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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The Found Footage Festival returns to Madison
Nick Prueher talks about finding videos, filthy songs, and Eau Claire comedy

Friday night makes a major homecoming for Stoughton natives Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, who will be kicking off a brand-new edition of their Found Footage Festival at the Orpheum Theatre. Now living in Queens, the pair has parlayed their early efforts at screening a McDonald's video at their parents' homes and publishing a comedy zine into a burgeoning filmmaking career, the cornerstone of which is their triple-F.

Launched in the spring of 2004, the festival features a series of offbeat and unexpected clips from videotapes found by the pair -- everything from discarded demos to cable access clips to promotional videos for farm equipment -- all of which is far odder than can be imagined from this brief description. This is then coupled with live comedic observations and commentary by Pickett and Prueher to create a showcase that has played to sold-out houses around the country.

The pair have been finding videos for years, starting back in high school and subsequently growing quite extensive. "Joe and I have one big video collection that we just keep adding to," says Prueher. "It's all part of the Found Footage Festival collection, which currently spills over into my apartment, Joe's apartment and a storage locker in Queens."

They're on the road quite a bit now, not only with the festival but in the course of their filmmaking. The pair won the "24 Beats per Second" audience award last spring at the South by Southwest film fest for their documentary Dirty Country. This flick looks at the work of Indiana musician Larry Pierce to look at the phenomenon of dirty songwriting and its accompanying under-the-radar industry of raunchy music. Now they're focusing on a deal with CBS Television to develop a primetime special from their found footage exploits.

In advance of their tour kick-off in Madison, Prueher spoke with The Daily Page about the festival, discussing its origins, their video collection, filthy music, Madison comedy, and what's in the water at UW-Eau Claire. The interview follows.

The Daily Page: Can you tell the story of your genesis at McDonald's, and how it led you to do some serious job hunting?
Prueher: I worked at the McDonald's in Stoughton for two years in high school. My friend Dan Hoverson was training to become a manager and had to watch every single video in the McDonald's training library, some thirty odd videos in total. He called me in the break room one day at work, and said I had to take a look at this tape called "Inside and Outside Custodial Duties."

I couldn't believe what I saw. It was so ridiculous and hilarious that I took the tape home and began showing to all of my friends. If there was nothing going on in Stoughton on a Friday night -- which was often the case, believe it or not -- Joe and I would have people over to my parents' house and we'd watch the McDonald's video, giving our running commentary over it. It became this routine. And then we thought, "Man, if there are videos this stupid right under our noses, imagine what else is out there."

From that day on, we began scouring thrift stores, looking in garbage cans, and keeping an eye out at our workplaces for more videos. It helped that when we graduated from college, Joe got a job at a video duplication company in Minnesota. If a strange video came through, he'd pop in an extra tape for us and we'd add it to the collection.

Joe also once took a job as at Suncoast Video just because we'd heard they had really stupid training videos. After his first day, he took the tapes home, dubbed them, and returned them the next day with his resignation. Later, I got a job as a researcher on the Late Show with David Letterman and part of my job was to track down old embarrassing footage of celebrities. Some of the stuff I turned up during that time is featured in our program.

Our collection has just continued to grow over the years.

Where did you find the new collection of videos you are screening at the Orpheum?
Prueher: The videos we'll be showing at the Orpheum were all found by Joe and I and friends over the past year and a half or so. Most of them were discovered at thrift stores and garage sales during our travels with the festival. In one case, Joe and his girlfriend bought an old VHS camcorder at an estate sale in Queens and then were surprised to find a tape still inside when they brought it home. We play what was on the tape exactly as we found it, and it's pretty bizarre.

Will there be comedy at the show in addition to the screening itself?
Our background is in comedy, so we give our own humorous take on the material as part of the show. There's live comedy onstage in between the videos, some pre-taped bits, photos of special guests, a costume change, and our usual smart ass remarks throughout. It's a full show. Without giving too much away, one of the highlights of the whole thing is a recent example in which we got to interact with one of the videos we found.

Do you have any videos that you can reliably source to Wisconsin ?
Yes. A good one-third of the videos in our first touring show came from Wisconsin, including footage of an early home shopping channel from Eau Claire called "America's Value Network."

In this new show, there's one clip from a show that I taped off Madison's cable access channel WYOU when I was in high school. It's called "One Kid's Opinion" and it stars a precocious 11-year-old kid rating the attractions from his recent trip to Disneyland. This video was in the same rotation as the McDonald's video in my parents' living room in high school, so it holds a special place in our hearts.

We're looking forward to hitting up Madison's thrift stores when we're back in town to scour for more Wisconsin oddities.

How do you select videos for inclusion in the festival?
Joe and I wade through hundreds of hours of found footage to find something that makes the cut. It has to be interesting and bad in just the right way. The litmus test for us is whether the footage is unintentionally funny. Ninety percent of the time, the footage we find is the most boring stuff on earth, but the rare one percent of the time when you find something worthwhile, it makes it all worth it. It's the thrill of discovery that keeps us going.

Would you ever show a spicy video that requires authorization?
I'm not going to lie: we have some pretty outrageous videos in our collection. In fact, if you're in the mood for some brief full-frontal male nudity, you will not be disappointed on Friday. But we would never show anything that could be considered remotely erotic. If anyone derives any prurient pleasure from the videos we show, there is something seriously wrong with them.

More seriously, how do you acquire rights to these videos? Have you ever had any problems with this?
We have never sought permission to show any of these videos in public and have never run into any problems. Most of these videos are so under the radar and long-forgotten that it would seriously surprise us if anyone laid claim to them. Our lawyer has also assured us that we are covered legally under fair use and satire. We're not charging admission for people to watch other people's copyrighted work. You come to watch a comedy show featuring small snippets from much longer videos, recontextualized and made into something entirely different. And luckily, we have no scruples at all about doing this.

Where does the festival fit into the whole "Found" phenomenon that's been built by Davy Rothbart's magazine and a host of online quests?
We are big fans of FOUND Magazine and YouTube, but we've been doing this in one form or another for more than 15 years, so I don't know where we fit into the recent phenomenon. Certainly, we are grateful that there is now an avid appreciation and audience for this kind of material.

Is there any place or venue where the festival desperately needs to be brought?
I never thought that the festival would have an audience outside of this country, but we've had some of our best shows in Amsterdam and Paris where many people didn't even speak English. I think the lesson is that stupid videos are universal. We've had a lot of requests to bring the Found Footage Festival to the UK and Australia, but the travel costs have been prohibitively expensive. If anyone would like to sponsor a UK/Australia tour, please send us an email.

How did you get Dirty Country rolling? Will you be bringing this film to Madison?
While on a road trip in high school, Joe and I came across a cassette tape called Songs For Studs at a Wisconsin truck stop. Being a couple of studs, we had to pick up the tape. When we popped it in, we couldn't believe what we heard: the most jaw-droppingly filthy lyrics we had ever heard, but set to well-written, original country music. The songs were undeniably catchy and we vowed to collect every tape we could find from this guy, Larry Pierce.

Four years ago, we decided to finally track down this guy and find out what he was all about. We envisioned it as a short documentary film, but when we met Larry, all these exciting events started happening in his life. Three and a half years later, we finished shooting the movie, having not only captured the man's great American success story, but stumbled upon a heretofore unexplored genre of "dirty" music in America. That's what Dirty Country is all about.

We premiered the film at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and won the Audience Award. Since then, we have played the movie at the Nashville Film Festival and others. We unfortunately were not selected for the Wisconsin Film Festival this year, so we'll have to shoot for an alternative means of exhibition in Madison. With any luck, we will find a distributor for the film by the end of the year. In the meantime, we're looking forward to our next film festival appearance, in Cork, Ireland in October.

Dirty Country's MySpace page notes that it's hometown is Stoughton . What dirty things do you remember about growing up there?
One friend grew up on a dairy farm in Stoughton and we'd spend a lot of time hanging out in the milkhouse, which was kind of his dad's private rec room. His dad's sense of humor definitely skewed toward the bawdy, with nudie calendars and racy greeting cards adorning the walls. We also found a couple of his John Valby albums, which we found endlessly entertaining.

John "Dr. Dirty" Valby is a singer and piano player from Buffalo, New York who makes his living singing dirty song parodies and originals. As a 12-year-old, there was nothing funnier than these forbidden albums. We actually tracked John Valby down a couple of years ago and profiled him in Dirty Country. Also, our film production company name is Milkhouse, so it has all kind of come full circle.

What was The Daily Chimp?
The Daily Chimp was a humor newspaper that Joe and I and our friend Tom Jacobson started up at Stoughton Middle School. We'd work on a typewriter and make up jokes and recipes and comics, then copy it all off and distribute it at school. Looking back, those early issues couldn't have been funny to anyone else but us.

When Joe and I met back up in college at Eau Claire, we decided to revive the paper on campus and provide an outlet for our comedy ideas. It was never a financial success and it certainly wasn't perfect, but I'm proud of the fact that people from Eau Claire still come up to us and talk about it. I also still have a tattoo of the paper's logo on my arm, so I couldn't forget about it even if I tried.

You're one of several UW-Eau Claire grads with Madison ties who is drawing attention with their work in independent film. Along with Aaron Yonda of Blame Society Productions, there are JonMichael Rasmus and John Sams who are the creators of the Cineplexity movie game. Are movies big at UWEC?
There was no film production department at UW-Eau Claire at all. We had some TV production classes, but the equipment at the time was so antiquated that it was already obsolete in the real world. The one saving grace was the campus TV station, TV10, which gave you the access to some decent equipment and tools and the freedom to do what you wanted.

We worked with JonMichael and John there (and Aaron Yonda did some writing for The Daily Chimp way back when), so there was a small group of really talented and funny people who wanted to make movies. I think it can help to be the big fish in a small pond. At a larger school with a more established film program, you'd be one of thousands competing for time and access to make your movie projects. At UW-Eau Claire, you had the freedom to do you own thing and get it seen.

You've had work featured in the Wisconsin Film Festival a couple of times now, right? Do you have plans for any future submissions to it?
Joe's short film, Saving Human Lives, won the Best Short Film Award at the Wisconsin Film Festival a few years ago. We also played our short, Gas 'N Fuel, at the very first festival. We were disappointed that Dirty Country was not selected to screen there this year because we think it really would have gone over well in Madison, but we are hopeful that our next project -- whatever it is -- will make be included.

How do you think growing up in the Madison area, with its comedy tradition typified by things like the Zuckers and The Onion, influenced your filmmaking and curating?
I think that growing up outside the influence of Hollywood and New York gives you a grounded perspective that helps with comedy. And when you're in a progressive, college environment like Madison, there is always an audience for comedy. Joe and I actually did some writing for The Onion right out of high school, and I was a member of the ComedySportz improv group on State Street. Madison is a great place for comedy.

What makes a video found as opposed to sought?
Our rule is that a video in the Found Footage Festival has to be legitimately found somewhere by someone. We don't take anything from the internet at all, so most of what you'll see on Friday is footage that cannot be seen anywhere else. Occasionally, if someone tells us about a video that they heard about that we need to see, we will follow up and seek it out. But generally we just stumble upon this stuff in unlikely places. That's part of the old school charm of what we do.

Do you accept submissions?
We always welcome submissions because it makes our jobs easier. At almost every show, people come up to us afterward and tell us about a tape they've found, like they moved into a new apartment and found a video left in the closet or they found a bizarre exercise video at Goodwill the other day. That's what helps keep the Found Footage Festival going.

There are so many tapes waiting to be discovered, and it helps to have people looking out for them. I would encourage anyone out there who has a found tape that might be of interest to bring it to the show on Friday or tell us about it afterward. We always return original tapes to people because we know firsthand how valuable these things are.

How does found footage work given the massive gravitation towards persons sharing all kinds of films online?
If something is intended to be funny or entertaining, we have no interest in it in terms of the Found Footage Festival. I think that a found moment captured on videotape is far more interesting than any intentional or planned piece. The poorly-produced, misguided, and regrettable footage in the Found Footage Festival tells us just as much about us as a culture as do our greatest works of art, and we're here to showcase it in all its imperfect glory.

Did I mention that we think it's funny, too?

The screening on Friday marks the second visit of the Found Footage Festival in town, the last being at the Orpheum in December 2004. More information about it is available at their MySpace page, including three-minute trailer for the show.

"It's been too long since we've been back to our old stomping grounds of Madison," says Prueher. "We've had a lot of requests to come back and we're excited to finally be debuting our new show there."

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