I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Forgotten Form: Trailer Trash

by Network Awesome
Jan. 6, 2012

Dave Taylor, curator for Network Awesome, is a totally interesting guy. He's been a colorist and editor for The History Channel, A&E and Discovery, assistant editor on Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, and currently teaches at The Academy of Art University in San Fransisco. He also works as a video producer for UC Berkeley's Art Museum, and -- most importantly -- curates the Network Awesome original series, Trailer Trash, dedicated to the unsung form of movie trailers. We got to pick his brain for a bit about the show and about what it's like to make trailers themselves:

NAmag: Can you describe what Trailer Trash is all about and how you got involved with it?

It's a funny title, to call these little pieces of cinema gold "trash".  I know it's an obvious pun and that's what makes it kind of a fun title for a show, but, it's a truer title that you'd think. When I was in college, I was given a whole dumpster full of tapes to erase that were filled with commercials; rough cuts, approval cuts, and many trailers. I was pretty poor at the time and as a film student, it was a great entertainment and an education to see these things in their various stages.  I did eventually have to end up erasing them, and I kinda feel guilty about that today. You know, movies themselves used to be a throw away art form.  They'd be cranked out in a few weeks time and shown at some drive-ins and then the prints would be melted down to harvest the silver from their emulsion.  Some films would end up in archives, but many films that we have today are just because some film nut decided to keep a copy for himself.  Remember that there was no home video market at the time.  Maybe some would go to late-nite movie shows like what Vampira was doing the late 50's, but trailers, really until the 90's, were considered throw away media.  When local TV would re-run some old hammer horror picture, they'd make their own commercial for it, and that too would be erased when the master tape was needed for dubbing a dogfood commercial or something on to it.  Trailer Trash is like that dumpster I had in college, it's these bits of great ephemera that when put together tell an amazing story.

A few years ago, I pitched a column to Cinematical, coincidentally called "Trailer Trash" where I'd review trailers as a stand-alone medium.  I was invited to submit more sample articles, but I'm no writer.  I'm really more of a visual guy and every word I write I gotta pay for with a lot of sweat.  So, I scrapped that idea.  A few months ago, I was offered a chance to take over the "Prevues of Coming Attractions" blog and podcast, and I made one episode but never published it.  The idea of downloading trailers from the internet and then re-encoding and re-uploading them stuck me as redundant work, when it's really the curation I'm interested in.  That's just about when I saw a link to Network Awesome and I thought that a trailer show was absolutely perfect for the type of programming that's curated here.  I wrote to NA's Creative Director Jason Forrest and pitched the idea, and he dug the idea so much that he'd actually had the idea a few weeks earlier.  Jason and Ed Flis had been brainstorming Trailer Trash and had a few sample shows worked out already and Jason offered to let me curate new episodes, and it as really been a blast!  

NAmag: So what was the inspiration for Trailer Trash? Where were you running into these?

I've always loved trailers. I'm one of those people that thinks that they're the best part of going to the movies. I remember as a kid, I'd sit in the theater, about to sit through some awful junk like "Mac & Me" and we'd see an amazing, gorgeous trailer for a movie like Willow or Labyrinth and you know that it's coming to this theater and that there's something to look forward to. Like, that tomorrow is gonna be more awesome than today. When you're a kid, that's an amazing bit of concreteness in an otherwise unknowable future.

When I started my career as an editor, I was cutting trailers for a nude monster movie company in New Jersey for $100 a pop. Around that time I started producing movie trailers for a (now defunct) indie movie studio in NYC called Shooting Gallery--It wan't anything glamorous, really just schedule keeping and getting film elements to the lab and such. I had this amazing post-production supervisor that got me a job working in editorial for basic cable documentary TV shows, and there, we used trailers all the time as source for the docs that we were working on. In a show about Charlie Manson, we used Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski footage from Fearless Vampire Hunters and we did a history of sci-fi shows that used tons and tons of trailers. I was told, at the time, that trailers weren't copyright protected and could be used without paying stock footage fees. I don't know how true this is, but, the idea of exploiting this rich vein of media was very intriguing.

I make these fun compilations of trailers for halloween parties and have a huge collection of trailers that I really dig watching when I don't have time to watch a whole movie. Sitting at my desk eating lunch or whatever I might have, like, 45 minutes to watch something. So I'll throw on a trailer comp and go through, let's say, every Star Trek trailer. Or Friday the 13th, or The Land Before Time (my god, did you know there are like fifteen sequels in that series!?!?). There are these guys doing amazing trailer compilations on the bittorrent scene, like Whaleday's Trailer-ama and Mad Ron's Prevues From Hell, that have curated some really obscure stuff that I hope to shed some light on here at Network Awesome.

NAmag: Anyone that collects trailers must be a movie obsessive, how'd you get the bug?

I've always been a collector;  Tomy Robots in the 80's, He-Man toys and Mad Magazines eventually gave way to EC Comics, Horror VHS tapes, and punk records, and so on.  I'm obsessed with zombie movies, have been for just about as long as I can remember. Years ago I was collecting every scrap of footage I could find of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and was hunting down all the trailers.  See, in the celluloid film days, when you cut a trailer you had two options. Spend the bucks to clone the film's negative to make the trailer from, or cheap out and use the negative of out-takes that didn't make it into the film.  Again, trash. Trailers were made from snippets literally from the cutting room floor.  So if you watch, say, the trailer to The Maltese Falcon, the performances aren't exactly the ones from the film, because it's an unused take.  So I was hunting down all the trailers of Dawn of the Dead to see if I could find any unused takes to satisfy my lunatic need to see every frame photographed for the film.  Then, one day I was like "where the hell is the trailer to Sean of the Dead?"  It wasn't on YouTube yet, it wasn't even in US theaters yet, so I got a copy and saved it.  I figured I might as well save 28 Days Later too, and then you know how it goes…. 

NAmag: Some of these trailers are totally NUTS! And... in some cases not all THAT closely related to the movie itself, while in other cases they give away the whole freakin thing! What's the deal with that? Does it matter whether they're related or not?

That's really the thing with trailers, it's our last vestige of the old sideshow barker. "Step inside! For one thin dime, see the tattooed lady! Kidnapped by savages and forced against her will to be a living comic book to depict the strange tales of their jungle gods! " And once you hand over your coin and are ushered inside the tent, instead of some inked up sexpot it's an old hag covered in blurry green splotches.

The barker promised you nakedness under hot lights, and sexual titillation but you really just end up feeling ripped off and a bit sad for a brokedown old gal that looks like a lot like your aunt Tilly. See, the barker wouldn't tempt us with tales of a divorcee who had the bad luck to marrying a drunk and got stuck working the carnival circuit. No one wants to hear the real story. Trailers aren't about telling you the story, hell, there not even about selling you the story. Like the carnival barker, they're trying to get you to feel something. Maybe titillation, certainly excitement, at the very least curiosity.

See, trailers are like porn. An effective porno loop can do it's trick in a few minutes. A bad, boring porno takes 80 mins on Skinemax to get you off. But you take a pro, a real pro, and give them like 2-3 minutes, and they'll get the job done. Because they're not wasting a single frame. They know your kink. They put it in the title, they're already already performing in the first frame that you mash the play key.

Trailers have to be a little like drugs, they transport you to a different state of mind without putting in the effort to get there through meditation or something. Let's take the pratfall gag versus a narrative joke for example. Imagine being at a dinner party where a great story teller carefully spins a great yarn and has everybody on the edge of their seats and when he gets to the end of the great tale, everyone is in tears with uproarious laughter. Well, we can't do that. Not in a trailer. All it really takes to make my wife laugh is if I get bonked on the head by a falling tennis racket or something. That's what we can do in trailers. It's all about finding the most direct route to an emotion.

That's what we can aim for in trailers--eliciting an easy to achieve emotion. Don't let anything fool you into thinking a trailer should be about telling the movie's story. It's about telling the emotional story, but more specifically, the trailer should elicit an emotion in the audience. You have to make me feel something in a trailer. Here are some of the easy to trigger emotions you can release in an audience:

Nostalgia, it seems to be the easiest emotion to trigger in anyone over 17.

Excitement, for something that the audience is interested in already-- like a sequel to an awesome movie.

Loneliness, via empathy for something we can identify with or pity--like a chained dog getting left behind.

Dread, for the uncertainly of this mess we're all in--often "scary" trailers trigger dread, not fear.

Horniness, or any other bodily need like hunger or thirst. Something like need/greed/opportunism/vice.

The harder ones are Happy, Funny, Angry, Scary. See, these four are emotions that are either hard for us to feel and we have to put in the time and effort to achieve them naturally or they are emotions that we work hard to avoid. You might think that you've seen some funny trailers before but odds are it was just a guy getting knocked in the nuts. But the previous 5 I listed are things that, I think, everyone are just about feeling like all the time and we only need a tiny push to release what we're already feeling anyway.

It's the job of the trailer to give that little push. You're giving them the promise that they'll feel that again in the full feature film and that's what that hooks them. For god's sake don't confuse that with giving them a sample of what they'll learn about the movie, no one wants that. We watch to feel something, anything. That sounds pretty sad. But it's true.

NAmag: You have a lot of interesting stuff to say about trailers and their production. You say they're like porn -- but I'm curious if you think that there's an "art" here, even in theory.

Oh sure!  I don't mean to denigrate trailers, hell, great art should compel one to emotion in a single moment.  And that's not to say that there haven't been some trailers that aren't absolute art in and of themselves, even above the films they are a paratext to.  For instance the Kubrick trailers of Pablo Ferro are magnificent art.  His trailers for Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange are like an Eisenstein film that Marshall McLuhan would have made had he made films.  They are almost prefect examples of montage and juxtaposition. But there's a more recent trailer that will go down in my mind as the greatest trailer ever made.  It's the trailer for The Social Network. It does in two minutes what most filmmakers won't pull off in a career.  Listen to this: you take a song, like a punk rock song for example, and it'll make you feel mad, or activated to do something.  You take an Emo song and it'll make you miss your first girlfriend or tell you how lonely you feel.  Most trailers, they attempt to elicit some single emotion out of you.  But this trailer, this trailer for The Social Network, it's a SYMPHONY of emotion.  Loneliness, envy, love, acceptance, sympathy, empathy, fraternity, hope, lust, greed, wrath, jealousy, gluttony, dread, betrayal, isolation, frustration. With it's use of the choral version of Radiohead's "Creep", they take an already amazing song and make it more emotional and accessible and juxtapose that with images of people reaching out to each other, loving each other, and hurting each other.  It's powerful stuff.

If you've not seen it, or only seen it once, watch it again.  Every day for a month. I'm not kidding.


NAmag: Apparently people are just TERRIFIED of movies and TV -- not what''s on the screen, necessarily -- but the actual technologies -- especially in the 80s. Any idea why that might have been?

There was this terrific shift in power when people started getting VCRs. We could say fuck you to the programmers and watch our shows whenever we felt like it, and thanks to the supreme court, we have the right to timeshift TV shows. The networks didn't want us timeshifting their programming, but suddenly we had the power to watch Murphy Brown or Alf whenever the hell we wanted, and we did. But Jesus, did I ever catch hell if the tape ran out and I missed the ending of a movie. We laid a lot of trust in the technology. Any mostly it worked. When my Dad hooked up two VCRs and started dubbing movies that we rented, I was told by another kid that what he was doing was illegal. The idea that my dad could be breaking the law and not even know it was a scary thought. Did you know that Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes) was arrested in 1974 by the FBI for having a personal library of movies on videotape? Hell, 10 years later, every home in America had a collection of VHS tapes. We started curating our own lives. And with Camcorders in the 80s, we shifted again from watchers to makers. This is as huge a change to video, in my mind, as the Guttenberg press was to the written word. And it scared the shit out of people. Not just TV execs and film studios, but ourselves too. Suddenly with this freedom is also a shift in responsibilty. With speech, we can listen but we also have to talk to eachother. We can read but we also have to write. With Super8 and home movies and VCRs, came an age of video literacy-- it's a new language we're not taught in school. That means that if I show someone something, I have to show them something worthwhile. I put on a crappy movie, I'm gonna get shit for it. You start spouting nonsense, no one listens to you anymore--or worse, you get branded a madman.

The video age meant that we're all resopnsible for culture. Damn right, that's scary to people. The video age means being all alone. We watch a simulcast of a presidents speech, and we're all together sharing communion around the national hearth. You pop in a tape, and it's just you. all alone. That's pretty scary too. This lonelyness thing. The internet is an isolating place, but it's also a social place. YouTube calls itself "The largest worldwide video-sharing community" look at those words; "Community", "Sharing" ,"Largest Worldswide", they know what's wrong and isolating about the internet, and thats why they put hitcounts so prominently on the page, so you don't feel so goddamn alone watching a video about an elephant that knows how to waterski. That's one of the things that I think makes Network Awesome so great, it's not just that it's awesome curated content, but that I know that there are a bunch of cats out there watching along with me.

And that's one of the things that I love about trailers too. They're free, and anyone can watch them, and together with our bros we can get excited about the future and whatever it may hold. Trailers, for all of their spoilers, and bombast and hyperbole, aren't about really about the movies or even the characters. They're about us.

Questions by Network Awesome writers and editors. We're a lot of fun - you can find us at apocalypse-themed parties, museums of science and industry, and snarky media-obsessed websites.