Video Diary of a Lost Girl: Lindsay Denniberg in conversation with Cristina Cacioppo

Video Diary of a Lost Girl
March 31st 2022

The Outskirts is a column and screening series by programmer Cristina Cacioppo that looks at films that merit cult status, which have fallen into obscurity and exist outside the categorical.

Just about ten years ago, when I was a programmer for 92YTribeca, Lindsay Denniberg reached out about her feature Video Diary of a Lost Girl (2012). We had some mutual acquaintances, and she was looking for an NYC venue after having shown the film at several festivals, including Chicago Underground. I was immediately impressed—it had a visual style I hadn’t seen before, quoting from many genres and eras of film but never defaulting to mimicry. We screened it in January of 2013, with Denniberg attending along with co-writer/star Chris Shields and star Pris McEver, and the response was enthusiastic. Throughout the years I’ve heard from many people who attended and continue to hold the movie in high regard. Work like this, lacking distribution, is always in danger of getting lost to time, so with the tenth anniversary rolling around, it was ripe to revisit. In advance of tonight’s screening, Denniberg and I spoke about what it took to make a detail-obsessed movie and what its lifespan has been since its release.

Pris McEver and Chris Shields in Video Diary of a Lost Girl
Pris McEver and Chris Shields in Video Diary of a Lost Girl

Cristina Cacioppo: You made Video Diary of a Lost Girl while you were still a student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I wondered what your filmmaking experience was up to that point?

Lindsay Denniberg: Before SAIC, I got more of my film education at UCF, University of Central Florida. That's where I met Chris [Shields] and Pris [McEver]. I kind of made normal-ish films until I did this mermaid horror movie called Wet Skin [2008] with Chris. He was the cinematographer, and together we looked to the works of filmmakers George Kuchar [and] Guy Maddin, and Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre for inspiration. After that my style focus started to change to a more arts-and-crafts-heavy type of filmmaking. And then I made another short film with [Chris] called Chances [2009] about two of my performance-art friends that went by the name Triscults (Jill Shea and Brittany Morris) two dancing masked beings of chaos, similar to Vera Chytilova’s Daisies [1966], or like two escaped dancing convicts from the Pee Wee Herman universe. We would shoot different formats—Super 8, digital, VHS—because I wanted it to feel like a collage. It kinda became a scrapbook of the weirdo Orlando punk scene at the time, kinda like Downtown 81 [2000] is to the post-punk art scene in New York. Then I began writing Video Diary in 2009.

CC: What was it like in its early form?

LD: It started as a sci-fi dystopian comic book I never finished in middle school. I'd had this idea of a girl with some sort of sexual ailment, a supernatural thing. Something where sex was a vampiric experience. The menstrual cycle was not a narrative element yet (you can thank Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell [2004] and anything Cronenberg for inspiring that). In middle school I was a big fan of anime, specifically Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that’s what introduced me to the concept of Lilith. I got obsessed with Lilith and how Evangelion adapted her into this existential alien metaphor for the human condition. The surreal and beautiful imagery of an ocean filled with blood had a deep impact on me as a teenager. Eventually I got into really trashy horror, shot-on-video horror, and things that had a certain look to them with impressionistic textures that I wanted to play with.

CC: I want to hear more about how the look of the film came together. It makes sense when you say you started thinking of it as a graphic novel. It's still a very unique looking movie.

LD: I wanted it to at least look on the surface like an ’80s horror film. But I have all these other influences—like I love kung fu films, and Chris is a black belt, so why not use that, right? Then there are references to Godard and the first Rocky movie. Chris and I both love silly romantic comedies, so that became the core that all the other genres and references would orbit around. I'm working on my next movie with Chris, Killer Makeover, also a romantic horror comedy set in the same cinematic universe as Video Diary. It looks similar to Video Diary, but my collage technique has definitely evolved into something else over the years. Right now I'm very into watercolor-painted backgrounds in animated film and TV, like Ralph Bakshi, Sailor Moon, and Dragonball Z, so my style mutated from that inspiration and obsession. There's this Instagram called @scooby_scapes that Chris and I both love, which is just Scooby Doo animated backgrounds, no characters—we reference it to each other often in post. The collage materials for Video Diary include horror, but also silent films. There’s a scene where Louise is watching the Dreyer Joan of Arc [1928]—it's one of those scenes where when I wrote it I'm like, This scene doesn't need to be in this movie, but I want it to be in there.

Video Diary of a Lost Girl
Video Diary of a Lost Girl

CC: And can you talk about where you were sourcing all of these different things you used on set? You have a lot of greenscreen, but you also made these very elaborate sets.

LD: It was my first time working with a green screen actually. My friend and fellow artist Mikey McParlane taught me how to use it at SAIC while we shot the opening Garden of Eden scene. The artwork of my friends/collaborators often inspires me, and I doubt my aesthetic would be what it is without his contribution and support. During this first year at SAIC I realized I could get away with the VHS aesthetic by playing with Final Cut Pro effects, but also shooting directly onto VHS—an analog/digital cocktail.

CC: For the sets you constructed, how did you go about sourcing your materials?

LD: It's other people's garbage! At SAIC, they have floors of artist studios, and people would throw away stuff. It was the summer, and everyone was throwing out all their studio stuff. So I pillaged everything: paint, wires, cardboard, paper, and everything like that.

CC: It's so clear that details are important to you, and there is painstaking attention to the look. I wonder if you can talk about if there were any curveballs you had to work with or happy accidents that happened while shooting?

LD: The most unexpected thing: we worked on the fly in the scene—spoiler alert—where Charlie gets stabbed, near the climax. There was a continuity issue. We didn't put the wound in the scene that we had already shot that was after that scene, so we have to heal him somehow magically, so we decided that her blood all of a sudden has healing powers. It becomes a little twist at the end. It’s a twist I really like and wouldn’t have used in the script writing phase, so the spontaneity of the chaos on set can really get the creative juices flowing .‌ . . that and panic.

CC: Can you talk about your process of working with Chris Shields, who not only co-stars but also co-wrote the screenplay with you?

LD: Chris was living in New York at the time and I was living in Chicago, going to SAIC. I had written about twenty pages on my own. It was mostly an introduction to the characters Louise and Charlie, and they were a little bit more 1920s hokey. The original script had a prostitution ring where they would lure men and feed off of them. But as I was writing it with Chris, I knew the heart of the movie was with Louise and Charlie. We would write over the phone mainly, just spitballing and trying things out. Good conversation is where I get most of my inspiration, and he is the king of that. I'd send him pages, and [we would] act it out and see what was working. The character of Charlie is very much inspired by Chris. We wanted to have him feel a little bit like Lloyd Dobler [from Say Anything, 1989] and early Jon Cryer from Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home [1987]. Charlie was written that way because Louise was so brooding. [She] needed some levity, so he became the comic relief.

Chris Shields and Pris McEver in Video Diary of a Lost Girl
Chris Shields and Pris McEver in Video Diary of a Lost Girl

CC: So how did Pris McEver get involved? And what were you looking for in her performance?

LD: I knew her from UCF, and she had acted in other student films there. But we had never really crossed paths. We both admired each other's work from afar, and we wanted to work together someday. Eventually I sent Pris a draft of the script. At first I pictured her in another role—a more bitchy character, Jane—but she was interested in the part of Louise. I started imagining Pris in that role as I finished writing it with Chris. For the performance, I was thinking a blend of early Winona [Ryder], Mary Stuart Masterson from Some Kind of Wonderful [1987]—Pixie Dream Girls of the past, but a little bit more punk, like Susan Berman in Smithereens [1982]. Women I wanted to be, but I wasn’t. Louise does have an insecurity about herself that is definitely me

CC: You have a lot of really great music, bands that I've never heard of. You even incorporate a club performance that has a music-video feel.

LD: The band in the club is Danny Gallegos's band Cemetery. A lot of the music is from friends because I always like working directly with people I know, who also will give me free copyright, no issues. So, luckily, I have a lot of talented musician friends. [Danny was also] one of the assistant directors and art directors. If you were crew, you were also cast, that was kind of the way it is. I did a cameo as the naked Lilin sacrifice at some point. All the extras in there were either crew members or friends of the crew members at the time. But getting back to the music, the main soundtrack you hear through out is done by goth band Bestial Mouths, who I met through Danny at a punk show. In the early stages there actually was this musician whose work I loved, and they originally gave me permission to use their songs, but after they saw a rough cut they said my work was too sexual and they wanted no part of it. I was pretty devastated at the time, but there was a silver lining. The music that is there now, which I think is way better, is the "Shadows Connected to the Light" by Teeadora, who also plays Adam. That all came about because while I was filming the Garden of Eden scene with him, I was also complaining about the music situation, and he's like, “Let me try.” And it was awesome.

CC: That song is iconic! I'm sure it's as hard for you to believe as it is for me that this movie is ten years old. I'm wondering about the lifespan of it—what's happened since then? Has anybody surprising discovered it and reached out to you?

LD: Actually Stephen Sayadian, who did Café Flesh [1982] and Caligari [1989], who I am a humongous fan of—he emailed me and said, "Someone sent me your film and I really love it". I’m still starstruck about it. I also sent it to Albert Pyun because I love him and we were both in a film festival together in Vegas. He's an amazingly sweet man, and he actually flew me out there to go to the screening since I couldn’t afford it. I got to meet him and his wife, it was a very memorable and treasured experience. As far as the lifespan goes, I've had a few distribution offers and negotiations over the years, but nothing has worked out. I've even had it online on an indie streaming service to try that out for a little bit, but that fell apart. It's been in limbo, unfortunately, for ten years with screenings here and there. And it is honestly very frustrating, not knowing what to do or where to go.

Finding distribution again kinda went on the back burner, as I’ve been super busy working with Chris on our next film, Killer Makeover, since 2015! It’s about a beauty-school drop-out that gets cursed by a witch, so that anyone she puts make-up on dies! She ends up working as a mortician at a funeral home, and then shit gets really weird. This time Chris wrote the film with our friends Sarah Fensom (who also stars as the lead) and Phil Chernyak. It’s been taking me many years to form the aesthetic in post, as the cinematic world is so much bigger and crazier this time. I’m very excited for everyone to see it hit festivals later this year!

Video Diary of a Lost Girl screens tonight, March 31 at Nitehawk Prospect Park, co-presented by Screen Slate, as part of the series “The Outskirts.” Director Lindsay Denniberg and star Pris McEver will be in attendance for a Q&A.