes everybody. The first time he ran for governor, we picked out some clips and ran it. People still voted for him, though. But that video was later one of the most popular one from our first touring show.

WW: What are the research methods? How do you find something like that?

NP: Basically, when we get to a new city, we get there early and start scoping out local thrift stores; we look in the paper for garage and estate sales. We do that in the mornings and then do the show at night, and we always end up taking a couple of boxes home in our luggage when we go on tour. And then we take about three months every year to just watch everything. It's a needle in a haystack kind of thing -- I'd say about 90 percent of the stuff we watch is not even bad in an entertaining way, it's just bad in a... bad way. But when you do find that gem, that makes it worth it. So then we edit it all down to the stuff worth watching, and we try to find themes and different trends and kind of work it all together into montages if we can, and then we have a show.

WW: Is that a full-time job?

NP: Believe it or not, it's sort of become that. I was working at the Colbert Report up until last year, and I had to quit because we were on tour nine months out of the year. This is pretty much our full-time gig.

WW: Part of the show this time around is you're screening a movie called Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Can you tell me a little about what that is?

NP: It's kind of become this legendary bootleg. We didn't find it, but it was part of our video collection early on; we started collecting videos in 1991, and not long after we started doing it, a friend gave us a fifth- or sixth-generation dub of this movie Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Basically, it's a couple of guys from a public access station in Maryland took a microphone and a camera to a Judas Priest concert in 1986, and you can imagine the type of people who are hanging out in this parking lot - it's just like a perfect time capsule of that time and place. We've since gotten to know the guys who shot it -- who work for public access TV -- and they've given a lot footage to us from public access. This is actually the 25th anniversary of Heavy Metal Parking Lot this month, so we thought it would be cool to open the show with it - the two guys who shot it introduce it via recording, and it's a first-generation tape, so it's just pristine. And then we play the video. It's kind of cool for the 25th anniversary to be playing it, and really the right way to watch this is with 200 people who are slightly drunk.

WW: You guys have obviously been doing this a long time, but there are a lot of other sites and blogs and whatnot out there devoted to the concept of found footage. What do you think sets you guys apart?

NP: Well, we've definitely been doing it for the longest. This is our 20th year of collecting videos -- I think we have the world's largest collection of found VHS tapes - home movies, exercise videos, training tapes. We've been drawing on that and it continues to grow. We started doing our live show in 2004, and there have been other blogs that have done it, but for us the right way to see this stuff is in a live setting. There's something magical that happens when you put something that was never supposed to be seen in public and put it on a big screen in a live setting with 200 people who are there to laugh.

A YouTube video is very transitory; you see it, you laugh and then you forget about it. With us, we found this stuff; we like to talk about how we found it, the background, different trends that were happening when it came out -- so we put it in context and then we edit it. Then the other thing we do is we track down the people in these videos -- we like to go the extra mile and really lavish these videos with far more attention than they really deserve. So we take our hobby seriously.

WW: Can you give us a few highlights?

NP: One of my favorite finds -- a lot of times we edit things together into a montage around different themes, and it can take years for us to find enough videos for a montage. So I was in Atlantic City earlier this year, and I stopped off at a Goodwill, and there on the top shelf of their VHS section was a whole series of seven videos on learning ventriloquism. And I just took a double take -- I couldn't even believe I found them. It made my whole summer. So I cut them all together into a how-to-do ventriloquism montage, and it's just as unsettling as you'd imagine. Really, anytime a ventriloquist dummy is involved in anything, it's bound to be a little disturbing.

The other one I want to mention is, last year when we were in Chicago, we stopped at a thrift store, and there was a video that was still in the shrink wrap from 1986, and it was called "Rent a Friend." It's almost what you'd imagine: It's a guy in an easy chair who says questions like, "Hey, how you doing," stuff like that, and then there's a pause to, I guess, give you time to answer. So this goes on for a while, and then the guy starts to talk a little about himself, and really just says too much: Like his sister would say things like mommy doesn't love you, and then starts talking like an unrequited love from high school, and he's calling her by name. At one point, he actually addresses her directly, like "Hey Nancy, if you're watching this..." which kind of breaks the conceit.

You know, we've seen tons of stupid concepts that came out of VCR -- it was a new concept back then that people were still trying to figure out, like, what the possibilities of it were. So you have these self-hypnosis videos and interactive board games -- and this is really the lamest concept we've ever heard of. But we tracked this guy down, and we had so many question for this guy, and he gave us answers. We'll be revealing those at the show.

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