Success begins with ingenuity
The Indie Horror The Gallows was written, directed and produced by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff and shot entirely outside of the Hollywood system on a budget of $100 000, and found its way to the big screen in July 2015 thanks to the filmmakers’ use of a much smaller one—the computer—and their own ingenuity, now totaling $40 million at the box office internationally.
”Every school has its spirit – In 1993, high school student Charlie Grimille died by the noose in a freak accident during Beatrice High’s production of the play “The Gallows.” Twenty years later, it seems Charlie will finally have his curtain call. And his revenge. On the eve of the play’s revival, students Reese, Pfeifer, Cassidy and Ryan spend the night trapped in the school’s auditorium, with no way to call for help. If Charlie has his way, it may be the last night they spend alive!”
Lofing states, “Travis came up with the initial concept, and we developed it from there until we had a rough script. Then we shot a promo trailer, mainly just so we could see how it worked, if it looked scary to us.”
“We also used it in order to raise funds, so we could shoot the rest of the movie,” Cluff quips.
While the filmmakers continued into production, they put the trailer online.
It was spotted by producer Dean Schnider of Film 360, the production arm of Management 360. 360 shared it with well-known genre production company Blumhouse, founded by veteran producer Jason Blum.
Blum offers, “‘The Gallows’ is really the first movie we’ve done since ‘Paranormal Activity’ that has the same DNA—that homemade ‘I can do that’ look, which, to be honest, few people really can do. We must see about a thousand attempts a year, but ‘The Gallows,’ was unique in that not only did they do it themselves, but it worked.”
Schnider says, “I’m always consuming media, going through blogs and video sites, whether due to my own curious nature or trying to find the next big talent. I saw this two-minute clip that was just strange and scary and creepy. It felt truly unique and my gut instinct led me to reach out to Chris and Travis.”
Of the two, Lofing confesses to being the true horror fan. “I’ve always used those movies as creative inspiration. Travis came at it from a more business-minded perspective. He immediately saw the advantages of doing something with a small budget, and horror is fairly easy to do that way.”
Cluff confirms, “We were operating with no budget, basically, so we had to find a way to do it. That’s when Chris came up with the idea to make it in the found-footage style, which allowed us to do what we wanted in terms of story and production.”
Lofing and Cluff met when Lofing, then just 19, went to Fresno, California, to shoot a short film—his school thesis, actually—and Cluff joined the production as a stunt performer. When Cluff later attended the short’s premiere in L.A., he was impressed with the final result and approached Lofing about working together again. The pair formed their own company, Tremendum Pictures, and “The Gallows” is their first professional collaboration.
Producer Benjamin Forkner of Entertainment 360 comments, “Chris and Travis really complement each other in terms of what each of them brings to the table, and together they are a great team. We were very excited to be involved in bringing their vision to the big screen.”
With Blumhouse and Entertainment 360 on board to co-produce and co-finance, the directors—who also served as editors as well as handling the visual effects—were able to finalize the film.
Executive producer Couper Samuelson of Blumhouse says, “It seems as though once every ten years or so a movie like this breaks through because it’s really good. We know from experience that it’s hard to get one great scare in a movie, let alone the multiple scares ‘The Gallows’ has. It’s also challenging to get naturalistic performances with the type of dramatic work the actors have to do in horror, especially in found-footage films. Travis and Chris did a terrific job and we were thrilled to be a part of it.”
Making an independent film
In “The Gallows,” four high school students find themselves in grave danger after getting locked in the auditorium overnight. Three of them—Reese, Ryan and Cassidy—are there to sabotage the sets for the upcoming school play; the fourth, Pfeifer, the play’s female lead, has followed them in, correctly suspecting they’re up to no good.
To help induce a real sense of fear in their cast members that would translate into their performances, Cluff and Lofing cast actors out of Los Angeles who knew nothing of the Fresno, California, locations where they’d be shooting, many of which are said to be haunted. Additionally, the directors only revealed the script to the talent little by little over the course of production, and also shared photos, newspaper articles and websites with them that referenced the story of Charlie Grimille and related incidents that had happened subsequent to his death.
To keep things feeling even more genuine for the cast, the filmmakers used the lead actors’ first names as character names. Thus, Reese Mishler plays Reese Houser, Pfeifer Brown plays Pfeifer Ross, Cassidy Gifford plays Cassidy Spilker and, retaining both his first and last names, Ryan Shoos plays Ryan Shoos.
Schnider offers, “The fact that Chris and Travis decided to use the actors’ names as their character names was a very smart, simple idea that spoke to how they approached the entire movie, which is grounded and as raw and authentic as possible.”
The performers were also allowed a good deal of room to improvise. “We kept the script really lean, and found actors that could roll with it,” Lofing says. “Our cast had great improv skills and really made things come to life.”
Supernatural happenings and jitters aside, Mishler feels that fans of horror will not only appreciate the disturbing qualities of the story, but will also be able to put themselves in the characters’ place. “We’ve all been to high school, we’ve all been part of this clique or that one or into sports or drama. So, you’re already empathizing with a lot of what these kids go through and their emotions at that age. Then when things start to get really awful, you’ll feel like you’re right there with them, which makes the scary stuff even more terrifying.”
Gifford says, “I grew up loving horror films, so doing one was never something I would have counted out of the realm of possibility. But coming in and actually doing it was more challenging than I could have imagined. People probably always say this about working in the horror genre, but being on set, doing night shoots, surrounded by a very small cast and crew, was actually pretty scary at times! Because the production was kept so small, a lot of the time we were alone in a random, dark hallway with nothing going on. We would hear things, we would see things, and it all made it seem very real; I won’t lie, I was definitely freaked out more than once.”
While the character sort of goes along for the ride, she’s the first to suffer the consequences when strange markings begin to appear on her neck, though nothing—nothing human, that is—has touched her. “The phones aren’t working, the doors are locked; Ryan’s trying to calm her down, but she knows something is off,” Gifford supplies. “And then this bruising starts to appear on Cassidy’s neck and she feels like she’s being pulled by something, but nothing is there. At that point, she just wants to get out of that place. It’s not a funny prank anymore.”
In addition to handling several of the behind-the-scenes jobs themselves, both Cluff and Lofing appear briefly on screen. “I am the drama teacher and Chris is a student who I yell at because he doesn’t turn his cell phone off in the classroom,” Cluff grins. “That’s it for cameos.”
Jason Blum says of the cast, “Naturalistic performances are especially crucial in this style of film, and Chris and Travis found terrific actors.”
This place is super creepy at night…
Perhaps nothing plays on an audience’s own phobias better than making them feel trapped in the kind of place they might frequent every day, all the while hunted by some unknown, unseen force. “It could happen to you, too,” or so the filmmakers seem to be saying while, one by one, the characters on screen face an untimely demise in a variety of horrific manners.
In the film “The Gallows,” that everyday locale is a high school auditorium. Moviegoers have all been there, no matter their hometown, and therefore can all put themselves in the characters’ place.
“Even the most familiar place is different at night,” Lofing says. “Few of us would choose to experience an empty school in the middle of the night. Empty hallways, all the doors closed. Right away, most of us would be a little freaked out.”
Adding to that, Lofing continues, “Supernatural things start happening, and then become more and more intense. But no one knows these guys are there, no help is coming for them. It becomes a very desperate situation.”
Certain exteriors were accomplished in Lofing’s hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska, the setting for the film. However, “The Gallows” was shot primarily in and around Fresno, California. Utilizing Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium as the main setting for the story, the filmmakers shot night-for-night, adding to the realism for both the cast and, ultimately, moviegoers.
“Night-for-night interiors are rare,” Blum observes, “but it was done to give the actors the true feeling of, well, being out in the middle of the night, just like their characters.”
One of Cluff’s favorite scenes—coincidentally shot on a Friday the 13th, on the thirteenth day of principal photography—also maintained an air of realism for most of those involved. “No kidding, it was the thirteenth day, on a Friday the 13th, and we were hanging someone.”
Cluff and Lofing had discussed at length how to make the sequence as legitimate as possible in order to get the best “audience” reaction. “We brought in a bunch of extras to be our theater audience, watching the original version of the play in 1993, and we rehearsed it earlier that day,” Cluff goes on to say. “We explained to our main actors, who knew the story, what we were doing, but we never told our audience that Charlie was going to hang. Instead, we practiced it in a fake way, with him taking off the noose and getting away. Now they think that’s how it’s supposed to go. And the actors on the stage are supposed to react like it wasn’t supposed to happen.
“However, when we shot the scene, Chris and I wanted to make sure the actors who were in on it would also be surprised, including the kid playing Charlie. So we did it sooner in the dialogue than he, or they, expected it.”
Naturally, the on-set prank was accomplished with complete safety, thanks to the presence of a stuntman/safety coordinator dressed as though he were part of the cast. “He came running out—looking like he’s the drama teacher of the time—screaming, ‘Charlie! Charlie! Somebody call a doctor!’ Our actors were stunned, but our audience was totally shocked—the look on some of their faces was priceless.”
The young actor playing Charlie got his own revenge on his directors. “It took what seemed like forever for him to give us a thumbs up,” Cluff admits. “But it was great.”
That scene, which actually opens the film, has the look of having been shot on a home video camera. The bulk of the movie, however, takes place 20 years later and is meant to be seen mainly through the lens of today’s ever-present video camera: the cell phone.
The filmmakers employed a variety of cameras at various grades, including a Canon C300, the Panasonic Lumix GH2, RED and Sony. “I think we used just about every camera in the book,” Cluff jokes.
Blum admires their resourcefulness. “What makes a scary movie scary is when the characters’ lives are threatened. But when your life is threatened, the last thing you do is hold onto a camera. Chris and Travis were able to make it feel organic. The camera is justified all the way through the movie, which makes it resonate in a cool way.”
While they managed most of the filming themselves, as well as the editing and visual effects, the directors turned to Zach Lemmon and 10K Islands to compose the score and sound designer Brandon Jones of Sound Method Post to design the sound for the film.
“When they showed the film in a really rough state, there was no sound design, nothing but the dialogue track,” Jones remembers. “In fact, there were big portions of the movie that were just silent. Still, it was so terrifying, just by itself.”
Responsible for the entire soundscape of the film, Jones says he was “thrilled by all the possibilities, but at the same time, it was daunting; I knew I’d be creating atmosphere, tone, tension, paranormal elements and so on. It was a blank slate for me to go crazy and have fun. I’m really happy that Chris and Travis entrusted me with the job.”
“When we first started this movie,” Lofing says, “Travis and I weren’t sure how we were going to divide up our responsibilities—maybe I’d direct more, and he’d produce more. But we really collaborated equally on everything. The turning point, I think, was when we went to Jason Blum’s office and on his wall, right when you walk in, is a sign that reads The Directors. There are pictures of James Wan, who did ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring,’ and Damien Chazelle who did ‘Whiplash,’ along with several other directors. And we just looked at the wall and looked at each other and we knew we both had to be up there.”
“Together, Chris and Travis have created an authentic scary movie experience that audiences will love,” Blum states. “I know from experience that people love being scared, in all different ways—riding a rollercoaster, sitting in a dark movie theater—whatever gets your adrenalin going and makes you feel alive. I think that ‘The Gallows’ is that exceptional movie that doesn’t feel like anything else…and is really terrifying.”