16th March 2019
The Saturday Interview: 'Video Palace' podcast with Mike Monello and Ben Rock
For those people who’ve never listened to it, could you describe Video Palace?
Mike: Video Palace is a sinister tale about a couple, Mark and Tamra, who discover a mysterious white VHS tape that affects Mark’s behavior. Their investigation into the origins of this tape leads them to a mysterious video store in Vermont shrouded in urban legend. Listeners can expect a fast-paced mystery that straddles the line between reality and fiction.
Ben: It’s a story told in the language of podcasts, our investigators record what happens to them and try to get to the bottom of the mystery. If you listen to podcasts like “Serial,” “In the Dark,” “S-Town,” or even “Reply All,” we’re trying to use that format to scare the shit out of listeners.
What was the original inspiration behind Video Palace? When I was a child, I used to visit a small shop filled with clamshell VHS, so I loved the retro feel to it.
Mike: I worked all through high school in a mom & pop video store in Florida. It was an education in movies masquerading as a job, I loved it so much!
I’ve been listening to podcasts for a decade, following the industry and in particular the emergence of scripted fiction podcasts. The podcast scene today feels very much like indie film did in the 90s, when we made The Blair Witch Project. There’s a small but passionate audience, support infrastructure is growing, and the format is still developing, so there is enormous room to innovate and surprise. That’s an exciting place to play and I started to think seriously about it when Nick Braccia, Video Palace co-creator and I, learned that Shudder was looking for original podcasts.
Nick and I have worked closely together for years at Campfire (http://www.campfirenyc.com), so it was relatively easy for us to go from hearing about the opportunity to developing the story and pitching Shudder. The story was actually inspired by thinking about Shudder, and how as a streaming service it captures that feeling you had exploring the horror section of your local video shop. And now that VHS tapes are largely the obsession of collectors, it seemed the perfect setting for an urban legend.
Ben: When Mike and Nick read me in to the original concept, I completely seized on the idea of those old lurid movies that I’d never heard of before seeing them in video stores, they kind of creeped me out back in the day. As a subscriber to Shudder I’ve been able to finally see some of those movies I previously didn’t have the balls to watch when I was a kid.
I also saw in the concept connections to the kinds of horror stories I saw in movies or read as a kid. There’s a dose of David Cronenberg in the concept, and a lot of inspiration from HP Lovecraft. And the kind of dread I’d see in old Hammer movies or even film noir.
The central mystery of Video Palace did remind me of Lovecraft’s work but updated for a modern age. Are either of you particular fans of his stories?
Mike: In college I took a class on horror and supernatural literature, and was introduced to Lovecraft via The Lurking Fear and Other Stories collection. While I enjoyed the stories (I still have the book with my margin notes written), I never really dug much deeper into his work. No doubt any Lovecraft influence on me is secondary, given his stature!
Ben: I’m a huge Lovecraft fan. I was introduced to Lovecraft, like a lot of people my age, by renting Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” from video stores that were not unlike Video Palace. I’ve read a bunch of his work, and even though Bob and I didn’t have time to re-read his stories while working on this, Lovecraft was a touchstone for me on this, as was Clive Barker’s “In the Flesh.”
I’ve not read much Clive Barker - I’ll have to give it a go. What was the experience of working on Video Palace like for both of you?
Mike: Once Ben came on board, everything fell into place very quickly. Ben and I had worked together on several projects over the years, so it was an easy experience for me. As Ben and Bob fleshed out our 10-page story outline into the story you know, was very exciting. I loved the way they fleshed out the characters, solved some of the holes, and managed to capture the retro-vibe while keeping the storytelling modern. As a team, Nick, Ben, Bob, Liam and I were really all on the same page so it was very seamless experience for me. Owen Shiflett and Nick Lazo at Shudder were incredibly supportive with sharp, intelligent notes throughout. Video Palace wouldn’t really exist without their support.
Ben: All of us who worked on the writing and production side are filmmakers, and this was our first narrative podcast. As a podcast obsessive myself, I knew what it needed to sound like and Mike and I had many conversations about the style and form, how we would do it. For all of us on the filmmaking side, we found that making the podcast was a lot like making film or television, just way faster. The script was 183 pages and we recorded everything in five days which is beyond lightning fast by film standards.
Post was also insanely fast, and our post sound team at Diablo Sound (most notably sound designer Jeremy Lee) was top notch and amazing at taking audio that had been recorded on a foley stage and putting it into pretty much any environment that we needed. The whole thing was a giant learning experience for everyone involved, but it was a great deal of fun. And like Mike said, Owen and Nick at Shudder were amazingly supportive and gave great notes. It was one of those projects you hope to work on where everyone was moving toward the same goal which was just out of reach, so we all had to work a little harder to get it.
With the audio, I have to say I particularly liked how some of the music in the later episodes became distorted like it was playing from old VHS. How were the cast of Video Palace chosen?
Ben: Like everything else on this project, casting came together lightning-fast. I’ve been working with a casting director named Leah Mangum for years. On a project like this, actors who can improvise is essential and Leah’s in the improv world herself and she knows a lot of world-class improv actors. Bob and I brought in a ton of actors we knew from our theater work in LA and our Web Series “20 Seconds to Live.” I’d sort of worked adjacent to Chase Williamson (Mark Cambria) on a few things (Adam Green’s “Victor Crowley” being one), and I’m a giant fan of his work - notably “John Dies at the End,” so he was someone I was excited to bring in. Devin Sidell (Tamra) is someone who I’d worked with before and we actually brought her in to read for Cat but in a pinch we had her read Tamra with another potential Mark and realized she had an amazing take on that character.
For a lot of the other characters, specifically anyone who was interviewed, I dug back into the past. Back in the “Blair Witch” days I was brought on to write “Curse of the Blair Witch,” a sci-fi special “documentary” about the history of the Blair Witch, and I had to come up with a way to write interviews that sounded like authentic interviews and not canned script and I made up a technique where I’d write 1-2 page biographies of the characters and then in the auditions we’d just interview the actor basically as themselves with the information in the bio. So in addition to writing the script, Bob and I had written a bunch of those bios and then literally interviewed the actors in character - maybe two or three questions - and just let them ramble like they would in a real interview. It makes the editing a little more difficult because every interview has to be edited like a real interview, but the authenticity is through the roof if you cast it well.
That’s such a cool idea for the interview segments and even better with the link back to Blair Witch! Will there be a season 2 of Video Palace? If so, has a date been decided for release?
Mike: Our fingers are crossed for a season 2!
Ben: We would love nothing more than to dive deeper into this mystery!
That’s brilliant! Do you guys have any idea where you’d like to go next with it?
Ben: I’m not really comfortable saying where it might go, because we’re still working on that. I will say that if you go back and listen to season 1, you’ll find a few references and leads that went nowhere which we knew at the time could be fleshed out later. We wanted to give ourselves room to tell more stories in this world.
Mike: Video Palace was conceived from the beginning with a deep mythology, so there are plenty of places we can take it, if we are lucky enough to get the opportunity!
As you mentioned earlier, the writers and producers of Video Palace were new to narrative podcasts. Is there anything you’d approach differently with (fingers crossed!) a second season?
Ben: It’s all boring stuff like knowing how long it would take to fully design an episode or how much original music exactly would be needed. The biggest takeaway for me was that we could record it in a studio and add in convincing sound design in post that would make it sound like pretty much anything. When we were recording, we blocked scenes just like we would in a movie or in theater, and always figured out where the recorder was, who was holding it, etc. I thought it would work, but it wasn’t until I heard the first episode cut together that I was pretty sure we’d made the right call. Knowing that, I’m excited to keep working with this technique and to try more complex approaches in the studio.
You mentioned earlier about podcasting maturing as a medium. What do you think the next steps for it are?
Mike: We could talk about this for hours, but for listeners, podcasts need to get easier to discover, download and manage. For producers, the tools for distribution and tracking need to be developed significantly. But the thing that excites me the most is that as a format, podcasts are still developing, particularly fiction storytelling. The opportunity to experiment and discover what works best makes podcasting particularly rich with possibility.
Do you guys have any favourite podcasts that you’d like to share?
Ben: There are so many. I am constantly listening to podcasts. Over the last few years, the ones that most enraptured me were “Heaven’s Gate,” “Dear Franklin Jones,” “In the Dark” season 2, “Uncover: Escaping NXIVM,” “The Dream,” and “Crimetown.” But I could go on and on all day about podcasts, they’ve become one of my obsessions.
Mike: Like Ben, I could go on forever. I listen The Daily by The New York Times every morning, I love how it adds a new dimension to the stories I read in the paper. I listen to Sound Opinion every week, I love the interplay between Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot and the various formats and features they have developed over the years like their “classic album dissections” or their deeper dives into genres. I’m a big fan of Kim Masters’ The Business for keeping on top of the entertainment industry. The New York Times series Caliphate was spectacular. I’m a big fan of The Bowery Boys, their love of NYC history of is contagious. I adore the non-commercial programming of WFMU and one of my favorite shows, Downtown Soulville with Mr. Fine Wine lifts my spirit every week. He plays 23 or 24 old, obscure, and often forgotten soul 45s. Each episode is loaded with songs that become my new old favorites. I could go on, but I’ve already taken up too much space!
If any readers would like to chat with you guys about Video Palace (or lobby for a second season), what’s the best way to do that?
Mike: The best way to lobby for a second season of Video Palace is to share it with your friends and let @Shudder know you love it. Give us a review on Shudder and/or iTunes, which helps people discover it. The response to Video Palace has been the most incredible reward, and much of the cast and people responsible are on Twitter and will respond to you. I’m @mikemonello, I’d love to hear from folks!
Ben: I’m @Neptunesalad on Twitter, and I’m happy to answer anyone’s questions!
Thanks very much for your time.