Earlier this week, V/H/S/94, the latest installment of the V/H/S series arrived on Shudder, bringing together a collection of newcomers, including Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, and Steven Kostanski, alongside franchise veterans Simon Barrett and Timo Tjahjanto, to create a new collection of nightmarish tales captured through the found footage technique. Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to catch up with Barrett about his involvement with V/H/S/94, and he discussed his approach to creating the story for his segment “The Empty Wake,” as well as how COVID ended up changing up some of his production plans, his experiences collaborating with his special effects team, and more.
Check out our interview with Barrett below, and be sure to give V/H/S/94 a watch now that it’s streaming exclusively on the Shudder platform.
So great to speak with you today, Simon. You were part of the genesis of V/H/S, and both you and Adam were part of the sequel, too. From your perspective, what was right about the timing to dive back into this world now and do another anthology and get back in the trenches with everybody?
Simon Barrett: That’s a good question. I mean, I was heavily involved in working on the first two films with Roxanne Benjamin and Brad Miska back in the day, but after the second one, Adam and I were done at that time. When they came back years later and told me that they were thinking of doing a fourth one because David Bruckner has an idea for a way to reboot the films with era-specific sequels as a premise and therefore everyone would have to use essentially the same era's technology, I just thought that was a really cool idea.
What happened in the interim is a lot of people had asked me if we were ever going to make another one of these. I was always like, “Well, we gave you a sequel before you even thought to ask for one, or would've conceivably wanted one, and you want more?” And people did want more. There was this fanbase and so I think that was part of it, just the awareness that there was a real appetite for this film.
And then lastly, I would say probably that people aren't as sick of found footage as they were a few years ago. There was a real found footage boom after the success of Paranormal Activity, as you know, and the V/H/S films I think we were like counterprogramming to those studio movies. Those studio movies had run their course. We put the nail in that coffin with Blair Witch, actually [laughs]. But for me, going back and doing something that felt a little unsafe and a little unusual and a little more different than where horror is—the V/H/S brand has always been big, silly, exploitational horror, and that's not really where the genre is right now. But I also, I still think there is an appetite for that, maybe it’s a small one, but we'll find out.
You mentioned having to be set this within the confines of the tech that was available in the time period that you guys made this movie. Did that change up your approach at all to your segment? Or do you feel like having those confines actually pushed you in ways that maybe you weren't expecting going into this?
Simon Barrett: I think as a filmmaker, and I maybe should even say particularly as a screenwriter, I tend to take inspiration from the limitations of what I know a production's going to be. And I think that speaks somewhat to the uniqueness of my career, starting out making essentially very micro-budget films with Adam Wingard. Movies that had budgets well under $100,000. We would have to base those creatively around what we actually could practically attain. So I think there's always part of my brain that when I hear about a certain specific set of limitations, that always sparks something like, “Well, how would I utilize that?”
So I had the idea for my segment before I even knew about the COVID protocols and everything. But then, as you intuited with your question, once I realized that we were going to have to be making this movie in a COVID bubble up in Canada during full COVID lockdown up there, I was like, “Well, if I'm shooting in a COVID bubble and my entire crew and cast are going to have to be in this bubble, what is a cool way to do that, that I haven't seen?” And that's where the single location of it all really started to coalesce for me. Because originally in my script I had the lead character Hayley, who's played by Kyal Legend, explore the space a little more. And I do think limiting that made it a more interesting experience.
Also, I was trying to do a V/H/S short that I hadn't seen before, and I think some people are going to respond to that and some people aren't. But yeah, you can really tell that mine is actually literally filmed in the hotel where we were staying if you're paying attention. But I had an amazing production designer, Zosia Mackenzie, who's now working on Infinity Pool with Brandon Cronenberg and her and her partner, John O'Regan, who was my art director, they said, "Oh, so you want to make this in a Holiday Inn?" And I was like, "Yep." And they were like, "All right. Here's how we're going to do it." And we pulled it off.
I had no idea that this was a hotel to be totally honest. I really thought you guys were in an actual funeral home and everything.
Simon Barrett: Our local producer, Pasha Patriki, developed a relationship with a Holiday Inn that I think was having some hard times because of COVID, where he was able to use whole sections of the hotel for these productions. So that's what they essentially proposed to us, the filmmakers, as a way that we could make V/H/S/94 during COVID and do so safely and effectively. The hotel was built in the early ’90s and they had not updated the carpeting in this one space, so my production designer Zosia and I figured out that everything was all period-accurate, which was great. Because here's the truth of the matter, Heather. When I wrote this I was thinking, “Oh, I'll just find a funeral home.” And sadly, during COVID, a funeral home is the one business that did not need a film shoot to take over their space.
So once again I realized I'd done a stupid thing again like I did with Seance, where I wrote a script for a single location that would never actually work in practicality because no school would ever let you film Seance there if they were being responsible, and they indeed did not in that case of that film. So once again, I'd written a single location thinking for a location that was going to be impossible to achieve. But in the case of “The Empty Wake” segment of V/H/S/94, I was able to pivot and use a hotel built in the early ’90s because it was a perfect location as long as I could build upon that foundation.
I know we’re just about out of time, but before we go, I wanted to ask about working with your effects team for your segment. The effects were fantastic and they really blew me away, so I’d love to hear more about your experiences collaborating with the team.
Simon Barrett: I think we can ruin things a little bit, because here's the thing: I feel like if you’re a horror fan, you probably know where my segment is headed. I like working in these old-fashioned, spooky horror things when I do something supernatural because I tend to have an old-fashioned sensibility. And what this V/H/S film had that the previous films had never had, was time to actually build prosthetic special effects. Which as gory as the prior films had been, we were really making them work with Halloween warehouse stuff, with the exception of Gareth and Timo in “Safe Haven” because they are pretty amazing filmmakers.
And so with this film, I was really determined to actually deliver on what I felt like the promise of the previous films had been. So, the corpse in my film is designed by Chris Bridges, a special effects artist based up in Ontario, who's done a lot of huge stuff. He did a full body cast of Devon Chin-Cheong, my contortionist performer, and built everything. Then, I worked with Justin Martinez, formerly of Radio Silence, who had worked on the previous V/H/S films, to complete that effect digitally. We had composite elements for everything because I felt like if we actually created any gore, it would look fake. It all had to be real, physical gore. So, I'd filmed the gore and we composited some of that in and we erased part of the fake head that the actor's wearing on his real head. But Chris had created a brain slice that we photographed from every angle, so we always had this slice of head that we knew would comp easily in. So it's all practical elements in other words, but I'm doing a bit of a digital trick to make it feel a little more unnatural. It's a little bit of a digital trick.
And Daniella Pluchino was our on-set makeup appliance person, and she was working with Chris. Chris was also on set for the whole process, but Daniela was the gore person. Chris handled all the big animatronic effects, like the corpse’s wiggling tongue and stuff that you can barely see on screen because of how I filmed it, but Daniella was the person who was applying all the gore and grue, and her commitment to that really pays off on screen. So I had a great special effects team on this, and I told Chris basically like, "Next movie, I'm snagging you."