Disclaimer: This interview was conducted after the WGA Strike ended.
V/H/S/85, the latest entry into the found-footage V/H/S franchise, features an ominous mixtape that blends never-before-seen snuff footage with nightmarish newscasts and disturbing home video to create a surreal, analog mashup of the forgotten 80s.
For the release of V/H/S/85, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with writers Evan Dickson and Zoe Cooper for their segments, “Total Copy” and “TKNOGD,” respectively. In Dickson’s wraparound story “Total Copy,” directed by David Bruckner, viewers are introduced to Rory, a gelatinous humanoid figure being examined by a group of scientists. In Cooper’s “TKNOGD,” directed by Natasha Kermani, viewers are introduced to a performance artist who tackles the dangers of VR with an installation piece gone wrong.
During their chat, they discussed everything from the themes and concepts behind their respective segments, the process of crafting memorable characters within a short timeframe, and how fear of technology drives everything home.
Editor’s Note: Be forewarned. There be V/H/S/85 spoilers afoot.
Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me today about V/H/S/85. To start things off, for those unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about the overview of your V/H/S/85 stories and the central theme/concept behind it?
Evan Dickson: I was recently reading a couple of articles about the movie as a whole. I feel like a lot of them are sort of searching for… there’s a lot of creator-related questions. I think that Zoe’s [story] points to that and definitely Total Copy, the one I did with David, is definitely a creator/createe relationship. There’s [also] some cosmic stuff because David and I always sort of talk about cosmic stuff anyway. We decided to do [a segment] before we really knew what we were going to do. Everyone else kind of shot theirs first so it was nice to have everyone’s rough cuts to look at to see maybe what could sit well in between all of them.
After we saw those, we went up to a cabin in Lake Arrowhead and watched Videodrome, From Beyond, Dreamscapes, and as many YouTube clips from the movie Perfect as we could find. We kept working on the story for several months after that but that would be the genesis of it. Between those four movies, as well as us, we were very concerned about AI and its impact on the planet and humanity. We felt it was a good analogy to have this thing that you keep feeding information to train it to talk your language and it ends up controlling you.
Zoe Cooper: Natasha Kermani, in addition to being an incredible creative, she’s also a really close friend of mine, and she and I have been toying with several ideas for a while. I think the original version of this idea started off as a werewolf space movie that evolved a lot over the course of time. I think what distilled it for us was when we found out that this movie specifically was going to be set in 1985. What we wanted to make sure of was that we were addressing what was specific to the era and was something that you couldn’t do in just any of the VHS movies and you would never be able to do in another one going forward.
We took the idea of 1985, specifically, and had a lot of questions about what were the fears at the time in society as a whole and recognizing that there was a lot of technological change happening right around that time. Computers were becoming more of a thing and VR was really just then making its debut and it was admittedly a very awkward debut. Things didn’t look real, but you could sort of submerge yourself in VR for the first time around that era.
We started toying with that. Natasha is also fascinating because she is, in addition to being somebody who’s infinitely fascinated with sci-fi, she was also raised by a performance artist. Her mom is a performance artist, and so Natasha grew up literally backstage of performance art theaters in New York. I also was raised in the black box theaters of Atlanta, Georgia. So we both really tapped into this idea of performance and wanted to figure out how we could use that personal background that we had and combine it with the idea of virtual reality and the technological advances from 1985, and the rest sort of fell into place.
The idea is drawing on the fears of change and things we don’t know and using performance to sort of chastise the idea of change and the idea of like, if technology is not real, we’re losing sight of the things that we know, and the things that make us human. She’s making the performance artist in the piece making that point.
Each segment is relatively short and there’s only a certain amount of time given to build characters and a compelling narrative. How do you go about crafting that?
Zoe Cooper: For “TKNOGD,” we were super lucky because we were drawing on real-life inspirations and we only had a couple of characters. We have the performance artists and again, that’s sort of based loosely on a smattering of real performance artists that we’ve seen their performance styles, things like that.
One of the other really interesting things about “TKNOGD” is that one of the main characters of that piece was based on Jaron Lanier, who developed a robot glove. There’s a piece referenced in our segment called an EyePhone that is not what we think of as iPhones but rather a visual aid that goes over your eyes, hence EyePhone. We lifted from that and drew from that experience and watched his interviews and his tapes and sort of incorporated all that into [the story], so that character was ready-made for us as well. The only other characters are, surprise, the monster and the audience.
The audience is a really important one, too, because if you’ve been a performer for as long as I have been, or for as long as Natasha has been around it, you are very used to the idea of interacting with your audience and maybe them reacting not so much how you intended and I’ll leave it at that. But the characters came sort of baked into our concept. We were really lucky in that way.
Evan Dickson: Because ours is a faux documentary, the first 4 or 5 segments of it are designed to be sort of like a network news program that’s being taped over. It’s easier to introduce a lot of characters because you have the benefit of voiceover and exposition to do that and it still feels organic because that piece would have had that anyway.
The real challenge with ours in regard to establishing characters and sort of the dynamic is so much of ours happens off-screen because 20-minute chunks are being taped over. It’s really sort of pinpointing what has changed during the other director’s segments. We try to pick up the characters in different places that we left off so you can infer like, oh, wow, we’ve had a breakthrough or there has been a setback or Dr. Spratling (Jordan Belfi) has fallen in love with Rory, or whatever [Laughs]. We really kind of lucked out with that documentary style.
Were either of you on set to see the evolution of your story come to light for V/H/S/85?
Zoe Cooper: I think we actually had two very unique experiences as to why we specifically couldn’t be on set as much. I happened to be in a writer’s room at the time. You get very short periods of time to shoot these. I’m pretty sure “TKNOGD” was shot in four days. They’re really down and dirty and the filmmakers are really getting into it and it’s a really fun process if you can be around for it. Natasha definitely invited me to come be a part of it. She was very clear that she would love for me to be there. She’s such a collaborative co-creator but unfortunately, I was in a writer’s room so I could not step away from my other job.
I think for what it’s worth it is important whenever possible to have a writer on set because there are always going to be things that are happening in the moment where people are losing sight of things or words are getting dropped or ideas are getting misinterpreted in that moment. So I think whenever you can, have a writer on set to be the backbone of [the project] and to have that voice. It’s not always possible but when it is I’m a huge advocate for having a writer around.
Evan Dickson: David would have loved to have had me on set as well but because we were last [to shoot], ours had so much creature design and practical builds that everything was just kind of ready. Then the writers went on strike so I turned in my draft like an hour before the strike started with three alternate endings. I was going to even act in it but I didn’t want the perception to be like, he’s in it and he’s secretly writing on it, so I declined. And thank God because the guy who plays the part I was going to play is the guy with the mullet and I would not have enjoyed watching that piece with me in it [Laughs]. I didn’t have that much trepidation handing it off to David because he always kicks the tire so hard on everything and every idea is so thoroughly embedded in. He cares about every single detail. I just knew that whatever they came back with would be great.
Zoe Cooper: It probably doesn’t need to be said but it’s worth noting that the process of shooting V/H/S/85 has been pretty long. They started sort of right after V/H/S/99 so a couple of pieces including “TKNOGD” were actually shot last summer, almost a year ago. Scott Derrickson’s piece, “Dreamkill” was done first and then “TKNOGD” came up right after that, so we were finished a year before the strike began. But Evan and Dave’s piece was the last one to be shot for a number of reasons partially because they needed to see everything else to understand how to fit theirs in the in-betweens so theirs was much later in the game. And then, of course, they were backed up with the challenge of the impending writer’s and actor’s strike.
Evan Dickson: “Total Copy” was shot after the writer’s strike but before the actor’s strike. In that tiny little gap. It just occurred to me that I’ve never seen any of the Rory builds. I wonder if it plays differently for me than if I had been there and seen everything being built because, to me, it just feels like it sprung forth and arrived. I feel a deep connection to it because we came up with the idea together.
Horror taps into so many fears and anxieties. What do you hope readers take away or feel after seeing your segments in V/H/S/85?
Zoe Cooper: Pretty easy answer for me, I’m way too attached to my devices. I would love a reason to be terrified of my iPhone [Laughs]. I really think it’s the idea of thinking that we know more than we do, not interrogating realities that we’re not aware of yet, and becoming a little too involved with worshipping our technological devices.
Evan Dickson: Mine is sort of similar. One of the real dangers for us as a society moving forward is we’ve given so much power to people who are just plowing forward in the name of progress. They have all these platitudes of doing this to connect people or bring everyone together and any sort of regulation that you try and put on them they’re like, oh, I’m sure it’s fine. Or someone like Elon Musk who’s developing AI would probably shame you on Twitter or whatever it’s called for questioning that.
It’s this weird sort of thing of asking the responsible questions of these people who are just barreling ahead with cataclysmic ideas. It’s gotten framed in a way like it’s a Luddite conceit, like it’s an antiquated thing to interrogate the progress, specifically, with AI. I have hopefully 50 or 55 years left on the planet and I don’t want to be a slave to a robot when my back’s hurting and I’m like 70 years old [Laughs].
V/H/S/85 premieres on Shudder on October 6, 2023. For more on the horror anthology, check out our review of V/H/S/85 here.
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