Laughing Through the Gore: An Interview with Justin Channell

Last week, I reviewed an independent mockumentary called Winners Tape All: The Henderson Brothers Story, and I haven’t been able to stop singing its praises ever since. I watch a lot of films for this site and given my odd taste and sensibilities, I sift through a lot of garbage. It was a refreshing surprise treat to come across such a funny and charming film that played to my sweet spots. The director of the film, Justin Channell, was kind enough to do an interview with me after my review and we talked about his start in film and the kinds of movies that inspired Winners Tape All. I’ll have to apologize to you, dear reader, for a sadly missed opportunity. We ended up doing the interview through email, but I found out afterwards that had I conducted it over Skype, Channell was planning to have co-writer/star Zane Crosby show up in character as Michael Henderson for part of the interview. This would have been one for the history books, but my Time Warner Cable internet connection has been a piece of shit lately, so it was not meant to be. The character does have his own Twitter account though, and I highly recommend you follow it. I hope you enjoy my conversation with the very talented Justin Channell.



CC: How did you get into filmmaking and start collaborating with Zane Crosby and Josh Lively?


JC: I've wanted to make movies for as long as I can remember, but it really got started when Zane, Josh and I were all in junior high school. We actually became friends over our mutual love of Evil Dead. I first met Josh at a summer marching band class. I was going to a friend's house for a birthday party or something after the class and brought along my VHS copies of Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 and Josh saw them and that's pretty much when we started being friends. Later in the school year, I saw Zane wearing an Evil Dead shirt and started talking to him about it, not realizing he was one of Josh's friends until later.


Around the same time, one of my favorite teachers got a grant for a digital TV studio for our closed-circuit TV program. It was essentially just a Digital8 camera and a Compaq computer with some old Pinnacle video editing software installed. However, it didn't cover any sort of training, so I pretty much started spending my lunches teaching myself how to edit digital video. Josh and I started to talk about wanting to make movies and he ended up getting a Digital8 camera. We started making dumb short films we'd adlib in one night during a sleepover and later on, Zane also got a camera and joined in and it eventually led to us making our first feature - a vampire comedy called Raising the Stakes - for about $110 I raised by saving spare change and pocketing money my parents gave me for souvenirs for a Disney World trip. That did well enough that we were able to make our second feature, Die and Let Live, two years later and it managed to actually get nationwide distribution.



CC: How did the idea for Winners Tape All come about and what kinds of films influenced your approach to it?


JC: I thought of the idea back in 2010 when the horror VHS resurgence was in full force and people like Louis Justin of Massacre Video came out with his 555 re-release and Clint Kelly bought the rights to Sledge Hammer for another re-release. With all of these regional SOV movies coming out, I thought it'd be fun to make a fake movie that's released as if it was a lost VHS-era movie. But several people already got to that idea before me, so I decided to change it to a mockumentary that would have real footage and interviews with VHS fans, but then we'd sneak in our fake movies and try to fool people. I ended up getting disinterested after shooting a bit of b-roll at conventions and shelved the whole thing until spring 2015. Josh, Zane and I hadn't made a feature film in a long time and had a brainstorming session to figure out something we could do on the cheap and we reworked the original idea to fit that plan.


The two biggest influences are definitely Cannibal Campout - which coincidentally was one of the first horror movies Josh, Zane and I rented for a sleepover when we were in junior high - and the short-lived British show Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. The decision to have the fake clips intercut with interviews on a black backdrop are pretty clearly ripped off from Darkplace... and if you've not seen it, you should, because it's really the gold standard for authentic-looking vintage sci-fi/horror footage.



CC: What was the production of WTA like? As far as scripting/improvising, special effects, music, and getting that perfect "shot on video" look?


JC: The production was a bit rushed, because Josh was moving to Las Vegas and we only had 3 days to finish all of his footage. So, we had the bulk of the movie done in 3 days, then Zane and I kind of casually finished the rest of the pickup shoots. I wrote actual scripts for both of the movies, but The Curse of Stabberman was the only one we really were able to follow (and I actually threw it out to improvise the ending so we could get it shot before the sun set). The actual story of the documentary sections was just a two-page story I wrote about the Henderson Brothers' history. Other than a handful of very specific dialogue I wrote into the scripts for the movies that were necessary to advance the story, all of the interviews were improvised by Josh and Zane.


But Cannibal Swim Club was very problematic. We knew there was a chance of rain, but ended up in torrential downpours. We only had 1 more day left for Josh after that and we needed it to shoot all of the interviews. I thought we were screwed at first, but then we ended up coming up with ways to improvise around the rain and write out Josh's character and, honestly, it turned out much better than what was scripted. I couldn't imagine Winners Tape All without the rain element in Cannibal Swim Club at this point. 


The special effects were interesting, because Zane is actually a trained makeup artist and went to the Tom Savini makeup school, so we had to basically go against doing anything correct. So, I was giving actors direction saying, "Wiggle the knife a little bit so we can tell it's fake" and things like that. I'm actually surprised at how a lot of them turned out, especially since I think we only had one bottle of fake blood at the beginning and ran out pretty quick. A lot of the fake blood and gore is actually just strawberry syrup and preserves, though every time Josh and Zane spit out blood, they're using the very toxic fake blood. I didn't want to make anyone else do that, but they were fine with it.


I have a music project called Portopak where I make music with Nintendo Game Boys and guitar (shameless plug: All of the score for the films-within-the-film are either Portopak tracks or works in progress that I used as temp tracks and then decided to keep them as is. 


The shot-on-video look was complicated and simple at the same time. We shot the movie on a DSLR with the intention of degrading it. Since the quality was pretty decent to begin with, I decided to instead make it look like Super8 or 16mm short ends and spent weeks running all the footage through After Effects. When that was done, I cropped it down to full-frame and dubbed it to a VHS tape, then dubbed that back to MiniDV with a fancy $300 JVC VCR I found at a Goodwill for $10. A lot of reviews have said we used VHS filters, but I can always tell the difference between those filters and actual VHS. But the filters I did use - most notably film grain - is barely noticeable in the final product. That's why I included the HD versions on the DVD/Blu-Ray and VHX deluxe package as "restoration demos."


CC: How has the distribution model of streaming and hand-making copies worked so far? 


JC: Well, I'm not driving around in a solid gold car or anything and I can't quit my day job, but we've broken even on the production costs (which were all out of pocket and probably about $300), so I'm happy with it. Really, only the VHS/Blu-Ray package is handmade - the DVDs are professionally duplicated on demand. But I dub all of the VHS tapes in my spare bedroom in real time and burn the Blu-Rays on the same computer I used to edit the film. 


I wanted to do a Blu-Ray release, but the cost of Blu-Ray replication is pretty expensive and I was weary about how well a movie where 50% of the footage is sourced from a VHS tape would sell on Blu-Ray. I also wanted to do a VHS release, but didn't want to end up with a bunch of VHS tapes in my closet (well, at least not more than I already have). So, doing them as handmade is a lot easier to deal with for me. I initially only made 10 copies, but they sold quick enough that I was able to keep enough printed materials on hand that when I get a sale, I can get them out within a day or two.


CC: Any upcoming projects you'd like to plug or previous works you'd like people to check out? Also, plugs for social media, YouTube channels and the like?


JC: Well, this is the 10th anniversary of our second feature, Die and Let Live, and I'm working on prepping some new extras. I've gone through all of the original MiniDV camera tapes and found tons of stuff that didn't make it to the original DVD release. It'll be available on VHX and I'm thinking about doing a limited 2-disc DVD as well.


Also, I'm about finished with the new Portopak album, which actually has finished versions of the songs used in Winners Tape All. It's called Fuzzy Monsters and I'm also not sure when that one is coming out. I already decided I'm not announcing a release date and just putting it up on Bandcamp, so follow that there.


Josh, Zane and I also did a mockumentary webseries called 2 Dudes and a Sweet Prince that really helped us hone the interview/confessional style for Winners Tape All. I'm especially proud of how the 3rd season turned out - even though nobody watched it.


We recently put up our first feature, Raising the Stakes and our short film A Fetal Mistake for free on YouTube.


I'm also finishing up a short documentary called Signing the Warner about the movie theater where I worked in college and the day it closed down. I shot footage on the last day on Kodachrome 8mm film and those rolls were among the last Kodachrome ever processed. That was about 5 years ago, so I think at this point, I can safely say it will be the final film to ever be shot in Kodachrome.


CC: What's one horror film from the era of WTA that you think everyone needs to see? Or several, if you want. 


JC: Tales From the Quadead Zone is pretty fascinating, as is Sledge Hammer. Cannibal Campout was a major influence on Winners Tape All, but I think Video Violence is probably my favorite out of all of the SOV movies.



I’d like to once again thank Justin for chatting with me and for sharing his love of film with us. I actually picked up a copy of both Video Violence movies, and they are fucking bonkers. Be sure to check out Winners Tape All: The Henderson Brothers Story (which received my only perfect score rating in the history of the site), which is available to stream and buy here for as little as $2. Help support a great independent filmmaker and get ready to laugh with the Henderson Brothers and their long lost…um, masterpieces?

June 21st, 2016