V/H/S/99 Directors Maggie Levin And Johannes Roberts Wish It Was Always This Easy [Exclusive Interview]

The "V/H/S" series lets filmmakers go wild. It's a part of the horror franchise's appeal. Good or bad, the directors rarely pull any punches with their stories. The latest addition to "V/H/S" goes back to 1999, with directors such as Maggie Levin ("My Valentine") and Johannes Roberts ("The Strangers: Prey at Night") at the helm of its anthology entries.

For "V/H/S/99," Levin helms "Shredding" and Roberts is behind "Suicide Bid." Levin's tale follows an obnoxious punk band facing serious consequences for their behavior, while Roberts tells a story of hazing gone wrong, and they both capture the nasty, dark spirit expected from the series by this point. Recently, Levin and Roberts told us about crafting their horror films, shooting in graveyards, and lessons learned from the franchise.

'It was like a very goopy Christmas'

When you're making a "V/H/S" movie, do you ever reach out to each other, director to director, just to see how things are going?

Levin: I wish I had thought to do that. We were all just off in our little gross, scary worlds on our own. We all met for the first time at the TIFF premiere night, which was sort of startling.

Roberts: Pretty much in the dark [on what others are doing]. I mean, I had vague ideas. But yeah, nope.

Levin: You were in pre-production when I started shooting, so I saw your spider tests. I knew that you were going to Hollywood, because you shot in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, right?

Roberts: No, we were pondering that, but we shot in Pasadena.

Levin: Okay. Well, I think whatever your Cemetery scout made it into a ... I saw some stuff from there. That is all I knew. Everything was a surprise. It was like a very goopy Christmas.

Maggie, your short reminded me of some old Nardwuar interviews where you'd see a band misbehave, but then leave like nothing happened. Here, they get punished. Were any old videos of bands inspiring to you?

Levin: Definitely. I went back through my middle school journals and I was very dedicated to saving everything in my early years. I had stickers from every CD I ever bought, transcriptions of band interviews. The particular influences that really show up here are, like, CKY is top of the list. There are these marvelous old interviews with L7 and Ani DiFranco that are definitely in the B**** Cat DNA. 

And then, weirdly, these VHS promo videos I had for the Spice Girls. My stepmother was a head of promotion for Virgin Records in the '90s, so I got the Spice Girl stuff before it came out. There's a lot of their promotional material when they were trying to break it in the States. That definitely wound up in the fabric of "Shredding."

Johannes, why couldn't you shoot at Hollywood Forever? How did you end up in Pasadena?

Roberts: The simple answer is they have a ready-made dug grave in Pasadena. I've been there before and the actual mausoleum there just made me think, "Oh, 'Phantasm.' Got to have it." So that whole beginning bit when they walk through, there's no real need for them to walk through there, but I was like, "I just want to use this place." They have their own grave and they have this guy that every time you go there, he goes, "I am the only SAG-registered funeral director in America." [Laughs] But every time you go back, he forgets that you were there yesterday and he's like, "I am the only, the only SAG-registered funeral director in America." And I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, we got the spiel yesterday, just show me the grave, man." But no, it's cool. They're kind of set up for filmmaking, but the graves around it are real. So I was a bit like, "Can I stand on this?" He's like, "Yeah, do whatever you want." I'm like, "Okay."

Did you two have to make any alterations to your sets?

Roberts: There was only so much we could do. With the actual grave stuff, my production designer had to do quite a lot to make it look like a proper dug grave. But the actual mausoleum is as you get it. It's pretty creepy there. It's good fun. I think it's used in quite a lot of things.

Levin: Is it messed up that I'm like, "It's beautiful?" [Laughs]

Roberts: [Laughs] The coolest thing about it is — this is totally off-topic I suppose — but you're not allowed to get rid of any remains. So they have all these remains [that are] hundreds of years old, like little kids and stuff. They have little jars where they don't know who the ...

Levin: Again, I'm like, "That's messed up, and it's cool."

Roberts: I know. It's a freaky place to go.

Levin: For "Shredding," my production designer, Britt Keller, did a lot to the spaces that we were in, but we were lucky to find a space downtown that had many a disturbing, dark, inescapable-looking hallway with strange cobblestone floors and iron doors all over the place. There was an unbelievable glut of extra location underground. So Britt and her team brought set dressing — they melted a boot into the floor. They made a shrine. And then when you get into the stage portion of the colony underground, a lot of that is set decoration and dressing. We had a lot of good canvas to work with at that location.

'Holy f***, man'

Even though it's 1999, hazing and bands behaving badly, that's still a problem today. Did you both want to choose stories specific to '99 but also today?

Roberts: Hazing is not really a thing in England.


Roberts: No, everything about American school and university and college is fascinating to me. And those movies, from "Mean Girls" to "Breakfast Club," to "Carrie" to whatever, is always fascinating to me. Which is why I wanted to explore that, because the whole idea of a suicide bid and all that, I'd never heard of that. So I was like, "Oh, this is a great idea for a movie."

Levin: Such a great title.

Roberts: Yeah, it's good. I'd never come across it before. I watched a couple of documentaries on Rush week, which again, is something new to me, and holy f***, man. I mean, these places are insane. I never really understood the "Animal House" kind of scenario. So for me, this is a sort of crazy dystopian fantasy world that is America.

Maggie, I want to your hear answer, but Johannes, but are there no fraternity houses or anything like that in England?

Roberts: No, there aren't, I believe. I think if you are rich, the nearest to it is the Bullingdon Club kind of people, which is where all the Prime Ministers and all the public school — "public school" is private school in America. It is paid school. They're all part of very posh clubs where weird s*** happens. I think we had a scandal a few years ago where the Prime Minister stuck his penis in a pig's mouth. It's all that kind of posh boy weird s***.

Levin: The American click-based cruelty, there's a danger to the American herd mentality that I think is uniquely ours. I think a lot of what's in "V/H/S/99" goes to capture that. My segment's no exception.

I think I wanted to do something that dealt with kids who believe themselves to be outsiders, but are doing the exact same thing as their torturers are. I still have very nasty memories of that period of time of trying my best to fit in, but also rebel at the same time and to figure out my own coolness while looking at everybody else around me and trying to figure out, "Well, what do I do to look cool?" In creating this atmosphere, mine is deliberately set pre-Columbine. Pre-Columbine and pre-9/11, Anytown, USA had a bombastic, excessive nature to it. We were kings of the f***ing world. We had all the money, all the power, and were still unhappy. I really wanted to go for a bit of that, and I hope it came through.

'The uglier it looks, the more successful you are in making it feel believable'

Maggie, did you also have experience in the rock industry or ties to it?

Levin: My father is a rock musician and I grew up on rock tours and then did some music myself and certainly dated a lot of musicians. My rock pedigree is a lot of both family and fan. And I spent a lot of my teenage years in skate parks watching ska bands and doing that early musician dating, which is regrettable at this time. But yeah, that's my rock resumé.

Johannes, do you find American culture ripe for horror stories and movies?

Roberts: Yeah, I now live here, but I find America is a very strange place and I've always been fascinated by the American schooling system and the cruelty of it. Maggie picked up that word, cruelty, which just kind of goes through the whole "V/H/S" thing. It seems like a very cruel world. From an outsider's perspective, it's a strange place.

Maggie, you've described making "V/H/S" as creating a maximalist effect, which you do with limited resources. After making a "V/H/S" film, what are the lessons you learned?

Levin: Oh man. I feel like I got to live out the peak of a particular part of my creative directorial style. I came out of music videos, which I suppose is part of my rock background. I wanted to make a lot of movies that had a musical and a punk rock sensibility to them. I feel this was my graduation piece of a style that I've been working in for a long time.

Congratulations on graduation.

Levin: Thank you. Who knows what the future holds? Hollywood is not known for being linear, but my hope is to do something that carries the same amount of attention to detail that I had the opportunity to put into the segment, but perhaps is a little more elegant.


Roberts: This was my first time [making] found-footage, and that was a weird format, making something look ugly. The uglier it looks, the more successful you are in making it feel believable. And so, it is weird whether you want to go down that route or not. It was strange. Otherwise, I just approached it like a feature and just happened to finish in four days. But yeah, I enjoyed it. If only they could all be so fun.

Levin: Yeah, something I really loved actually was getting to work with this level of on-camera talent. I've been lucky throughout my career thus far that I've worked with a lot of great actors already, but everybody who came into this was really above and beyond down to dive headfirst and to create instantly recognizable, deep characters along with me. I had a lot of conversations with actors that I'm going to remember for the rest of my life and certainly carry on into next projects.

"V/H/S/99" is now available to stream on Shudder.