It’s been a while since I’ve seen a bizarro dark comedy as good as Jack Henry Robbins’ upcoming feature film, VHYES. Shot entirely on VHS and Betamax, the film centers around a 12-year-old boy named Ralph who mistakenly records over his parent’s wedding video while recording his favorite late-night TV shows. The film features segments reminiscent of late 80s television content that threads a narration through commercials and semi-fictional shows. These vignettes offer a comedic, dramatic, and at times, a slightly horrific account focused on Ralph’s unfolding story, keeping viewers guessing at every turn.
For the upcoming release of the film, we had the chance to speak with co-writer/director Jack Henry Robbins. During our chat, we discussed everything from the inspiration for the film, filming only on VHS and Betamax, as well as the all-star comedic cameos which feature Thomas Lennon, Keri Kenney, Mark Proksch, and Robbins’ parents, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
To start things off, could you talk a bit about how the story for VHYES came to life?
Jack Henry Robbins: Sure. We got into Sundance in 2017 with Hot Winter, the full version which some of it you have not seen, and then in 2018, we got into Sundance again for Painting with Joan. Then we sent an email to Oscilloscope Films showing them the movies and they told us they loved them and wanted to see more. They asked if we would be interested and obviously we were. My co-writer Nunzio [Randazzo], who also plays Dr. Manly, started writing a feature-length script and it slowly evolved into this huge script of sketches. We needed to find a way to put it all together so we came up with this idea of a kid recording [these segments] as well as this idea that he’s recording over his parent’s wedding tape.
I read that the entire film was shot on VHS and Betacam. Can you elaborate on that experience?
Jack Henry Robbins: It was crazy (laughs). Hot Winter and Painting with Joan were both filmed on VHS and we just had a monitor. For this film, because it was a bigger thing, we had to figure out a way to live capture it, in case a tape was lost. It’s pretty crazy at the end of the day to have one tape that has literally your entire day of filming on it. Let’s just say I avoided big magnets for about 2-1/2 years (laughs). There’s a lot of challenges with VHS. If you get a tape that’s old it will be crackly. I had to capture all 50 takes twice because I realized half-way through that the VHS was giving us a low-quality image, so I had to recapture on a new deck. For three days I set alarms every two hours. I didn’t sleep for three days because I had panic attacks because at the end of shooting [for that day] I would look at this box that literally had all or daily uncaptured. I was just like, “What the fuck? What if there is a flood in my house.” I pretty much just spent three days capturing it twice, it was pretty stupid (laughs). After all was said and done, there was only one scene that we did not film.
Also, the whole lighting thing was crazy because there’s an auto exposure so you have to evenly light everything. Then we shot on Betacam too so tracking down a Betacam that worked was insane. I finally found one that worked but then it stopped working half-way through the shoot. My producer, Delaney Schenker, ordered a box of Betacam tapes and we got the box which had 26-minute tapes instead of 20 60-minute tapes so we were shooting the interview segment and literally had a timer for 6-minutes so we could switch out the tapes – it was insane. People have asked me why I did it and the truth is there are certain mechanics that you can’t reproduce. The auto-exposure and the shitty zooms you can’t do it if it was digital. Also, the glitches, there are certain glitches I really like. I just wanted to be pure about it.
My favorite part of the film was definitely the different vignettes. They reminded me of when I was a kid scrolling through the channels late at night and having the guide there and the poor quality image of some of the shows. Can you talk about designing those moments and do you have a favorite?
Jack Henry Robbins: Within all of us I think there are these subconscious things that we remember – be it the blue guide screen or shitty television late at night. Editing the movie took about a year and a half and was insane because if you think about it, every edit has to be motivated by why this kid would be watching this, what grabs his attention, when does he lose interest. Also, you can’t have one long segment and then another long segment, it had to really mimic what it was like to flip through channels. Avner Shiloah is my editor and I helped edit a lot of it too and through the process, I literally saw his kid grow up from being 4-months old to a year-and-a-half. It was pretty crazy. I have so many different favorite segments, the fact that I got to work with so many people who I great up admiring and now love was a dream come true. Working with Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney, Mark Proksch, I think are three of the funniest people that exist right now.
Speaking of the cast, you had a legion of comedians who were absolutely hilarious in this film. You also had both your mom [Susan Sarandon] and dad [Tim Robbins] in the movie. What was that like and how did you go about casting for these roles?
Jack Henry Robbins: I had worked with Mark [Proksch] on a Comedy Central pilot a few years ago. I was begging him to be in the movie and he was either going to be on the “Antique Roadshow” segment or the guy who leads the aerobics – either of which would have been hilarious. I just pretty much asked him what he wanted to do and sent him both scripts. Some of the castings were really hard, we saw over 100 people to cast the pornos, which was so hard to do. You have to get the right actors who aren’t playing the joke, who look the part, and who are funny. John Gemberling and Charlyne Yi, those were people I thought about prior to and reached out to. Luckily, it helps in casting if you already have stuff to show them. We had Hot Winter and Painting with Joan done which was how we were able to make this happen. This was a super low budget movie so they were all, bless their heart, really down for the cause. My dad is the old guy who’s recording the tape of how the guy murdered him, he has makeup on so you can barely tell [it’s him]. It was great working with him and my mom, I cast them in the smallest parts of their entire career.
I also loved how there were even horror elements that centered around a segment about a sorority house.
Jack Henry Robbins: The surprising ending to me is like – horror and comedy are very similar where they both elicit a physical reaction. I think they are kind of connected, I think people seek out laughter and I think people seek out fear. Fear usually because people love to go to the movies to get scared. For me, it was like, how do I end this movie and I knew I couldn’t just end with a funny joke. I wanted to kind of bring all the characters back together. It’s kind of crazy in every screening I’m at. Right when that part is coming up I’m wondering how it’s going to go. The truth is, every time I watch it I’m nervous that people aren’t going to like it but the reviews, so far, have been so freaking solid. It’s been a really positive situation.
There are a lot of themes in the film ranging from relationships to global warming to society and technology. Is there anything, in particular, you are hoping viewers will take away from the film?
Jack Henry Robbins: Of course. I think if you spend three years on something you hope that it actually says something. There’s so much going on in society and so much improvement to be had that I was hoping to at least go a little deep into something. Hot Winter originated kind of as this own idea to make a porno about climate change. I was hoping that climate deniers might be interested in watching that. I think, in general, comedy allows you to disable people’s prejudices because I think comedy is the great unifier. If you can make a stranger laugh you have more of a chance to teach them something. That’s kind of my perspective on this. In general, I hope people can change their perspective or be more active in climate or in politics. I hope that people think about their phones and how it’s affecting them. I think the movie is just one step in all of that. I hope it also just makes people laugh and makes people think. I think that’s the most someone could really hope for as a director, that your movie makes people change a little bit.
VHYES arrives in cinemas nationwide on January 17th. For more about the film, check out our review here.