‘V/H/S/99’ Director and Star on How to Make a Killer Ghoul Band [TIFF 2022 Interview]
In “Shredding,” Maggie Levin and Verona Blue conjure the ghosts of MuchMusic, Britney Spears, and Ani DiFranco in the late ‘90s.
V/H/S/99 kicks off with a bang as Maggie Levin’s segment (“Shredding”) introduces us to Bitch Cat, a fictional riot girl band who brutally bit the dust before they could tear apart the Billboard charts. With her previous credits including Into the Dark‘s My Valentine, it’s obvious that music-based horror movies are in Levin’s blood. With V/H/S/99, she gets another chance to splatter this passion all over the stage and screen.
After V/H/S/99‘s world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Levin and “Shredding” star Verona Blue sat down with Dread Central to talk about making this much-anticipated and era-specific sequel, including the real women in music who inspired (and wrote for) Bitch Cat, the scary movies/series (cue the Unsolved Mysteries theme) that terrified them as young horror fans, and the practical effects that turned Blue and her co-stars into the gnarliest ghoul band on the block.
Read our interview (which was edited and condensed for length) with Maggie Levin and Verona Blue below. And catch V/H/S/99 on Shudder starting October 20, 2022.
Dread Central: Maggie, why this was the story you wanted to tell for your segment of V/H/S/99? Based on your previous work, I know you’ve got music in your blood.
Maggie Levin: Well, when we started talking about what’s compelling in 1999 from a found footage perspective, I started thinking about what I did with a camera when I was very small and then, what my friends did with a camera. It was sort of the CKY days and very, the seminal Jackass days and…
Verona Blue: The Tom Greens, if you will.
ML: Real shock comedy and pranking. And so, I wanted to kind of fuse what really my younger brother was up to, and what I was up to in ’99, along with the supernatural sensibility that I have. And I’ve long wanted to do a ghost rock band concept, so this was the perfect outlet for it.
Also, V/H/S just encourages taking something to the absolute maximum and I am personally a maximalist in every regard. So, this was a really great opportunity to express just the most of everything that we came up with.
VB: There are almost no boundaries for the V/H/S/99 filmmakers, as far as I can tell. So they could just be like, “What if though?” And the producers are like, “Great, let’s do it.”
DC: I really liked the parts in [“Shredding”] that looked like MuchMusic, or MTV shows. Was there a particular show that you were trying to mimic or capture with the writing and the style of those clips?
ML: Absolutely. Those, like, 120-minute, late-night MTV shows.
I think at one point we were trying to actually license some Korn interviews from MuchMusic and almost got a Britney Spears interview from MuchMusic. But it’s hard to get sign-offs from very major celebrities on these kinds of high shock values.
The original concept, and I think you can still feel it in the final movie, was that this segment was made on top of a video mixtape that Rachel was making. So, the idea was that she was taping her gang’s tape on top of music videos and snippets from MTV that she was recording off the TV. So that influence is really in there and I’m so glad that it came out to you. That means a lot.
DC: Verona, how fun was it to play that side of it, but then also the zombified ghost side?
VB: I mean, playing a rock star when you don’t have to have any talent, you don’t have to write any songs, and you don’t have to be able to sing? You get the best parts: you get the outfit, you get to rock out. I mean, when [we were] shooting it, we’re like lip-syncing to a track, except that it looks weird if you lip-sync. So, you just go for it. Thankfully, the mic was not on…
And then, the prosthetics are so gross. They’re like gelatin that they kind of goop on you and eventually it sort of solidifies and then they paint it? And it’s on the upper body and then on our fingers all the way down because you could see our hands a lot.
It was very fun to just be this creepy, disgusting person for a day and going up to the craft table and trying to find something that fits in the mask and all the crew’s side-eyeing you. It was really the most playful you get to be as an actor because there’s no wrong choice when you’re a disgusting zombie ghost.
ML: Verona’s a very accomplished creature actor as well and [motion capture] actor. And so, I wrote the script with her in mind for this part…
There’s a lot of icky sticky, gory, gross stuff in this whole movie. But when I was talking to [SFX artist] Patrick Magee, I was like, “Can we melt one of the ghost heads?” And I chose my girl for that job.
DC: What an honor.
VB: They make these masks, which is better than having prosthetics applied to your face. But for that part, it was like they had a second mask and it had these tubes in it and then, they did a very middle school volcano situation. But we were blowing into it as well?
I’m sort of on all fours, the cameras right here and there are all these prop people huddled with these tubes in their mouth and there’s like a 3, 2, 1 and they just start blowing. And I was like, “What’s in here? Is it going to hurt? Can I open my eyes? What should I do?” And he was like, “I would probably keep your eyes closed just in case it might splash.” And I was like, to Maggie, I was like, “Can I make noise?” And she was like, “Do whatever you want.” So they go, “Action!” and we start to do it. And then once it hit my skin and I was like, “It feels like nothing.” Then I just started making the weirdest grossest noises. Gurgling, screaming, shrieking noises that I was like, “If they use it, great. If they don’t use it doesn’t matter.”
ML: Originally, we were going to replace Bitch Cat’s ghost voices with some guitar noises and we had some soundscapes planned. But the noises, particularly the ones that Verona and Tybee [Diskin] made on set, were so delightful, that we just did sort some after-effects modulation on them. It just sounds like a Muppet dying. It’s fantastic.
DC: Were there any particular girl bands that you were trying to evoke with “Shredding”? I felt Hole vibes for sure.
ML: Getting to dive into the mid-nineties, riot girl stuff again, which I had a phase with at one point before this movie, was great.
VB: We watched a lot of L7 videos
ML: It was really L7 and Hole.
VB: Bikini Kill…
ML: Also, a lot of the Bitch Cat dialogue is directly inspired by a very strange combination of Ani DiFranco and the Spice Girls. Two promo videos and an interview of Ani and the Spice Girls.
ML: No. Several interviews that I remembered watching when I was small and I was like, “I’m going to go back and find those.” And what’s lovely about interviews with female artists in the ‘90s is it’s like the invention of feminism.
DC: It’s an interesting contrast with the part in [V/H/S/99] where the girls stomp on sex dolls filled with Jell-O. Because there was much misogyny in the ‘90s too… It’s such a slippery slope exploring the girl power movement of the ‘90s and also the exploitation of women in the ‘90s.
ML: That juxtaposition is absolutely intentional. Because, especially from 1999 into the very early ‘00s, this kind of misogyny core was actually very popular. The Man Show came right after 1999. And just look at the Woodstock ’99 doc.
VB: We had a lot of conversations about potential Maxim covers. Like, The Top 12 Bitches You Should Fuck Before You Settle Down. And it’s like, no, that’s probably real.
ML: If you’re looking deeply at the film, you’re meant to look at those things slammed up against each other. And yes, there was an incredibly empowered movement of women going on, but against this massive wave of misogyny.
DC: Verona, what was it like working with Maggie and with this mainly female cast?
VB: This is not the first time I worked with Maggie, very luckily for me. So, this was one of those times when I could walk on set and just feel so secure that the day was going to go exactly to schedule. There would be no shouting. It would be a very even-tempered fun time and that was exactly what it is because all of her sets are normal. She prepares, she does the work in advance, and when you show up on the day, it’s so organized. Everybody knows what they’re doing.
And then, of course, Alex Choonoo, the DP that she works with, they have a shorthand that you can observe, so setups are really fast. And especially when you’re in full prosthetics, you don’t want to just be waiting around forever because it gets really uncomfortable and it’s hard to regulate your temperature. So, it was great to work with her.
ML: Thank you.
VB: I wish we were a real band.
DC: Me, too!
VB: Also, I met the younger cast and everybody seems like real friends…
Some of that footage [of Bitch Cat] that we have that was taken on film was literally us just sitting around and not breaking character, but also there’s no sound. So, we were just shooting the shit and hanging out and taking a break and they were filming it and it looks very real and it’s because it was.
ML: The chemistry was there instantaneous.
I think casting is a deeply important part of the process. And half this cast were actors that I worked with before and wrote roles with them in mind. And then, half came from a week-and-a-half long casting process. So, I think we just got lucky that the group chemistry was really wonderful.
I felt incredibly blessed that everyone showed up so excited to dive into this period of time and to get to do these outrageous things. And the early conversations that we had about it were really just that everyone’s job, while all of this craziness went on, was also to bring real authenticity to their performances. Because you have two seconds to get to know who these people are—it’s a short film, it’s in your face, and you want to have a real sense of the person behind the chaos. And I just got so lucky that everyone was just terrific and brought their A game and worked really hard to nail that aspect.
VB: The thing that I really enjoyed about being able to do this girl band with Maggie is that I think in a lot of other contexts there would’ve been a lot of pressure for all four of us to be sexy sex kittens and there was none of that. I got to make Deirdre unapproachable in a very realistic way, the way people actually are unapproachable because this is their armor.
VB: Everybody was comfortable in their costume, but nobody had to wear something that they really felt it didn’t make them feel their best, in terms of modesty or coverage or whatever. And then also, I did my own makeup because the makeup artist would make it really good.
DC: Too good.
VB: It would’ve been like Pinterest/TikTok, goth girl. And I was like, “No, it was done in the bathroom at the bar right before they got on stage like a pencil and white Manic Panic makeup.” I texted Maggie and I was like, “What about if I just do myself before I come?” She was like, “Do whatever you want.”
ML: Watching her get out of her Mini Cooper in full makeup every morning was a real joy.
VB: Driving on the freeway was weird. There were normal clothes and then this is just shock white, black, and orange.
ML: And Jennifer Newman, the costume designer, did a spectacular job. Walking into that wardrobe room was like stepping straight back in time. It was really special.
VB: It was very cool to be able to put on that character because in my television work, it’s always glossed over. It’s always the pretty, sexy, “loves cops” version and Deirdre is not that.
ML: The thing about the [V/H/S] series is, you do not have to do the made-for-TV version. You can do the real, hardcore version of everything.
DC: I was born in 1989, so I was 10 in 1999 and I have many memories of exploring horror movies for the first time at that time. What really shocked you when you were kids?
ML: That’s a great question. I had some, I think, very early trauma surrounding horror movies genuinely. I had the classic “watch the original Scream at a sleepover and not be able to sleep for the rest of the week” experience. And I woke my mom up all the time. I was just looking for Ghostface everywhere.
And there’s not a lot of slasher DNA in this film in particular. It’s mainly hidden, in a totally license-free way, in the collage on Rachel’s wall. All the movies that scared the absolute jitters out of me when I was 13 are there. Jennifer Love Hewitt is there in full glory.
I watch those things now and I’m like, “The fisherman with the hook? He’s fine.” But yeah, those things really can get in your young brain and really unnerve you in a sick way.
VB: I completely self-traumatized myself by watching Unsolved Mysteries. I hated it and I couldn’t stop watching it—it was a weird fear addiction. And then I would get upset all the time because my parents’ house where I grew up has this big backyard which led onto a ravine…
There were windows at the back of the house looking into the backyard. And I remember one time someone escaped from a prison, or whatever, and they were like, “He’s in Earl Bales Park, avoid the ravines.” And I remember I had to go get something from downstairs and my parents’ house is not creepy—it’s like a mid-century modern. But going down these stairs and it’s all windows and I’m like, “They’re going to see me.” I just fully self-traumatized on a thing that had no answers?
The thing about Unsolved Mysteries is in the title: we don’t know what it is! Anything similar, like Fire in the Sky, fucked me up for life. I’m fine with it now because as a filmmaker I’m like, that’s cool how they did that. But as a smaller human… the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and then the original Hellraiser. All of that stuff I was like, “This is definitely bad.”
ML: I’m very excited about David Bruckner’s new Hellraiser. It’s going to be the first Hellraiser that I will watch all the way through. I’ve never been able to handle Hellraiser.
VB: When I got older, I watched the original. At this point, I’m solidly goth and I was like, “This is cool, right?” I had a little puzzle box like on my shelf in my apartment and everything.
But, yeah, there was a period where it was just like, “Hey, what about all the things that could haunt you for the rest of your life? Let’s consume them all now and see what happens.”
DC: You just test yourself. The Unsolved Mysteries theme song still scares me to shit!
VB: Scares the shit out of me.
DC: It’s haunting, man! Speaking of music though, will we hear the Bitch Cat songs anywhere outside of the film?
ML: I really hope so. Dresage, who wrote all of the songs for the film and composed a very subtle score threaded throughout, is just an incredible artist who I’ve collaborated with before and plan to collaborate with for the rest of my life. If not for me and the audience’s enjoyment, I think that Dresage definitely deserves to have those songs out there.
“We Hate the Same Things,” which is the lost Blink-182 song in the beginning is hers. Then “Diamonds Turned Black” is the name of the Bitch Cat’s hit single that would’ve taken the world by storm had they not been trampled to death by their own fans.
DC: A true tragedy.
VB: Fingers crossed for a Spotify or something?
ML: I really hope we can do a little album. And also, Flying Lotus did the music for his [segment, “Ozzy’s Dungeon”]. So we should have that V/H/S/99 playlist soundtrack score out there.
DC: Honestly, all of V/H/S/99 made me want to go and listen to music that I loved when I was 10 years old.
ML: I love to hear that. That’s a thrill to me!