GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH JEREMY GARDNER AND CHRISTIAN STELLA
In AFTER MIDNIGHT, Hank (Jeremy Gardner) wakes up alone one morning in an empty home to find only a cryptic parting note from his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant). Heartbroken and depressed, he finds himself visited by a mysterious monster nightly. When his reports of the strange nightly occurrences to his best-friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski) and Abby’s brother, police officer Shane (Justin Benson) are met with scepticism, Hank slips further into paranoia and loneliness.
Gardner and Christian Stella’s first feature THE BATTERY, about two baseball players trying to survive the zombie apocalypse was written and directed by Gardner, and shot by Stella. TEX MONTANA WILL SURVIVE! Their sophomore feature, which they co-directed, continued the theme of THE BATTERY, with a story about a survival show host trying to survive in the wild.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, the filmmakers discussed their creative journey from THE BATTERY to AFTER MIDNIGHT, the surprises of the edit and embracing the film taking on a life of its own.
FRIGHTFEST: Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
Jeremy Gardner: I’m not sure I have that one “eureka” moment. When I look back it was a very organic and slow process that got me into filmmaking. It was having HBO when I was a child and seeing particular movies. It was getting my own VCR in my bedroom that let me find things that I wasn’t necessarily supposed to watch. And then it was starting to write short stories, meeting friends in high school, and meeting Christian. We then started making short films together because they had a camera, and we bonded over horror movies.
It was a very slow process and not that “eureka” moment for me. I always wanted to tell stories in some fashion, but filmmaking just organically came from growing up at a time when you could have movies in your bedroom, and cameras were coming along that were affordable enough for us to play around with.
Christian Stella: For me, it was when Jeremy forced me to make THE BATTERY with him.
Jeremy Gardner: That’s true, he didn’t want to do it.
FF: What compelled you to believe in THE BATTERY and to tell that story at that particular point in time?
CS: I’m a food photographer by day and I had a camera that could shoot video. Jeremy had written THE BATTERY and had been wanting to get it made for two years. He’d gone to all of his friends and asked them to put in $600 each to make the movie, and he’d raised $6000. Once he’d raised that, I thought, ‘Oh crap, I guess I need to go film this for him’, because he didn’t have anyone else to.
JG: Christian’s answer is more cynical because I’d brought him along, but making that movie starts from when Christian and I were in high school, along with his sister Alicia. We were making movies together all the time and as we grew up we moved all over the country, and I started trying to pursue acting up in the New England area, in New York and Connecticut. I became disillusioned with the process because auditioning is miserable. So sad and nostalgic, I wanted to get back to making movies with my friends again, but I wanted to make a real movie this time.
The stuff we’d made before, we were just messing around and it was a little goofy. I’d spent so much time reading every bit of film information I could over the years, and I started thinking, ‘Now is the time as far as technology goes. If I write a script that I specifically tailor the story around what we can achieve, then maybe we can actually achieve something that will get noticed.’ So I started to think about what was the easiest thing to do: You have two people in the woods. Okay, why are they in the woods? Well there’s an apocalypse, and even though you want to show the burned out cities and the flipped cars, in reality if your characters are smart, they’re going to avoid those areas. So I started tailoring the story around what would be a logical reason that you just have two people on the road. I started thinking that if you’re smart enough, you could make something small that feels big, and then I just cried, “Christian please come make this zombie movie with me.”
CS: When we were kids, no one saw our movies. We were putting them on VHS and we mailed them to a couple of people, and that was about it. So my hesitance was in thinking, ‘Well we’re going to work on something for a year and then no one’s ever going to see it.’ So it was more about time for me and not the idea of not wanting to do it.
JG: …I had spent enough time reading about all of these small movies that were making a dent, and I knew that this could actually get through to people, and then when it ended up going to fifty festivals… “I told you bitches!”
FF: There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Would you agree?
JG: 100% there are three versions of the movie. Every time we make something the movie will take its full and final shape, and we are even surprised sometimes by how different the cut is versus the story. It’s still the same story, but there’s always a motif or something we find in the edit that helps to reshape it. I don’t think there were as many in AFTER MIDNIGHT - there were flashbacks that didn’t start in the same place and we rearranged certain things, but that’s what’s fun about editing. It’s that aha moment of, “Wait, if we do this then we can switch this entire thing around.”
CS: THE BATTERY was a completely different movie once it was edited, and AFTER MIDNIGHT is definitely different, but I will say that everything that’s in the movie is pretty much in the script. The order might be a little bit different, but this time we were a more disciplined - we knew better what we wanted to create when we started. So it’s not as different, but the first cut of the movie was twenty minutes longer, so it definitely became something different.
FF: When incorporating the flashback sequences, does it require you to trust your instincts as to what feels right, as opposed to looking at them through a more practical and structural point of view?
JG: …We realised we would have time at the end to play around and shoot with Brea, and get as much of us being together as possible. And then we added those in throughout the movie when we needed them, but that structure wasn’t actually there.
CS: One of the hardest things when working with so many flashbacks is making them visually different from the rest of the movie, so that the audience doesn’t get confused as to what timeframe we’re in. Obviously we don’t want to put a cheesy filter on it, and so early on we decided that we were going to shoot all of those scenes with the camera focused on Brea. Jeremy’s character is in the scenes, but the camera ignores him, so sometimes he might go offscreen. It’s more that he’s in his own memories, but he’s not the focus, she is, and that was an interesting way to shoot them. They’re much brighter than the rest of the movie and that was the only other visual change.
JG: Was there not a frame rate change in one of them too?
CS: One of them was shot at 30fps and lowered to 24fps, so that it’s slightly slow motion. I stole that from A GHOST STORY - they did that with the ghost. When I did it I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do that for every one in the movie’
JG: Another thing is these were full dialogue scenes and then it just became, ‘Why don’t we just cut the dialogue and let it be a rose-tinted memory, instead of trying to have these pithy back and forth, funny and quirky dialogue scenes.’ We realised it would be much more effective to just see him thinking about her, and so were able to get around my goofy stabs at romantic comedy scenes by realising, ‘Hold on, we have a beautiful woman in a beautiful day, and a beautiful shot, let’s just live in this for a moment, and let people project whatever they want onto it.’ And so that’s another thing that changed in the edit.
FF: Interviewing Larry Fessenden, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree?
JG: Well, Larry’s full of so many pithy comments. I once had the best compliment from Larry – he was trying to describe me to someone and he said, “Well he’s a hick who reads.” I thought that was a pretty smart description of me, but I’m actually one of those people that doesn’t believe it. I understand the instinct to say a film is abandoned, and I’ve heard similar sentiments before that people would still be editing their movies ten years later if they were allowed. But for me, at some point it just feels that it’s time to let go, and when you have deadlines that makes it easier.
I do get to the point where I go, “This is it.” There are one or two things I would still change on THE BATTERY, but I wouldn’t keep going back and messing with it. I sometimes think there’s a cut you wish you had made, and honestly, maybe there’s not enough footage most of the time to keep messing with it.
CS: When you release a movie you definitely abandon it. At that point it’s completely out of your hands and you just have to let go. With AFTER MIDNIGHT, it was originally called something else and then you start to see trailers and art work, and title changes and art work in other countries, and it feels like the movie has taken on a life of its own. It’s out if your hands and you have to embrace that, or it’ll drive you crazy.
JG: But do you think that when Larry says abandoned, he means you just have to stop messing with it? Do you feel you would have kept cutting this movie if no one told us we had to turn it in?
CS: No, this movie was the opposite. The producers were giving us notes after notes and at some point we said, “No, we don’t want to make those changes.”
JG: It felt finished to us.
CS: Our producers are amazing filmmakers, and we said, “We know you guys want this peanut shot out of the movie, but we’re leaving it in.” This is the first movie we had producers on, and so we had gone through so many rounds of notes from other filmmakers, maybe even Larry, that by the end of it we were, “Yeah this is done, we’ve gone through enough.”
JG: We really planted our flag on that peanut shot.
AFTER MIDNIGHT is available now on Limited Edition Blu-Ray from Arrow Video, and features THE BATTERY.