Ben Rock, co-writer and director of Video Palace, sits down with Adam to discuss the myth of The Blair Witch Project and more.
If you like these chats, you will like Specific, the new book from host Adam Pierno. Go get it on Amazon asap.
Adam Pierno: All right. Welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. If you’re noticing different audio, we’re recording from a new location, but same great conversations we hope to have. In fact, this one should be a really, really good one. I was listening to the show that this gentleman, our first guest of the year, produces called Video Palace, and reached out to him immediately. I wanted to talk to him about not just the show but about his ideas around the power and the potential of audio as a format which I think is very interesting.
Mr. Ben Rock who is the co-writer and director of Video Palace has graciously made time to join us from his travels. How are you doing, Ben?
Ben Rock: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
Adam: I’m doing very well. Like I said, I found you from Video Palace and then I realized that we have a common friend who’s Mike Monello who was on our show while he was doing recording and mixing of Video Palace but was very coy. He told me he’s working on something but he didn’t tell me what it was and I found it.
Ben: While we were doing Video Palace, he was working on a giant thing for The Purge at Comicon, literally at the exact same times. I hope Video Palace was the secret thing but I bet it was that or maybe it was both.
Adam: I think- if I remember the conversation correctly, I believe he mentioned that. I think it was right around that same time and he was trying to do final mixing and everything. Before we dive in, why don’t you give people a sense of how you got to where you are and a little history of Ben Rock.
Ben: Well, I actually started out as a special effects makeup artist, believe it or not. I went to the University of Central Florida to study film because I wanted to be a director, but at the time I was actually getting work on super low budget movies in Mobile, Alabama for a director named David Pryor who passed away a couple of years ago. I was doing makeup and that’s where I met Mike. Mike was two years ahead of me at the University of Central Florida. In about 1997, a couple of years after I graduated, I decided to quit being a makeup artist.
Right around that time, a producer named Greg Hale, who also went to UCF, asked me if I would join the team to create a movie that ended up becoming Blair Witch Project which Mike also worked on. I’m understating what a positive influence Mike has been in my life in general. Mike didn’t get me on Blair Witch, but Mike actually got me the job that was sustaining me while I was working on Blair Witch at a local art house movie theater where he was the marketing director at the time. I feel like Mike is just one of those people who has consistently been– I hope I can pay him back at some point in my life.
He’s just always been. Anyway, on the Blair Witch Project, the first thing I was tasked to do before there was a movie in 1996 was to write the backstory. Basically, Ed Sánchez and Dan Myrick who were the co-directors, co-writers on it had created a sketch of the mythology. They brought me on to flush it out because they knew I was a nerd for paranormal related stuff. It’s 1996, so I had to go to a library. I went to the Orlando public library many days and poured over old images and old legends and went through my old packages of Forty and Times magazine.
Adam: I remember it well.
Ben: I still subscribe. I subscribe to two magazines, American Cinematographer and Forty and Times. I still get the hard package. Anyway, I created this backstory and you can find this whole story online later. I basically wrote the copy that became the pitch tape that ended up getting into the hands of John Pearson who flipped for it all and put it on his show Split Screen and then hired us to make another segment of Spit Screen. Between the two segment fees of that which I think were $7,500 each, that was 15,000 of the 25,000 that was used to make Blair Witch.
They made me the production designer. Probably the one thing that people in the genre world would know me for, if at all, is that I designed the stickman figure for Blair Witch.
Adam: That’s a really cool claim to fame.
Ben: It is. I will spend the rest of my life trying to do something more interesting. At the time, I thought they all hated it and I didn’t know that they liked it until I saw it on the poster. You can actually find footage online of Ed Sánchez telling me that it just looks like a pile of sticks tied together and I looked absolutely crestfallen. Apparently, Ed was just messing with me. Anyway, I worked on that. We made that movie in 1997. Two years later I moved to Los Angeles. The rest of the crew stayed back in Florida.
Mike eventually moved to New York because we were all based out of Orlando when we made that movie. I moved out here and– out here. I’m in Ohio right now. I moved to Los Angeles, but out here in my heart.
Ben: Because of Blair Witch, that actually opened some doors for me and I actually got my foot in the door directing. First I wrote Curse of the Blair Witch for Sci-Fi Channel which was a special. It came out right before the movie came out and Dan directed that in Orlando. Those guys were all off to the races making other stuff and I was in LA answering phones for a living.
I jumped at the chance to write and direct a special for Blair Witch when it premiered for Showtime which is called the The Burkittsville 7. To this day, it’s probably the weirdest thing anyone’s ever hired me to make and I’m very proud of it. Then another one for Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 called Shadow of the Blair Witch which was a lot more me doing what the distributor wanted. They told me what they wanted the special to be and I did as close to that as I could and still have some integrity.
To connect to Video Palace, Curse of the Blair Witch, Burkittsville 7, Shadow of the Blair Witch and also a TV special I did for the first Hellboy movie called The B.P.R.D. Declassified, all used the technique that I can go into later if you want which is how I make interviews sound as authentic as possible. How I give the actors the tools to properly elaborate and to make interviews sound really awesome. I don’t know if I invented this technique, but nobody thought it to me. I figured it out on my own-
Adam: Yes. We are going to dive into that.
Ben: -for Curse of the Blair Witch. Since then, I directed a movie for Warner Bros. called Alien Raiders. I hate the title but I’m proud of the movie. [coughs] Pardon me.
Adam: You’re good.
Ben: The guy who I co-wrote Video Palace with, Bob DeRosa, he and I and a producer named Cat Pasciak created a web series called 20 Seconds To Live that we’ve been doing for a years. We have four new episodes that we’re trying desperately to finish right now. I keep the lights on freelance directing commercials. I do a lot of freelance editing as well. I did a bunch of different stuff.
Adam: I did not know 20 Seconds To Live was you.
Ben: Are you familiar with it?
Adam: Yes. That’s funny because I literally was like, “Oh, Video Palace. I want to talk to this guy.” As you’re describing it, as I was reading about you, I was like, “Oh, he does all these other things that I’ve liked as well.” This is really cool.
Ben: I keep super busy. 20 Seconds To Live is a passion project that Bob and I have been doing for a while. It’s an anthology, horror-comedy anthology.
Adam: Yes. That’s my sweet spot.
Ben: Mine too. I love it.
Adam: Ever since I saw Evil Dead. I think I saw Evil Dead 2 before I saw Evil Dead 1. Ever since I saw that, that combination of laughs at ridiculous gorey situations has really lit me up.
Ben: I also saw Evil Dead 2 before I saw Evil Dead 1. I probably saw them around the same time. I saw them both on VHS a million years ago.
Adam: Within a week of each other, but still once you saw one, you were like, “Yes. Let’s go, go, go.”
Ben: Somebody pointed out Evil Dead is one of the only horror franchises I can think of that there is not one bad entry. There’s the original three movies and then there’s the remake movie and then there’s the TV series, all of them are great.
Adam: Yes. The remake was good too. I enjoyed it.
Ben: It was missing the flavor of Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, but it was great on its own terms. I loved it. I had a blast.
Adam: Yes. Sorry. We get a little bit tangental as you get to talk to two guys who are geeks about horror, so that’s going to happen. All right.
Ben: I will [crosstalk] [laughs].
Adam: Let’s talk Video Palace. If you’re listening to this and you haven’t heard Video Palace, I don’t want to give it away for you, but what you should do is go listen, it is worth it. I promise if you listen to the first episode you’re going to listen to the whole series. At least the entire reason that’s been released so far. I have a feeling there’s another season coming, Ben?
Ben: I’m not trying to withhold information now, we have not been given a green light on the second season. We know that Shudder is very happy with the first season so who knows.
Adam: Cool. Well, that kind of dovetails into the conversation that I was hoping to have because the world you’ve created lends itself to a lot of different places. If you haven’t listened to it, just as a quick recap, there’s a person who is purportedly– it’s a fiction podcast where somebody is making a podcast about things he finds weird and he stumbles on these people who collect movies. They collect VHS tapes or actually movies of all kinds but mostly VHS tapes. He kind of stumbles into this community where they’ve been collecting these secret kind of tapes called the white tapes. He gets his hands on one of these things and they’re sort of these legendary tapes and as he learns more and more about them, he gets pulled into this– It’s not a conspiracy but this secret cabal of people that are hoarding these tapes and we don’t know why.
Ben: Yes, there’s a little conspiracy, a little H. P. Lovecraft, a little whatever. Also, I just like to say that if you want to hear it it’s all on wherever you listen to podcasts gloriously free. You can listen to all of it. You can go to Shudder and listen to it there. It was made for Shudder, the streaming video on demand service but you don’t have to have Shutter. You don’t have to subscribe to anything. You can get it on iTunes. I listen on Downcast, that’s my podcast app.
Adam: I’m a big Overcast guy.
Ben: Yes, I’ve thought about switching, I hear it’s good. I like Downcast. Just moving from one podcast to another is a pain in the butt.
Adam: As each episode came, I would move it to the top of my queue and I would listen to it as immediately as I could because I really couldn’t wait. It wasn’t a major cliffhanger show but it gave you enough threads in the end of each one to make you say, “Oh, I got to figure out what’s going to happen here.” That’s true with the season itself. It wraps up kind of in a tidy bow. I understand what happened. I think I do. If that was just a single season, that was pretty satisfying for me. What is it, eight episodes, 10 episodes?
Ben: It’s 10 episodes.
Adam: Yes, I felt like, “Okay, that’s self encapsulated. If it ends here, I feel like that was a great gift that I was given to hear that story.” However, I could hear just the way it’s left off and having the rhythm of the other episodes, my brain was like, “Oh, but now I could take this story here or there or there and start mapping that out.” Now–
Ben: Well, we created a mythology, Bob DeRosa and I co-wrote it together. We created kind of a deeper mythology that we hope– We kind of like setting the bait. We’re baiting a bunch of hooks, I guess, really, to pull into various different directions. It’s not just the one story thread that we’re following here which is the Mark Cambria and Tamra Wolf story, the two main characters this season. There are other doorways we kind of just left cracked open and just enough that we could go down a lot of them. So if we had a second season or–
Just real quick, it was Michael Monello and Nick Braccia had the idea originally and they had the connection to Shudder. They brought it to us to see if we’d be interested in kind of creating it. They’d kind of come up with the basic idea and they’d mapped out kind of a rough version of season one. Bob who has kind of extensive episodic television writing experience, he sort of led the writers room of two, him and myself, and it was literally like corkboard index cards and we kind of mapped out every episode.
We would use different colors to kind of code different things but we wanted to make sure that we were tracking the relationship of the two main characters. That was very important to us. That we tracking a little bit about the mythology of the white tapes. Then the third thread probably the most important thread was, the plot that we’re following. It’s a mystery. He’s gone from one clue and then usually not really solving that clue but opening up a deeper Pandora’s box each time he gets to the next level. Our main character is kind of discovering more and more horrible, terrible things but he’s becoming obsessed as we go along. His obsession kind of pulls him through it all.
We had to keep his relationship alive. We kind of had to have a constant drip, drip, drip of the mythology so that it didn’t just sound arbitrary. We’re not just making up random scary stuff for no good reason. There’s a reason for everything.
Adam: Yes, that’s right. It feels very intentional. How much of the mythology did you write for this that you didn’t use? How much back story– when you were talking about Blair Witch, it sounds like you wrote quite a bit of back story and quite a bit of the legend that doesn’t make it to film and in this case doesn’t make it to audio to help give you guys the context you need to take bites of the story.
Ben: Here’s the thing, we were contacted about possibly doing this right around the time my son was born. My son was born on May the 4th and it was maybe like two weeks, three weeks before that that Mike and Nick reached out to me to see if Bob and I would be interested in doing this. Then we started working when he was like three weeks old. He was born in May. We probably started working on this in June and we delivered everything at the beginning of September.
In that period of time, we wrote 10 episodes which was 183 pages and many, many drafts of index cards on corkboards to get to the basis of those scripts and also obviously notes from Mike and Nick, notes from Shudder, stuff had to be addressed. Notes from each other. We were writing each other– In answer to your question, it’s like we created just enough mythology that I would say, “I’d love to have a 10 level mythology but we may be like three levels deep right now.” It’s because we just had to write it very quickly. We didn’t have an abundance of time to work.
In lieu of having lots and lots of time we kind of did for ourselves what we did for for the audience. We left a lot of doors open, “Okay, this could happen, that can happen, we can deepen this.” The hardest part I think is just kind of creating what the idea of the mythology is. What it’s all focused towards and how everything going in here ties together. The various– there’s a certain, I’ll say, creature that shows up at a certain point in the season and what does that creature do and how do they function within the story and where do they come from, we’ve got answers to all of that.
Adam: Okay, yes, that’s part of my question. I don’t want to be fanboy out, but I just wanted to know. To me it feels like it’s a big question and I always wonder, does the author know the answer to that or does the author put that in as a placeholder for some other that we’ll figure that out later if we get to season two type deal?
Ben: I won’t say that it is without placeholders but we really tried to not have anything that’s sort of audience facing. Any real audience specific moment where we didn’t really have an answer to it. I would feel like we were not doing our jobs if we did that.
Adam: Yes, that’s the question. That’s perfect. Do you think– I have read an article that had quotes from you and it was about how audio and podcasting in particular is a great place for developing and testing IP. I wanted to pick your brain about that a little bit because obviously this is a podcast. There’s not really any IP attached to it but I think the people who listen to this probably listen to other shows and as I was listening to Video Palace and there was a few other shows. Gimlet has a couple of fiction shows that are being converted into television shows. I was visualizing it as I was listening to it and so I wonder what you guys were thinking as you were going through that.
Ben: Well, definitely that was something Mike and Nick kind of brought to the table when they brought us on which is that– and I don’t think I’m speaking of when I say, I think Shudder is looking to develop IP. I probably shouldn’t talk about our specific budget but I will say it wasn’t much but also our staffing needs were lower. The budget wasn’t great but it was all right for what we were doing. For that budget they got about three hours worth of content. You would have had to have gone to 10 or 20 times our budget to make one one hour pilot that was kind of up to network standards.
Ben: You could go less. You could certainly go way less but there were shows on various cable networks that worked well at a lower budget. I’m thinking about– I don’t know what the budget is but like Stand Against Evil on Dana Gould podcast, he kind of talks about it, not having the biggest budget ever and they have to shoot it really quickly. The idea here is like– so Shudder is owned by AMC Networks, and AMC Networks has things like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Those things are amazing IP. When Breaking Bad wrapped up, I remember thinking like, “Wow, it’s too bad they can’t spin it off into something and then Better Call Saul, turns out to be like one of the best shows on television.
Adam: It’s so good, yes.
Ben: The Walking Dead, they have Fear The Walking Dead and they can probably keep doing it. Now, I hear they’re talking about doing a Nick Gru- or Rick Grimes movie. They can keep that franchise alive in many different ways going on and on. Even Shudder is about to do a TV adaptation of Creepshow, George Romero’s Creepshow which I’m extremely excited about, so they’re looking for that kind of stuff. Whether it’s Video Palace or their 10th try, the idea is to create a story world that’s broad enough that you could, if you wanted to, within the world of Video Palace, you could make a standalone movie or you could make a limited– I don’t know if it’s a limited series, they might do a second season.
But like they’re shorter episodes series like they did with Deadwax, or you could do a web series, or you could do whatever you wanted, you could do a comic book.
Ben: You could spin this into different mediums.
Adam: Yes, you brought up The Walking Dead too which was started as a pretty low-budget black-and-white comic, the first edition of it. That was a pretty low-budget way to– I mean, he wasn’t– Kirkland wasn’t writing that to test IP, I think he just had the story to tell. That was a pretty good way to say, “Oh, people are interested in this, the story is good, let’s see what we can do with the pilot.”
Ben: Well, and as far as our involvement, all of us on the production side of it and the creation side. It’s all well and good to think Shudder wants to test an IP and maybe broaden it out so we can create something on– At the very beginning, you kind of think about how could this spin into something else, but at a certain point you kind of have to just buckle down and say, “I’m only making this podcast and I need to make this podcast the awesomest it can be or there will be no other thing anyway.”
I’m not saying this isn’t about Shudder, this is about the world in general, there aren’t usually spin-offs or like you can’t count on that kind of thing unless you have it in your contract.
Adam: Right, unless you’re George Lucas, yes.
Ben: Yes, exactly. It’s like if you’re us making this, like at a certain point we had to say, “Well, we just need to make this the best thing it can be.” Again, not to wax Bob DeRosa’s car to a finer polish, but Bob’s experience in episodic television came in enormously handy. Because like you talked about how it doesn’t really end in a giant cliffhanger. Well, it couldn’t really end in a giant cliffhanger because it’s an ongoing mystery that we’re trying to have a level of verisimilitude.
If there was a giant unbelievable cliffhanger, then it would feel forced in this kind of a world. We need to think about like in the podcast Serial or S-Town or whatever. They would save a juicy story beat for the end to make you want to listen to the next episode.
Ben: Adnan Syed couldn’t have turned out to have been a werewolf all along, you can’t do that. We’re walking a weird line even though we were telling a story that’s kind of like verging on supernatural in a lot of areas. It couldn’t be– Like we kept saying it’s like that scene in the original Omen where the church steeple goes right through Gregory Peck, and it’s perfectly framed of that moment. Well, we can’t do that because we’re not telling a third-person omniscient story, we’re telling a first-person story.
The number of times that that moment could happen to our character before he dies or checks himself into a mental hospital is like one or two.
Ben: He could get his ass kicked, he could be chased out of places, he could find things that are super creepy. He could find a tape that has a clue on it that’s hopefully kind of bone-chilling from a voice of a person he can’t interview, those kinds of things. It took us a lot of work to kind of figure out what all those things– also one of other things that we were constantly talking about was, how do you break up the audio sources? Even just sitting around and brainstorming, it can’t just all be him talking into a microphone or it can’t be that plus his live audio on location, he’s got to find other things.
It was like, “Oh, it’s answering machine tapes, it’s an old police–”
Adam: I have questions about the answering machine tape, for sure. When we’re done with the interview, off the recording I’ll ask you that question. You mentioned– Well, I wanted to ask you about the mythology.
Ben: Sure thing.
Adam: You said you only got to really flush out three levels out of 10 which I’m sure is just a theoretical measurement.
Adam: Is it a blessing or a curse if you were planning this out strategically like, “Okay, we’re going to first record it for audio and then we hope it’ll go and become a movie or a video series.” Is it a blessing to have those other parts to yet flush out or do you wish it was really all flushed out already to help.
Ben: I think it’s okay to have it– I mean, either way it would work. I feel like before we ever made Blair Witch, like before we even shot any of it, we had worked out the entire timeline of the mythology of Blair Witch going back to the 1700s. There were adjustments that were made along the way obviously that comported better with what we were making, but we kind of stuck to it. With this, I think it’s okay, but when the 2016 version of Blair Witch came out, the one that Adam Wingard directed.
Win made tweaks to the mythology because they’re going to, you’re going to tweak it anyway. There’s the minor tweaks and then there’s like in Nightmare on Elm Street part 3 the son of a hundred maniacs or whatever.
Adam: Right, the bastard son of a thousand maniacs.
Ben: Yes. sorry, I was about to get into the marriage politics of how Freddy Krueger’s mother could have been married to all the maniacs at the same time. Anyway, you get it. The Adam Wingard Blair Witch didn’t add that much to the mythology. It added a few interesting little things about the actual murder of Elly Kedward and stuff like that, and you kind of go, “That’s okay.” With what we’re doing– I don’t want to be too spoilery but there is a thing that we created that was sort of our version of Stranger Things‘ upside down, but it’s multiple versions of the upside down that could kind of coexist in the same space that we call the stack and that kind of comes in way later. Sorry, that’s a spoiler.
Adam: I don’t think you’ve given anything away.
Ben: We’ve only been sort of dealing with one of those realms and there are eight that we know of within the mythology. We could basically make the other seven into whatever the hell we wanted. There’s even kind of a glimpse into one of them in one episode, but we don’t go into any real detail about what it is. Those are the things where it’s like we can sort of go off and create and deepen those parts of the world. Also, there are characters from our world who are just going to mention in passing here and there.
It’s like four or five of them, and all of them can come back and be part of the story later on. To me, it was almost like an improv exercise where– like a long form improve exercise where you kind of put a thought out there that you don’t really have resolution for, and it works for a podcast like this because you’re trying to create this sense of verisimilitude and in the real world there are things that go unresolved all the time at life. There are people who just show up and they don’t have a narrative purpose, they are just there. You find that in a lot of podcasts where– there’s a podcast called In the Dark that I love and the thing I was listening to while we were writing this, I was listening to season 2 of it.
There’s like one episode where the host finds a clue, it’s a name on a post-it note on the side of a box from a police department. She spends, I swear, 20 minutes tracking down everyone on earth with that name except for the actual person that she was looking for.
Adam: Oh, wow.
Ben: And interviews a few of them, you’re like, “Wow.” In a TV show or a movie, there’d be like a montage of her showing up at five wrong places and then- or probably two wrong places and then get to the real one. We’re allowed to have kind of these moments in something that’s kind of mimicking true crime or true investigation mystery documentary audio where somebody shows up, but some of those people have been placed because we’re going to do something else with them later if we get the opportunity. If we don’t, whatever, it’s all good.
Adam: How much of the character — are you sprinkling those in there to give yourself new threads or is that with a plan or is it just like, “Hey, for this scene, we need someone to help advance the story, we need some conversation that’s going to help explain it. So he’s going to meet someone that knows a little bit about the Video Palace or about the white tapes.”
Ben: Some from column A, some from column B. There are characters who are mentioned in passing who maybe are bigger players, and in later story threads if we should choose to explore them. I think the hard thing about a story like this is to keep the mystery alive and to give just enough answers, like with every answer you get 1.5 new questions. There’s always more questions than answers building up, and you’re always– at the end, you feel– it’s hard to make it feel satisfactory.
I always think of the last episode of the TV show Lost, where I feel there was no way they could have wrapped up that whole story. I watched every episode of Lost, and their entire characters that they cliffhanger the end of shows on, that never came back and were never resolved, that never made any sense. We don’t want to do that necessarily, but we want to keep the questions alive and percolating. The character Tamra says it towards the end, it’s like, “The only thing you’re going to keep finding is more questions,” and that’s the essence of a good mystery, right?
Adam: Yes. Well, that’s what makes the show worth listening to because each time nothing really gets solved as the story moves forward, you say, “We didn’t know this before but now we need to know what that means.”
Ben: Exactly. You get to the solution of one question and it is another 10 mysteries, but that’s what makes it fun. Hopefully, if we’re able to stick the landing, we can resolve enough of it so that the audience doesn’t feel cheated, but also once more at the same time the sense of wanting more means there’s more mystery there, in the sense of not feeling cheated, it feels like this resolved.
Adam: Yes, exactly. It feels satisfying to get a little bit of information. I think where I got frustrated with the show like Lost is I never felt like I knew more– I had more information but I never felt like I understood the world any better.
Ben: Yes, it’s because I honestly think that they left without a road map because they were great at creating new mysteries, and they weren’t as good at solving those mysteries.
Adam: Yes, I don’t think they were really interested in that.
Ben: It was a fun ride, I’m not trying to crap on it, and I think the people who made it are doing just fine.
Adam: Seems like they know what they’re doing in storytelling. You have this story, this compelling story, you created this mystery. Now, as far as turning that into the next thing, are you keeping track of listens and audience metrics, like what happens now?
Ben: As far as the metrics go, that’s all on Shudder. We delivered all the episodes through Shudder. They are hosting it as a podcast on all the podcast servers and also I’m sure that they have all of their analytics and statistics and whatnot on how many people listen to it just on Shudder. When it was released on Shudder, you could listen to the whole season. The whole season was posted, plus five bonus episodes, the same day. I think it was October 27th.
Then for regular podcast listeners listening on iTunes or whatever, they posted one episode a week. No, excuse me. Two episodes a week, it was two a week, Monday and Friday, and they never put the bonus episodes up on there, and maybe they will, maybe they won’t, I don’t know. The bonus episodes are there’s a bunch of interviews with real people, Steve Barton, Brian Collins, Eric Spudic, Sam Zimmerman, Adam Green.
They’re all in the first episode, and we just did a cut down version of all of their interviews. Not very cut down, like Adam’s interview, Adam Green is a very verbose and brilliant creative guy, and he basically gave us like 40 minutes of stuff to work with, and we cut it down to like, I think, 30 or 20 minutes. Sam Zimmerman, same thing. It goes into the technique I was talking about earlier about how we create authentic interviews and the way that works is very briefly, and I can tell you more if you want to know.
I’ll create a bio, I’ll write a bio for them. In the case of Steve Barton or Adam Green or Sam Zimmerman, they’re real people so they know who they are. Then I’ll give them like, “Here’s your story,” and it’s meant to be an improv exercise where they read the story and then off of it. They off of that story, they can build on it, change it, whatever they want.
Adam: Are you giving them like motivation or are you just saying, “Here’s who the character is and now I’m going to ask you these questions, and here’s some context,” and then they riff on that?
Ben: Yes, that’s honestly what it is. It’s a bio, it’s about two pages long. I’m trying to think of a good for instance. I’m blanking on her name. I’m sorry, holiday brain. Let’s say Kat, the woman who composes all the music for Video Palace who is actually– All the music is actually composed by a real composer named Michael Teoli, but we have a character in it who is the person who’s giving him the music but also is kind of an audio file and can help him break stuff down.
For interviews with her, she would have a bio that she would be able to read, that was like the background of the devil’s tone and the tritone and some of the stuff we had in there, and the woman who we hired to play that part. She happens to have a degree in music, and she came in and blew our minds at the audition because she knew all that could add to it.
For instance, she says a thing in there [laughs] that was just her kind of riffing, which is the tritone, if you’re like– I forget, it’s like one half of a measure, not measure, if you’re slightly off of it in two directions, it’s like the perfect, most pleasing tone, and how that relates to the fragility between good and evil. When she said that, like right after we cut, Bob was like, “Why didn’t I think of that? What was I doing?” Luckily, we get to take credit for all of it, I’m happy to give her credit.
She’s able to riff in that way on this thing. We get people who can do that, like the woman who plays Amber Hutchins, Kelly Holden Bashar. She’s a brilliant, brilliant improviser, and she was also, by the way, she was in season one of Fargo, she played Martin Freeman’s wife. It’s like we gave her the whole story about going into the basement of the Video Palace back in the ’90s and sort of what happened but the description of it, she said something that I was like, “We have to get that in because it’s a perfect way to describe what it feels like when you pass out. I never would have come up with this.”
This is her description, she said, “The room went small.” I remember when she said that, it gave me a chill cause because that’s really how it feels when you’re about to black out. Those are the nuggets that– that’s probably just how Kelly talks, that’s probably how she describes the situation. We’re not asking Kelly– I’m not saying that these actors aren’t playing a character, Kelly is not like Amber Hutchins if you’re in the room with her, but she’s not playing a big exaggerated character. It’s not stagey at all.
It’s very understated and real, and we would tell people at the audition, the number one thing we’re looking for is authenticity, screw the script, butcher the script all you want. Because any of the dialogue scenes are written, but all the interview scenes were done like this. So they would just have a bio, and then Chase Williamson who plays Mark Cambria would just interview them. He would have a few questions that I had pre-written, but then he would also ask his own questions, and some of those, and it creates a fuller experience, I think.
Adam: It’s cool.
Ben: Then you would end up having to edit it like you would edit a real interview which takes more time. Like if you script it, if you sit down and script it word for word, yes, you’ll get word for word what you want, but it’ll sound– like if I wrote interview dialogue and gave it to you, you’d say those words and if you’re an amazing actor, you would do your best to sell them, but it would still sound like the way I put together except it’s not the way.
Adam: Right. It would sound acted, it wouldn’t sound live.
Ben: Exactly. For the whole thing, we were going for that vibe. We wanted it all to feel very alive. We recorded the whole thing in a Foley studio. So it’s like not a teeny tiny sound booth for one person, but probably a little smaller than the average living room. We would stage the scenes with the actors and Chase would usually be holding the actual audio recorder that we use and pointing it around [crosstalk].
Adam: That’s cool.
Ben: –where would he put it because we wanted– if they’re supposed to be walking, we’d have them walk in place in the scene where chased him out of his mother’s house and gets to his car. They’re literally running across the stage and making it as physical as it can get as much as possible so it sounds real.
Adam: That’s really cool.
Ben: To me, that’s the first mistake you could make doing something like this, is that you have people sitting in a comfortable chair reading script pages and giving you pristine audio. The audio won’t be that pristine and that means you can’t wind it back and take the– If he’s shaking the device and you’re getting the mic shake sound, you can’t dial it back. Although, we really could because where we recorded it, Iceman studios, they also put a lavalier mic on them, they also had a boom mic on them.
Adam: Right, so you had redundant options you could control?
Ben: Yes, but I’ll say this. Now that we’ve done it, 100% of the audio of him in a space or Mark or camera in a real space talking to someone was recorded on that. The only thing we used the labs for were phone calls.
Ben: Then his interview stuff was all done on the boom. Yes.
Adam: That’s really cool. I want to ask one more question and then I’ll let you get back to your vacation there. If you got the next phone call from Shudder and they said, “Hey, we want to try something else. You have this other idea we like.” What do you think you might do differently about the next production presuming they wanted to start with audio again that would set you up better for bringing it to life elsewhere as an extended universe?
Ben: Well, in terms of creating extended universe kind of stuff, I don’t know because we haven’t had the opportunity to extend this universe, so I don’t know what rakes we’re going to step on inevitably as we try to extend it. The thing about it too is, you have the extended universe, you have the mythology, but also you have what is a podcast in and of itself and which ones work. This is subjective because there are podcasts that I can’t stand that people love. Podcasts I love people can’t stand at all. Mike Monello and Nick Braccia and our producer Liam Finn, Bob DeRosa and I, we’re constantly talking about this. To me, podcast is about point of view. It’s really hard to do an old tiny radio play. Some work and some don’t.
You could say that Homecoming is kind of an old tiny radio play modernized very well, but I actually feel like Homecoming relies heavily on point of view because it’s recorded evidence and phone calls. There’s a sourcyness to all the audio. It’s not just– To me, I guess the thing is if you’re going to– The question is, how do you take video files for instance? If someone said, “Hey, let’s make a movie out of video files.” Well, is the main character a podcaster? Do we make a movie about Mark Cambria doing this podcast? Or do we set another part of the world in that theoretical movie?” or whatever. To me, podcasting is just such a very specific thing. You know what I mean?
Those are the concerns that I have now, but again having not had the opportunity to extend it into another thing– I will say that I have experience with Blair Witch especially taking the mythology and turning it into other stuff. Not only did I do the stuff that I was talking about earlier, but I was actually on the payroll for a while, keeping the mythology correct and consulting. They did comic books, they did standalone books by a guy named Dave Stern [crosstalk] they did a series of young adult novels. They really– The word trans-media wasn’t being batted around then and now it’s unfashionable again, but they really did a trans-media campaign with that where it like– including the website. The website was just a new addition but comic books and young adult novels and all the other things, those were all.
I saw how that worked. If we were to tell a movie, to retell the Mark Cambria story as a movie or would we find another facet of the story? Because I feel like there’s a lot more to explore. Although Chase Williamson is– He was the lead in John Dies at the End. I was giddy with excitement. I’m not even slightly exaggerating. Giddy to work with Chase. I could not believe how lucky I was to get to work with Chase. He’s awesome.
Adam: Yes, he was very good in both of those things. You’re raising a good question about authorship and point of view. Does it have to be told from Mark’s point of view if it was done as a television show or could it be done as a third-person show where we’re just following him and does he has to be a podcaster? Or could he’d be just someone that becomes obsessed in some other way, right?
Ben: Or does the Mark Cambria story just become backstory to whatever the next– Which is–
Adam: Right, it’s a platform.
Ben: Yes, when you look at the mythology of Blair Witch before the three main characters showed up in the first movie, there was a mythology that had been going on, again, for over 200 years. Does Mark Cambria then become part of the mythology? How much do you have a comment on? Or do you just throw the podcast away? Or I shouldn’t say throw away but pretend that the podcast didn’t exist and tell the Mark Cambria story differently. You could do that, but you could also go back in time and tell the story. It’s a story about obsession, and collectors, and collector culture that I feel like you could have permutations that go into different things. Could you have a different story that Mark Cambria somehow shows up in? There’s a lot of ways you could take it.
The one thing that I think you have to assume is, if we need a TV series, you can’t assume anyone watching it is listening to the podcast. I don’t know– It’s a question that we’re just beginning to bat around now because I know that Shudder is interested to hear if we have some ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’ll– Who knows what they’re going to do. They’re going to do whatever is best for their network. It’s the kind of thing where all of us who work on this, we really had a great experience making it. I would say of the things I’ve made, it’s one of the things that came out closest to what I wanted it to be. I didn’t have to adjust my expectations as I went along very much.
Adam: That’s cool.
Ben: Yes, look, there’s nothing wrong with adjusting your expectations. Whether you’re directing a movie or a theater play or whatever, you have to let it be whatever it’s going to be but this we were able to hone in on– We knew where it was changeable on the edges. Specifically, the written dialogue was going to change. We knew that. The story itself came together the way we hoped and people– The response has been amazing. I’ve been really happy with the way horror fans such as myself [laughs] — I’m trying to make stuff that I would like. Something that I would listen to. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but also– I’m sure a lot of podcast listeners have the exact same experience. If it doesn’t hook you, you just don’t– It’s free, investment, you just stop listening.
Adam: Yes, exactly. You just tap out of it.
Adam: Well, I think the work speaks for itself. I did really enjoy it and I think if you have time, if you’re listening to this, you should listen to Video Palace. You’ll really dig it. Ben, thank you so much for making time for us.
Ben: Absolutely, thank you for asking.
Adam: Hey, where can people find you online? I found you on Twitter, but anything else you want to send people to?
Ben: Well, I do have a website which is benrockonline.com. Right now the only– I do have Video Palace on there, but I don’t have any more information. I basically just have a link that takes you to I think the iTunes page or– no, I think it gives you a website that we built for the group of us that made it. I’m on benrockonline.com, I’m on Twitter @neptunesalad, I’m on Instagram @benjamin_rock because I didn’t think this Instagram thing would really keep going so I chose the lamest name I’ve ever– and I’m on Facebook. I’m on all of the stupid social media places you can be.
Adam: I’ll definitely link to your site and to iTunes so people can hear this.
Ben: Cool, thank you. I will tweet it out myself.
Adam: You’re the man.
Ben: All right, thank you so much for having me on.
Adam: Of course, thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Ben: Sure thing, anytime.
Adam: So long.