I tend to get a huge kick mixing it up with young directors, usually on the road promoting their first feature, after having had one or two of their shorts do well on the festival circuit. Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff met in Fresno, California, where one of them lived and worked and the other was about to make a short and was looking for free locations and a few less expensive stunt people and actors to hire. It didn’t take long for the two to hit it off and come up with the idea that eventually became THE GALLOWS, the first version of which they completed about three years ago. And it was that version of the film that caught the attention of many a horror distributor, including Blumhouse Pictures head Jason Blum. I’ll let Lofing and Cluff tell you the rest of the story of what’s been going on with the film in the last three years.
The pair are as energetic as you might expect (especially since the film was picked up for distribution by Warner Bros.), have a lot of ideas about what they want to do next, and are really fun to talk to, which I did recently when they ventured to Chicago for a big screening of the film at the legendary Music Box Theatre. Their high school-set, found-footage take on a haunted theater should set anyone who has been in a school after hours on edge. Keep in mind, that despite the top-line producer name and a big studio distributing the film, THE GALLOWS is a purely independent production, financed largely by people who had never invested in a film before (for all the good and bad that entails). Let’s dive in, shall we? Please enjoy my talk with co-writers and -directors Chirs Lofing and Travis Cluff…
Capone: I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but was one or both of you either in the drama department in high school or somehow traumatized by someone in the drama department?
Chris Lofing: We were actually both involved in drama in high school. We both did plays, we both did musicals and stuff. I know that certain characters in the movie are based off of people I knew in high school who were heavily involved in drama; Pfeifer’s character, especially.
Travis Cluff: Some of my ideas for the characters were based off of some of my friends. In fact, my own performance was based off of a math teacher I had, who was also the water polo coach. He’d just eat bread in the class. He’d give the assignment, go to work, do it in class, and he would read the paper and just eat a half a loaf of bread to get his carbs in.
Capone: Other than specific characters, was there anything that happened in that time in your life that inspired moments in the film?
TC: A lot of the superstitions in drama and theater. Don’t say certain things, avoid unlucky statements, those types of superstitions were something that we really wanted to play off of, that we remembered being fun. And we wanted to maybe create a new one. Don’t say his name. Don't say “Charlie” in the theater. We don’t say that like we don’t say McBeth.
CL: Also in my high school, there was a class that we were actually required to take, for a communications requirement, and it was called Play Production. So that was a little bit of inspiration too about how these jock characters got involved in this school production—the last place they would be caught dead in, but they have to take it because it’s a requirement.
TC: Like a mandatory elective. It’s like, “Oh, let’s do drama. That can’t be that hard.” And ultimately, it is for some of them.
Capone: At this point in the cinema world, if you’re going to embark on found-footage film, you have to bring something to it we haven’t seen.
TC: It’s got to be different.
Capone: Other than the setting itself, what were some things you wanted to do that made this unique?
TC: We always knew we had to have it stand out from other found-footage films. We filmed it that way, mostly out of necessity. We didn’t have crew, we didn’t have lights, and all these things that a big movie would have. We just went for it with this genre and sub-genre, and it was very tricky, but we really did focus on making sure we had something different, something unique. We took other movies and other ideas and said, “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to do something different.”
And it’s very easy to make a found-footage film; it’s very difficult to make a good one; it’s even harder to make a great one. I think Jason Blum makes that point that he feels like this one is great, and we have something special here, and we’re glad we put in that work and that time, and we’re honored that we’re getting that kind of recognition from such really neat people in the industry.
Capone: You’ve always made the point about this being as small-budget an indie film as can get, but there is this really interesting path that you’ve taken in the last few years or so. Can you just walk us through the bullet points of the last few years in terms of the progression of the film?
CL: Well, I was in film school in L/A., going to the New York Film Academy, ironically, in LA, and for my final thesis film I had no money and pretty ambitious idea for this film I wanted to do. So a classmate of mine said, “Why don’t you go up to Fresno. It’s only three hours north, and you could probably get all your locations and permits for free.” And so I did, and I got all my stuff for free, and it worked out great. I got really cool locations. And that’s how I met Travis, who was auditioning for my film to be this stunt guy, and he actually arranged this boxing gym that we met at for the first time to do stunt choreography.
TC: And the reason I auditioned to be a stuntman is because I was searching to get into entertainment from an experience I’d had about a year and a half earlier, when I was on “Wipeout.”
Capone: I searched for clips of it last night, because of the nick name [“Super Shorts”].
CL: Now you’re like, “I wish I hadn’t searched for it.”
TC: Honestly, a part of one of the strength I think I bring to our company, Tremendum Pictures, and our friendship and our partnership is marketing—knowing what an audience would want to see and knowing what will push their buttons or get them riled up or excited—and creating characters. So for myself, I went down dressed up to the audition in this crazy outfit. If I’m on national TV, it’s Speedos and a cape. So they were just blown away by that. Ultimately it worked out to be this great character. Never mind that I won; I got like eight-and-a-half minutes of air time on that 42 minute show. So it was really cool to pull that off.
CL: And it wasn’t long after we had formed Tremendum Pictures and our friendship that we started discussing our first movie, and I told Travis this story that I had grown up with that my dad told me when I was growing up of this kid who died in his high school during a school play. When I told Travis that, he was immediately like, “That could be a great movie and something we could do low budget.” And he really liked the idea of a high school setting.
TC: Yeah, high school at night? I mean, it’s scary during the daytime, and all the social pressures and all that. The drama department sticks around, and certain groups stick around after the bells ring, and everyone’s gone home. To hear the silence of a school hallway is very eerie, and we thought it would be great.
CL: We shot a trailer, a $250 trailer, and we used that trailer to get some funding from investors in Fresno. Within six months—this was 2011 to 2012—we had the investors and we had a completed film in six or seven months, and that’s the film that we cut the new trailer from.
TC: From an actual movie this time.
CL: And we put it online, so that would be the one you saw. So when we got calls from people in LA from that trailer, we came down and met with Dean Schnider at Management 360 and actually gave them a copy of the original movie, and he watched that. That’s what got him impressed enough to get Jason on board.
Capone: So as a producer, what does Jason bring, in terms of advice on shaping the film and marketing it?
CL: After we had our first screening, with an audience other than our mom and dad and siblings, it really gave us a taste of what the movie was. The results were even better than Jason had expected. They all realized, they’re something special here. “This scored really high in the Very Good and Excellent categories.” And in the Q&A of the focus group of 20 people, they were comparing it in terms of genre to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and BLAIR WITCH, but when asked if they liked it better than any of those, most of them raised their hands and said they liked it more than PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, not knowing Jason was in the room. One guy was like, “I saw PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and I liked this one a lot better. This one was really good.”
CL: We all joked and laughed about it afterwards, too. He was like, “Guys, come on. You got me, okay.” Jason also had a lot of good insight in terms of what studios we’re looking for. We had no idea. It’s our first movie. We made it in our bedroom. So he said, “These are some of the things studios are looking for, these types of movies. This is what you can get away with; this is what you can’t get away with.” And he was able to provide the sources for us to be able to do those scenes that we couldn’t have done before, and get some of those locations we couldn’t get before with the schools.
TC: And just the name recognition, which is so important and so huge. That’s what got the distributors to show up to the screening.
CL: We wouldn’t have had that distributer screening without Jason. He basically invited all the studios to come see it at one time. That was all him.
TC: That was after we finished up the additional photography, getting the schools in there that we didn’t have in the first go-round, and also smoothing some things out. People had been growing weary of the whole shaky-cam thing. He was like, “Look. Just go as smooth as you can,” which we originally did in the first cut. But we were able to smooth a lot more things out with high-resolution cameras. Having those resources was great, but still ultimately on a low budget. They didn’t want to jeopardize that small, indie feel. So it’s not like they said, “Here’s a million bucks,” like with some of the other movies, but it was still very, very low budget, and very much Chris and I at the helm of a very small crew—maybe 10 or 12 people instead of two or three people.
Capone: You use two different cameras. You have the night vision camera on the phone, and you have the more traditional digital camera.
TC: Don’t forget the school’s booth cam, the crappy booth cam.
Capone: Oh yeah, right. Which we only see from that POV a couple of times.
TC: A couple of times, in very key moments.
Capone: Did you want to reserve certain moment just for one camera or the other? Did something look better in green nigh vision, for example?
TC: That’s an interesting question.
CL: Yeah, that is an interesting question.
TC: We always had this idea in the beginning to do— I think it was your idea, actually.
CL: To switch back.
TC: Yeah, to have the scene play out on our main camera, and then go back and show it again from Ryan’s perspective [using the phone].
CL: Which also hasn’t been done before in found-footage.
Capone: Correct me if I’m wrong: there was a burn-in at the beginning that said the footage was evidence. Was it the new footage, or the beginning footage of the original death during the play?
CL: The opening shows “1993” on it, then it’s introducing the next footage which is in 2013, 20 years later. It’s in October 2013.
TC: All the footage that follows that opening scene is the evidence of this new case.
Capone: We always wonder who found the footage in found-footage films, and usually it’s nobody. But in this case or something like CLOVERFIELD, it really is evidence of some sort.
CL: It’s this open case that no one knows about.
TC: Back to the switching back and forth effect, I think a cool reason that night vision is effective is really when there’s a separation of the characters. Reese and Pfeifer separate from Ryan and Cassidy, so there’s a little bit more aloneness, and then it represents an aloneness when Ryan is by himself. That’s scary enough when Ryan is by himself, with the night vision, and we tired to go with a little bit colder feel. It’s a little bit more blue than typical green to create this cold feel.
CL: You’re right, though. It does represent those moments when people are separated from each other.
Capone: Before I saw the film, I was looking over the cast and I did a double take when I saw Cassidy Gifford’s name there [she’s the daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford]. “Wait, is that who I think it is?” I had never seen her in anything. Shockingly, I don’t watch the Disney Channel. How did she get involved? And have her parents seen the film?
TC: This is a very cool one. Her parents have seen the film, and they actually love it. She told us, “My mom went off.”
Capone: She plays a horrible human being.
TC: She really loved it and thought it was a lot of fun. This is an interesting story. This is one of the hurdles we had to deal with. So in our first movie, we had four actors. We had Ryan, Reese, Pfeifer and someone else. As we had developed this relationship with Blumhouse, we were talking about re-shoots and what we were going to do, what we were going to add, what scenes. And that took several months, because they’re working on a lot, and it takes that much longer when there are so many cooks in the kitchen. We were three weeks away from really nailing our re-shoots and adding those scenes, and we met with all the actors down at Management 360 in Beverly Hills, and they all came in, except we didn’t recognize her when she came in. She changed her appearance so much. She lost a lot of weight. Even though we thought she looked great to begin with—she was the hot Nebraskan cheerleader in the movie—but she had gone from that to Hollywood model. There was a big difference there.
CL: It was shocking. The producers from 360 who hadn't met her—because we made that on our own, but they had now come on board—she came in, and they were like, “Who is this?” They didn’t even recognize her. So immediately we were like freaking out. What are we going to do? We have all these re-shoots we need to do. So we realized she didn’t match the character anymore. She wasn't going to match anything. We had a chat with her. We had to make the hard call of picking someone new. One of the guys at 360 came into the room and said, “Guys, I might have someone who fits the role, ” who he represented. So he pulled up this picture of Cassidy, and we see all these pictures of her with Kathie Lee on Google. Travis was like…
TC: “Is she like friends with Kathie Lee Gifford, or something?” And he was like “No, that’s her daughter.”
CL: And then he’s like, “Let me call her. Let me see if I can get her to come in and meet with you guys.” She comes in. I’m sitting like this and I’m looking and I see her walking outside through the glass door behind Travis, and then I see Kathie Lee walk in too. And I’m like, “Travis, Kathie Lee’s with her.”
TC: “You’re kidding me.”
CL: And so Cassidy and Kathie Lee sat down.
TC: I’m thinking, “My mom’s going to love this.”
CL: We literally talked to her for five minutes, just barely got to know her, and she’s nice. We didn’t really audition her.
TC: She looked the role. But there’s no way could it be that easy to just replace like that. We saw 200 people to get the four main ones in two days.
CL: So we said, “Let’s see a few more people. Keep her in mind.” We saw like 30-40 other possibilities. None of them worked.
TC: Then we gave her a proper audition, and she nailed it. So, we had to pick her, even though we were a little bit worried that she was connected to a name, because we don’t want that in found-footage. You want fresh faces.
CL: But she was fresh enough, and she did such a great job and fit the roll so well that she just earned the part. She did phenomenal, so we’re super happy to have her.
Capone: Is there any footage of the original person?
CL: This is funny. We actually just had a phone call the other day with someone at Warner Bros Home Video, and they are interested in putting the original cut of the movie on the DVD, and we were like, “Yeah, that’d be cool.”
TC: We had talked about that being an interesting selling point.
CL: A totally different version of the movie on DVD. That’d be fun, I think, for people to see.
Capone: But is there footage in this version of the movie of the original actress?
CL: No, not in the movie. In the trailer, they used a couple of shots. Not in the movie, though.
TC: And there’s a couple bits of audio that were really good from her that ended up being used.
Capone: It’s the world of horror. Of course people are wondering about sequels, and you don’t end the story completely. But I was thinking, we don’t really find out that much about the original death 20 years before. Is the theater cursed? Is the play cursed? How much of that have you thought about?
TC: Who wrote “The Gallows,” and what was his story?
Capone: I just assumed it was Arthur Miller.
CL: [laughs] We’ve always had little thoughts like that. We’ve had fleeting thoughts of different ways you could go, but we’ve never really like…
TC: It’s all about making the best movie we can with this one.
CL: It’s lasted for like a second, and then we’re like, “Okay, let’s get back to making a good movie.” So that’s really as far as it’s ever gone.
Capone: Not to Jason Blum, I guarantee.
CL: Not to Jason, maybe. Who knows.
TC: Didn’t we get an email? He said, “If I was a betting man, I would say they’re going to want sequels, so be ready for that.”
CL: We should be so lucky. We’d love to see Charlie come back.
TC: Another interesting thing that we like to hit on, because we’re wholesome guys. I have like three kids. You rarely will hear a cuss word from me. We shot the movie for PG-13. I was like the dad on set. I was like, “Boys, girls. Language. Language.” I was like Captain America in the new AVENGERS. They’ll tell you that, too. I was like a PG-13 Nazi.
CL: We were always just assuming that’s what it would be, because the noose is not a bloody weapon. He’s not stabbing people to death.
Capone: I was asking the publicist, “Is the PG-13 or R? Because if it’s R, I’d like to know why.” There’s no nudity, there’s no swearing.
TC: We’d like to know why too. But it is R rated. It’s solely R rated for scares, which is a compliment. If you make a PG-13 movie that’s so scary and it doesn’t have any of those things that parents worry about their children seeing, then you’ve done something. We’ll take it as a compliment even though we didn’t plan on that.
CL: We didn’t expect it.
Capone: So other than sequels or prequels to this, do you have ideas for other things, horror or not?
TC: Oh, yeah. For sure.
CL: We do. We love to network on this one. New Line Cinema was awesome to work with. They’ve said, “Guys, we’d love to have you work on something else and be in the family.”
TC: They put out THE CONJURING.
CL: But we have other ideas, too, that we’re working on. One is a genre film. A little bit of inspiration involved. It’s comparable to GHOST a little bit. Some weird stuff, some paranormal stuff.
TC: The creepy shadows.
CL: But a good story. Then another one is a sci-fi series that we’re writing for a television series.
TC: Like a MINORITY REPORT meets INCEPTION concept that could be really fun.