The little film that could

Phillip Escott on realism, censorship and The Found Footage Phenomenon

by Jennie Kermode

The Found Footage Phenomenon
The Found Footage Phenomenon Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

Often created on a very low budget by inexperienced teams, found footage doesn’t have the best reputation in filmmaking circles, but audiences love it – and as new documentary The Found Footage Phenomenon reveals, there’s a lot more to it than you might think. Part of the Frightfest 2021 line-up, it’s the work of Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott, and it features contributions from many of the key players in the development of the found footage format as well as going on to tie it to current debates about fake news and how we identify what’s real. One rainy afternoon just before the festival started, Phillip and I met up to talk about the film, and he began by telling me why this subject means so much to him.

“I'm a lifelong horror fan. A huge fan of Eighties horror. The slasher film was my equivalent of the found footage genre – it's a very popular genre that critics despised. And there are parallels to that, very much, with found footage. For me it’s like taking a look at genres that for the most part people say they don't like, but they're still incredibly popular. So someone's watching them. And just looking at the genres, seeing where they started, where they went to, and where they’re going. So yes, purely as a horror fan, I wanted to dive into the genre and take a look at it in that sort of way.”

Does he think it's one of those things where people say they don't like it, but that's because when something comes along that they do like, they don't put it in that category?

“It could be. It could be their snobbery, I'm not sure. They're guilty pleasures. Maybe they enjoyed the Paranormal Activity films, for whatever reason, but they didn’t want to admit that they were scared by them. I’m not sure.”

There's a huge scope to what's covered in the film. How much of that was planned from the outset?

“For me, it was the Seventies and Eighties that was my period, whereas essentially the found footage genre really took off in the late Nineties. But the thing is, it didn’t just spring out of nowhere, I know everyone thinks The Blair Witch was the pinnacle, and then Paranormal Activity ten years after that, but no, there's there's other examples of this style of film before The Blair Witch. It was just the first popular version of the found footage movie, so it was starting with Blair Witch and working backwards and forwards.”

The film goes all the way back to the epistolary novel and finds early films which introduce elements of found footage to suggest that they’re based around something real. Had he seen much of that material before the project began?

“No, I haven't done. I know there's going to be people who think, ‘Well, there's this German film from 1916’ that we probably should have talked about. We’ve missed plenty, I'm sure. But for me, yeah, it was about taking it back to the literary days and town journals and that sort of style of writing. In a way, found footage is nothing new. Orson Wells was dabbling in that with the the radio show with War Of The Worlds. People think that it’s a modern genre, but no, it's not. It's pretty much as old as art itself.”

The film features an interview with Ruggero Deodato, whom I interviewed a few years back. At that time he was really quite angry about the way that his films have been treated, protesting “You see worse things in the news all the time.” It’s interesting to see his work explored here because of the way he explored the intersection between what a filmmaker could create an news footage.

It's one of those things where it's an unpleasant movie but for many, many reasons it’s also a work of genius,” says Phillip, referring to Cannibal Holocaust specifically. “Alexandra Heller-Nicholas mentions that where she says it's filming very horrible, real violence, and cutting it next to simulated violence, and it's that sort of overlap that it has between ‘Is this real or is it not?’ which is brilliant. A genius invention on his part. But it's a case of should you go to the levels he went to, to achieve that?

“That's more of, I guess, a politics side of things. I mean, what he did, on artistic merit, is very, very groundbreaking, and it’s something that probably should never be done again. I think he'd be the first to admit that as well. He was in a dark place when he made the film and that anger spurred on a lot of what you see in it.”

When we talk about the genre really taking off in the Nineties, is a lot of that basically about technology and about the fact that we could believe, at that point, that random individuals would have cameras and good equipment with them?

“Absolutely. I mean, for the late Nineties, you had the whole Sundance explosion. So everyone was a filmmaker, because of Sundance. I mean, everyone with a 16 millimetre camera was out there making a film – it was not unusual to see people running around the woods with cameras. But I do think that without the internet, The Blair Witch would not have taken off in the way they did. Back in the day, I was hooked on their website, leading up to the release of the film. They go into all the mythology and the backstory that they were creating for the disappearance of the filmmakers. It was brilliant.”

I mention Jeruzalem because at that time, people thought Google Glass was going to take off and be a huge thing. Obviously it hasn’t really gone that way, but it seemed like a great filmmaking tool. Is it part of the job of found footage to explore these different technologies and the types of stories they can tell?

“Indeed. I mean, it's the only genre that allows filmmakers that luxury. Really, no other film would allow you to put a pair of glasses on an actor and film that. It’s pretty impressive to figure out how to do that. But the found footage genre is the only one that's got a synergy with technology. So as found footage evolves, it's always with technology. I do find that interesting. Basically the genre, today, is more connected to the now than any other genre in history. It’s contemporary, it's never outdated. It's always about now. So it's going to be popular because it's based on what's trending and what's popular in the here and now. Even though some of these films are 30 years old.”

So how did they find the contributors that they have in the film?

“All of them are really, really honest,” he says. “I mean, we were really lucky with the talent we had. And I think lockdown was a big part of that as well. They were bored, sitting in their houses.” He laughs. “They were just happy to talk about something a bit different, I think. And I think that helped us get some honesty that may not have appeared there in more guarded PR territory. I think they'd been stewing for a while so they were open to discussion a bit more than maybe they would have been had they not been in lockdown.”

Did they go looking for the people who made the key films, or did they find people through recommendations?

Again, Alex was a huge part of that,” he says. “With her having literally written a book on found footage. So when she recommends someone, it’s a no brainer. But for me, it all started with Ruggero. He was the first interview we did, in July last year. The controversy about Cannibal Holocaust that mimics the power of the genre in its entirety for me. So for me, it was important to start with him. And then from there, it was getting the big people like, you know, Oren [Peli] for Paranormal Activity, Eduardo [Sanchez] for Blair Witch. The ones that really have made an impression on the genre.”

Does he have personal favourites or are there smaller films that he tried to include or would have liked to include?

“For me, Hate Crime I really want to have in there because say what you will about the film, it had an impact. It’s one of the only films to be be banned outright by the BBFC in the UK for God knows how long – since, well, the last one was Grotesque I think, maybe..?” It recalls the days of the Video Nasty moral panic, he says, when the regulator banned a number of genre films for obscenity reasons.

“It was important for me to get that in there to show that how found footage and Eighties horror overlap and still carry on a threat between them. Critics hate them. Audiences love them, for the most part. The filmmakers that are making them are pushing territory that probably people are uncomfortable with. They explore certain subjects that mainstream cinemas would not touch. They may be controversial films but they are actually trying to do some good despite the ugliness of the subject matter.”

Does he think that it’s that element of realism that makes censors uneasy?

“Yeah, because it goes back to Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer, where what they had an issue with was that the home video is too real. And the invasion of the home. It could be someone's uncle or auntie, and you've just stumbled across this atrocious video of what's happened to them. It literally brings it home, and makes people a bit uncomfortable in a way that glossy films don't tend to do.”

We've seen some interesting stuff around lockdown with films like Host where the setting is very much the environment that people are personally in when they're watching it at home. Can expect to see a shift in found footage because of that experience?

“Yeah,” he says. “I think screen life is the future of the genre just because that's the technology of now. It's the new technology. That will be an onslaught of that sort of stuff coming soon. You'll see a lot of Hong Kong movies based around influencers and Instagram people and Tik Tok. It's going to be the web for the foreseeable future and social media and stuff like Zoom and Skype. I know people are playing with car cameras, like dashcams and stuff like that. Wherever there’s new camera technology.”

So when they started this, did they have a clear idea of structure in mind, or did they figure it out at the end when they had lots of footage to try and organise?

“For me, it was the the history side of things. That's where my passion was in the project,” he explains. “And Sarah was more focused on the technicalities of how each movie comes together. So for me, it was plotting out where it started, where it went, where it’s going. And for Sarah it was more of the machinations of the long takes and how you do all this stuff with special effects when you're trying to make everything look real. That's where her interests were. So it was just meshing those together, and getting this fusion of the history an technicalities, and cool stories and fun anecdotes. Okay, it was kind of planned. It had a backbone, but then it was just finding it in the edit.

Getting it shown at Frightfest is something he’s very happy about.

“Yeah, it's awesome. To share that with the world. I mean, it is a lockdown project, so we had no idea what we were filming. It was just a way to kill time, really. And the fact that's come out as good as it has, yeah, I'm thrilled – and the fact that Frightfest see worth in it as well means a lot. We’ve got Fantastic Fest coming up as well, so it's got some legs for a little movie that probably shouldn't be as well travelled as it is at this point in time. But I guess that’s part of the genre, isn't it? It’s the little film that could.”

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