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Maggie Levin, Flying Lotus, And Johannes Roberts On Pulling From Nostalgia For Scares In V/H/S/99 - Exclusive Interview

"V/H/S/99," the latest entry from the "V/H/S" anthology horror franchise, is finally here! The series continues to bring together many of the most innovative voices in contemporary horror cinema in a series of no-holds-barred outings that vary wildly in theme, sub-genre, and style. Luminaries have included David Bruckner, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Jennifer Reeder, Chloe Okuno, and more, in a veritable who's who of directorial talent, all delivering shocking and surprising horror yarns.

The newest outing in the anthology series sees a host of new filmmakers take on a series of tales that all fit right in to late-1990s nostalgia. In a new interview, we spoke with three of the new entry's talented coterie of directors, Maggie Levin ("Shredding"), Johannes Roberts ("Suicide Bid"), and Flying Lotus ("Ozzy's Dungeon"), about capturing that retro, late-'90s music-doc vibe; sets that may be more dangerous than desired; trapping an actress in a flooding, spider-filled coffin in real life; and more.

Shredding nearly had an even gorier ending

Maggie, the 1999 music-doc vibe of "Shredding" was great. How did you capture that nostalgic vibe so successfully?

Maggie Levin: It was such a joy to enter that space, for which I am especially nostalgic, and to pull from a combination of playing both mostly in a '99 landscape [and] a little bit in 1995. It's widely influenced [by] CKY, the kinds of MTV and VH1 stuff that I was watching when I was that age, the age of the horrible teenagers, and also these strange promotional videos that I used to watch from the Spice Girls and Ani DiFranco. 

I used to watch a lot of these VHS tapes that my stepmother, who worked for Virgin Records at the time, would get. That's where a lot of that band interview vibe came from, but I also worked with an amazing team. My DP, Alex Choonoo, actually shot skate videos in that fisheye style, and Andy Holton, who's a genius editor, and I worked hard to get that analog mess just right.

I thought it was beautiful. I also caught some "Pop-Up Video" vibes.

Levin: Yes! We tried to clear a piece of Sugar Ray's "Fly" "Pop-Up Video" episode. [We had] not a snowball's chance in hell of actually getting that cleared, but it was a dream. It was certainly in the script.

I also loved the ending of "Shredding" with that puppet band.

Levin: My very meat-puppet, "Five Nights at Freddy's" band.

Like a demonic Chuck E. Cheese's. Tell me about the design and execution of it.

Levin: With anything that's in short format, I at least think about, "What's that final image? What are you leaving people with? What's your punchline to the short?" The gift of playing on the "V/H/S" playground is the gift to go to real extremes, so I had the idea of this image of the "Shredded" kids. Originally, I had thought [of] piles of body parts playing instruments, [but] that would've looked like [a] mess. 

The idea to give them more form and structure was a collaborative effort between the incredible makeup FX designer Patrick McGee and myself. We talked about directions to take both the ghost gals and the meat kids and how that exactly could manifest. And those are the actual actors, who had their bodies cast and then rebuilt on top of them, so they are puppeting themselves underneath there. I have some wonderful behind-the-scenes photos.

Flying Lotus: [laughs] Oh, you should have kept that one. You should have told nobody that!

Levin: But it's so cool!

Lotus: Delete that s***.

Levin: I want to post a picture of the kids looking at their own heads — that's just as weird! ... Some of my favorite pictures are the kids kissing themselves.

The actress had 'a wonderfully uncomfortable time'

Johannes, the ending of "Suicide Bid" was so claustrophobic, especially the moment where the water's rushing into the makeshift casket. What went into shooting that moment?

Johannes Roberts: The concept behind it was literally, "What's your worst nightmare?" and [to] build on that over and over. You never can tell with these things. If you do it practical[ly], we're going to put a girl in a coffin, there's going to be real spiders, and there's going to be real water. Who the f*** knows what's going to happen? And it literally was that. So we have the camera going; I have the DP who's shooting it for her. Then you put the spiders in, and it's like, "Okay, they're going there." When you put spiders ... there's no dress rehearsal, it's just like, "That's what happens," and [then] it's like, "Okay, that's pretty f***ing horrible. Oh, and it's got on her face! That's pretty awful."

Levin: Was that not intentional?

Roberts: I was like, "I'm going to push this to the max," but you never know! She wasn't allowed to move because [she]'d crush the spiders, so she had to play paralyzed. [I'm] like, "How many spiders can we put in there?" And they're like, "Well, maybe one, two." And as the director, [I'm] like, "Oh, okay, could we do two, or could we do 10?" And then it ended up ... I don't know how many were in there, and they did their thing, and you have to roll with the punches.

The same with the water. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. As soon as we started the water in ... I don't remember how we did it [exactly]. We had the coffin lid, and then the coffin lid was covered in mud, and then they just poured water on it. There's no rocket science. It's like, "What's it going to look like to drown a girl in this coffin?" And that's what it looks like! When the black water came down, it was like, "Yeah, that's pretty disturbing." I'd love to say we [did trial] and error, but it was just like, "F*** it, let's do it. Let's see what actually happens," and it was quite disturbing.

How was the actress? How did she deal with all those uncontrollable variables?

Roberts: It was pretty tough. She did well; she was a trooper, a real, real trooper. The great thing about it is your direction is just like, "This s***'s going to happen. Good luck," and that's my direction. So the s*** happened, and she went with it. I think the spider stuff was uncomfortable, and then the water stuff was uncomfortable, and then the monster stuff was uncomfortable. All in all, I think she had a wonderfully uncomfortable time, but she was a trooper.

The set was 'pretty sus'

"Kuso" is exciting, and this is your third directorial outing if you count the music video. I love that you returned with horror. Why return for this project?

Lotus: I've been a fan since the beginning. I've always loved "V/H/S." Sam Zimmerman from Shudder hit me up directly and asked me if I wanted to do one, and it was a no-brainer. I was like, "Hell, yeah!" I felt honored to be asked.

I dug the retro game show set. I watched "Legends of The Hidden Temple," a lot of the Nickelodeon classic competition stuff. How did you build that awesome retro game show set and also the makeshift mock version in the short?

Lotus: I basically did the short because I know this amazing production designer. If I didn't know I had someone who could build something like that for me, I wouldn't have done it. But I know this guy who [is] a brilliant, brilliant artist, and I know that it's his era, so I was like, "What if we did this?"

When they brought the "V/H/S" concept to me, they immediately triggered things that I wanted to be part of and things that I cared about. I always wanted to be on one of those shows so bad[ly]. I was always so jealous of the kids who got to do it, and I was wondering, "Why can't we get on this show? What am I doing wrong?" I wanted to explore that a bit. 

As far as building it, I was really worried about that. I wanted to make sure that the show felt big enough, the set felt big enough, and when we build the janky version of it, I wanted to make sure it didn't collapse on the actor. The safety was a real concern to me because that stuff really did look janky. When you see it, it's like, "Whoa, it's pretty sus."

"V/H/S/99" premieres on Shudder on October 20, 2022. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.